Anthony Shipley was an elementary school student in Harlem when he met the Rev. William "Bill" Marcus James and, Shipley recalled, James "decided I should have a better life than I was having."
Decades later, Shipley, a retired United Methodist pastor in Detroit, is still grateful to the mentor who not only made it possible for him to attend college and embark upon a ministerial career, but also guided, by Shipley's estimation, some 400 other youth into higher education and meaningful lives.
Now, the 73-year-old is planning a Feb. 23 memorial service for James, a retired clergy member of the New York Annual (regional) Conference, who died Jan. 18 at the age of 97. The service will be at 10 a.m. at Salem United Methodist Church at 129th Street (Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard) and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.
James became a well-known figure in Harlem's community development and in city politics, but his passion for supporting young people in general and African-Americans in particular was felt throughout the Methodist and United Methodist churches.
He helped abolish the segregated "Central Jurisdiction" of the Methodist Church, mentored several future United Methodist bishops and denominational leaders, became involved in anti-war efforts and was an early champion of gay and lesbian rights.
"Probably 100 people have gone into the ministry under his leadership," Shipley said.
The path to becoming a mentor
Born in Mississippi on June 4, 1915, James received his license to preach in the South Indiana Conference in 1936 and was ordained a deacon there two years later. In 1940, he was ordained an elder in the New York Conference and appointed to East Calvary Methodist Church in Harlem.
When James was appointed to the Trinity (Morrisania) Methodist Church in the Bronx five years later, he faced a changing neighborhood. All the white members had transferred to other Methodist churches, so his job was to build a new congregation.
Within seven years, the church grew to several hundred members, but, more importantly, he became a mentor to the young people who flocked there.
In 1952, James moved to Community Methodist Church in Harlem, which in 1971 became the Metropolitan Community United Methodist Church. He continued his ministry to young people, and to the Harlem community as a whole, for 33 years before retiring from the post in 1985.
James was so well known that he could not walk one block on 125th Street without someone wanting to talk with him, the Rev. John Collins remembered.
One night years ago, Collins drove James back from a jurisdictional conference, arriving at his Harlem church around 2 a.m. As they got out of the car, he said, three or four young men materialized out of the dark. He was alarmed at first, but the men called the pastor by name and offered to help with his suitcase. "It struck me, in any hour of the day or night, everybody knows Bill," Collins said.
Shipley was one of those who felt fortunate to know him. As a teenager, he noted, many of the boys he'd known in elementary school were dead from drugs or violence, but James helped him and other youth choose another path, with the support of the Metropolitan congregation.
One church member, whom he remembers as Miss Calloway, showed up at his high school graduation in 1957 and at his subsequent graduations from Drew University in Madison, N.J., and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. "The people in the church were pretty much like that," he recalled. "The church had to be responsible for kids, and they were."
Shipley said his own father was a decent, good man with a grade-school education who took pride in his son graduating from high school, but "in terms of education and exposure to the world, all of that came from Rev. James."
He never thought he'd go to college - his mother expected him to start supporting the family after high school - until a check arrived in the mail one day to finance his education. He attended Drew "because that was the school he (James) recommended."
The Rev. Randolph Nugent, retired top executive of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and a member of the New York Conference, described James as "a dynamo" within the denomination and a go-to person within the conference.
"He was the one in the New York Conference who always took on the tasks of the vulnerable people," he said. "If you had an issue, you went to Bill James; you could count on him."
Leader in ending Central Jurisdiction
He was a delegate to eight general and jurisdictional conferences, where he was a key leader in the struggle to end the Central Jurisdiction, the segregated jurisdiction formed in 1939 when the north and south branches of the Methodist Church merged.
The Rev. John Carrington, a friend and the retired director of the New York City Society, first met James when he came to speak to his seminary class. He always had students working in his church, Carrington recalled, and if African-American graduates were turned away by the (then) New York and New York East conferences, James found a conference that would accept them.
"I suppose I became a district superintendent to a great extent because of Bill's advocating it should be done," he said.
Through Metropolitan Community Church, James started a program for young adults aging out of foster care. The program was based in two brownstone buildings on 126th Street. "He provided a place where they could come and not just live there, but (also) could get training and find jobs," explained Carrington, who worked with him on the project.
James also worked with Carrington on the United Methodist City Society, a mission agency of the church in the metropolitan region, where he served on the board and helped shape the church's response to the urban crisis.
He was a founder of the Ministerial Interfaith Association of New York and founded, with U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, the Harlem Urban Development Corporation. Established in 1971 through Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, that agency attempted to attract public and private investment for housing and commercial development in Harlem.
James continued to have an influence on Shipley and other African-American pastors. When Shipley, then 35, was conflicted over whether to accept an offer in Detroit to become the youngest and first African-American conference council director in the connection, he went to James for advice. "He said, 'You have to go,'" he remembered. "He said, 'In the ministry, you don't decide. God decides, and you have to do what he tells you.'"
That position, which Shipley held for 12 years, turned out to be the best job he ever had in the church, he said. In recent years, he has continued his mentor's advocacy for young people through his involvement with Chandler Park Academy, a Detroit-area charter school started through his congregation.
James was preceded in death by his wife, Juanita, and adopted son, Edward. He is survived by his daughter-in-law, Jade James; two grandsons, Kyle and Ryan James, and two great-grandchildren, Makhi James and Kahloe James.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or [email protected].