Bishop Jesse DeWitt, the first Board President of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), died on Thanksgiving evening, November 26, 2015, just nine days short of his 97th birthday. As Rev. Jim Sessions, a fellow United Methodist pastor and IWJ Board member, said, “It is the passing of an era.”
Bishop DeWitt was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. After high school, he worked on the assembly floor of the Packard auto factory, learning first-hand the importance of unions to workers. Eventually, he put himself through college at Wayne State University.
He attended seminary at Garrett Theological Seminary and was ordained a United Methodist pastor. He served congregations in Detroit and Illinois. He was elected to the episcopacy in 1972 and served both the Wisconsin and Northern Illinois conferences. His ministry always involved caring for both the spiritual and the physical components of people’s lives. Bishop DeWitt was part of the generation of clergy who grew up with the labor movement. He saw his ministry as intertwined with labor and justice. Throughout his life, he maintained and built strong personal ties with labor leaders and unions.
When the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues (later renamed to Arise Chicago) was first organized in 1991, Bishop DeWitt, who had recently retired, became one of its active leaders. As an active Bishop, he downplayed pomp and ceremony, but he acquiesced to purchasing and wearing a purple Bishop’s collar for labor support rallies throughout Chicago.
In 1994 and 1995, Bishop DeWitt helped organize interfaith groups to support labor in Milwaukee and his home city of Detroit.
When Interfaith Worker Justice was organized in 1996, Bishop Jesse DeWitt agreed to be its first board president and devoted the following six years to building the organization. He represented the organization at press and public events. He communicated regularly with owners who were engaged in long-term struggles with employers. He travelled with organizers and helped build new chapters.
As the new Executive Director of a start-up organization, I was guided and supported by Bishop DeWitt. He was wise, strategic and kind. He taught me how to lead prayer vigils outside factories and how to approach and diffuse anxious police officers. He showed me how to plan and lead a good board meeting. He talked through with me critical staffing and budget matters. And he modeled in his own life and then encouraged me in mine how to devote time and attention to my dear husband and twin sons.
Although I have hundreds of memories of my time with Bishop DeWitt, the most poignant memory is of September 11, 2001, when we were together at a board meeting in Washington, DC. Together with the rest of the Board members, we watched the second plane fly into the World Trade Center and we knew our world was changing. Bishop DeWitt immediately led the board in prayers for our nation and its leaders. The next day, with all the airports and railways closed, a group of staff and board members headed west from DC in a large passenger van. I sat wedged between Bishop DeWitt and Rabbi Robert Marx, the second President of the Board, who insisted that I stop making phone calls and kept up lively banter the entire way home.
When Bishop DeWitt retired to Ann Arbor to be near his daughters, he focused on rebuilding the Detroit Metro Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice and participated actively until his late eighties.
Within the last year, when he knew he was dying, Bishop DeWitt asked his long-time friend, and recently retired United Methodist colleague, Rev. Ed Rowe to devote time and attention to the Detroit Interfaith chapter, which he has been doing faithfully and effectively.
The last time I saw Bishop Dewitt was in late May. He was bedridden and being served by his daughters and HOSPICE nurses, but he was as sharp as ever and still focused on others. He wanted to know how I and my kids were doing. He asked if he could pray for me. I was there visiting him, and he was praying for me.
Bishop DeWitt was grateful for his beloved wife Annamary (who died in 2010), his daughters, grandchildren and great grandchildren. He was thankful for the opportunities he was given in life. He particularly appreciated his time in the factory and the opportunity to attend seminary. How fitting that he died on Thanksgiving Day. He was a man of God who regularly gave thanks.
Bishop DeWitt was ready to die. His family and loved ones will miss him, but, like the Apostle Paul, Bishop DeWitt can say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)
Thank you Bishop DeWitt for all you gave to me and the movement for worker justice.
A celebration of his life will be held on December 12 at 2 p.m. EST at the First United Methodist Church of An Arbor, MI.
Memorial contributions may be made to Food Gatherers or to Garrett Evangelical Seminary for the DeWitt Scholarship Fund which supports students working in social justice and labor ministries like Interfaith Worker Justice (*please note "DeWitt Scholarship" in the "RESTRICTED TO" field).