Mark Dawes, Religion Editor
Rev Sarah Frances Davis
Earlier this month, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination in Jamaica welcomed the Rev Sarah Frances Davis as its new bishop.
Bishop Davis has just completed four years of service to the denomination in southern Africa where she was in charge of the 18th Episcopal District of the AME, which has churches in Lesotho, Botswana, Swaziland and Mozambique.
In her new responsibility, as bishop of 16th District of the AME Church, she will be in charge of the 33 congregations of the denomination in Jamaica. Also, her jurisdiction will include churches in Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados, the Virgin Islands, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Guyana, Suriname, London and Holland.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1816. It is served by 20 bishops and has about five million members worldwide, spread throughout more than 30 nations. The largest membership, 2.5 million, is, however, to be found in the United States.
The AME church was not founded or established in Africa. Rather, the 'African' is reference to it being founded originally by persons of African descent. The church considers itself inclusive and thus all races are welcomed. The 'Methodist' in the name is a reference to its Methodist roots. Members of St George's Methodist Church left the congregation when faced with racial discrimination but continued in the doctrines and liturgies of Methodism. 'Episcopal' refers to the form of government where bishops run the church.
Bishop Davis, 60, is an American. She has been in the island serving in her new post for less than a month. She is still meeting a number of key personnel within the denomination and being briefed about the state of the church in Jamaica and the countries within her jurisdiction. Jamaica is the Episcopal headquarters of the 16th District of the AME church.
Influencing the world
So far, she has formed the view that the AME in Jamaica is not generally mentioned as a leading denomination in the country. She is intent to change that. The AME church is a member of the Jamaica Council of Churches.
The theme for the district, for the next four years, she said, is 'Influencing the world for Christ'. She continued: "We are looking forward to doing things that will get persons to accept Christ and then to decide that the family of African Methodism is where they can grow.
Bishop Davis is also keen on ensuring that local member churches of the AME receive physical repairs and refurbishing. She said: "Whether you like it or not, people look at you and decide about you. I think the structures do not speak well of what is included inside. The physical structures of the churches need refurbishing and buildings in some cases."
The new bishop also spoke of augmenting the denomination's ministry to the socio-economic needs of communities. She said: "We want to be so involved in the community that the media would be seeking us out."
Before she became a clergywoman, Davis was on an accelerated climb to the top of the corporate ladder. She holds an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's in management science. Davis was working in the telecommunications field and earning an attractive salary. But, there was uneasiness in her life. She got disenchanted with "the games of corporate America" and was no longer interested in the perks that used to excite her. While sitting at her desk, she said: "Lord if you will place me among people who will appreciate me for who I am, I will do whatever you want me to do." Then, she said: " I had no idea He was talking ministry."
She said that prayer in the summer. By December that year, her husband told her: "If something makes you that unhappy you need to leave it." The following January, she handed in her resignation without knowing what she was going to do. She did a few lower income-earning jobs while giving greater ministry assistance to her church.
A high-ranking leader in her church counselled her. Sensing her spiritual restlessness, he offered the view that God was calling her to ministry. What he shared resonated with her. Not long after receiving that counsel, she enrolled to a master's in pastoral theology at the Houston Graduate School of Theology. She quickly followed that up with a doctor of ministry degree from Perkins School of Theology.
power of prayer
She entered the pastorate in 1991 after completing her masters. She was made a bishop in 2004 and assigned to the 18th Episcopal District of the AME.
Davis is affectionately known as the 'Prayer Bishop' because of her consistent emphasis on the power of prayer in the life of the denomination. She was listed by Ebony magazine as one of the 50 Most Intriguing Persons of 2004.
In southern Africa, Bishop Davis became renowned for the quality of her Bible-teaching ministry. She had a number of travelling seminars particularly for those persons in Mozambique, who could not travel to where the churches were located because of financial constraint. Her conviction is that: "If people don't understand who they are in Christ, they cannot live out Christlike lives."
While serving in the 18th District overseeing 39 AME Church-sponsored schools, Bishop Davis introduced summer science and math institutes to help both students and development of teachers. Young people, adults and clergy were academically empowered through scholarship grants awarded during Bishop Sarah's leadership. Two clerics earned degrees in theology from universities in South Africa and Mozambique; four clerics earned diplomas in Theology in Botswana. For the first time, English classes were provided for Portuguese-speaking lay and clergy persons in the AME churches in Beira, Mozambique.
A major emphasis of her ministry in southern Africa was towards orphans. The bishop was responsible for three orphanages in Swaziland during 2004-2008. Through her leadership of the board of directors, the Selulasandla Village became fully operational and had 21 orphans housed with a capacity for 36. In May 2008, she dedicated the first AME Church-sponsored orphanage in the mountains of Mokhotlong, Lesotho.
In Africa, she had to deal with her share of culture shock. One that stood out in her mind was that it took three years before her own church people there really began to trust and open up to her. That was a major disappointment for her.
One of the pastoral challenges that she wrestled with was polygamy. In the end, she allowed persons in polygamous relationships to be members of the church but they could not hold positions of leadership.
Her husband, Claytie Davis Jr, is a retired manager of a Southwestern Bell, who happily functions as an episcopal supervisor (the title of men in the AME who are married to bishops). Her husband, she said, is passionate about engaging in ministry to men.
According to the AME clergywoman: "I am bishop at church, I am his wife at home. So, he is the head of the house, while I am head of the church.
The Davises have two sons and a daughter-in-law: Corey B. Davis, and Dr. Claytie Davis, III, and wife Yolanda. The Davises are also grandparents to Alexandra Morgan Davis.
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