When Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi speaks from the pulpit as a newly elected bishop in The United Methodist Church, the voice of her great-grandmother — who sang in a racially segregated choir — echoes in a place deep in her heart.
Because of her race, Moore-Koikoi’s African-American great-grandmother would not have been allowed to worship with some of the congregations that her granddaughter recently led as a district superintendent.
In July, Moore-Koikoi was the first of two African-American women elected to the episcopacy in the Northeastern Jurisdiction.
When she was younger, the new bishop used to ask why they stayed in a church that didn’t fully welcome them. But, as a preacher’s child, she was taught to “refuse to believe the lie” that kept her grandmother in a segregated choir loft.
She learned about living as an agent of change and to worship and serve a God of unexpected things. She learned that “those whom God calls, God equips,” she said.
Bishop Marcus Matthews, who retired Sept. 1 from the Baltimore-Washington Conference, said Moore-Koikoi’s gifts will serve her well in the episcopacy.
“She was the spiritual director of the cabinet. She has a heart for prayer and a tremendous love for The United Methodist Church, here and around the world. She is down-to-earth, genuine and she knows how to get things done. She’ll do well with all of the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead of her,” Matthews said.
Birthdate and place: June 24, 1966; Shepherdstown, West Virginia
Education: Bachelor’s in psychology, Loyola University of Maryland; master’s in school psychology, University of Maryland-College Park; master’s of divinity, Wesley Theological Seminary
Family: Married to the Rev. Raphael Koikoi
Favorite or most meaningful Bible passage: Psalm 139
Favorite hymn: “Oh Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go”
Favorite sacred song: “Take Me to the King”
Heroes in the Bible and beyond: Lydia, Woman at the well, Julia Foote
Recent book that made a strong impression: “Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World” by Miroslav Volf
Hobbies: Travel, music of all kinds — singing and playing — sewing, cycling
A test of leadership
A former school psychologist in Maryland for 17 years, Moore-Koikoi always felt called to ministry — serving in a variety of positions as a layperson throughout her life. She served two churches as a pastor and associate pastor from 2004 to 2010, St. Matthews in Baltimore and Calvary in Annapolis, and became a district superintendent in 2012, serving the Greater Washington District and Baltimore Metropolitan District in the Baltimore-Washington Conference.
Her spiritual leadership was tested on the evening of April 19, 2015, following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American man, after he was in police custody. Unrest broke out, more than 300 businesses were looted, 30 fires set and the city of Baltimore was placed in a state of emergency.
Amid this unrest, Moore-Koikoi was one of the clergy who marched together in the city’s streets calling for peace and justice.
On that evening, members from two rival gangs accompanied the pastors, keeping them safe from protesters and police. As events continued to unfold, Moore-Koikoi built upon partnerships and prayer, calling for peace and opportunities for some of Baltimore’s neediest residents.
Moore-Koikoi admits she was afraid, but, in times like that, “you pray and march on,” she said. “This is God’s work. It we’re not willing to do this, then who are we?”
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake stressed that pastors and people of faith like Moore-Koikoi create and nurture up “the best parts of the city, which are made possible by those who lead with their hearts.”
A native of Baltimore, Moore-Koikoi served in Annapolis and Washington, D.C. She learned more about Baltimore by taking morning prayer walks around the city’s 65 neighborhoods with a different congregation each week.
Amid schoolchildren catching buses, drug dealers shuffling away from corners, strangers wanting to share their joys and hardships, next to boarded-up buildings, vacant lots and centers of culture, and even through a snowstorm, Moore-Koikoi and the United Methodists prayed aloud.
“I believe there are spiritual forces out there,” she said. “When we speak words into the air, it makes a difference to the Holy Spirt. When we gather to pray, we’ve been experiencing God.”
The new bishop is looking forward to similarly getting to know the people, churches and culture in her new appointment, Western Pennsylvania.
Through her initial contacts, she has discerned that the people of the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference reflect the broad theological diversity that makes up The United Methodist Church.
“We will be uniquely positioned to be able to model for the denomination how folks who don’t think alike can love alike,” she said. “Part of that process involves genuine conversation, talking with each other, and not at each other.”
Conversations in new conference
Some of those conversations, she believes will focus on the church’s response to homosexuality.
She hopes the anxiety and fear that exists for many people around this issue can be removed.
“Once we’re no longer anxious and fearful, then we can have the healthy conversations we need to have. We should not enter these conversations out of desperation,” she said.
She is convinced there are answers that allow the church to move forward. “Since our church’s inception,” she said, “we’ve been struggling with issues over which we do not agree. I believe we’re smart enough, and that God’s grace is sufficient enough, for us to figure this out.”
Moore-Koikoi intends to be guided by the Book of Discipline as a book that enhances ministry.
“It ought not be looked at, or used, as a book that hinders or restricts ministry.”
It is a book of covenant, she said, in that it “helps God’s people get to the place God wants them to be, the place God dreams for them to be.” It will be essential, “to leave space for the transforming work of the Holy Spirit,” she said.
Moore-Koikoi said she realizes that not everyone will agree about God’s dreams for the people called United Methodist. But, she said the only way she can be effective is to be completely and authentically herself and to lead as the person she believes God created her to be.
“I pray to be able to use all God made me to be to make a difference. It’s too complicated, and too long a journey, not to be completely myself,” she said.
A part of being herself is being a wife to the Rev. Raphael Koikoi, a Liberian she married in 2013 in the chapel at United Methodist Africa University in Zimbabwe. She was teaching at a pastor’s school at the university.
Delores Martin, the lay leader of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, was on the Board of Ordained Ministry when Moore-Koikoi came through for her examinations as a provisional member and an elder and later served with the new bishop on the extended cabinet.
“She was also my DS (district superintendent) for a year and I got to know her very well as a colleague. . . . I often tell people how she is one DS who cares for her laity as well as her clergy. The laity will be blessed to have her guidance as a bishop,” Martin said.
The Rev. Rod Miller, the senior pastor of Towson United Methodist Church, one of the larger churches in the Baltimore Metropolitan District, agrees the new bishop will thrive.
“Bishop Moore-Koikoi is a passionate and articulate spiritual leader who sees both the ‘forest and the trees.’ She is a strategic thinker who is deeply compassionate and forward-thinking,” Miller said.
The Rev. Joan Carter-Rimbach was present at the jurisdictional conference, when Moore-Koikoi was elected. She called the election “an answered prayer.”
Carter-Rimbach said Moore-KoiKoi “will be proactive in making sure that all voices are heard.
“She is not afraid to ask hard questions or to help others ask hard and difficult questions that would benefit the whole.”
Another essential part of her identity is being an African-American woman.
“As a woman of color,” Moore-KoiKoi said, “I have learned the gift of perseverance, being able to hold onto hope in the midst of oppression. Our denomination needs that. As our pews become more empty, as we experience more financial difficulties, we have to hold out hope. I’ve had to use my spiritual eyes.”
Her vision, she said, is one of a diverse church that embraces justice and the life-saving love of Christ.
“My role, and the church’s role, is to experience the reign of God on earth and point that out to people.”
Lauber is director of communications for the Baltimore-Washington Conference.