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Remembering Bishop Will Herzfeld
The Rev. Dr. James Thomas

The author Mel Levine has observed, “Planet earth is inhabited by all kinds of people who have all kinds of minds.”

Some minds are wired to create symphonies and sonnets, while others are fitted out to build bridges, highways, and computers; design airplanes and road systems; drive trucks and taxicabs; or seek cures for breast cancer and hypertension. (A Mind At a Time, 13)

Herzfeld

Levine could easily add hundreds of professions to the list. Will Herzfeld was a Lutheran pastor. He was a Christian. He had more than a casual acquaintance with the mind of Christ. An active member of the clergy, Will brought to the church an unusual array of verbal, pragmatic, and cognitive skills. In addition to being a pastor, he was the first African American to serve as the national leader of a Lutheran church body and a leader in the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He also served on the National Council of Churches Executive Board and was a former vice president of the General Assembly. While serving his first pastorate, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, starting in the late 1950s, he organized the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and became a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Those are only the résumé entries. An examination of his biography also shows us Will as a sibling, father, husband, provocateur, friend, community activist, and leader. His infectious laughter and quick wit attracted the attention and affection of many. Unrestrained by the usual rules of self-doubt, he made his way in the church and the world on his own terms, leaving behind a legacy which bears the imprint of his brave, playful, sometimes intimidating, and irrepressible personality. Will was as much at home advising the editor of the Oakland Tribune, as he was leading the World Council of Churches, or serving as chaplain to the members of a major league basketball team. 

Will’s life also chronicles a slice of racism in the church and in American life. His is the story of how one individual artfully, sometimes angrily, but also resourcefully responded to it. Will succeeded in formal learning in the American Lutheran education system despite subpar schooling in parochial schools in Alabama and a seminary in North Carolina.   

 I was first introduced to Will when I was a freshman at Alabama Lutheran Academy and College, Selma, Alabama. The year was 1968, the year that Eugene McCarthy sought the Democratic nomination for President and students led violent protests at the University of California at Berkley, Columbia University, and San Francisco State University. Alabama Lutheran College had opened in 1935.  It was one of several “colleges” for blacks that had been founded by Lutherans. Others included: Immanuel College Concord/Greensboro, North Carolina, founded in 1903; Luther College in New Orleans, Louisiana, founded in 1903; Martin Luther Bible College in Montgomery, Alabama, founded in 1947; and Michigan Lutheran College, in Detroit, Michigan, founded in 1963.

Among these, Alabama Lutheran College—since renamed Concordia College, Selma—is the only surviving institution. The school was a true relic, left over from the days of separate but unequal education in America. I once asked Will if he gave financial support to the school at Selma, his alma mater. He remarked, “I don’t support the mis-education of black people.” The Selma school mirrored the Alabama public school system, which had not yet responded with equal access to education in answer to civil rights marchers who flowed across the Alabama River on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Will Herzfeld was one of those marchers. In 1968 the entire enrollment at Alabama Lutheran College was fewer than twenty-five students. This was more than ample testimony to the failure of American Lutheranism in engaging the educational and contextual needs of African Americans after more than half a century of mission and ministry. Thirty-five years after its founding, neither the secondary school nor the college was accredited by any one of the several state, regional, or national educational accrediting agencies.

In 1968–1969, Will Herzfeld, by then serving as an urban minister in California, returned to Selma to take part in a conference convened to examine the school as a mission and a symbol and to try to parse out the meaning of its increasingly disturbing presence in the Missouri Synod’s consciousness. After years of poor management, lack of vision, and limited goals, the Missouri Synod once again was taking up the subject of the future of the Selma campus.

The meeting was called because of a change taking place in the office of president at the school. President Paul G. Elbrecht had moved on to Concordia College, Austin, Texas. The Board of Control hired The Rev. Wesley Wilkie, a teacher in the theology department at Concordia College, River Forest , Illinois, to serve as acting president. Wilkie had little experience as a school administrator and even less in an African American educational institution. His appointment led to protests from those who thought that The Rev. Peter Hunt, the longtime African American Dean at Selma, should have been the Acting President. Hunt eventually was installed as Acting President, but this proved the easy part. Setting a course for the school was more challenging, and that challenge continues for the school today. 

I remember the day I first met Will Herzfeld. He came strutting down the sidewalk with a slight swagger, en route to the Peay Administration Building from Rosa Young Hall. He was an impressive figure, sporting a big afro-hairstyle, black suit, clergy shirt, and cuff links. In 1968, Alabama Lutheran Academy and College was like an extended family. Students came to the campus from numerous Missouri Synod congregations, but principally from those located in Alabama. Every student was connected to the school by pastors, teachers, and parents who had their own associations with Selma. Will Herzfeld walked the campus with the familiarity of a tenured professor. He had an almost encyclopedic memory, and could call many of the students by their first names.

Herzfeld

Will was a member of this family. In many ways, he represented the history of Lutheranism in Alabama, and that made him a trustworthy friend and adviser to students and staff. His roots ran deep in Lutheranism and in the soil of Alabama. Born in Mobile, Alabama, he had blood ties to many of the students. The Herzfeld family were founding members of Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Tilden and Faith Lutheran Church in Mobile. As Will scanned familiar faces, he asked Louis Brogan about his family in Mobile. He shared with Larry DeRamus information about his brother, The Rev. David DeRamus, another Missouri Synod pastor who headed a parish in Washington, DC. Eventually his eyes came to rest on me, a stranger. As much as the first four white students who that year became the first to enroll at Selma, I was an outsider. Only one year earlier, I had been confirmed as a member of a Missouri Synod mission congregation in Opelousas, Louisiana. We spoke briefly, and I soon realized that something important had happened to me that day. I had made a lifelong connection.

A short time after our meeting in Selma, I received the first of many phone calls from Will. The phone calls came regularly through the years. I dialed his number often. It was the beginning of a mentorship and friendship that lasted over thirty years. In 1989, I was invited by Will to preach at Bethlehem Church in Oakland, California. I worked long into the nights on that sermon. Will was not present when I preached, but I did my very best. A few days later, he called me and congratulated me on the message. He said, “The folks really loved you. You were persuasive and impressive.” He playfully said one other thing, “That is the last time you will ever preach in my pulpit again.” Through the years, Will was supportive. He was a role model, and I learned by observing and listening to his words.

I once asked Will, “Where did the name ‘Herzfeld’ come from?” He paused for a moment, smiled and looked me in the eye, and said, “Herzfeld comes from exactly the same place that Thomas comes from. They are both derivative of our slave masters.” After Emancipation, Will explained, “Many freedmen and freedwomen took the surnames of their former owners as their own.” He pointed out that there were still white families with the surname Herzfeld living in central Alabama when he was rising to maturity.

Will L. Herzfeld, died 9 May 2010 at Resurrection Medical Center in Chicago, at the age of sixty-four. He contracted cerebral malaria, an often-fatal variety of the disease, while in Africa a month earlier attending the ordination of the first female Lutheran pastor in the Central African Republic. At the time of his death, he was Associate Executive Director for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s global mission division, a position he had held since 1993. As the church’s primary representative overseas, he often traveled to remote areas. I remember Will Herzfeld today for another reason. He showed us one of the rarest of modern qualities in our people: he was a free black man.

 

The Rev. Dr. James Thomas is Associate Professor of Church and Ministry, Director of African American Ministries, and North Carolina Lutheran Men in Mission Professor of Bible and Mission at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.

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