He was born into the world of the horse and buggy and kerosene lamps in a small Pennsylvania town. He later chose, like his father and brother, the life of a Methodist minister. Yet for nonagenarian James Mathews, that humble calling has led to a remarkable life that has taken him not only to the far reaches of the world but also into the thick of groundbreaking events - and to a conviction of the connectedness of all human beings.
From missionary in India to civil rights activist in Mississippi; from founding figure in the ecumenical movement to bishop in Boston, Washington, and Zimbabwe; this energetic church leader - who has retired four times - has pursued "a global odyssey" of Christian service.
In his autobiography of that title, Bishop Mathews writes that a Christian is called to a life of holiness - a holiness not of escape, but of engagement.
"If a challenge confronts us about which we can do something," he says, "then we must do something." Mathews's lifetime of service and that of his wife of 63 years, Eunice, are being honored in Washington this weekend at American University and by the United Methodist Higher Education Foundation.
Mathews's experience as a young missionary in India from 1938 to 1942 was the "single most important fact of my life," he says in an interview; it lifted him out of parochialism. "You'd think becoming a missionary might mean disappearing into a quiet hole, but it actually opened up the whole world for me."
He made close friends of both Hindus and Muslims. Indians were in the throes of their struggle for independence, and he met Mahatma Gandhi, beginning a lifelong interest in his work and teachings, which led to a prize-winning book on the Indian leader.
"India enabled me for the first time to see myself and America as others see us, and liberated me to be at home in the world," he says. "We can make a basic decision in life about what use we are going to make of our humanhood. Once we have taken the stance that we are going to live on behalf of all, for example, then when we are confronted by challenges, the lesser decisions fall into place."
During the US civil rights movement, while serving as Methodist bishop in Boston, Mathews put Gandhian principles to work to move his own church forward. In 1964, he and fellow Bishop Charles Golden, an African-American, tried to attend an Easter service together at the leading Methodist church in Jackson, Miss. They were turned away at the door.
"That was in some respects a rather decisive event in our church," he says. Eventually, the segregated conference for black Methodists was eliminated. "Now the United Methodist Church [UMC] has 50 bishops in the US, and 15 are African-Americans," he says. "A number of predominantly white churches have African-American pastors." It also set up a Fund for Reconciliation to combat racism.
According to Mathews, the most important spiritual dimension is openness. "This helps one be positive, a part of solutions rather than a part of our problems," he says.
Not surprisingly, the ecumenical movement became a prime endeavor for over half a century, taking him to countries across the globe. "Bishop Mathews is a spiritual giant who sees the whole world, recognizes God's presence in it, and points to this presence with wonder, humility, and love," says Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher, president of the UMC Council of Bishops.
A founding member in 1950 of the National Council of Churches, Mathews has been active in Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic dialogues, including meetings with the pope and the patriarch. While acknowledging flaws in the ecumenical movement, "on the whole, it's one of the great developments of our time," he says. "In our shrunken world, to have dividing walls within the Christian family is inappropriate, and we ought to do all we can to break them down."
At the same time, he's well aware of the challenges within Christian denominations, such as issues of biblical authority and homosexuality. "We have to find a new way of talking about these things rather than from extreme stances that talk past each other," he says. "Instead of casting these in the form of problems to be solved, we should [look for] the possibilities to be realized. Our need is to increase our arena of caring."
The bishop recently had a vivid dream - the details have receded but the theme struck deeply. "One could almost say that during our lifetimes we're touched in one way or another by every other individual. This silk necktie - someone had to plant mulberry trees and feed the leaves to silkworms, someone with delicate hands had to unravel the cocoons; then it was made into yarn, then cloth. Someone designed it, stamped it with a pattern. Others distributed it," he says. "It's a simple thing, but far-reaching and profound. We don't often think of our connectedness, but when we do, it changes our whole mentality."
Friends see the practical impact of that kind of mentality. "He's the most cosmopolitan bishop the UMC has ever had," says the Rev. Bill Holmes, former pastor of Metropolitan United Methodist Church in Washington. "And that broad perspective has enabled him to dive into local situations in this country."