On the drive from Houston to Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s new United Methodist bishop had what she describes as an almost biblical experience.
“I was coming across the Atchafalaya Basin on the interstate and I saw this big rainbow!” Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey said with arms open wide. “I thought, ‘Really God? Is this for real?’ I got chill bumps.”
Hurricane Isaac had barely moved out, leaving hundreds of square miles of southeastern Louisiana underwater.
“Then, when I’m crossing the Mississippi River bridge, I’m behind a Red Cross disaster relief truck. Isn’t that perfect?” she said with a laugh. “What a welcome to Louisiana!”
Her formal installation as bishop of the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church comes in a service beginning at 11 a.m. Saturday at First United Methodist Church, 930 North Blvd., but she was elected in July and began serving Sept. 1, replacing Bishop William W. Hutchinson, who retired in August.
Her first two days on the job leading the conference of 500 congregations and 120,000 members were spent visiting flooded neighborhoods and churches.
“I would never have chosen to start this way, but I was able to get to parts of the conference that could have taken me a year to get to,” Harvey said. “I met people whom I may never have met.”
Disaster response is nothing new to her. She served the past two years as the deputy general secretary of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, United Methodists’ disaster relief agency.
She went to Japan following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, to Haiti several times and responded to the rash of devastating tornadoes all across the American South last year. Only a few months ago, she was in Africa, beyond the end of all roads, where Methodist medical missionaries are serving HIV-AIDS survivors in a remote village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo .
“Our secular partners like United Nations Foundation would tell us that the reason they liked working with the United Methodist Church is because when the road ends the United Methodist Church is still there,” Harvey said, making a comparison with post-Isaac response in Livingston Parish where the water seemed too high to go any further.
“We got in the back of an Army truck, and we went a little further, and there was a United Methodist Church at the end of the road.”
Harvey, 53, grew up a Catholic, participated in the Baptist Student Union at the University of Texas in Austin and married a Lutheran.
“We compromised and became Methodists,” she said with a laugh, recalling how she and Dean Harvey married 31 years ago.
“I’m a faithful follower of Jesus Christ,” she said. “I want to be Holy Spirit-led. I want to be accountable. I want to be an excellent leader for the United Methodist Church.”
She grew up in a barrio in Big Spring, Texas, the second daughter of a fourth-generation, hard-working, Spanish-speaking Mexican-American couple in a large, extended family that faithfully attended Mass, she said. “That’s why I have such a great need for community and building community, because that is the way I grew up.”
“I speak excellent Spanglish!” she added with a laugh.
She also knows what it’s like to be excluded.
“I can remember sitting with my grandmother at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, and we couldn’t sit where everybody else sat,” Harvey said. “So, for me, it makes perfect sense to serve in a church where social justice and mercy is important and very much a part of who we are as United Methodists.”
Harvey said she was active at Big Spring High School as a cheerleader, yearbook editor and student government member, graduating in 1977.
She has what she calls “a jagged résumé,” meaning that her corporate experiences may not seem to lead to her current position, but they do.
At first, she wanted to be an international attorney and attended the University of Texas, majoring in journalism.
She earned her journalism degree in three years and at the age of 20 became a community relations director for a shopping center developer, the Rouse Company, in Atlanta.
In a few short years she was in upper level management, living in Austin, Texas, overseeing major retail developments such as the post-1984 World’s Fair, River Walk project in New Orleans.
She met her husband, Dean, when she first began working for the Rouse Company as an intern her senior year at UT, and they got married two years later.
They have one daughter, Elizabeth Grace, who is 22 and a senior at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Dean is a financial advisor with his own firm.
Harvey said she’s “never known life without the church and without a relationship with Jesus Christ” and can’t point to a particular time where she experienced what Methodism founder John Wesley called a ‘heart-warmed’ kind-of moment.
“I don’t have a conversion experience,” Harvey said. “I’ve had conversion experiences, what I call when I bump up against the living God.”
One of her earliest childhood spiritual experiences, she said, was when a nun patted her head at church and told her, “‘God could be calling you.’ I said, ‘Oh my goodness!’”
Later, as a student at UT, she went on a Baptist Student Union mission trip to San Francisco where she answered a suicide hotline. “That was one of those first experiences (thinking) how God can actually use me.”
The Harveys took the youth of Foundry United Methodist Church in Houston on a mission trip to an impoverished area of Crockett, Texas, where she had another “bump up against God moment” while listening to a local woman’s stories of bringing up children.
“I realized that God uses everyone,” Harvey said. “I saw what it means to live on the margins, live on life’s edges, which began to define and continues to define my ministry.
“It’s out there on those fringes where I believe God is so at work,” Harvey said. “That is where you really bump up against the living God.”
Harvey’s call to ministry developed with her increasing involvement in the church.
“The pastor took me to lunch one day and asked me if I ever considered going into the ministry,” she said. “My smart aleck response was ‘I already was.’ He said, ‘No, full-time ordained ministry.”
She left behind her 12-year corporate career, began working at the church and pursued a masters of divinity degree from Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology in Dallas.
She moved to Memorial Drive United Methodist Church in Houston, where she served as an executive associate, graduated from seminary and was ordained as a deacon in 1999 and an elder in 2001.
Two years ago she was enlisted from her job as director of missional excellence at the Texas Conference to replace the director of UMCOR who was killed in the Haiti earthquake.
“The lens through which I see the world, and particularly the United Methodist Church now, is very different than it was in January 2010,” she said. “I actually had a map under glass on my desk because we were talking about places that I did not know where they were.”
Working for UMCOR “gave me this huge view of what the possibilities are when people of faith decide to do something,” she said. “When there is need in the world, the United Methodists know how to respond. We saw it here in Katrina.”
Her favorite Bible verse is Philippians 4:13, which she quotes, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Her favorite Bible passage, however, is the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 with the little boy’s five loaves and two fishes.
“It’s a story of abundance,” she said. “One of my pet peeves is when we speak of things in terms of scarcity as opposed to abundance. They had enough left over to take some home. I think that is just genius of God.
“I see the power and the possibilities of the impact the United Methodist Church can make around the world,” Harvey said. “We send missionaries from everywhere to everywhere. I tell people all the time, ‘You are doing some amazing things around the world. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.’”
Her first goal, she said, is to visit many of the state’s churches and listen to the pastors and lay members. But she also wants to increase the vitality of the congregations and increase discipleship.
“Yes Sunday attendance and baptisms are vital,” she said, “but who is the church being in the community the other six days of the week?
“The service (to others) begins when the (worship) service ends,” Harvey said. “That’s who I believe we need to be as a church.”
Copyright © 2011, Capital City Press LLC • 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810 • All Rights Reserved