Bishop DeWitt, workers’ advocate, dies at 96

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As a young man, Bishop Jesse R. DeWitt worked in a plant that built Packard automobiles. He moved on to a long, fruitful United Methodist ministerial career, but never forgot the working class.

“I remember Bishop DeWitt as a man committed to social justice with a special passion for labor issues,” said the Rev. Thom White Wolf Fassett, former top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society. “He was indefatigable in his pursuit of worker justice.”

DeWitt died Nov. 26, just nine days short of his 97th birthday. He had been under hospice care in Dexter, Michigan, near Ann Arbor. His wife, Annamary, died in 2010.

Survivors include daughters Donna Wegryn and Darla Inman, five grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

In a phone interview earlier this year, DeWitt credited his wife with helping him get through Garrett-Evangelical Theological (she would later graduate from Garrett herself) and making his ministry possible.

“She supported me all the way,” he said.

Feeling the call

DeWitt was born in 1918, in Detroit, and grew up there. After high school, he worked for a company that built gear systems for trucks, and he helped the workers. Later he got on at the Packard plant.

He credited those experiences and the general atmosphere in union-friendly Detroit with giving him a keen interest in labor issues and social justice generally.

DeWitt also grew up a Methodist, and he and Annamary — whom he married in 1941 — were active in the young adult department at Detroit’s Boulevard Temple Methodist Church.

There, DeWitt felt a call to ministry, and gave up the good pay of his Packard job to enroll at Garrett, in Evanston, Illinois. In 1945, he was part of a Garrett student delegation attending the Religion and Labor Foundation Conference in Washington, D.C.

While at Garrett, DeWitt also led two small churches and made $12 a week, if lucky.

“When they had the money, they paid me,” he said.

DeWitt had attended Detroit’s Wayne State University while working at Packard, and after completing his course work at Garrett, he returned to Wayne State and finished his undergraduate degree. That enabled him to claim his master of theological studies degree from Garrett, in 1948.

A thrifty bishop

After leading churches in Michigan, DeWitt would become the first executive of the Detroit Conference Board of Missions and Church Extensions. He also served as superintendent of the Detroit West District.

DeWitt went to work for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries in 1970, as associate general secretary of the national division.

Elected to the episcopacy in 1972, DeWitt would oversee the Wisconsin Conference for eight years. He spent the next eight leading the Northern Illinois Conference, retiring in 1988.

As bishop, DeWitt gave cabinet slots to women and made a general push for diversity.  DeWitt worked to strengthen urban churches and missions, and reminded pastors that going door-to-door to reach people was part of their call, said the Rev. Robert Harman, one of his district superintendents.

Harman called DeWitt a progressive on social issues, but a financial conservative.

“In truth he bordered on cheap when spending the church’s dollar,” Harman said. “He always turned in the minimum expenditures for reimbursement. …  He would carry his own bags in hotels and would be heard bragging to others about discounted flights and locating low-cost parking at airports even if it meant a lengthy hike.”

As bishop, DeWitt served on the Commission on the Status and Role of Women, the United Methodist  Board of Global Ministries and the Board of Church and Society. Jim Winkler was a young staff member of Church and Society — and a Midwestern preacher’s kid — when DeWitt was on the board.

“Because he knew my family he would insist I sit with him at meals and would introduce me to everyone,” said Winkler, who would go on to be the agency’s top executive from 2000 to 2013. “He had a great smile and was warm and affectionate, but when it came down to advocating for justice and peace he was very serious.”

In 1991, Bishop DeWitt joined a rabbi and a Catholic priest as clergy founders of the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues, later named Arise Chicago. Five years later, he would help start Interfaith Worker Justice, a national labor-religious organization.

Kim Bobo, founding director of Interfaith Worker Justice, said DeWitt was deeply involved in the work. She added that one unyielding  industry executive began to call DeWitt his “pen pal,” having heard from him so often on behalf of workers.

In an interview with the New York Times in 1999, DeWitt made his case for faith groups’ involvement in labor issues.

“It’s a natural alliance,'' he said. “'The whole Judeo-Christian teaching is about justice for workers, the right for people to have decent wages, a decent place to live and decent medical care.”

Early in his career, DeWitt worked for the full inclusion of African-Americans in the denomination. He felt strongly, too, about immigrants’ rights, and he was among the retired bishops who, in 2011, issued a statement calling for a change in church law to allow for the ordination of openly gay clergy.

That has not happened, and DeWitt sometimes lost some of his labor relations battles as well.

“In spite of disappointments, he remained a firm believer in the capacity of the church to respond to social change and offer creative new directions for human and spiritual fulfillment,” Harman said.

Lessons learned

DeWitt was honored by Garrett as a distinguished alumnus in 2001, and he received honorary degrees from Adrian College, Lakeland College, Wiley College and North Central College, where he was a trustee.

The Northern Illinois Conference gives a child advocacy award in DeWitt’s name.

Bobo, of Interfaith Worker Justice, called DeWitt a “kind and compassionate mentor” who taught her everything from how to reassure police in a tense protest situation to how to balance family and work life.

His passion for social justice, especially in the labor arena, was deeply felt, she added.

“Jesse respected equally the janitor who cleaned the office as well as the owner of a factory,” Bobo said. “He never forgot his days on the shop floor and the love of workers guided his ministry.”

Bishop Deborah Lieder Kiesey, whose area includes the Detroit and West Michigan conferences, said she was saddened to learn of DeWitt's death and her heartfelt prayers are with all who loved him. 

"His roots are deep in the Detroit Annual Conference, and he was loved and respected by many," she said. "Throughout his ministry, serving as a local church pastor, a district superintendent, and a bishop, Bishop DeWitt was always a champion for social justice, and a voice for those who were oppressed.  I offer thanksgiving for his life, which was guided by the message and teachings of Christ."

Bishop Sally Dyck, who leads the Northern Illinois Conference, said DeWitt has left an important legacy.

"Not only his witness but also the way in which he shaped this annual conference to 'bend toward justice' continues to be evident, even in the lives and ministries of those who did not serve under him," she said. "Let us give thanks to God for the opportunities of serving with him."

A celebration of his life will take place on December 12 at 2 p.m. EST at the First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Memorial contributions may be made to Food Gatherers or to Garrett Evangelical Seminary for the DeWitt Scholarship Fund.

 Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]

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