Will Herzfeld, AELC Presiding Bishop, Rights Activist, Dies

5/10/2002 12:00:00 AM

     CHICAGO (ELCA) -- The Rev. Will L. Herzfeld, presiding bishop of the former Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC), civil rights activist, ecumenist and pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), died May 9 at a local hospital.
     At the time of his death, Herzfeld, 64, Chicago, was associate executive director, ELCA Division for Global Mission, a position he held since 1993.
     Herzfeld died following a sudden attack of cerebral malaria, said the Rev. Bonnie L. Jensen, executive director, ELCA Division for Global Mission.  Herzfeld just returned a week earlier from consultations in Cameroon and the Central African Republic, she said.
     "Pastor Herzfeld was truly a spirit-filled leader who heeded Christ's command to be a witness throughout the world," said the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, Chicago, ELCA presiding bishop. "He was a witness to God's desire for justice as he worked tirelessly for the end of racism. He was a witness to God's desire for peace as he built bridges of reconciliation and cooperation between global churches.  He was a witness to God's love as he proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ. For his leadership, passion, faith and witness, we give thanks to God."
     In his role with the ELCA, Herzfeld was a key leader in the church's international program, which put the ELCA in partnership relationships with 70 Lutheran church bodies and with 25 other churches and institutions.  He helped place some 300 missionaries and volunteers.
     "A person with uncanny insight, constant respect for people with whom he was conversing, and a focus on the gospel, Will conveyed a partnership, an accompaniment, of a large North American church with churches in other lands in a manner that transcended economic, cultural and political boundaries," Jensen said.
     In recent years, Herzfeld was a vice president of the National Council of Churches in Christ in the U.S.A. (NCC), an organization of 36 member communions and denominations representing more than 50 million people.  He was also president of Church World Service and Witness, the relief, development and refugee assistance ministry of the NCC. Herzfeld continued to serve on the NCC executive board and general assembly until his death.
     "Will was a valued friend and colleague of all of us in the ecumenical movement and was particularly loved and respected for the spiritual quality of the leadership he gave to Church World Service and the National Council of Churches," said the Rev. Bob Edgar, NCC general secretary. "We nicknamed him 'the Chaplain,' and always appreciated the insights and the wisdom born of deep faith that he shared with us."   In the Lutheran church in the United States, Herzfeld was best known for his role as AELC presiding bishop, a position he held from 1984 through 1987.  He was the first African American to serve as the national leader of a Lutheran church body.  In his role with the AELC, Herzfeld was a leader of the Commission for a New Lutheran Church, which led to the formation of the ELCA in 1987 through the merger of the AELC, the American Lutheran Church and Lutheran Church in America.   "He was so supportive and understanding during those early years of the church and transition," said the Rev. Herbert W. Chilstrom, Green Valley, Ariz., who was the first ELCA presiding bishop from 1987 to 1995.  "Not only was he a source of factual information, but he was simply a wise man.  His perception was uncanny."   Chilstrom called Herzfeld  "a delightful travel companion -- always in good humor -- and that was especially important in those early years."  The two maintained that bond ever since, Chilstrom said.  "I've lost a good friend."   "I have lost a friend and trusted adviser," said the Rev. H. George Anderson, Prospect Heights, Ill., ELCA presiding bishop from 1995to 2001.  "Will Herzfeld helped this church become a supportive companion to younger Lutheran churches around the world.  His legacy is a stronger global church."
    Herzfeld was born in 1937 in Mobile, Ala.  He earned an associate of arts degree from Immanuel Lutheran College, Greensboro, N.C., in 1958, and a master of divinity degree from Immanuel Lutheran Seminary, Greensboro, in 1960.  He also attended Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Ala..  He held honorary doctor of divinity degrees from the former Christ Seminary-Seminex, St. Louis, and the Center for Urban Black Studies, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, Calif.  In 1977 the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC), one of the eight ELCA seminaries, gave him a Distinguished Alumni Award.  Christ Seminary merged with LSTC in 1987.
    Herzfeld was ordained by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) in 1961.  He became pastor of Christ Lutheran Church, Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he served until 1965.  It was there that he participated in organizing the Tuscaloosa chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and served as its first president.  He was also president of the Alabama State SCLC and was a close associate of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during those years.  While he was pastor in Tuscaloosa, he served the LCMS Southern District in several leadership roles.
    Herzfeld was urban minister for the LCMS California and Nevada District from 1965 to 1970, where he developed relationships with several community organizations and Black ecumenical organizations.   In 1970 he became an urban planning consultant for the former Lutheran Council in the U.S.A., an organization through which several Lutheran church bodies coordinated their work. In 1973 he became pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Oakland, Calif., and served there until 1992.
    While pastor of Bethlehem, Herzfeld served as AELC vice president for five years before he became AELC presiding bishop.  He was a board member of Evangelical Lutherans in Mission (ELIM) for two years. ELIM was an organization of moderates within the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.  Many of ELIM's members formed the AELC.
    Herzfeld held numerous church and community leadership positions during his lifetime. He was vice president of Lutheran World Relief; adjunct professor of urban ministry, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, an ELCA seminary; and a member of the board of regents of California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks, Calif., an ELCA higher education institution.
    He was a past vice president of the Lutheran Human Relations Association, Milwaukee, and served on the executive committee of the Wheat Ridge Foundation board of directors.  He was also a member of the board of trustees of LCMS' Walther League and a member of the board of missions of the LCMS.  Herzfeld was a member of the board of directors of the National Conference of Black Churchmen and was western regional vice president.
    He attended global ecumenical assemblies of the Lutheran World Federation and World Council of Churches.
    Herzfeld's community leadership roles were numerous.  They included service with the State of California Attorney General's Commission on Racial, Ethnic, Religious and Minority Violence, Oakland Mayor's Earthquake Relief Committee, Citizen's Emergency Relief Team, Alameda County Human Relations Commission, Oakland Mayor's Blue Ribbon Commission on Crime and Oakland Citizen's Committee for Urban Renewal. Herzfeld also served as chaplain of the National Basketball Association's Golden State Warriors.
    Herzfeld is survived by his first wife, Thressa, three grown children, Martin, Katherine and Stephen, and five grandchildren.  His second wife, the Rev. Michele L. Robinson, died in July 2001.
    Services are at 10 a.m., May 18, at Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Luke, 1500 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.  A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. June 9, at Bethlhem Lutheran Church, Oakland, Calif.

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  Editors: Thressa is spelled correctly.


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