‘Revolutionary’ bishop celebrates 100th birthday

March 2, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011 
tparham@flumc.org  Orlando {0631}

An e-Review Feature
By Steven Skelley**

Nature Coast Clowns help Bishop Ralph E. Dodge celebrate his 100th birthday. The bishop is considered revolutionary by many for his efforts to improve social conditions in Africa from 1937 to 1964 while serving there as a missionary and bishop of the Africa Central Conference. Photo by Steven Skelley. Photo #07-0530.

INVERNESS — Some people call the career of Bishop Ralph Edward Dodge a beacon of interracial healing and acceptance. Others call him revolutionary.

His friends and family were able to share those sentiments and what his ministry has meant to them at the celebration of his 100th birthday earlier this year.

Retired Bishop James Lloyd Knox, who lives in St. Petersburg, counts himself among those who say Dodge was a visionary bishop.

Dodge served as a missionary in Angola from 1937 until his election as a bishop in 1956 by the Africa Central Conference. He was the only American Methodist missionary ever elected bishop by the African Methodist Church. His episcopal area included Angola, Mozambique, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). He served as bishop for eight years before being expelled from the country in 1964. He was re-elected in exile and served another four years before retiring.

“Bishop Dodge was a strong supporter of human rights for Africans when a white minority ruled,” Knox said. “For his actions, he was expelled from Rhodesia. This story is recounted in his book ‘The Revolutionary Bishop.’ ”

At Dodge’s birthday celebration one of his sons, Dr. Ed Dodge, remembered his father’s legacy proudly: “When Dad was expelled from South Rhodesia by the white supremacist government in 1964, I was in the United States Public Health Service on assignment in Chillicothe, Ohio. Dad visited us on his speaking tour before going back to Zambia. He spoke at our Methodist church. After his presentation, one of the older men came up to me and commented ‘Your father is a remarkable man. It takes a big man to avoid indulging in anger or self-pity after the kind of experience he had. You can be mighty proud of him.’ Of course, I was!”

Ralph Dodge was born the youngest child of Ernest and Lizzie Dodge Jan. 25, 1907. His parents were farmers. He rode to school in a horse-drawn bus and wanted to become a farmer, like his father. His school was so small the fourth- and fifth-grade students shared a teacher and schoolroom.

The Dodge family attended Terril Methodist Church in Terril, Iowa. Dodge remembers his family seldom missing Sunday morning services or Sunday school and often returning for Sunday night services.

When Dodge was a senior in high school, he attended a revival meeting where he says he committed his life to Christ. As the choir sang “Just As I Am,” he says he stood with his head bowed until his pastor, the Rev. H.O. Ward, put his arm around him and whispered in his ear, “God is calling you to give your heart to Jesus tonight. Won’t you come to the altar and let us pray together?”

As Dodge reached the altar, he broke down in tears, confessed his sins to God and made a public commitment to Christ. He was baptized the following week.

Soon after, Dodge’s high school principal advised him to go into farming because he felt Dodge’s speaking abilities were limited. At the same time, Ward said he had a feeling Dodge was being called into ministry. Dodge believed the principal had the right idea and says he heard an emphatic “No!” in his own mind concerning ministry.

That summer, Dodge’s father was hit and killed by a train. The Great Depression was at its height, and though logic suggested Ralph work in a local grain elevator, he began to feel the call to ministry. He enrolled in college, learned to control his fear of public speaking and soon met his first wife, Eunice, to whom he was married for 48 years.

Dodge attended Taylor University, then Boston University School of Theology and married Eunice June 28, 1934, in her family’s living room.

After graduation Dodge served as pastor at churches in Malden, Mass., and Mohall, N.D., before hearing God’s call to missions.

Bishop Ralph E. Dodge celebrates his 100th birthday with his children. Photo by Steven Skelley. Photo #07-0531.

While serving as a missionary and then bishop in Africa, Dodge was not highly paid. He and Eunice and their four children — Ed, Lois, Clifford and Peggy — lived largely on local produce, fish and fruit. Breakfast was usually papaya and oatmeal. Malaria was a constant threat.

Since there were few qualified teachers in the area, Dodge and Eunice started a number of local schools, teaching two sessions each day and a night session five days a week. Their efforts caused tension between the Dodge’s and local plantation owners who were not eager for Africans to be educated. Despite the challenges, the Dodges continued providing educational opportunities, in part so people could learn to read the Bible.

While attending the 100th anniversary celebration of the United Methodist Church in Zimbabwe in December 1997, Dodge received an honorary degree from Africa University for his efforts to promote education for Africans during and after his tenure as bishop.

In a time of extreme segregation between blacks and whites, even at church conferences, Dodge also broke away from the accepted custom of missionaries providing their own cook and bedding while traveling and instead ate and slept in the homes of the people he served.

Though he was portrayed as a criminal by the Rhodesian government for his treatment of blacks and whites as equals and his efforts to transform the country’s oppressive social systems, black Africans called him a hero. It’s been said he was leading Africans to greener pastures where they had not been allowed to graze.

Dodge says he did not set out to be a reformer — he was just responding to the “inner urge of the Holy Spirit.” In his book “The Revolutionary Bishop,” he said, “Responding to that inner urge has caused some people to regard me as revolutionary or at least a meddler with the established structure of society.”

He said true religion has no bounds and knows no frontiers.

Dodge served in Africa, the United States, Portugal and Switzerland. After Eunice’s death, he married Florida businesswoman Elizabeth Law.

Dodge’s family helped him celebrate his 100th birthday with a party Jan. 24 and a luncheon Jan. 25.

Dodge resides in an assisted living facility in Inverness. Those wishing to send him a note may reach him at Highland Terrace, Unit 211, 700 Medical Court East, Inverness, FL 34452.

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A portion of the information for this story came from United Methodist News Service reports.

This article relates to Missions and the Episcopacy.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Skelley is a freelance writer based in Beverly Hills, Fla. His columns appear in the Naples Sun Times newspaper and Faith & Tennis magazine.


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