Q & A with Rodney E. Wilmoth

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February 16, 2004 // UPDATED 2:57 pm - April 24, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Rodney E. Wilmoth, the senior pastor at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Loring Park, will retire this month after 10 years of service. Wilmoth, 67, a native of Nebraska, has plans to move to Tucson after delivering a final sermon Sunday, Feb. 22. Wilmoth said he was drawn to the church because of its progressive reputation and commitment to social justice. Hennepin Avenue United was the first Methodist Church in the country to become racially integrated when it opened its doors in 1957 to black members. In 1993, the church reached out to the gay and lesbian community.

What's the church's role in the neighborhood?

It's willing to think like a cathedral church, and I have to quickly add that Methodists don't have a cathedral church. A cathedral church means that it speaks to the city, and it makes itself available to the city. ... It thinks like a cathedral church in that it will be a forum for discussions on peace and justice; it involves City Council people or the mayor. So Hennepin sees its role as a neighborhood church because it invests itself in a lot of ministries in the immediate neighborhood. But we have members who come from Stillwater and as far south as Prior Lake, and it views itself as a national church and as a global church with its various ministries.

Any issues, in particular, that have been important to the church recently?

Not a recent issue, but important, in 1957 -- racial integration. In 1993, Hennepin became a reconciling congregation. It telegraphed a message all across the country that gays, lesbians, transgender and bisexual people are welcome in this church, and they're not going to hear a sermon talking about the sin of homosexuality. It was just before I came. It was one of the reasons I was drawn to the church. I think that's an important statement to make. It met with some opposition just as when we became a racially inclusive church. There were people who did not like blacks here and left. There were people in 1993 that did not like the church taking that position [on homosexuality], but we lost very few people, and we gained because we did that.

What has been your biggest accomplishment?

I think the biggest one was to take a Downtown church that was on kind of a slippery slope with attendance going down and finances going down. We completely reversed that, but I think that most people in the congregation would say that my best accomplishment was to make sure we honored a commitment back in 1957 that there would always be a clergy person of color on our staff. I was able to accomplish that and bring Rev. Dennis Oglesby, Jr. on our staff. He is an African American elder.

What will you miss?

I love living Downtown. I love the vitality of the city, so I'm going to miss a church that feels so vitally connected with a Downtown or an urban ministry. I'm going to miss some things that I never got to do because it's such a demanding job. I never got to go snow-shoeing, never gone ice fishing, never canoed on the Boundary Waters. I'd like to come back and do some things that I never got to do.