Bishop Edsel A. Ammons helped build unity in the United Methodist Church. A pastor, an urban missionary, a teacher at Evanston’s Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, he became the first African American bishop in the church’s nine-state North Central Jurisdiction. That was in 1976. Retired in 1992, Bishop Ammons returned to Evanston to serve as a Garrett trustee and bishop-in-residence. He passed away at age 86 on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24.
Hundreds of friends and colleagues, including clergy members from across the country, filled the sanctuary of Evanston’s First United Methodist Church to join his family Saturday in celebrating the life of Bishop Ammons. He was remembered as a church leader, trailblazer, guiding star, standard bearer, bridge builder, saint. On a personal level he was praised as a caring mentor, a surrogate father, a “rock in a weary land.”
Bishop Larry Goodpaster said he was a man who used his gifts to break down barriers to help lift up the needy, include the excluded and “teach the next generation of servant leaders to do the same.”
Roy Carlson, Bishop Ammons’s former pastor at Evanston’s Covenant United Methodist Church, remembered the bishop coming back to Evanston in 1992 and moving in next door. They often went to First Church services together. “I never sang so well,” he said, “as when I sang next to Edsel. Oh, my God, how he could sing.”
Bishop Ammons came from a musical family. His daughter Lila is a jazz singer. Brother Gene “Jug” Ammons was a celebrated tenor sax player in the days of bebop and soul jazz. His father, blues pianist Albert Ammons, was considered the king of boogie-woogie in the 1940s. The recordings of both men are all over the internet.
Bishop Ammons was a man who knew music, who liked harmony. But he didn’t back away from discord, particularly during the tumultuous 1960s of the civil rights movement and of significant changes in the Methodist Church. In 1968, after almost a decade of debate and only weeks after Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, church delegates, including Rev. Ammons, voted to become the United Methodist Church and end the church’s racially segregated governance by doing away with its long-standing, all-black Central Jurisdiction.
That same year, as an assistant professor of church and urban society at Garrett, Bishop Ammons became founding director of its Center for the Church and the Black Experience. Through this center he introduced programs fostering racial justice and understanding, and worked to bring more minority students and faculty members to Garrett. That year he also became a founding member of the national Black Methodists for Church Renewal, the influential black caucus working for change within the church. In 1976, he was elected a bishop, serving eight years in Michigan and eight years in Ohio.
A leader since his days at Chicago’s DuSable High School, where he was senior class president and valedictorian, Bishop Ammons was graduated directly into World War II and the U.S. Army. After his discharge, he enrolled at Roosevelt University, graduating in 1948. In 1949 he was ordained a minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) Church in which he grew up.
He served as pastor at AMEZ churches in Chicago and then New York, but soon returned to the Chicago area to earn a divinity degree at what was then Garrett Biblical Institute and emphatically white. Even in 1957, his last year, Garrett had only six black students.
By then, to make ends meet, he was working around the clock as student, Cook County social worker, night-time postal employee and father. He had married June Billingsley in 1951, and they were on their way to a family of six children.
Degree in hand, he transferred in 1957 from the AMEZ Church to the Rock River Annual Conference of the Methodist Church (now the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church), where he became its first African American pastor.
Assigned as pastor of the Whitfield Methodist Church, later Ingleside-Whitfield, on Chicago’s South Side, he helped boost membership of the interracial congregation from 46 in 1957 to 700 by the time he left in 1963. He then went to Rockford as first director of Urban Work for 14 Methodist congregations. In 1966 he was appointed director of the Church in the City in downtown Chicago.
Bishop Ammons and his family moved to Evanston in 1967 when he returned to Garrett as a faculty member. In 1975 he earned a doctor of ministry degree at Chicago Theological Seminary. The next year he was consecrated as one of only 50 bishops of the United Methodist Church in the United States.
His retirement in 1992 brought him back home to Evanston and to Garrett, but this time without his wife June, who passed away in 1990. He soon carved a niche for himself at Garrett and became especially close to Garrett’s student life director, Helen Fannings. The two were married in 1993.
In 2009 the seminary honored each of them with an Eliza Garrett Distinguished Service Award. In 2010 it created an annual award in his name, the Bishop Edsel A. Ammons Award for Leadership in Racial Justice and Understanding.
The music-filled memorial featured church choirs singing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” “Sing Me to Heaven” and “Give Me Jesus.” Lila Ammons sang “Amazing Grace.”
Bishop Ammons is survived by his wife, Helen; his children, Edsel Jr., Carol, Kenneth, Carlton and Lila; and his wife’s children, Jeffery, Janet and Emily. His daughter Marilyn passed away in 2000.