Dotson remembered for seeing all the people

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The Rev. Junius B. Dotson liked to say, “Discipleship begins with relationship.”

At a livestreamed “homegoing service” March 6, United Methodists celebrated Dotson’s life of building relationships and strengthening faith around the globe.
 
Dotson — the top executive of Discipleship Ministries since 2016 — died Feb. 25 at age 55. It was less than a month after announcing his battle with pancreatic cancer.
 
“We can celebrate his life this morning because Junius was a dedicated father; he was a devoted friend; he was a diehard Cowboys fan. But most of all he was a faithful follower of Jesus Christ,” said the Rev. Michael L. Bowie Jr., a friend who served as a sort of emcee for the service. Bowie is the denomination’s executive director of Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century.

The service took place at Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston, which Dotson grew up attending with his grandmother. The congregation is also among the denomination’s largest.
 
Bishops, prominent pastors and other United Methodist leaders joined with Dotson’s family members and close friends in the service. Taking precautions against COVID-19, they sat socially distanced from each other and wore masks.
 
Friends and family also wore purple ribbons, an effort to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer as Dotson tried to do in his last days

Throughout the three-hour service, worship leaders Dotson had worked with throughout his ministry sang some of his favorite hymns including “It Is Well With My Soul.”

Loved ones also shared stories about Dotson — who many called “J.D.” They talked about how as an adult, Dotson committed to learn how to prepare brisket and play the piano. They described him as an innovative leader and inspiring mentor.
 
Mainly, his friends talked about Dotson’s impact on The United Methodist Church he loved. They celebrated him as a denomination-wide leader who never lost focus on the local church; as an advocate for a fully inclusive denomination who never forgot his roots in the Black church; and as a visionary who saw people even when they had never been to church at all.
 
“Junius Dotson’s passion was to bring and continue to strengthen discipleship in local churches because he had been a pastor — a very effective and fruitful pastor — for so long,” said the Rev. Mark Norman, his friend and a district superintendent in Arkansas.

Before coming to Discipleship Ministries, Dotson was a pastor for more than 25 years. He was a church planter in northern California and pastor of the megachurch St. Mark’s in Wichita, Kansas.
 
Those experiences served him good stead when, under his leadership, Discipleship Ministries introduced the “See All the People” initiative. The goal of the campaign has been to help local churches — as the nursery rhyme says — see the people in their communities and share the transforming love of Christ.

Council of Bishops President Cynthia Fierro Harvey credited Dotson with opening United Methodists’ eyes “to issues of justice, inclusion and equity and equality and truly has helped us to see all of the people.”

Fellow church leaders testified that for Dotson, “See All the People” was not just a catchy slogan but a way to life. He made people feel seen.

“He had a vision for the entire church to see all the people to draw them to Christ and see lives changed by the work that we do,” the Rev. Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas, said in a video tribute.
 
That very much included LGBTQ people, whose status in the denomination has been a source of contention for decades. Dotson was one of 16 church leaders who negotiated the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation, in hopes of creating a pathway for LGBTQ people to be included in all aspects of United Methodist life.

Hamilton likened Dotson to somebody skipping a rock across a pond.

“Every place he landed there was a ripple,” Hamilton said. “That ripple continues in us, in every person who was affected by what he wrote, what he preached, what he said, what he did, how he led. We continue to be that ripple who changes the world.”
 
The Rev. Kevass J. Harding, lead pastor of Dellrose United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kansas, was one of eight Black pastors nationwide that Dotson gathered for an online prayer group called Shift-180. 

“Every morning at 6:30 Monday through Friday, we would get on our Zoom, laugh and cry, and laugh and cry some more,” Harding said. “I thank God for that group because it helped get us through the pandemic.”

In a eulogy, Kirbyjon Caldwell — Windsor Village’s former pastor — repeatedly referenced “the genius of Junius.”

“A lot of people love things and use people. You’re supposed to love people and use things,” Caldwell said.
 
“The genius of Junius is he understood individuals would always be greater than institutions.”

More than 660 people watched online, and many used the chat function to share how Dotson had touched their lives.
 
“Your life impacted mine and so many in deep and powerful ways,” wrote the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, senior pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington. She and Dotson have been co-conveners of the group UMCNext that is working on the church of the future.
 
“We will continue the work, brother,” Gaines-Cirelli wrote. “And we will miss you so very much.”

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Toska Medlock Lee, Dotson’s ministry partner and best friend, had accompanied Dotson through his last days and organized much of the day’s service. She told those gathered that on his final day, Dotson’s last question was: “What does this all mean?”

“I believe Junius knew the answer, but I also believe his final question was specifically for all of us,” she said. “Have you asked yourself, ‘What does this all mean?’ Think about it. This is a pat and perfect question for believers to ask themselves.”

Lee added that by asking the question, Dotson hoped to help disciples become teachers themselves.
 
Even in the hospital, she said, Dotson aimed to strengthen people’s faith. He told Lee that God can be trusted.
 
Disciple-making is where Dotson found his purpose throughout his ministry. He also frequently told church leaders this: “If you build a church, you will rarely get disciples. But if you make disciples, you will always get the church.”

Dotson’s children Wesley and Janelle also spoke briefly during the service to express gratitude for all who had reached out to them.
 
“I’m amazed at the impact his ministry had on so many lives across the world and how he dedicated his life to helping others grow closer to God,” Wesley wrote in the service program. “Hearing all of your stories about what my Dad meant to you is something I’ll cherish greatly.”

Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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General Church
The Rev. Junius B. Dotson records a segment of the “Soul Reset” study series for the Upper Room at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn., in 2019. Dotson, the top executive of Discipleship Ministries, died Feb. 25, 2021. He was 55. File photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.

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General Church
The Rev. Junius B. Dotson records a segment of the “Soul Reset” study series for the Upper Room at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn., in 2019. Dotson, the top executive of Discipleship Ministries, told his staff and board on Jan. 28 that he has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer but intends to continue to serve as he fights the disease. File photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.

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