For Tom Bickerton, the Goal is Global Health

By Elisabeth Stagg

Leading Lives of Consequence

Inspired by Duke Chapel’s year long “Living Lives of Consequence” Deans’ Dialogues, which began last fall with deans Sam Wells and Greg Jones, Divinity has devoted this edition to an exploration of four such lives.

Included are alumni Thomas J. Bickerton, a bishop whose vision of global health would end diseases of poverty in Africa, and Cynthia Hale, who bypassed the stained-glass ceiling as one of the few women leaders of a megachurch, and two recent additions to the faculty — Ray Barfield, a pediatric oncologist committed to better care for children at the end of life, and Norman Wirzba, whose teaching and writing explore the biblical imperative to care for creation.

As varied as these lives of consequence are, there are untold others, many lived quietly and obscurely. There are all those living in L’Arche communities founded by Jean Vanier, who rejected worldly success in the military and the academy to create homes for “the least of these.” And there is Elisabeth Schmitz, whose courageous opposition to Nazi oppression is revealed in Elisabeth of Berlin, the documentary described on the preceding pages.

These stories underscore the Divinity School’s growing commitment to developing and supporting wise, theologically grounded leadership for the church and other Christian institutions. This month, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity has launched Faith & Leadership, an online magazine dedicated to helping Christian leaders reflect, connect, and learn. This new resource for pastors, laity, and institutional leaders offers a rich mix of profiles, essays, video interviews, sermons, blog postings, and more.

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 fan of Duke and pro basketball, 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,” says Bickerton.

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.

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