Wilson elected as history’s first Indigenous Methodist bishop
By Chris Jennings
January 3, 2023
The first Indigenous bishop in the history of the United Methodist church will become the episcopal leader of the Great Plains Conference on January 1, 2023.
Choctaw tribal member, Bishop David Wilson, will take over for Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr., who was assigned to the Central Texas Conference.
Wilson, 59, has been the assistant to the bishop for the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference (OIMC) since 2021. Before that, he served 19 years as a conference superintendent for the OIMC.
The third time was a charm for Wilson, who was up for the position of bishop twice before. Once in 2012 and again in 2016.
“I was quite elated and happy to be elected as the bishop,” said Wilson.
Wilson is excited about what he calls a daunting task.
According to Wilson, being the “first” at anything is not new for Indigenous people.
“Often, your race is judged upon one person and what he or she does or does not do. I meet a lot of people who are the first Native persons across the country to do this and do that, and it’s exciting. But, we also realize the responsibility that comes with that,” he said.
Wilson, the grandson of WW1 Choctaw Code Talker Calvin Wilson, grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma, attending Fife United Methodist Church. He was involved with the church at a young age, teaching Sunday school.
Wilson has continued to work with young people ever since and says that helping to shape their lives is important to him.
“It’s the same with campus ministry; that’s probably one of my finest appointments, working with young college students,” said Wilson.
According to Wilson, he is ready for this next chapter of his life.
“What I look forward to the most is getting to know the people in the Great Plains Conference, get to know the pastors and lay people and the work that they’re doing,” said Wilson. “What I hope is just to develop some relationships. How can we help each other, learn from each other and make our communities better places.”
Wilson says the Great Plains Conference is known for its work on social justice issues and that he looks forward to that. He also hopes to expand on those issues to help understand some of the things that Native people deal with daily.
One of the first things Wilson says he plans to do is learn more about some of the cultures and traditions of the tribes from his new area.
“I have friends and colleagues who belong to those tribes. I’ll visit with them and talk with them and learn about those tribes and their history,” said Wilson.
At the same time, he hopes to pass on what he’s learned to non-Indeginous people about who their local tribes are, their history and culture. All these things are essential to help them understand the diversity of their communities.
“That’s what I’ve done a lot here at home and around Oklahoma the last 20 years, to help educate non-Native people about who we are, our culture, life in the church and outside the church. I always enjoy doing that,” Wilson said.
He hopes to foster new relationships by engaging these churches in his new area.
“I hope to develop some relationships that say, how can we help each other and learn from each other to make our communities better places,” Wilson said.
According to Wilson, he wants to work with these churches to continue to figure out how to serve the community.
“So many of our churches are inward. We come to worship, and we only care about who comes, yet we need to realize we have communities that are in need,” said Wilson. “Many issues like poverty, social justice, high substance abuse and health care issues. All these things affect our communities, and there’s so much that our local churches can do to help others.”
Wilson says he can use some of what he sees as Native traditions to help teach non-Indigenious people. One of these traditions is a better understanding of the community and how decisions can affect the whole community, not just one person.
“You see the Choctaw Nation doing that every day; relationships are so important with not just blood relatives, but with others [in the community], and that’s important,” Wilson said.
Wilson shares a story that a Kiowa elder, his mentor, told him.
“When the missionaries had first come in among our people, they said, ‘tell us about this Jesus. The missionaries said Christianity is where you take care of each other. You love everybody, and you reach out and help people.’ And they said, ‘we already do that.'”
Because the tradition of helping and caring for others already existed among the tribes, it was easy for some to embrace Christianity. However, aspects of it made it hard.
According to Wilson, boarding schools and other horrific things that happened to Indigenous people specifically made it hard for some to accept Christianity.
“It was how it was lived out that gives Christianity a bad name among many of our Indigenous peoples,” said Wilson.
The church has changed since then and continues to evolve as more and more young people get involved or return to the church bringing a more inclusive view.
Being kind and more inclusive and loving of other cultures and traditions isn’t just an idea for Wilson; it’s something he’s called to do by the bible. Wilson’s favorite bible verse is Micah 6:8., “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
According to Wilson, that’s been his mantra.
“I hope I’ve served people to fight for justice, to love people everywhere I go, and just to be humble about my life and the work that I get to do,” said Wilson.
He’s also looking forward to showing that he is not defined by his lifelong work with Indigenous people but by using Native American culture and the diversity of his new conference better to teach a message of justice, kindness and love.
Wilson is a 1990 graduate of Oklahoma City University with a B.A. in Mass Communications. He received his Master of Divinity from Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1994. He was the first clergyperson from OIMC to graduate from Phillips Theological Seminary. Wilson was named the Phillips Distinguished Alumni for 2007. He received an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters from Bacone College in 2009 and the Excellence in Teaching Award for Adjunct Faculty at OCU in 2012.