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Bishop, Mrs. Mathews honored at scholarship events


NOTE: Photographs and a related report, UMNS story #209, are available.

By Joretta Purdue*

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Retired Bishop James K. Matthews speaks to the "Servant Leader Symposium" in Washington, sponsored by the United Methodist Higher Education Foundation. Bishop Matthews and his wife Eunice were honored as part of the symposium. A UMNS photo Jay Mallin. Photo number 03-138, Accompanies UMNS #210, 4/10/03
WASHINGTON (UMNS) - Bishop James K. and Eunice Mathews are an international couple, dedicated workers in the Lord's vineyard and still vigorous as they approach their 63rd anniversary.

The retired bishop, who has been quoted as saying, "I never saw an area I didn't like," is known for his intercultural work in India and around the world. His wife, who was born in India, assisted her father, legendary missionary E. Stanley Jones, and her husband in work on the subcontinent, in addition to leading ministries on her own.

The couple was honored at a symposium and banquet by the United Methodist Higher Education Foundation April 4-5. The theme of the events was "Clash of Civilizations: The Challenge to Our Institutions of Higher Learning."

"I've never been homesick because I've felt at home anywhere in the world," Bishop Mathews said at the banquet, which raised funds for a scholarship endowment. "I have been a global person," he told United Methodist News Service. "I'm at home anywhere in the world."

Mathews, who turned 90 in February, had gone to India as a missionary in 1938. He served as a pastor in Bombay and then in Dhulia, where he was also the district superintendent.

The Mathewses married in India June 1, 1940, when the war in Europe was already being felt in British India. "It was a very testy time," Mrs. Mathews recalled.

In 1942, James Mathews volunteered for the U.S. Army, hoping to be a chaplain, but the Army said it needed people who knew India serving in other capacities. He found himself a captain in the quartermaster corps, as Allied forces carved out a new road to supply embattled China, the road through Burma having been cut by the Japanese. Eunice Mathews worked alongside her husband as a civilian employee with business and secretarial training.

In 1946, Mathews was brought back to the Methodist Board of Missions headquarters in New York and four years later became an associate general secretary of the board. The work took him all over the world. His ministries included heading an appeal to raise money in the church for rebuilding South Korea after the war there.

Mrs. Mathews' attention was focused on home and the couple's three children, all born in the United States. She did not travel much for about 16 years, she said.

In 1956, her husband was elected bishop by Indian Methodists, but he declined the post, saying it was time that people of Indian heritage be elected. Four years later, the Northeastern Jurisdiction of the U.S. church elected him bishop.

Bishop Mathews served the Boston Area from 1960 to 1972 and the Washington Area from 1972 to 1980. Those were not quiet times.

On Easter Sunday 1964, he and Bishop Charles F. Golden, an African American serving in the Methodist Church's segregated Central Jurisdiction, were barred at the door of Galloway Methodist Church in Jackson, Miss. Mathews said afterward that he believed they would be admitted when the pastor read the statement he and Bishop Golden had prepared, but it was not accepted at the church - though it was subsequently published.

Such actions and statements addressing racism spoke eloquently to Bishop Felton Edwin May, current bishop of the Washington Area, when he was a pastor in Chicago. At the April 4 banquet, he said that the two men "shook this denomination to its foundation." May noted that they were at all times trying to act as agents of reconciliation.

"We did not know you, but what you did served as a catalyst for what we became," said May, an African American.

Mathews was also concerned about events in Asia. In 1966, Religious News Service (now Religion News Service) filed a story with the headline: "Methodist bishop defends churches' right to speak out on Vietnam."

"Bishop James K. Mathews told the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of the World Council of Churches that American churches 'have done a great service to democracy' by keeping Vietnam open for debate and 'insisting upon our leaders hearing the dissenting voice and defending their policies,'" the RNS story said.

At the banquet, May cited a letter from Mathews to the Washington Area May 21, 1980, urging church members to be peacemakers and reconcilers in the crisis with Iran even though they might be reviled. He closed his letter saying, "May the gentle words of Jesus, 'Blessed are the peacemakers,' sustain us in courageous and prophetic ministries of reconciliation in these troubled times."

"I am greatly disturbed by the present situation," Mathews said of the war in Iraq. In the UMNS interview, he said he sees the connectedness of all human life. "Our lives as human beings are intertwined." He said it seems to him a person living today has been "touched in some way by every person on earth. Because that is true, it ought to affect everything we do as individuals.

"Our connectedness is a profound reality," he said, and "ought to govern everything we do, as it ought to govern the affairs of nations."

Mathews was called back to service three times after his retirement in 1980. During 1985-86, he was bishop of the Zimbabwe Annual Conference. His influence is often cited in the placement of African University, the church-related school that was opened in Mutare, Zimbabwe. He remains a part of the university's development committee and would like to see a first-class medical school established there. "I can see it having an influence on the whole continent," he said enthusiastically.

When the Albany (N.Y.) Area was created in 1990, he was named to head the new church region until the 1992 jurisdictional elections. Called from retirement again, he was tapped to head the New York Area in 1995, when its active bishop went on medical leave.

The couple have continued the work of Mrs. Mathews' father in the ashram or retreat movement and the work of her mother in supporting scholarships.

"It's a different India in many, many ways now," Mrs. Mathews said. "Things change, but we try to see things (the works her mother and father started) keep going." And they have helped expand the work. She mentioned a boys' school her mother had started that had been a primary school but now includes junior-high level classes.

The bishop has also maintained an interest in Santiago College in Chile, which was founded by missionaries. He became chairman of the board for the school, which serves 1,000 children from preschool through 12th grade, when he was working for the mission board and has continued to support the school.

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*Purdue is United Methodist News Service's Washington news director.

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