He and his younger brother, Billy, had walked seven miles from their home to a revival being conducted at Grove Hill Methodist Episcopal Church.
“Both of us went to the altar,” Billy recalled. “He committed himself to the pastoral ministry and me to accept Christ as my savior. As far as I know, Ray never had second thoughts about his decision.”
In the years that followed, Ray went on to lead a fiercely principled life, taking stands on civil rights issues that would ultimately derail his career as a church pastor but place in him in a position to help transform the United Methodist Church’s pension program. Along the way, he married Katherine Green of Conway, Arkansas, and they adopted a son, David. After Ray retired from the UMC in 1981, he and Katherine settled in the Lake Junaluska community near Asheville, North Carolina.
Today, almost nine decades after answering the Lord’s call, Ray is turning 100 and being recognized as the oldest living pastor in the Alabama-West Florida Conference. Katherine died in 2012, but Ray still makes his home in Asheville—now in a UMC retirement center—and his family and friends are planning a big celebration at Lake Junaluska the weekend before his birthday, which is Oct. 16.
“It’s going to be some turnout!” David said. “I am so proud of my dad. I’m so fortunate to have him in my life. He will be 100, but his mind is as clear as it can be.”
‘Ahead of his time’
Dr. Herb Sadler, who is Ray’s nephew and a retired pastor from the AWF Conference, fondly remembered his uncle as a pretty straight arrow.
“He was kind of straitlaced,” Sadler said. “He always wore a white shirt and tie everywhere for everything. … He was very precise, and he was great at administration.”
Sadler was never surprised by his uncle’s enduring service to the UMC. After all, their family comes from a long line of Methodist preachers dating back seven generations to the 1790s. Ray was licensed to preach in 1939, only one year after graduating from Clark County High School in Grove Hill. After earning his degree from Huntington College in 1945 and receiving his full connection in the UMC, he continued on to pastor several congregations across Northwest Florida and Southeast Alabama.
It was while pastoring St. Mark Methodist Church in Montgomery—at the time of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott— that Ray’s understanding of God stood at odds with mainstream Southern culture. He served as president of the Montgomery Council on Human Relations, alongside Vice President Martin Luther King Jr., working to find a solution that would work for all involved.
“He was preaching that we were all God’s children and deserve respect,” David said. “When I talk to Dad now, he thought he did the right thing, taking the positions he did on racial issues, but it was hard on him and my mother. But he wouldn’t change it.”
Before long, Ray was labeled a liberal and a radical and transferred to a series of small country churches that didn’t particularly want a pastor of his reputation.
Sadler described his uncle as a pastor who was always “ahead of his time” and a “prophet” who was unafraid to tell the South how it needed to change.
“A few years ago, when he was in his early 90s, he spoke on the floor of the Annual Conference for full inclusion of gays and lesbians,” he said. “At that time, it was shocking!”
After leaving the pulpit altogether, Ray took a position with the UMC General Board of Pension where he played a critical role in convincing church leaders to fund their pension program.
“Every pastor should be grateful to him,” Sandler said. “It’s the difference between having a livable pension and not having a livable pension.”
David said his father has told him that he’s most proud of the work he accomplished at the Board of Pension.
“He’s a pastor, and he wanted pastors who devote their lives to the church to be taken care of,” he said. “He fought many battles.”
Sadler agreed, adding that the most important lesson he learned from his uncle was courage.
“He was always a man of principles,” he said. “The moral integrity he showed was his greatest gift to me.”
The Alabama-West Florida Conference Discernment Task Force met on Tuesday, August 27, 2019, at Greenville FUMC. This group had its inaugural meeting on July 16, 2019.
Since the first gathering in July, several denominational structure plans have come forth from various sources. The three working plans, thus far, are as follows.
The Indianapolis Plan
The task force was divided into three teams to review the working plans. Each team was assigned a specific plan to review and was asked to comment on the following:
- The strengths and challenges of the plan assigned;
- How our annual conference would likely respond to the plan’s adoption by General Conference 2020;
- How our local churches would likely respond to the plan’s adoption by General Conference 2020.
The three aforementioned plans are a glimpse into potential legislation at General Conference 2020, which will be held May 5-15, 2020, in Minneapolis, MN. The legislation deadline for the upcoming conference is September 18, 2019. It is projected that these plans will continue to be modified until the deadline and new plans could emerge.
“Although it can be difficult to speculate on how General Conference 2020 will unfold, it is important to bring various theological perspectives to the table in our conference,” stated Bishop David Graves. “I feel that it will benefit our conference to project multiple scenarios so that we can properly lead the Alabama-West Florida Conference in the coming year. We ask for your prayers that we will arrive at a solution that will glorify God and enable us to reach people in the name of Jesus Christ.”
The goal of the discernment task force is to have conversations that will provide guidance to potential strategic decisions that could come before the annual conference. The next meeting, under the direction of Dr. David Saliba of Perdido Bay UMC, will be in the fall after the legislation deadline has passed.
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October 10, 2018, changed the lives of thousands as well as the landscape of the beautiful states of Florida and Georgia. The Alabama-West Florida Conference is home to numerous churches that received significant damage in addition to many clergy and church member residences that were devastated. The conference is inviting all churches in Alabama and West Florida to participate in this time of remembrance.
“We will never forget the fear of watching a category five hurricane descend on our conference,” said Bishop David Graves. “The residents of Panama City, Port St. Joe, Mexico Beach, Marianna and many surrounding inland communities suffered significant property loss and experienced trauma that will remain with them for the rest of their lives. Sadly, these communities continue to lose neighbors when the trauma becomes too much for some to handle. As a conference, it is imperative we all recognize and remember this catastrophic event. This conference continues to walk alongside residents of the gulf coast through the Hurricane Michael Recovery program. I am so grateful for a talented team that is dedicated to helping those impacted by the storm rebuild their homes and lives. Despite all of our denominational heartache, our disaster response program, with the help of UMCOR, exhibits what is best in our connection.”
The conference will remember the historic event in the following ways:
- We invite all churches in the Alabama-West Florida Conference and the global connection to ring their church bells at noon on October 10, 2019;
- Prayers written by pastors of churches in the impacted areas will be shared online in the coming weeks. We ask that you select one to be used in your worship services on the weekend of October 6, 2019;
- A brief video will be available to share in your weekend worship services on October 6 for those churches who have audio visual capabilities;
- Bishop Graves will be writing a guest column that our churches can use in place of the regular letter from the pastor in church newsletters;
- We will also supply a bulletin insert you may use the weekend of October 6 highlighting the ongoing disaster response work;
- Bishop Graves will offer a video prayer on our conference social media pages on October 10 – we invite you to share this on your local church social media pages;
- October 10 will serve as a Hurricane Michael Remembrance Day of Giving with all donations going to UMCOR to honor the partnership and significant grants we have received from them. Specials offerings in worship services on October 6 are also welcome and encouraged.
- Bishop Graves will be present in churches in the impacted areas in September and October where he will preach and participate in worship.
Materials will be available in late September. Please join us in this combined effort to remember a day that we will never forget in the Alabama-West Florida Conference. For more information on Hurricane Michael Recovery, visit www.hurricanemichaelrecovery.org.
Ms. Marth Rovira, Coordinator of Hispanic and Latino Ministries, has announced her retirement, effective November 1, 2019. Rovira has faithfully served in this role for twelve years and has been a dedicated advocate for this ministry.
“I am grateful for Martha’s commitment to the Alabama-West Florida Conference Hispanic and Latino Ministries,” said Bishop David Graves. “She has a heart for those in our conference who are often overlooked. There are many challenges in developing and implementing Hispanic and Latino Ministries in our churches and she has been an outstanding resource for our clergy, the cabinet and me. I wish her the very best in retirement and am thankful for her ministry.”
The Alabama-West Florida Conference is actively working with the National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry of the United Methodist Church to explore ways to continue and strengthen this ministry. With the help of Rev. Francisco Cañas and Manuel Padilla of the National Plan, the AWF Hispanic/Latino Advisory Team will evaluate the needs of this ministry and move forward with a recommendation in the coming months.
Rovira will continue to serve in her current role through November 1, 2019, where she will complete several ongoing projects.