The reverend and the rabbi
Two of Tulsa’s spiritual leaders and best friends step down this month from their pulpits after decades of interfaith work.
The Rev. Dr. Mouzon Biggs Jr. and Rabbi Charles Sherman
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It almost sounds like the setup for a joke. “A minister and a rabbi meet at an interfaith luncheon ...”
But here’s the punch line: “They discover they have a lot in common, become local icons for interfaith understanding — and the best of friends.”
Such good friends that the Rev. Dr. Mouzon Biggs Jr., senior minister of Boston Avenue United Methodist Church, and Rabbi Charles Sherman, senior rabbi for Temple Israel, will speak the same weekend at each other’s retirement services. Both officially leave their pulpits this month.
In a seemingly polarized world, the reverend and the rabbi have moved way beyond tolerance to appreciation and mutual respect.
“Some clergy have trouble reconciling how to maintain a strong witness of their own faith with being part of a pluralistic religious society,” says the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church. “This has never been a problem for these two men.”
They are the real deal, and they leave a strong legacy in interfaith relations. Biggs will have served his church 33 years; Sherman will have led his congregation 37 years.
“With Mouzon and Charles, in everything they do and say, you know where they stand,” says Nancy Day, executive director of the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice (OCCJ). “There is no doubt. They not only talk the talk, they walk the walk.”
Although Biggs feels God called him to the Methodist ministry, “I never felt I had to compromise that faith in any way to be in genuine appreciation and meaningful conversation with members of other faith communities,” he says. “I count Rabbi Charles Sherman as my dearest clergy friend in Oklahoma.”
“I think we have found kindred spirits in one another,” says Sherman, who doesn’t remember at which interfaith activity the two men met. “We have been breaking bread together for many, many years” through their interfaith work, he says.
The two men took over their respective pulpits in Tulsa just four years apart; Sherman in 1976, Biggs in 1980. Their wives, Nancy Sherman and Gayle Biggs, also have become friends.
So, how do a Methodist who grew up six miles outside a small east Texas oil town and a Reform Jew from the primarily Jewish Squirrel Hill neighborhood in Pittsburgh find themselves so compatible? In another almost miraculous twist, it was partly their tutelage by professors of one another’s faiths.
“I knew no Jews and certainly no Muslims until I got to college,” recalls Biggs, who attended Centenary College in Shreveport, La.
There he came to know history professors Drs. Bruno and Berta Strauss, who had fled for their lives from Nazi Germany. Hearing their dramatic saga, Biggs resolved to do what he could to foster meaningful conversation with Jews. To deepen his understanding, Biggs and his wife have visited former Nazi concentration camps over the years. And in Tulsa, he has put his intentions to work by participating in interfaith groups and hosting myriad interfaith events at his church.
Sherman’s interfaith understanding grew from often simple things — trimming a Christmas tree with the Presbyterian neighbors (who then came over for latkes during Hanukkah), attending a Greek Orthodox service as part of his temple’s comparative religious education classes, or joining groups where sometimes he was the only Jewish youngster.
But like Biggs, the future rabbi learned much from his homiletics professor, Lowell McCoy, a retired Methodist minister, during seminary at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
“We used to call him Rabbi McCoy and he loved it,” Sherman says. “He was just a wonderful human being besides being a pretty good professor.”
On the 25th anniversary of his ordination, Sherman received an honorary doctor of divinity degree from his seminary. He could choose any professor to present it at the Temple Israel Sabbath service. He chose McCoy.
“I think that says something about my feelings in terms of interfaith relations,” Sherman says. “I was deeply honored that Rev. McCoy would give me this degree because he exemplified what I hope my rabbinate was about” — mutual respect for other’s religions.