By Mary Beth Coudal and Yvette Moore
Theressa Hoover, a vanguard for women’s empowerment, racial justice and the first African American chief executive of United Methodist Women’s national policymaking body, died Saturday, Dec. 21, in a nursing facility in Fayetteville, Ark. Ms. Hoover was 88.
Ms. Hoover was an outspoken advocate for women and children, and served as the organization’s leader from 1968 to 1990. These years were known for their social and political turbulence, but under the steady and optimistic leadership of Ms. Hoover, United Methodist Women retained autonomy and grew to larger numbers.
“Theressa Hoover led the Women's Division during a time of great change in the newly formed United Methodist Church and in the world,” said Harriett Jane Olson, current chief officer of United Methodist Women. “Her ability to speak plainly in challenging times and regarding challenging topics, and her astute organizing enabled the women of the church to stand with her as a voice for justice and mercy rooted in faith. I join hundreds of other United Methodist Women in gratitude for her forward-looking work and witness."
Ms. Hoover’s leadership coincided with cultural unrest, a period marked by the anti-war and feminist movements. At that time, United Methodist Women’s membership rolls totaled 1.2 million. While other Christian faith-based women’s groups lost financial autonomy, due to the collapse of boards and streamlining of national church agencies, the U.S.-based United Methodist Women, uniquely, persisted and retained their separate status, continuing the mission of outreach and empowerment of women and children.
Included in this autonomy of United Methodist Women, was the ownership and maintenance of national and international real estate. The women’s organization held on to mission institutions that they had founded, serving women, children and youth. “Every other denomination's women's mission organizations are now non-existent,” said former colleague Joyce Hamlin. “We're the only one left and Theressa Hoover had everything do with that. She was a fighter -- and because she fought, we are still doing what we were founded to do. Theressa Hoover was one of the most incredible women I've ever known.”
Ms. Hoover was known for her quick wit. She was also known for kindnesses and optimism on behalf of the staff of United Methodist Women and her steadfast support of women and children.
One of five children of James C. Hoover and Rissie Vaughn, Ms. Hoover was born in Fayetteville, Ark., on Sept. 7, 1925.
After her mother's death, when Ms. Hoover was a small child, she and her siblings were reared by her father, a city hospital orderly. When Ms. Hoover was refused attendance at the segregated high school, her father sent her to high school in Texas, where she lived with an aunt.
She returned to Arkansas to study business administration at Philander Smith College, where she received her bachelor’s degree in 1946 and began working with the Little Rock Methodist Council. Two years later, in 1948, she joined the staff of the Woman’s Division of Christian Service as a field worker, a job which took her across the denomination’s segregated Central Jurisdiction conducting leadership development and training events with district and conference groups and helping women to organize local units. She earned a master’s degree from New York University’s Steinhardt School in 1962, and in 1968 she was elected chief executive of the Women’s Division of the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church, becoming the first black woman to hold the position or any comparable level post in the denomination.
Ms. Hoover chronicled the work of United Methodist Women, its predecessors and the importance of women organizing for mission in her 1983 book With Unveiled Face. For the 22 years Ms. Hoover served as head of the division, she wrote Responsively Yours, a monthly column in United Methodist Women’s magazine, response.
Ms. Hoover retired from the Women’s Division of the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church in 1990.
“I’m deeply saddened by the loss of a very close friend,” said Barbara Campbell, who served along with Ms. Hoover as Women’s Division executive staff. “I worked closely with Theressa for years 26 years. I admired her leadership skills, sensibilities and her sensitivities in facing the many challenges of being the first African American woman in highest leadership position in a church agency.”
Ms. Hoover leaves behind a legacy of global citizenship. In 2004, Ebony magazine named Ms. Hoover one of the 100 most influential African American women. In 1990, the policymaking group of United Methodist Women created the Theressa Hoover Community Service and Global Citizenship award. The Theressa Hoover United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas was named for her, an exceptional honor, as few churches are named for women during their lifetimes.
Yvette Richards, current president of United Methodist Women’s board of directors, reflected on Ms. Hoover’s long-term impact on women organized for mission in The United Methodist Church:
“When I think of Theressa Hoover, she reminds me of the Scripture Micah 6:8, ‘He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you: To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ She was a trailblazer and showed us early how to stand strong for justice and peace. She leaves a legacy of transformation beyond measure. My life is richly blessed by having the opportunity to met her and United Methodist Women as an organization is richer for it.”
Mary Beth Coudal is a freelance writer and teacher living in New York City. In 1990, Ms. Coudal briefly worked for Ms. Hoover and is the better for it. Yvette Moore is editor of response, the magazine of United Methodist Women. She was hired under Ms. Hoover’s administration.