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
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.
Over the decades, the interfaith activities of Biggs and Sherman have become almost mirror images of one another, says OCCJ’s Day. Both have served as board presidents of her organization and have been active members of its Jewish Christian study group and its Interfaith Trialogue Series. Among their interfaith honors, Biggs and Sherman were honored by OCCJ in 2001 with then Islamic Society leader Dr. Mujeeb Cheema at its annual awards dinner. Similarly, the Tulsa Historical Society honored them as inductees into its Hall of Fame.
Additionally, both clergy are involved in the Knippa Interfaith Ecumenical Lecture Series. Sherman is the only person to serve as president of OCCJ and the Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry.
Biggs welcomed the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Society to have its annual interfaith service at his church. His congregation also co-hosts Open Tables, co-sponsored by OCCJ, where people of different faiths dine together in their homes. The idea has become so popular, it has evolved into a huge potluck dinner at the church.
Similarly, many years ago Temple Israel’s Sisterhood began hosting an annual interfaith luncheon, Sherman says. After some success, the congregation’s men decided to create an interfaith brotherhood dinner. Between both events, people from more than 120 faith communities have participated.
“It’s been an enriching experience for our people,” Sherman says.
Four years ago, Biggs encouraged Boston Avenue, a longtime Habitat for Humanity sponsor, to invite Temple Israel and the Institute for Interfaith Dialog, established by Muslim Turkish Americans, to join them, Sherman says. In 2012, they invited local Mormons to participate, as well. The volunteers were Protestants, Jews and Muslims. The Habitat family was Roman Catholic.
“It’s one of the most interfaith activities I have ever been involved in,” the rabbi says. “At the dedication I thought, ‘This is what God has in mind with God’s children truly making possible an improvement in life ... and none of us would have been able to do it by ourselves.”
Sherman points out this sort of amiable cooperation does not happen overnight. And that he and his friend Mouzon were not the first to forge friendships with those of different faiths.
“We both had people who were our mentors in terms of interfaith relations. ... Warren Hultgren, Bill Wiseman, James Halpine, all of blessed memory, and Clarence Knippa, who is still with us at 99,” he says. “These four set an example, a very high bar of mutual respect and the idea that we can do a lot more working together than singly. Mouzon and I have carried on that foursome’s work, along with others. Jack Powers, Roy Griggs, Jim Haner and Leroy Jordan were also hard laborers in God’s vineyard in this respect.”
It takes commitment, Sherman explains.
“Mouzon once described it ... the unglamorous routines of going to meetings and being there for programs is how you establish relationships of mutual trust,” he says. “It doesn’t happen quickly, and we both believe you pay your dues” on committees and working side by side.
After retiring, the reverend and the rabbi each plan to stay on the OCCJ board and continue participating in related activities, Day says.
“They both have been my boss; one is my pastor,” she says. “I have the utmost respect and admiration for them both. They are shining examples of all that is good and right with the world. The fact they are longtime friends retiring at the same time just makes the story all the better.”
In fact, she adds, “I can hardly bear to think of either of them retiring, let alone both at the same time.”
Rabbi Charles Sherman
It’s going to take two rabbis to replace Charles Sherman. When he officially retires June 30, Micah and Karen Citrin from San Francisco will take over as co-senior rabbis at Temple Israel. Sherman will then move two doors down at the Temple to become rabbi emeritus.
He’s often asked what he plans to do as a retiree, “but my answer is changing,” he says. “I have been listening to some people who have successfully retired. They have taught me to be more patient with not knowing the answer to the question.”
But Sherman adds, “I think I have the temperament and experience in counseling to be a good mediator.”
There also are books to write and four grandchildren to visit, plus teaching and traveling. His wife, Nancy, teaches cultural geography at Tulsa
Community College and isn’t ready to quit.
“She’s going to teach, and I am going to think through what I am going to do,” he says.
The Rev. Dr. Mouzon Biggs Jr.
Congregants at Boston Avenue United Methodist Church will say goodbye June 2 to the Rev. Dr. Mouzon Biggs Jr. as they welcome back the Rev. David Wiggs, a former associate pastor returning after 12 years as overseer in the United Methodist Church’s Stillwater District.
Aside from spending time with his six grandchildren, Biggs plans to take a year before making any major decisions. He has been writing a Sunday sermon for 54 years, he says, and old habits die hard.
It’s a routine that began when he was a college freshman and his Methodist bishop asked him to pastor two tiny churches. Biggs attended classes during the week, and then spent his weekends visiting parishioners, writing sermons and preaching.
“That’s the treadmill I have been running on since I was 18 years old,” he says. “So, how am I going to feel on June 3 when I don’t have to do that?”
He’s waiting to see.