“We Can Agree to Love Together”

Cynthia Moore-Koikoi, ’88, elected bishop in United Methodist Church. She organized and led church support of Baltimore communities following unrest in 2015

By Nick Alexopulos
Cynthia Moore-Koikoi

The moment Cynthia Moore-Koikoi (seated) learned she had been elected bishop at the United Methodist Church 2016 Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference in Lancaster, Pa., in July 2016. (Photo by Melissa Lauber/UMC)

It was a call she couldn’t ignore.

Cynthia Moore-Koikoi, ’88, was nearly two decades into her career when it became very evident that God was calling her in a different direction—to be in ordained ministry. The lifelong Methodist and member of Sharp Street Memorial UMC in Baltimore worked as a school psychologist in Anne Arundel County (Md.) at the time, in her seventeenth year after earning a psychology degree from Loyola and her master’s in school psychology from the University of Maryland.

Her call came not as a surprise, but as a culmination of reflection, conversations, and prayer, and experience serving in lay leadership roles for United Methodist Churches.

She attended Wesley Theological Seminary, served as associate minister and pastor at churches in Baltimore and Annapolis, and was ordained as a full Elder in the United Methodist Church in 2010. She went on to be appointed superintendent for the Baltimore Metropolitan District of UMC.

On July 13, 2016, UMC elected Moore-Koikoi bishop.

“It was kind of unbelievable,” she said.

Each UMC bishop is assigned to preside over a designated episcopal area; in September, Moore-Koikoi will begin her assignment as bishop of the Western Pennsylvania Conference, an area that includes Pittsburgh. She will be a member of the worldwide council of Methodist bishops, who meet on a regular basis to pray and discern the direction of UMC and are a prophetic witness in ordering the life of UMC.

“She played a pivotal spiritual role in [Baltimore] following the unrest in 2015 around the death of Freddie Gray in police custody,” UMC said of Moore-Koikoi in statement announcing her election.

Moore-Koikoi’s family is deeply connected to Loyola and to UMC. Her father, Maurice S. Moore, is a retired pastor of several different churches in the Baltimore Washington Conference of UMC and graduated from Loyola in 1976 after taking classes over time as a commuter student. Her brother, Ronald Moore, ’98, and sister, Cheryl Moore-Thomas, Ph.D., ’86, M.Ed. ’89, are also alumni, and Moore-Thomas is an associate professor in the School of Education. Moore-Koikoi’s husband, Raphael Koikoi, serves as pastor of Sharp Street Memorial UMC.

Moore-Koikoi spoke with Loyola magazine about her new role and her continued commitment as a faith leader to the pursuit of social justice.

What excites you about becoming a bishop?

One of the wonderful things about the United Methodist Church is that it’s a very diverse church. It’s diverse racially, it’s diverse theologically, it’s diverse economically. So I get to see different aspects of who God is through different perspectives and different people’s eyes, and that realization of who God is—that greater understanding of who God is—is just fabulous to me. As I learn more about people, I learn more about God. It’s been really gratifying to see the many aspects of God and the image of God that is reflected in many different people.

Western Pennsylvania is a very diverse conference theologically. It’s not a racially diverse as Baltimore, but it’s very diverse theologically. I’m looking forward to us wrestling with that as a denomination, and us figuring out how God is going to have us hold our differences in tension, and in a way that strengthens us rather than divides us.

One of the things that John Wesley says is, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?” And I think the world now is hungering for the faith community to say, “You know, we don’t agree on everything, but we can agree to love together.” As a culture and a society we have so isolated ourselves from those who do not think like us, and it has become very divisive.

I believe that western Pennsylvania has an opportunity to witness to the world who God is and the power and the unity of the spirit of God, that in fact God did not create us all to be the same and that is our strength—and out of that diversity we can love folks, we can show who God is, we can do transformative work in the world socially, racially, economically. And we can do that together.

Pittsburgh is the major metropolitan area that will be under my new purview. There is certainly some work we will continue to do, and be creative in doing, to address issues of social injustice. That work is not confined just to urban areas; there is social justice work that needs to be done in our rural areas.

I’m really excited for the opportunity to lead these efforts in western Pennsylvania. I think if we can get it right, some of the vitriol we are seeing in discourse in our country and in our world today will be dissipated because they’ll say, “Look what the people of God are doing,” and folks will hopefully model that.

How did you lead Baltimore Methodist church support of communities during and after unrest in spring 2015?

The United Methodist Church is connectional. When the unrest happened in Baltimore, I called the pastor who pastors in Ferguson, Mo., and I asked him what his district superintendent did and what that person didn’t do that he wished he had done [when similar unrest happened in Ferguson]. That helped to guide me in leading the United Methodist pastors in Baltimore during that time. I met with them and told them they needed to keep their churches open, because we needed to have a safe place for kids to be because the schools were going to be closed. We organized activities for the kids and handed out supplies. People came from all over to help us; someone from The Associated (Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore) called and said, “I know you’re going to be open, can we send some volunteers and some supplies?” And I said, “Absolutely.” We had folks who came in who were atheist. One gentleman said, “I’m an atheist but I heard you guys were doing some good work, so I’m here to help.”

Also, because we are connectional, we received supplies from all over the country—we asked for items people would ordinarily buy at a CVS. We distributed toothpaste, diapers, all kinds of things you would get at a CVS, and I helped the pastors in Baltimore organize how we would receive and distribute those items.

And then we talked about how we could make a lasting impact. Some of the churches were focused on what we call “mercy ministries”—handing out food and supplies. A few churches specialized in and concentrated on the social justice aspect of what was going on, partnering with other organizations to help make lasting changes. For example, partnering with the Black Bar Association on non-violent intervention in civil disobedience.

Since we are right in the heart of the [Sandtown-Winchester] community, we really needed to respond in many, many ways, and that’s what we did. We have the real estate on the ground and people know where the churches are, so they came to us asking for help and support—and that’s what we did.

Do you draw inspiration from Jesuit values?

There are so many similarities between the Methodist faith and the Catholic faith, particularly with the Society of Jesus, because of that emphasis on that social holiness. That ideal of working with folks where they are; that idea of informing yourself, educating yourself so that you can make a difference in the world… to me, that has really helped to form me.

I served as chaplain at Georgetown University for one year. Part of my responsibility was to work with the other chaplains on campus, and we were all of different faiths—Georgetown was very intentional about that. In our building there was an Imam, someone who was Catholic, and then me. We had dialogued together about the similarities in our faith, and how God might be calling us to work with the freshmen who were in our dorms to help to shape and inform their faith so they were not just there to get an education, but they were there to impact the world. We discussed what we might be able to offer to encourage and strengthen them in that pursuit. We wanted to help them recognize that God has blessed you with this intellect—but it’s not just to have a good job, it’s really to impact the world on a social level so that others can come to see who God is, and then do their job to impact the world on a social level.

I am profoundly grateful for my education at Loyola, and for the way that Loyola has supported my family. I had a spiritual kinship with the Jesuits immediately at Loyola, and there really is something special about that. It’s not just a university; there’s something that transcends coursework, there’s something that transcends the community. There really is something special that God ordained about a Jesuit education. It’s a spiritual endeavor.

Read UMC’s story about Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi here.

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