The Rev. Cynthia Abrams began her ministry at a time when The United Methodist Church was nurturing young voices and pushing them to the forefront.
“It was fun being a young church leader with her,” recalled M. Garlinda Burton, who covered Native American issues for United Methodist News Service and later served as the top executive for the denomination’s Commission on the Status and Role of Women. “We were fearless. I think Cindy always remained fearless.
“She was one of those leaders who sort of grew up and found her voice as a Native American woman, as a clergywoman, as an activist, through the church,” Burton said.
A staff member of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society since 2003, Abrams died Jan. 11 at the age of 58 after a long struggle with cancer. She was the agency’s director of health and wholeness.
The Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, Church and Society’s top executive, had known Abrams since the 1980s. Henry-Crowe characterized her as “a gentle, gentle soul” who knew how to make connections and work through disagreements. Abrams, she said, was “a real leader across the church, and particularly, I think, for women, too.”
Her passing is “a big loss” for both the church and its indigenous members, added the Rev. Liberato “Levi” Bautista, a Church and Society colleague based at the United Nations who also praised her ecumenical work for global health justice.
The agency has announced it is establishing the Cynthia Abrams Scholarship to support a young Native American or indigenous person committed to advocacy and justice.
“I think people were infected by her commitment, her compassion, her ideological witness,” said the Rev. Thomas White Wolf Fassett, a clergy member from Western New York who has known Abrams since 1976.
He remembered the teenager who accompanied her father, the Rev. Marvin Abrams, to many Native American meetings. “She saw the workings of committees and Native planning and organization from a pretty early age,” said Fassett, a previous top executive of Church and Society before her tenure there.
Cynthia Kent met Abrams some 25 years ago after taking a staff position at the Board of Global Ministries.
“She knew the church. She knew how it worked, she knew the process. She helped me, and I think others, understand that process,” Kent said.
Kent said she observed how Abrams interacted with others and used listening as a tool; how she never got visibly upset and had a knack for making people laugh. “I think I took some of my leadership from her by just watching her.”
Her personal journey took Abrams from her early years at the Seneca reservation and Four Corners United Methodist Church in upper New York State to southern California, where her father moved the family to start a Native American congregation in Los Angeles County. She later attended divinity school at Claremont School of Theology and was ordained in the denomination’s California-Pacific Conference.
She served as executive director of the National United Methodist Native American Center at Claremont from 1999 to 2003 and had a long involvement with the Native American International Caucus.
Abrams was vigilant about making sure Native American and other voices were being heard in the church, recalled Evelene “Tweedy” Sombrero Navarrete, a fellow Native American clergywoman and longtime friend. “She was very proud of her culture, very proud of being Seneca.”
Jim Winkler, who hired Abrams as full-time staff at Church and Society, called her “caring, thoughtful and positive,” and a “faithful follower” of Jesus Christ. “The United Methodist Church was fortunate to have her leadership at the General Board of Church and Society in the struggle for health care for all people and in the fight against drug and alcohol abuse,” he added.
In an Interpreter Magazine article in 2016, Abrams stressed her belief that the commitment to health care as a human right is part of Methodism's core identity.
"Nobody in the world should go without health care," Abrams said. "That collective commitment comes from a deep understanding of who we are as Christians. United Methodists have both a strong legacy and an important future in justice-making in the realm of health and wholeness."
Her skills at listening and negotiating placed Abrams as someone “in the forefront” when it came to collaborating with other organizations on the denominational goal of “health care for all,” said Linda Bales Todd, whose office was across the hall.
Todd, like other colleagues, also valued Abrams as a dear friend who was ready to listen at any time. They spent hours talking together about work, politics and their lives, she said. “I learned a whole lot from her about the diversity of Native American tribes and cultural practices. That was a real gift to me.”
Friends like Sombrero Navarrete also admired Abrams’ role as “big sister” and her devotion to her family. In addition to her father, that family includes her mother, Melba; four siblings; a beloved aunt, nine nieces and nephews and a great-niece and great-nephew. “She was our fearless protector and definitely kept us all in order,” said Ruth Ann Abrams, her sister.
Her funeral is set for 11 a.m. Jan. 26, at the Four Corners United Methodist Church, Irving, New York. A memorial service also is planned at 11 a.m. Feb. 1 at Sudley United Methodist Church in Manassas, Virginia.
Bloom is the assistant news editor for United Methodist News Service and is based in New York.