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 says. 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,” says Bickerton. “Our partnership with Nothing But Nets represents a natural blending of sacred and secular agencies to achieve a common goal for the 21st century.”
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 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 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 says.
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 says. “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 says. “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.”