New bishop grew up in racially divided church

Sunday, September 5th 2004, 9:29 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The new overseer of Oklahoma's second-largest denomination has deep roots in Methodism.

Thirty-six hours into his four-year term as bishop of the Oklahoma United Methodist Conference, Robert E. Hayes Jr. sat in his Oklahoma City office Thursday and talked about the influences that have shaped his life.

His grandfather and his father were Methodist ministers in an era when Methodism was racially segregated. Both were graduates of Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, a historically black institution where his father later served as president.

Hayes said he grew up watching his father prepare sermons and preach, and knew from early childhood that he wanted to follow in his footsteps.

``When Sunday services were over with, when everybody was gone, I would pull a chair up to the pulpit, at a young age, 6 or 7 years old, and would deliver an impromptu sermon, pounding on the pulpit, as I had seen him do,'' said Hayes, now 57.

Friday night movies and Saturday night dances were forbidden to Hayes.

``Church was all I knew for the first 18 years of my life,'' he said.

After graduation from high school, he briefly rebelled.

``When I went away for college, I put that Sunday suit in the far back of the closet and vowed to myself that I would never go to church again, because I had had it with church.

``By November of that year, my life started falling apart, and I couldn't quite figure out what was wrong.

``When I came home for Thanksgiving in 1965, I returned to church, and that's when I had that 'Aha!' moment.

``I realized that it was the church that I was missing in my life.

``I rededicated myself that Thanksgiving.''

Hayes grew up in the segregated South.

Each year, his parents would drive the family from Houston to West Palm Beach, Fla., to visit his mother's family.

On that trip along Interstate 10, there were only two places the family could stop for the night -- a Methodist facility in Gulfport, Miss., and a black boarding house in Tallahassee.

As he prepared for the ministry, he was puzzled and troubled that the Methodist Church was racially divided.

In 1968, that changed.

In a meeting at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, the black Central Jurisdiction was fully included in the new United Methodist Church.

Hayes, a young college student, sat in the balcony and watched the ceremony. His father had been one of the unifying voices.

``I was filled with relief, and pride in my church and denomination,'' he said.

That event influenced his decision to pursue his master's of theology degree at Perkins School of Theology at SMU instead of a black college.

``I've never regretted going there,'' he said.

``It helped me deal with the demons of segregation . . . and overcome them.''

Hayes went on to become the first black pastor of a predominantly white church in his conference, Riverside United Methodist Church in Houston.

After his first sermon there on Feb. 2, 1986, a representative from the congregation came to his office and accused him of preaching too loud and too long.

``This isn't going to work,'' he said.

But after the people got to know him and he got to know the people, he said, ``It was just a delight to be there.'' He stayed nine years -- a long term of service for a Methodist pastor.

``We have to eliminate the barriers that divide us and divide the church,'' Hayes said.

``When the barrier of race falls, other barriers fall.''

Hayes, who is the state's first Methodist black bishop, said he does not want to be ``the African American bishop of Oklahoma.''

``I just want to be the bishop of Oklahoma.''

He said he will use the first months in his new position to look ``at this great conference,'' listen to its people, and learn.

``After that, I hope to sit down and cast a vision of how we can grow the Kingdom of God,'' he said.

``I feel a mandate to make disciples of Jesus Christ.''

Hayes said he often is asked where he goes for his personal spiritual nourishment.

``What I get out of ministry is the joy and satisfaction of helping people, and in helping people, I get ministered to.'' he said.

``When I see a life changed, or someone who was heading down lifted up . . . that's what feeds me.

``That's where I get my energy and my enthusiasm. It's the giving of yourself. That's what ministry is all about.''

As bishop of Oklahoma, Hayes will serve nearly 500 churches in the Oklahoma Conference and 89 churches in the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference.

He replaces Bishop Bruce Blake, 66, who is retiring.

In addition to being a pastor, Hayes has been treasurer of the Texas Annual Conference and superintendent of the Houston Southwest District of that conference. He holds a doctor of ministry degree from Drew University in Madison, N.J.

He and his wife, Dee, have three adult children.