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  • Jack Bowerman

Bishop Bennett Sims

Bennett Jones Sims was born August 9, 1920, in Greenfield, Massachusetts to Lewis Raymond and Sarah Cosette Jones Sims. Lewis and Sarah had been married a year earlier on July 17, 1919, in Sarah’s hometown of Davenport, Iowa. Lewis had returned shortly before the wedding from France where he served during World War I as an officer in a artillery unit mustering out as a captain. Lewis had a degree in mechanical engineering from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and resumed working for Greenfield Tap & Die upon his return from the service. Sarah graduated from the National Park Seminary in Maryland which was a finishing school for young women. During World War I she worked in the Motor Corps and Red Cross. Sarah was the daughter of a wealthy Davenport real estate and oil entrepreneur. In the 20’s the family moved to Davenport where Lewis began working as an engineer at a cement plant.

Growing up in Davenport, Bennett came under the influence of his grandfather, Harvey Bennett Jones, a conservative man who was “proud, handsome, all knowing and a hearty despiser of Democrats whom he blamed for the income tax that he held to be both discriminatory and confiscatory.” In 1930, Lewis sustained a serious head injury during a fall at the plant which rendered him incapacitated for two years. After his recovery, he was given a job as a hotel clerk at the upscale Bellerive Hotel in Kansas City, a hotel in which his father-in-law had invested. A year later, in 1934, Bennett and his mother and brother moved to Kansas City to be with his father. The family lived in a small apartment and Bennett attended Westport High School. He did not distinguish himself in school and his sense of self-worth was diminished a bit when he was with his friends whose families were better off and members of the Mission Hills Country Club. Things improved a little when his father was made manager of the Bellerive and the family moved into a larger apartment and acquired a car.

Bennett graduated high school in 1938 and he attended the Junior College of Kansas City (which later became Metropolitan Junior College). After a year in school, he took a year off to work (at Hallmark and Woolf Brothers). In between jobs, he spent a month as an apprentice seaman on an old battleship, the USS Arkansas, in hopes of landing a commission as an officer in the US Naval Reserve. He did not make the cut.

In 1941 he entered Baker University as a junior. His experience at Baker began with a fraternity rush week with parties and picnics. He pledged Kappa Sigma, but within a few weeks he knew he would not feel at home there and appealed to the men he had met at Zeta Chi to take him in. He pledged and moved into the house where he had pledge duties to perform which included the risky job of waking up brothers on the sleeping porch at their assigned times. He was a premed major at Baker and enjoyed biology and geology but struggled with physics and chemistry. He eventually became enthralled with philosophy and subsequently changed his major.

At the Zeta Chi house, Bennett was not immune from the usual fraternity shenanigans. Once a week six brothers would pile into Bill Hoopingarner’s big Chrysler and head five miles west to the “Corners’ where they could imbibe the 3.2 beer that was served in violation of the vow to not drink alcohol while at Baker. They probably could have gotten away with this infraction were it not for the fact that they began to treat the trunk of Bill’s Chrysler as a refrigerator during the winter months and brought the beer back to the fraternity house. Soon enough they were caught, called before Dean Benjamin Gessner who put them on social probation and were told that another infraction would mean expulsion.

Another event had a more significant impact on Bennett’s life. One day the name of a woman appeared on the Zeta Chi bulletin board next to Scoot O’Bryhim’s as his date for the autumn hayride. Beatrice Wimberly was an alumnus of Baker who was teaching in Olivet, Kansas and when she showed up for the fraternity event Bennett was immediately smitten. Later that year on December 6, 1941, Bea was Bennett’s date for the pre-Christmas dance at the Zeta Chi house. Bennett drove his father’s Oldsmobile to Olivet to pick her up and on the way back to Baldwin, Bea said, “I feel that something momentous is soon to happen in the world” and the next morning while Bennett was at the gas station refilling the tank, he heard the news of Pearl Harbor.

Early in 1942, the navy had instituted an officer training program that granted deferments of up to two years for college juniors and seniors who, upon graduation, became eligible for midshipman’s school. Bennett applied, hoping that his experience on the USS Arkansas years earlier, had been forgotten and he was accepted. Bennett graduated from Baker in 1943 and with five of his fraternity brothers headed for midshipman’s school at the University of Notre Dame. Despite having what Bennett called an undistinguished record at Baker, he enjoyed his time there and in his words: “Baker remains a rich source of great and enduring memories.”

Bea had returned to Baker to finish her studies and she and Bennett became engaged. Bennett did well at the school and when one of the professors described what war was going to be like and how long it would take adding that he hoped some of the students would make home again years down the road, Bennett called Bea and suggested they get married as soon as possible “lest he never be seen again.” She agreed and they were married October 6, 1943, at the First Methodist Church in Baldwin during a two week break between school and his next assignment. They honeymooned in Excelsior Springs.

Bennett did “surprisingly well” at midshipman’s school, was commissioned as an ensign and was then assigned to do advanced training in small ship warfare in Miami. Everyone took an IQ test during their training and Bennett’s next assignment was to be a member of a special group of ensigns who performed well on the test to do training in antisubmarine warfare. Finally, he was assigned to serve on the USS Badger, an old WWI destroyer that had been refitted with modern antisubmarine gear. After the overhaul, the Badger sailed out of Boston and its crew was charged with protecting supply and troop ships along the coast from Newfoundland in the North to the Canal Zone in the south. After Germany surrendered, the Badger was decommissioned, and Bennett was ordered to report to Pearl Harbor to be reassigned to a ship in the forward areas of the Pacific. He was depressed that he was not going home, but he experienced a spiritual awakening during an evening out with a friend while staying in Waikiki. Up to this point, his only thought about his future was perhaps doing graduate work in business and psychology, but he was suddenly drawn to the idea of entering the ministry of the Presbyterian Church.

He spent his last months in the Navy in Japan as a part of the occupation and was horrified by what he saw in Nagasaki. He was assigned to a modern destroyer, the USS Caperton. Finally on December 5, 1945, the ship’s command received orders to return home.

After his discharge, Bennett applied for admission to the Princeton Theological Seminary considered by many Presbyterians to be their best and was accepted. He did well academically, but he became disenchanted with the Calvinist tradition of the Presbyterian Church. One Sunday he and Bea attended a service at the Trinity Episcopal Church across the street from the seminary and was inspired by the traditions of the church and felt at home. Shortly thereafter they affiliated with that church and were confirmed. Of course, this necessitated a change in Bennett’s training for the ministry. He enrolled at the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. In contrast to the spartan living conditions at Princeton, the accommodations at Alexandria were beautiful as was the campus. Theological practices in the Episcopal Church at the time were divided between high church in the Catholic tradition and low church reflecting the Reformation. The VTS was decidedly low church, and Bennett was impressed by the relaxed liberal spirit of the faculty.

Bennett spent the summer of 1947 as preaching pastor of the rural Silver Lake (Kansas) Presbyterian Church and the summer of 1948 studying at Park College in Parkville, Missouri which was then affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. Returning to VTS for his senior year he received an invitation to interview for a weekend job at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Baltimore. He got the job and at the conclusion of his senior year he accepted a full-time job as a curate (or assistant minister) to Richard Baker, the rector (or senior pastor) of the church.

The Church of the Redeemer was located on nine acres in north Baltimore one of the most affluent and rapidly growing areas of the city. In 1951, Richard Baker left to become bishop and Bennett became his successor. He was immediately faced with a major issue – the church was growing so rapidly that it was running out of space. A new church building was designed by Pietro Belluschi, dean of the architecture and planning school at MIT. The design blended traditional and modern elements which did not appeal to everyone in the congregation. Nonetheless they were able to raise $750,000 to build the new church and it was dedicated in November 1958. A picture of it adorned the Christmas issue of Time magazine.

Bennet and Bea’s first child, Laura, arrived in 1947 while Bennett was still at Princeton. Grayson was born in 1951 shortly after the family moved to Baltimore. The youngest child, David, was also born in Maryland in 1954. In 1962, the family had the unique opportunity to travel around the world when Bennett accepted a position as an interim priest of the English-speaking congregation of St. Alban’s Anglican-Episcopal Church in the heart of Tokyo. They stayed for 6 months in Japan but spent a total of 10 months overseas traveling.

In 1963, Bennett and some of his parishioners attended the March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech and he was deeply moved. Some members of his parish were upset that he had attended the event. During this time, he had received several invitations to move to other large churches around the country, but he had turned them all down until 1964, when he received a unique opportunity to spend a semester as a Merrill Fellow at Harvard Divinity School. He knew it was time to move on from the Church of the Redeemer, the only church he had served since graduating from VTS. The question of what to do after Harvard was answered when he accepted a position of rector at Christ Church in Corning, New York. Harvard was stimulating, but the move from Baltimore was a hard one for the family, particularly for the two younger boys who had to leave their friends behind. The move did not go well. He was relieved when he received an invitation to return to Virginia theological Seminary as a professor in 1966.

Bennett spent six years at VTS, and he helped to create and led the new Center for Lifetime Theological Education which was an ecumenical program focused on continuing education of ministers. During those years he was considered for promotion to Episcopal bishop posts in Northeast Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Southern Ohio, Michigan, and Southwest Texas, but those posts went to other deserving priests. Finally, he was considered for bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, and he was elected. He was consecrated at the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta in February 1972.

Bennett spent eleven years as bishop (1972-1983). During his episcopacy, he was in strong opposition to the rising divorce rate and spoke about his preference for the integrity of marriage vows. Among the issues receiving his support and leadership were racial integration of the public schools, revision of the Episcopal prayer book, the ordination of women, and, ultimately, the acceptance of homosexuals in the church. Upon retirement from the Diocese of Atlanta, he stayed in Atlanta, where he founded the Institute for Servant Leadership at Emory University in 1983. From 1980 to 1988, Sims held a visiting professorship at Candler School of Theology at Emory University.

Despite his opposition to divorce, Bennett and Bea split up in 1985. Bennett married a second time on August 27, 1988, to Mary Page Welborn, and together they moved the Institute for Servant Leadership to Hendersonville, North Carolina. He continued to serve as president of the Institute until his retirement in 1999. Sims died at the age of 85 at his home on July 17, 2006.

Sims was the author of five books: Invitation to Hope: A Testimony of Encouragement (1974); Purple Ink: A Selection of the Writings of Bennett J. Sims as Bishop of Atlanta (1982); Servanthood: Leadership for the Third Millennium (1997); Why Bush Must Go: A Bishop’s Faith-Based Challenge (2004); and The Time of My Life: A Spiritual Pilgrimage Grounded in Hope (2006).

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