My Life Work 1961-2003 by Delton Pickering
From my first appointment in ministry as an associate pastor at a UMC church in Metarie, Louisiana, throughout my career in higher education and ministry, on through to my retirement from pastoring a church on the southern fringe of California’s San Fernando Valley, faith and social justice have been inextricably linked.
1960-1961 Associate Pastor, Munholland Memorial United Methodist Church (UMC), Metarie, LA
1960 was the year that public schools in New Orleans were integrated. They picked on elementary school to start the process, and the only white person who chose to keep his child in the “integrated” school was my friend Andy Foreman, Pastor a UMC in the French Quarter on Rampart Street. He and his wife got a great dal of attention, along with death threats, etc. So several of us took turns driving him and his daughter to and from school and putting the family up in our homes. Each day we would have to run the gamut of rock-tossing, spitting white parents, often with infants in their arms, lining the street near the entrance to the school. It eventually died down, but my involvement got me the reputation of a “communist” and other unmentionables. Even the secretary at my church referred to me a a “card-carrying member of the Communist Party.” However, most of the UMC hierarchy was on Andy’s side, so I was still considered an “up and coming” young minister.
1961-1971 Director of the Wesley Foundation (UMC Campus Ministry) at Louisianan State University (LSU), Baton Rouge, LA
Toward the end of my year at Munholland Memorial UMC in Metarie, my bishop asked me if I would consider going to LSU as Campus Minister. In the back of my mind in those days it was only a matter of time before I went back to graduate school for a doctorate, with the aim of teaching religion on the college level; so a year of two on a college campus didn’t seem so bad. But I got roped in in at least two ways: (1) I genuinely liked the work, and (2) I inherited a building program for a new UMC Student Center (Wesley Foundation). The ministry was then located in a simple, frame Army surplus building just behind fraternity row, and the expectation was that I would raise funds and design and erect a new building. This I accomplished in about five years, and I stayed on to enjoy five more. However, social justice issues were calling, especially on a big campus like LSU in Baton Rouge (the largest in the state).
First there was the free speech movement (remember Berkeley and Columbia?). The Louisiana legislature passed a law forbidding any Communist or Marxist speaker on a public college campus, under threat of the withdrawal of state funds. A group of students banded together on the grounds of academic freedom, and they asked me to be their advisor. We invited the First Secretary of the Soviet delegation to the United Nations to come and speak at LSU. He accepted, and it made the local press big time.
At first, LSU officials agreed that this ambassador could speak in the LSU Union; but under political pressure, they changed their minds and cancelled the speech. We decided to hold the event off campus, and it got a great deal of attention — and the university got a black eye for reneging on its agreement. We kept pressuring the university with other “offensive” speakers and, eventually, they caved in, and the issue was settled in the way you would expect an institution devoted to academic freedom to settle it. Needless to say, my reputation with conservatives was “in the toilet.”
Then came the Vietnam War era… Somehow I got roped into being the regional treasurer for the Vietnam Moratorium Committee, and our Wesley Foundation students offered the committee meeting space in our new building. I was not alone among the college chaplains in that involvement: Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian chaplains were also involved. We had a very successful Vietnam Moratorium Day on campus with thousands in attendance and nationally known speakers. But best of all, we had no violence, no burning buildings, and no arrests. Many said that was because of the close involvement of the campus ministers.
In the spring of 1971 I was selected to be the Louisiana Delegate to a Citizens Conference on Ending the Way in Indochina. There was one delegate from each state. We had a three day briefing at the United Nations and then flew to Paris for meetings with all of the parties to the Paris Peace Talks. The delegate from Colorado was the folk singer Judy Collins. We sat together on the plane. Interestingly enough, we observed that our every move in Paris was being filmed openly, and two years later every one of us was audited by the IRS. Upon returning to Baton Rouge, I accepted a lot of speaking engagements calling for the end of the war. Again, the conservatives were outraged.
At that time, I was also getting involved in civil liberties issues, having joined the Baton Rouge Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). A very influential Methodist layman (Vice President of the Ethyl Corporation) wrote to my bishop, complaining of my activities. He suggested that if I really wanted to have an “influence for good” on the campus, I should protest the films that were being shown at the Varsity Theater, near the gates of the campus. The theater had late night showings of Russ Meyer-type films (very soft porn). What this distinguished gentleman didn’t know was that every film shown at the Varsity had first received the imprimatur of three of us chaplains. The owner of the Varsity invited the three of us, along with an English professor, to preview every movie before he booked it, so that we could pass judgment on whether or not the movie had any “redeeming social value” (the then-current Supreme Court of the United States’ standard as to whether or not material was pornographic). Fortunately, I don’t think this activity made into the bishop’s file!
I was involved in numerous other activities during my tenure at LSU, but the most disturbing to UMC officials was my allowing a Black student group, which had been accused of trying to assassinate the Mayor of Baton Rouge, to meet in the Wesley Foundation building. I personally knew most of the students involved and knew that the charges were bogus; but since the Mayor was a member of a local UMC, my involvement (even just the use of a room for meeting) was anathema to the bishop. He called me in for a consultation and gave me a year to find another position. That’s how I wound up leaving LSU and Louisiana, my home state, in June 1971. By the way, the charges against the Black students were dismissed after being shown to be the result of perjured statements by racist Deputy Sheriffs of Baton Rouge Parish.
I was blessed with a very cooperative governing board of the Wesley Foundation at LSU. They genuinely believed that a campus minister’s work would be enhanced by experiences abroad. So they allowed me to take three summers off for that purpose:
1964– I directed a student project in a rural community of the State of Puebla, Mexico. I was accompanied by 15 students, both undergraduate and graduate. We lived in extremely primitive conditions. For example, our quarters had to be fumigated weekly for tarantulas, and our alarm clock each morning was a burro that stuck his head through an open window and brayed over us. We had no running water, of course, and upon arrival had to build our only toilet. Our shower was improvised with a barrel on the roof that we filled each morning after dropping buckets into a mountain trench for water. We heated the water by burning corn husks. All in all, however, it was an enlightening experience. We grew close to the folks in the small village, and at the end of the summer we had to endure 15 mole (a dark gravy) banquets in the last week or so.
1968– I was supposed to go to South Africa at the invitation of that country’s University Christian Movement, along with a group of other campus ministers. We had an orientation at the UN in New York City; but in those days of apartheid, the South African government refused to give us visas. So, after waiting a couple of weeks past our original departure date, we gave up. The week-long UN orientation, however, raised my consciousness considerably about what was going on in South Africa. Interestingly, the South Africa University Christian Movement became a banned organization that summer; so we would have been kicked out of the country, anyway.
Since I already had the summer off, I decided to do what I had always wanted to do and take a grand tour of Europe. It was grand, if you count using my Eurailpass to sleep on trains during overnight trips to avoid hotel or hostel expenses that I couldn’t afford. I visited almost all of the Western European countries that way, including my favorite city, West Berlin. I happened to be in West Germany when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia. Many Czech students fled to West Germany. Most of them spoke English, not German, so I volunteered to help resettle them. That’s how I spent my last couple of weeks in Europe.
1969– I was asked to direct a student study tour to Japan, Korea, and India. One of the highlights of that trip was a two hour audience with Prime Minister Indira Ghandi in India. She was very gracious to our group and extended our visit by an hour and half beyond our scheduled time. We were in Seoul, Korea, when the United States landed a man on the moon. I vividly remember watching the landing on a huge screen in a public square with thousands of others.
1971-1976 Director of the Wesley Foundation at Memphis State University (MSU), Memphis, TN
Of all the places I’ve lived and served, Memphis was probably the least satisfactory and most disappointing. For one thing, I went there under the false pretenses of the campus ministry leadership. Memphis State (now the University of Memphis) was a large, urban university of some 30,000 students, 90 percent of whom were commuters. At that time in my life, I was interested in pioneering what I called “urban campus ministry,” by which I meant tapping the resources of both the church and the university in behalf of human needs in the urban community. So the situation at MSU promised to be a good fit. When I was invited to two interviews with the governing board of the MSU Wesley Foundation, I made my interest very clear. The board, in turn, seemed excited about my ideas and offered me the job, even though a local UMC pastor had also been interviewed and was thought by some to be a “shoo-in” for the position.
Not long after I arrived, the man on the board most responsible for advocating for my hiring left to become president of another college. He was succeeded on the board by a somewhat conservative law professor who did not buy into my vision of campus ministry. Furthermore, I found out later that the UMC Conference Committee that evaluated the campus ministry program was upset that an “outsider” had been hired instead of the local pastor. Well, you can see where this was going… I had several strikes against me from the early days of my tenure at MSU. Despite all of that, I was able to accomplish some innovative and useful programs while in Memphis, such as,
The development of a Women’s Center — I applied to the national UMC for funding of a two year intern and was assigned a very bright, articulate and energetic young woman who had just graduated from the University of Virginia. In the meantime, a group of professional women in Memphis had been working on the concept of a women’s center which would advocate for the needs of women throughout the city. However, they had no funds for staffing and no place for housing their center. Since my new intern was a strong feminist, with her approval, I offered to allow her to spend half of her time to staff the women’s center. I also arranged for a centrally located UMC to donate space for offices and a meeting room. It all worked out very well. The center got off the ground, developed some good programs (including feminist art shows), and eventually had enough resources to hire its own staff.
Death and Dying in the Curriculum of the University — The Roman Catholic chaplain and I saw a need for a course on Death and Dying in the MSU curriculum. Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s book, “On Death and Dying,” was currently a bestseller, and the time seemed ripe. We approached MSU requesting that we be allowed to organize such a course, and the university agreed that we could do it in the continuing education division. We thought we’d have around 15-20 students, but the first night of class over 200 showed up! We had to move the class from a seminar room to an auditorium. We had invited a number of guest lecturers, including a local physician who had authored the American Medical Association’s (AMA) definition of “brain death,” a nurse practitioner who had spent her career in hospice care, lawyers, theologians, and social workers, among others. The course was a great success and so popular that the university picked it up for its regular, credited curriculum in the next academic year.
Veterans Advocacy Project — While I had been a vociferous opponent of the Vietnam War, I also developed a concern for the plight of Vietnam veterans. I conceived the idea of a Veterans Advocacy Project for Memphis. I hosted a luncheon in our Wesley Foundation building and invited all of the veterans affairs staffers from the various campuses in the metropolitan area, along with representatives from the Mayor’s office, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the Chamber of Commerce, etc. At the initial meeting, we discovered that those folks had never met together before and seldom communicated with each other. Yet, they all worked to serve military service veterans. The group decided to continue to meet and to cooperate on several projects. One project was the development of a discharge upgrade program. We trained volunteers to be counselors in assisting vets to have their other-than-honorable discharges upgraded to honorable, thereby making them eligible for medical and educational benefits from the U.S. government. The project was still going when I left Memphis.
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) — I was a member of the board of the local ACLU that held its monthly meetings in the Wesley Foundation building. Eventually, I was elected President. By tradition, since we had no staff, the ACLU telephone was located in the office of the President. I had the phone installed on my desk so that I — and I alone — would answer it. You cannot imagine the forlorn calls I received, most of which the ACLU could not respond to since the complaint did not involve any action by the government. Eventually, I was elected President of the Tennessee State ACLU, also. One of my first actions in that role was to get the state board to approve moving their office from Knoxville to Memphis, the state’s largest city. We hired our first full time Executive Director (a young man who had been a parole officer and knew the legal system firsthand) and set up an office in a downtown high-rise near the court houses. We had a battery of volunteer lawyers across the state, so we were able to respond to genuine and egregious concerns in effective ways. Needless to say, my heavy involvement in an organization that favored abortion rights, opposed religious education in public schools, and opposed reciting “The Lord’s Prayer” at government-sponsored events, did not stand me in the good graces of the church.
The coup de grace came when I attended a national ACLU board meeting in New York City where the ACLU became the first national organization to call for the Impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon. I returned to Memphis on a Saturday to fulfill a long-standing Sunday morning commitment to speak at the Memphis Unitarian Fellowship, which just happened to rent meeting space in the Wesley Foundation. I had planned to be very low key about the call for Nixon’s Impeachment, knowing how the idea would play in conservative Memphis. But when I arrived for my engagement, the TV cameras were already in place. I had no choice but to explain to the public why the ACLU had taken its action. This, of course, resulted in many calls and letters to church officials asking why the UMC was calling for the Impeachment of a great President, and why, oh why, was a non-Christian group being allowed to meet in the Methodist Student Center at MSU? I saw the “handwriting on the wall,” and at the next meeting of our board, I submitted my resignation — before I could be fired.
I had no job when I resigned, so I requested and received a sabbatical leave from the ministry of the UMC. About that time, the guy I had hired as ACLU Executive Director began suffering burn-out from his 12 hour long days on that job. So I secured positions for both him and his wife at a UMC facility for youth offenders in Kentucky and took over from him as Acting Executive Director of the Tennessee State ACLU. It was an interesting five months and provided me with a complete break from “church work.”
One of the most exciting things I did was the development of a project on Privacy in a Democratic Society that was funded by a grant from the Tennessee Committee on the Humanities. It was a week long event held at a Presbyterian college campus, featuring a number of seminars and lectures by well-known persons in the field of privacy and related issues. While the project was underway, word got out that the Memphis Police Dept. had been spying on citizens for political — not criminal — reasons. It was revealed that the department had a whole room of files detailing their long-running spy program. We were afraid that the glare of publicity might lead them to dispose of the files, so we got a federal court order mandating that they be secured. Our chief lawyer rushed over to police headquarters with the court order, but it was too late. They had torched all of the files the previous night. The press was all over the story, and it resulted in a much bigger attendance at our event that we expected. Ultimately, it resulted in the termination of the police chief and the failure of the mayor to get re-elected.
1976-1988 Executive Director, Ecumenical Campus Ministry (ECM), Baltimore, MD
In the fall of 1976 I got an invitation to apply for a campus ministry position in Baltimore with Ecumenical Campus Ministry, Inc., an organization that sponsored campus ministries in Maryland and Washington, D.C. After interviews I was offered the position of Executive Director of ECM. I moved to Baltimore the day after Jimmy Carter’s election as President in 1976. ECM was supported by the United Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, and United Church of Christ. It was an interesting period in that I spent most of time reporting to and seeking funding from those judicatories. After I’d been there a year, the United Methodists in the region (the Baltimore Conference) created a position that would give oversight to all of their campus ministries in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and a part of West Virginia. The UMC asked me to write the job description for the new position, so I wrote the best I could muster, having no interest in the job for myself. But the UMC bishop of the area decided that he wanted me to fill the job, and after a little arm-twisting, I accepted. In actuality, I subsumed the ECM position into the new one, so that I became supervisor of both the UCM and ECM campus ministries, a position I held until mid-1988.
Working in the Mid-Atlantic region of the country was much less stressful for me than I had experienced in the South. For one thing, church people in the area were much more liberal and progressive. The more active one was in working for social justice, the better. I continued my association with the ACLU, having become a member of the Maryland State ACLU Board of Directors, and later, a member of the National ACLU Development Council (many trips to NYC). I also became President of my professional association, the National Campus Ministry Association, and chair of the UMC National Campus Ministry Committee (many trips to Nashville). I served on the governing boards of two colleges, also (St. Mary’s College and Seminary in Baltimore and Morristown College in Tennessee, an historically Black college). I chaired the Maryland Interfaith Legislative Committee (working to impact the State Assembly on behalf of human needs in the state). And I was asked to design and teach a course on ministry in higher education at UMC related Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. All in all I kept pretty busy during those years in Baltimore.
After the AIDS epidemic hit the nation, I became very involved in ministry with persons living with AIDS. I was one of the founders of the AIDS Interfaith Network of Baltimore, the purpose of which was to enlighten church folks, in particular, and the public, in general, about the real nature of HIV/AIDS and to dispel superstitions, falsities, and other misconceptions prevalent at the time. I also co-founded the AIDS Interfaith Housing Project that provided housing with dietician and nursing support for persons with AIDS, especially those who were far along in the disease. Those efforts took a lot of my time, but my “bosses” were pleased that I was doing it. So there was practically no flack.
After about ten years, the UMC in the Mid-Atlantic Area decided to redesign their regional staff. As a result, the campus ministry position was eliminated, along with a number of others. My choices were to accept an appointment to a parish or to find another job. After so many years out of parish ministry, I wasn’t anxious to be sent to a church I knew nothing about; so I started searching. Friends I had worked with in national campus ministry groups put my name in the hopper for a position supervising UMC campus ministries in the California-Pacific Conference that encompassed Southern California, Hawaii, Guam, and the Northern Mariannas. I got the job.
1988-2003 Council on Ministries of the California-Pacific Conference, UMC, Pasadena, CA
I moved to the Los Angeles area in early August, 1988, to be on the staff of UMC regional conference. My focus was to be on campus ministry, but a number of other areas of ministry were added to my portfolio. That went smoothly for a number of months until December, when the bishop decided to move my boss to another position. That left the top staff position in the conference vacant, and I was urged to apply. I did, and I was offered the position of Director of the Conference Council on Ministries — a role I filled for the next six years. The Council included 16 in-house staff persons, plus about 25 out in the field. So, personnel management quickly became one of my time-consuming tasks. The other was travel. Since our region included Southern California, Hawaii, Guam, and the Northern Marianna Islands, my job called for me to attend meetings throughout the region (although, in truth, I only went to Hawaii every couple of months and to Guam and the Mariannas only once each). Also, my position put me on a number of regional and national committees that required travel across the country. It seemed like I was boarding a plane every other week or so — and sometimes, I was.
My social justice involvements had to be somewhat limited because of my hectic schedule. I was elected President of the Southern California Ecumenical Council and served on the Board of Directors of the California Council of Churches. Both groups focused on the needs of the poor and dispossessed and pressured governmental bodies to pass laws and regulations that would help, not harm, the poor, including immigrants. (California had and has a huge immigrant population.)
The Northridge earthquake occurred while I was in Galveston, Texas, attending the annual meeting of the Association of Conference Council Directors (my peers in the UMC), of which I was President at the time. Of course, I had to rush back, and I spent much of the rest of the year working on relief in the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area and coordinating UMC efforts.
As is turned out, there was a six year term for my Council Director position. So, at the end of it in 1995, not ready to retire and not wanting to pack up and move again (I loved living in Pasadena and still do), I allowed my name to be placed in consideration for a pastorate within commuting distance of my Pasadena home. After rejecting several appointments, I accepted the offer of Sherman Oaks UMC. Sherman Oaks was a smaller congregation in Sherman Oaks, CA, an upscale community, just over the hills from Beverly Hills, and on the southern fringe of the San Fernando Valley. I was a little anxious about the appointment, since I had never been a local church pastor and certainly wasn’t used to writing weekly sermons; but I was well-received by the congregation, and after a while, the preparation of sermons became routine.
My sermons were generally well received, and some even elicited applause! The church badly needed attention to its organizational structure, its budgeting process, and its governance process. All of those needs played to my strengths. It took several years, but eventually we got everything reorganized into a more efficient operation. I stayed on past my 65th birthday (traditional retirement age in the UMC), but finally decided to retire at 67. My eight year tenure became the longest in the church’s 55 year history. I had a wonderful send-off and continue to look back fondly upon my one and only pastorate.
Since retirement, I’ve continued to stay active in several organizations, most importantly as a member of the Board of Directors of Scarritt-Bennett Center in Nashville, Tennessee, for over ten years. The Center focuses on justice and antiracism issues, as well as women’s concerns.
My personal health has limited my involvement in the past two years, but I look back with satisfaction on the work I’ve done and with appreciation for the many gifted and dedicated people with whom I have associated.
Delton Pickering, August 26, 2014