|Bishop Thomas Bickerton displays a mosquito net during his presentation in Greensboro, N.C., about the denomination’s campaign against malaria. UMNS photo by Mike DuBose
Bishop Thomas Bickerton is guest preacher for the 2010 Annual Conference. He was featured in the Winter 2009 edition of DIVINITY, the alumni magazine of Duke Divinity School. That story is excerpted here, with permission.
Standing 6 feet, 7 inches tall in size 15 shoes, the bishop for the Pittsburgh Area is easily mistaken for a former basketball player.
But Tom Bickerton, who grew 4 inches and three shoe sizes in college, was never a standout on the hardwood. He played his most impressive hoops more than two decades ago in a small village in Liberia.
In 1986, the young pastor was invited to join a 17-member team evaluating United Methodist missions in several African countries. During a visit to a school, the entire class stood up and applauded when he entered their classroom. Bickerton, who was baffled by the response, turned with a questioning look to his host. "They think you are a professional basketball player," explained his Liberian colleague.
As Bickerton was leaving, three small boys with a foam mini-basketball approached him and said, "Show us your moves, Mr. Missionary."
"Luckily their hoops were lower than usual so I could do some jams, and they were impressed," says Bickerton.
Twenty years later, Bishop Bickerton found himself standing courtside with former NBA player Sam Perkins and other pros. The people of The United Methodist Church had joined the United Nations Foundation, Sports Illustrated, and NBA Cares as founding partners of "Nothing But Nets."
The native of Wheeling, W.Va., had never traveled outside the United States until his trip to Africa. "When ‘Nothing But Nets’ came along, I had a world perspective that had been building since ’86," he said.
"There’s a 3-year-old who’s going to be bit by a tiny bug," says the bishop. "She’s the reason I do what I do. When she grows up, I pray, she will have been able to see the face of Jesus in the person who gave her that bed net."
Bickerton’s trip to Africa in 1986 was a long shot. When he was invited to join the evaluation group, he appealed to his congregation for support. But his parishioners were less than enthusiastic.
By the Sunday before the deadline to register for the trip, no money had come in, and Bickerton announced that he would decline the invitation. When he returned to his office, he found an unmarked envelope. Inside was a cashier’s check for exactly the amount he needed.
"Whoever that person is—and I still don’t know—changed my life," Bickerton says. "I came back a completely different person. My whole ministry changed."
His experiences in Africa broadened the scope of Bickerton’s ministry, which to that point had not involved missions. He has since worked with Volunteers In Mission teams in his home state and throughout the world, including Russia, Israel, Argentina, and Mexico.
Elected in 2004 at the age of 46, Bickerton became the youngest active member of the U.S. episcopacy. And the tallest United Methodist bishop in the world, with the largest shoe size, is also considered one of the most optimistic.
"I try to bring a spirit of joy in the midst of cynicism," he says. "In many ways, the people of western Pennsylvania are very much like those people in Africa who have a joy and determination in the midst of their troubles.
"Pennsylvania was among the states that sent the most volunteer work teams to New Orleans following Katrina," Bickerton says. "They are the same folks who say, ‘We’re depressed; we don’t have anything,’ but when a disaster hits, they respond. My job is to remind them how much they can do
The answers to contemporary problems must come from many sources, he says.
"All of us have gifts to share. Local church pastors have answers we bishops don’t have; laity have answers that pastors can’t generate. We need to listen and to align ourselves in such a way that we can walk into the future together."
Bickerton says what he sees gives him more hope than ever. "I get awestruck by some of my young clergy who are identifying with the emerging generation and willing to take this church into the 21st century. They are out there making the church come alive in the world."
Read Bishop Bickerton’s column, "The Journey Continues," at http://www.wpaumc.org/pages/detail/1516.