When Sherman Hicks was elected the first African American bishop of the newly formed ELCA in January 1988, he was no stranger to being the first to go where others had not.
“I was born in Brooklyn,” Sherman shares. “When I was 8 years old my family moved out of the city to Long Island, N.Y.” His family had attended a Baptist congregation in Brooklyn, but began attending a Lutheran congregation in their new neighborhood.
“It was a predominantly European American Lutheran church at the time. I was the first African American in the junior choir, and the first African American acolyte. I was the first of everything,” he says.
It was his pastor there who urged Sherman to pursue ministry, but he wasn’t so sure. “He really encouraged me to consider the ordained ministry. So I really kind of resisted that because when I grew up I wanted to have fun, and I didn’t think pastors had fun,” Sherman laughs.
A career built on inclusion
Ultimately, after a short stint in law school, Sherman ended up at Hama School of Theology on the campus of Wittenberg College in Springfield, Ohio, now an ELCA university. And it was in his first call, to Concordia Lutheran Church in Buffalo, N.Y., where he began a career built on challenging others to rethink their idea of what the church should look like.
“It was an inner-city congregation,” Sherman recalls. “And back in those days, there would be a number of suburban people who would come and join the congregation for a year or two. It was predominantly an African American congregation, but it was also a mixed congregation because we had a number of white suburbanites who would come in and serve as associate members.”
Sherman’s second call was to serve a two-point parish in East Orange, N.J., where he shared his pastoral responsibilities with a Caucasian pastor. The idea was that together the two could better serve a multicultural community.
“The first chapel was 100 percent white, and it was in a 98 percent black community,” says Sherman. The other was around 60 percent Caucasian and 40 percent African American. “The hope there was that with a black pastor and a white pastor the congregation would start to reflect more of the racial make-up of the community.”
“He had great insight into dealing with racial factors,” says Bob Goldstein, a retired ELCA pastor and a long-time friend to Sherman. “Specifically dealing with congregations that were older white people who were not always very flexible in their view of the world, he provided a good way of addressing those issues.”
A big event
In 1979, after two years in East Orange, Sherman was asked to move to Illinois to serve as the assistant to the president of the Illinois Synod of the Lutheran Church in America.
Sherman was responsible for the congregations in the city of Chicago, a territory that would become the ELCA Metropolitan Chicago Synod when the Lutheran Church in America merged with the American Lutheran Church and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in 1988 to form the ELCA. In January of that year, Sherman was elected to serve as bishop of the synod and became the first African American bishop in the ELCA.
“It was a big event. It was a big thing. The papers covered it. The city papers covered it. Because back then the ELCA was just 3 percent people of color and primary language other than English.”
Sherman was intentional about not letting the attention he got from being elected to the position distract from his work. “I think people have said to me that my legacy as bishop in this synod for the two terms I served is really the ecumenical journey that took place in the synod at that time,” Sherman shares. “The Metropolitan Chicago Synod in the ELCA was the first synod to sign a covenant with the Roman Catholic archdiocese and Cardinal Joseph Bernadin at that time. We had a very strong relationship between the two church bodies. Also part of that ecumenical journey involved the Episcopal Church — the Episcopal diocese of Chicago.”
As bishop, Sherman also made efforts to make the church more inclusive in other ways. “When I came out as a gay person in 1987,” says Bob Goldstein, “I was removed from the roster because of that. In 1991, Sherman called and visited and asked me if I’d like to return to ministry. He didn’t have to finish the sentence. I think I said ‘yes’ before he finished.”
“He understood the suffering of gay people in the church, and he was very supportive,” Bob continues. “I know he took a lot of grief from that. I managed through the waves behind him to swim behind him like a little duckling.”
Today, Sherman directs ethnic-specific and multicultural ministries for ELCA churchwide ministries. And while he’s proud to have seen the ELCA make many public commitments to becoming more multicultural in the past 25 years, he hopes people realize how much more work there is to do.
“If the church does not start to have more people of color and primary language other than English involved as members, then the church is going to fade away because that’s the way the country is,” he says. “I believe that this church has so much to offer to so many people. My hopes would be that we would feel confident enough in the directions we say we want to go in as a church so that we would actually go full-speed ahead.”