Sunday, March 15, 2009

This man of faith and wisdom taught us about love and tolerance

Bishop Melvin E. Wheatley, who risked censure in the United Methodist Church for appointing his denomination's first openly gay pastor in 1982, died March 1 in Mission Viejo after a lengthy illness, a church spokesman said. He was 93.

Wheatley was known for promoting dialogue across faiths and cultures during nearly two decades in Los Angeles as senior pastor of the Westwood United Methodist Church. As an associate pastor in Fresno during World War II, he caused a stir when he moved into the home of a Japanese American family to protect it from vandals after the family was ordered into an internment camp. Two decades later in Westwood, he broke down racial barriers by exchanging pulpits with the Rev. L.L. White of Holman Methodist Church in Central Los Angeles. The exchange took place in 1964, a year before the Watts riots.

Wheatley "was a visionary for the whole church," said the Rev. Donald Messer, president emeritus of the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, who knew Wheatley for 30 years. "He was the Martin Luther of the Methodist Church. He freed all of us to be less prejudiced, biased and dogmatic."

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