First female, African-American Bishop to lead West TN Episcopal Diocese

Reverend Phoebe Roaf (Source: WMC)
Reverend Phoebe Roaf (Source: WMC)
Updated: May. 2, 2019 at 10:29 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - The stained-glass ceiling has shattered, as Reverend Phoebe Roaf is poised to step into the shoes of retiring Bishop Don Johnson.

"The fact that in a couple of days I am about to be the fourth bishop of The Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee, that is surreal," Roaf smiled.

The composed, but joyful Pine Bluff native, who insists you call her by her first name, is no stranger to the road less traveled. She sat down exclusively with WMC Action News 5’s Kontji Anthony just days before she becomes the first female and first African-American bishop to be ordained, consecrated and seated by the Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee Saturday.

A moment similar to a 2010 call from the White House to perform an invocation for then President Barack Obama.

"At first I am thinking, 'This is a joke,'” Roaf recalled. “But then, you know how your phone has the phone number? So there was a 202 area code. So I thought, 'Well, let me just humor.' I said, 'Is this for real?' He was like, 'Oh, this is for real.'"

The Episcopalian branch of Christianity got worldwide attention, after the high-profile sermon by Presiding Bishop The Most Reverend Michael B. Curry at Meghan Markle’s royal wedding to Prince Harry.

Roaf had initial concerns Curry would have to hold back in front of the queen.

"I was so relieved, when the very same Michael Curry that I have known over the years was the same person who preached that sermon."

The Harvard, Princeton and law school graduate gave up a prominent corporate law job to answer the call in a church that ordains women.

"I wanted to be in a church where the gifts of all of God's people could be truly utilized and honored," she emphasized.

It is no simple feat to become a bishop-elect.

"Sometimes, the clergy like one priest and the lay people like a different priest, so there's round after round and ballot after ballot," explained Roaf.

All the diocese clergy and elected lay delegates had to vote for their next bishop. She needed a majority in both groups. That happened and more.

"I was just as amazed and shocked as everyone else to be elected on the first ballot," Roaf said with wonder.

All bishops must have vestments and symbols. Reverend Roaf showed us her mintre, crozier, pectoral cross, and bishop's ring. The ring is very unique.

"I have slave shackles carved on both sides of my ring,” she pointed out on her purple amethyst ring. “At the ends on both sides, the shackles are broken because, through Christ, we have been released from anything which binds us and holds us back." She explained purple is the color for royals and bishops. It’s worn on the right ring finger, as Episcopal bishops can marry and that ring finger is on the left hand.

She's proud to call St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral home, where in 1968, its leaders marched to city hall, with the cathedral's processional cross in hand, to demand the mayor advance the causes Dr. King died for, so she's doing something symbolic.

“The processional cross at my consecration on Saturday will be that cross, the same cross," Roaf revealed.

Roaf was sure to point out that the Sisters Chapel that served as the backdrop for the WMC interview is the place where Episcopal nuns were some of the last people to remain in Memphis to treat yellow fever patients, as others fled The Bluff City.

Looking back and looking forward, Roaf says she has a vision for her new diocese.

"That the Episcopal Church in this part of the world will more closely mirror the communities where our congregations are located," she said.

Reverend Roaf says all are welcome, when she’s ordained and consecrated 11 a.m. Saturday at Hope Church, and seated at St. Mary’s, 10 a.m. Sunday. Presiding Bishop Curry will attend her Saturday ceremonies.

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