Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the Winter 2009 issue of Divinity magazine.
Standing 6 feet, 7 inches tall in size 15 shoes, the 50-year-old United Methodist bishop for the Pittsburgh area is easily mistaken for a former basketball player.
But Tom Bickerton, a self-described late bloomer who grew 4 inches and three shoe sizes in college, was never a standout on the hardwood. While he is an avid basketball fan, he played his most impressive hoops more than two decades ago in a small village in Liberia.
In 1986, the young West Virginia pastor was invited to join a 17-member team evaluating United Methodist missions in several African countries. During a visit to a local 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,” Bickerton said.
Twenty years later, Bishop Bickerton found himself standing courtside with former NBA player Sam Perkins and other pros.
The link was Nothing But Nets, a grassroots campaign to provide lifesaving mosquito nets to African children. An early champion of the effort, Bickerton rallied colleagues at United Methodist Communications, where he then served as president, and was soon enlisting the denomination’s full support. By late 2006, 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.
A native of Wheeling, W. Va., who had never traveled outside the United States until his trip to Africa, Bickerton never dreamed he would battle malaria across the globe.
“This was one of those gifts that this office opens up, but that you can’t predict,” he said. “When Nothing But Nets came along, I had a world perspective that had been building since ’86.
“Today there’s a 3-year-old who’s going to be bit by a tiny bug and, in 48 hours, she is going to die,” Bickerton said. “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.
“To make the world a healthy place for every child has everything to do with what Mr. Wesley intended us to do.”
Throwing money at the problem
On stage at United Methodist Youth 2006 in Greensboro, N.C., Bickerton and soccer star Diego Gutierrez had just finished describing how a $10 bed net could protect an entire family from mosquito-borne malaria, which kills nearly a million African children under 5 every year.
Bickerton pulled out a $10 bill and said, “This $10 represents your lunch at McDonald’s, or your snack at Domino’s Pizza. Or it could represent a mosquito net that can save a life.”
Just as he finished speaking, Bickerton felt something hit his shoe. One of the 6,000 youth had balled up a $10 bill and thrown it at him. Soon he and Gutierrez, who played for the Chicago Fire, were barraged by currency.
“A total of $15,000 came showering onto that stage,” Bickerton said. “I told Diego that we should be glad they didn’t have any change in their pockets.”
Between Bickerton’s passionate endorsement and the grassroots appeal of Nothing But Nets, support among United Methodists caught fire.
“Bishop Bickerton saw God open a door for millions of lives to be saved through the purchase and use of long-lasting insecticide treated nets, and he helped the United Methodist Church walk through that door,” said Janice Huie, bishop of the Texas Annual Conference and a fellow champion for the campaign.
“He’s a visionary who is fearless in stepping out into God’s future. And he’s also a superb communicator who can paint a picture with words. When Bishop Bickerton talks about nets, people literally throw money at him.”
‘We’re the glue’
The success of Nothing But Nets provided momentum for the broader goal of the United Methodist Global Health Initiative.
That goal -- the global eradication of diseases of poverty -- was formally adopted last spring at the quadrennial General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas, where Bickerton announced a $5 million grant from the United Nations Foundation. The grant, which included support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was announced April 25 -- World Malaria Day -- as seed money for programs to combat diseases of poverty in Africa.
The goal of the UN, which estimates it will cost $330 million to blanket Africa with insecticide-treated nets, is to raise that and the billion or more it will take to eradicate diseases of poverty.
The United Methodists are committed to raising up to $100 million toward that billion-dollar goal, an amount Bickerton knows is beyond the means of any one group. Yet he’s energized by the potential for partnerships, including those with secular groups and the leaders of other nations.
“They may not have the theology, but they have a mission yoked with ours,” Bickerton said. As the Global Health Initiative expands beyond the delivery of mosquito nets to address other critical needs, secular agencies recognize that the most trusted delivery system in Africa is not the government, but the church.
“We’re the glue,” Bickerton said. “Our partnership with Nothing But Nets represents a natural blending of sacred and secular agencies to achieve a common goal for the 21st century.”
A global view of the church
Bickerton’s trip to Africa in 1986 was a long shot. When the 28-year-old pastor was invited to join a group evaluating United Methodist missionary teams in Liberia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, he appealed to his congregation for support.
But his parishioners were less than enthusiastic. One woman, fearful for his safety, urged him not to go. 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 said. “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 returned and began shaping a congregation with a global view of the church. He has since worked with Volunteers in Mission teams in his home state and throughout the world, including Russia, Israel, Argentina and Mexico.
What struck him most about his first trip to Africa was the faith and joyfulness he encountered among people living in extreme poverty. On the flight home, he realized that he was returning to a country where most people had material abundance, but lacked the exuberant spirituality he so admired. “That contrast has intrigued me for 22 years,” he said.
Elected in 2004 at the age of 46, Bickerton became the youngest active member of the U.S. episcopacy.
The tallest United Methodist bishop in the world with the largest shoe size, Bickerton is also considered one of the most optimistic.
“Knowing Tom in seminary and now as a bishop, one of his remarkable features is that he is relentlessly cheerful,” Duke Divinity School Dean L. Gregory Jones said. “He has a ‘can-do’ attitude that is inspiring and hopeful, and that draws out the best in anyone around him.”
Bickerton’s cheerful determination is rooted in his upbringing in West Virginia, where his parents still live.
“In Appalachia you’re bred knowing you don’t have everything working for you, but you don’t have to, because God has the full, wide picture in mind,” Bickerton said. “If you trust in that, there’s always a way through. I try every day to surrender to God’s will for me.”
Growing up, he was a frequent visitor to the glider on his paternal grandparents’ back porch. On Sundays, he attended the United Methodist church with his Bickerton grandparents, who lived next door, and then headed for a home-cooked dinner at the nearby home of his mother’s parents, whose families had immigrated a generation earlier from Lebanon.
“My Pappy and Nanny Bickerton formed my faith from a spiritual place, but my Cassis grandparents, who weren’t Christian, were the kindest, most socially adept people I’ve ever known.
“Looking back, I got personal spiritual growth and an understanding of what it meant to be part of the world and to give back.”
Five years after his appointment to the Western Pennsylvania Conference in the center of the Rust Belt, Bickerton retains his enthusiasm.
“I feel blessed to have come here from West Virginia, where I learned to understand what it means to lose security,” Bickerton said. In 1998, his appointment as superintendent of the Wheeling District took him back to West Virginia’s northern panhandle. Though the move returned him to his homeplace, Bickerton was dismayed to find himself in a landscape ravaged by the closings of steel mills and glass factories.
But the challenges there forged in him a sense of determination. “I try to bring a spirit of joy in the midst of cynicism,” he said. “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 said. “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.”
Heroes of the world
The answers to contemporary problems must come from many sources, he said. “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.”
While he is grateful for the leadership of his many mentors, Bickerton said he’s now “looking down rather than up.” 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.”
He points to Mt. Lebanon United Methodist Church Associate Pastor Kimberly Greway, who served in Zimbabwe as a Peace Corps volunteer before earning her M.Div. at Duke in 2005.
Greway is a charter member of The Nyadire Connection, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the United Methodist mission complex about 100 miles northeast of Zimbabwe’s capital city of Harare.
“I see young people like Kim, who are showing us how to do missions,” Bickerton said. “And I look at what the Texas Conference is doing in Côte d’Ivoire.”
He applauds the partnership between UMC Bishop Janice Huie’s Texas Annual Conference and the Côte d’Ivoire Conference. “People are working in hospitals and clinics, passing out bed nets with no concern about their own pensions or health care benefits. What they are concerned about is making the world a better place. Those are the heroes of the world today.”
Jason Byassee contributed to this article.