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Former Women’s Division President Mai Gray dies at 88

By Yvette Moore

Mai Gray, 88, the first African American president of the Women’s Division of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, United Methodist Women’s national administrative body, died May 6 in St. Louis University Hospital after falling ill at the organization’s quadrennial Assembly in that city April 30-May 2.

Ms. Gray was preparing to help lead Assembly participants in a march for immigrant rights and just immigration policies similar to the protest for racial justice she led at the organization’s 1978 Assembly in Louisville, Ky., when members of the organization filed out of a convention center into the street in a solemn vigil after a public reading of United Methodist Women’s historic Charter for Racial Justice.

Women’s Division chief executive Harriett Jane Olson said Ms. Gray’s determination to participate in the Assembly action on immigration was another example of her lifelong commitment to racial justice.

Ms. Gray served as a Women’s Division director from 1972 to 1976 and as its president from 1976 to 1980.
“When we invited Ms. Gray to participate and explained it echoed her leadership in 1978 Assembly, when women marched in silent vigil in Louisville, Ky., the place where the Methodist Episcopal Church had split over the issue of slavery more than 100 years earlier, she immediately responded that she intended to march,” Ms. Olson said. “She committed a lifetime to racial justice.”

Thomas Kemper, General Secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries, extended a personal note to the Gray family. "[Ms. Gray's] legacy within the Methodist connection is unsurpassed in dedication to mercy, justice, and the humble walk with God," he said. "The United Methodist Church and the entire Christian family rejoice in the life of your mother, who embodied hope, faith, and love in action."

Women's Division leadership in 'turbulent times'

Ms. Gray served as a Women’s Division director from 1972 to 1976 and as its president from 1976 to 1980. She served on the historic “committee of 24” that drafted the Purpose statement and structure for the newly formed United Methodist Women, which transitioned women’s mission groups of the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist Church into a single organization in 1972.

“As the second president of United Methodist Women in its combined ‘new’ structure following church merger, Ms. Gray played a significant role in shaping how the new organization would continue to engage with the conflicts of its time,” Ms. Olson said. “Her grace and thoughtfulness set a high bar for the staff and directors, and represented the membership well at a critical time in our formation.”

Former Women’s Division staff said Ms. Gray provided steady and gracious leadership for United Methodist Women as the church and nation went through great upheavals.

“Mai was Women's Division president during turbulent times!” said Barbara Campbell, former Women’s Division assistant general secretary who retired in 1995. “The United States, society and the division were struggling with ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] ratification, the Law of the Sea, South African apartheid and matters of racial equality. The division was also developing new policy statements, growing into the new structure and terminology of United Methodist Women, and dealing with diversity and justice issues. Through it all, Mai's experience as a teacher, school administrator and mission leader, as well as her poise and gracious manner, enabled her to provide quiet, effective leadership. She was a very special person.”

Ms. Gray’s tenure with United Methodist Women’s national leadership team included the final years of the Vietnam War and the Iranian hostage crisis, when Iranian students and militants took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 66 Americans from Nov. 4, 1979 to Jan. 20, 1981. Ms. Gray was part of delegation of religious leaders who met with President Jimmy Carter to pray with him and urge him to pursue diplomatic rather than military means to resolve the situation.

“She commented about how deeply he bowed when they were praying with him,” recalled Jon Gray, Ms. Gray’s son. “The next day was the failed rescue attempt. She thought that must have been weighing on him as they prayed.”

Peggy Billings, former head of Women’s Division’s Christian social action section, remembered Ms. Gray as providing solid leadership through such difficult times.

“It was a time of controversy,” said Ms. Billings, author of Speaking Out in the Public Space, a book documenting United Methodist Women’s Christian social action work during her 1968-1984 tenure. “Mai partnered with Theresa Hoover, then chief executive of the division, and they were a great team in the midst of very difficult times. Mai was one of the most gracious of women and always carried herself with such an almost regal bearing. It was my privilege to work with them.”

Ms. Gray was an educator by profession and served as an elementary school teacher, an instructor of teachers and a principal in St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo., public schools from 1953 to 1983. Ms. Gray brought this concern for children to her work with United Methodist Women.

“She had a feel for children, and she was always expressing it,” said Chiquita Smith, former Women’s Division executive for ministries with women, children and youth. “When I would talk with her after she left the division, she was always interested in what are we were doing in the community, what action were we taking for children.”

Ms. Gray also served as a trustee of St. Paul School of Theology from 1976 to 2005.

Ms. Gray was born February 19, 1922 in Jackson, Tenn. She married the late Dr. C. Jarrett Gray Sr., and is survived by her three children: the Rev. C. Jarrett Gray, Jr., Dr. Frances L. Gray and Jon R. Gray, Esq.

Yvette Moore is editor of United Methodist Women News and managing editor of Response.

Last Updated: 05/12/2010

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