Bishop Ivan Abrahams knows what it means to be denied full rights in the society where you live.
Born in 1956 under South Africa’s apartheid system, he was 7 years old when his family was forced to move from a section of Capetown suddenly declared a whites-only area. His classification by the government as a “colored” person both stereotyped him and limited his choices.
Those early experiences spurred his involvement in justice ministries, and the “black and white blood coursing through my veins,” he says, has made him a reconciler.
When elected in 2003 as the presiding bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, Abrahams set an agenda for social outreach that included ending violence and abuse against children, dealing effectively with the HIV/AIDS pandemic and addressing the social and economic disparities that exist even in the new South Africa, where the “gap between rich and poor is still unacceptably high.”
His religious identity is another powerful motivator. Every Methodist, he believes, is called “to be an agent of transformation” and speak for those who cannot.
“We have a louder voice than we think we have,” he said during a July 8 interview at the New York headquarters of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. But, he added, “Our pronouncements need to be grounded in our belief system, in scriptures.”
Abrahams is both indebted to “the whole Methodist family” for its participation in the global crusade to end apartheid in South Africa and inspired to think such a show of unity can work again. “Unless we act together for change globally, it won’t happen,” he said. “South Africa is a very good example of that.”
An opportunity to lead
The bishop will have a chance to rally his fellow Methodists when the World Methodist Conference meets Aug. 4-8 in Durban, South Africa. Nominated to succeed the Rev. George Freeman as general secretary of the World Methodist Council, he will be participating not only as a council officer and host but also as a future leader.
Abrahams and his wife, Esm¸, who have three adult children and three grandchildren, live in Johannesburg. He expects the fall will be a transition period between his leadership role in the South African church and a move to Lake Junaluska, NC, for his new duties with the council.
United Methodist Bishop William Hutchinson of Louisiana, a member of the council’s presidium, noted that Abrahams will be the body’s first top executive who is not related to the U.S. church.
“I think that is a bold step into today’s world that is commendable for the World Methodist Council to take,” said Hutchinson, who was on the search committee that chose Abrahams. “I think he will bring new insights as to the international work. He will bring a new sense of connection to other communions on the international scene.”
In that respect, Abrahams joins Thomas Kemper at the Board of Global Ministries in New York. A United Methodist from Germany, Kemper took charge of the mission agency in March 2010 as its first top executive not from the United States.
When the nomination of Abrahams was announced, Kemper called him a “charismatically gifted” leader who has a comprehensive understanding of international affairs.
Abrahams believes his nomination is an acknowledgement by council leadership that “the center of gravity” has moved to the “global south” and that contributions from Christians in Africa and Asia, who have a holistic view of spirituality, need to be taken seriously.
“Methodism has come of an age where we will be able to be more inclusive,” he said.
Being relevant in today’s world
Abrahams is so steeped in the Methodist tradition that he likes to joke about hearing “the Wesleyan hymns while I was in my mother’s womb.”
But he also has experience with and ties to other faiths. He now serves as a member of the World Council of Churches’ executive committee and as co-chair of the South African National Religious Leaders Forum.
Such coalitions still can be relevant in today’s world, but some of their organizational structures need to be retooled, Abrahams said, citing the expanded scope of the Christian Global Forum as an example.
“A lot of folks are going to find their voice and a new direction as they become issue-focused,” he said.
Abrahams hopes the World Methodist Council also can provide a platform “where the Wesleyan family would be able to find their voice in social and international affairs.”
He noted several issues needing attention including migration and its effect on national churches and local congregations. “This is just part of a globalized world,” he explained. “But, there has been very little theological wrestling around the issue.”
Like migration, he said, interfaith relations – with which the council has long been involved -- is “an issue that needs to be taken much more seriously if we want to build a just and free society.”
Abrahams said the council needs to be more visible on the world scene and accompany churches in conflict situations, especially where Methodist people are part of the minority.
Abrahams cited the interfaith tension in Nigeria as an example. “We’ve left the Methodist church to paddle their own canoe in Nigeria, in places like Jos, where Methodists and Christians were persecuted and whole villages wiped out,” he said.
He also hopes to address the power balance between the larger council members, including The United Methodist Church, and Methodist denominations with fewer congregations and resources.
“One of the challenges is to see how folks from the emerging economies can play a greater role in terms of ownership of the council,” Abrahams said.
At all levels, he declared, the church must strive to be a place where there is “space for all.”