by Sheldon C. Good, Salford
As a child, Ertell M. Whigham, Jr. loved his tight-knit community in North Philadelphia. But by senior year at Simon Gratz High School, he was bored and began searching for a new place to belong. In March 1968, three months before high school graduation, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He entered boot camp in that summer and by the end of the year was deployed to Vietnam, assigned to a combat battalion landing team.
“We were stationed aboard Naval air craft carriers and would patrol the coast providing reinforcements and security for various search and destroy operations. We would be air lifted by helicopter to an area for weeks or months at a time where reinforcements were needed,” he said. “It was difficult and stressful because there were frequent combat situations and constant exposure to opposing forces.”
After serving a year in Vietnam he and his wife Pat were married and stationed in North Carolina where he completed the last two years of a four year enlistment. Following discharge in 1972, Whigham returned to Philadelphia where he drove a taxi as a way to reconnect with people and the cultural revolution of the late 60s and early 70s. After about a year of finding it difficult to provide for his family, he took a position as a military recruiter. “Although the Marine Corps was a very racist, culturally biased and controlling system, at least I knew my way around it,” he said.
After re-enlistment, Whigham was relocated to nearby Reading but never completely found what he was looking for in the Marines. Years later after accepting Christ during a fellowship at a mega church in Philadelphia, he rediscovered a different type of “community.” While living in Reading, a neighbor shared the Gospel with Whigham’s wife, Pat, and invited the family to attend Buttonwood Mennonite Church. “I remember getting dressed for church in my culture, we got dressed up,” he said. “We walked in, and everyone was dressed down. There was no piano. There was no music. It was very quiet.” People wore plain clothes. Women wore head coverings.
Mennonite women often went door-to-door in his neighborhood in North Philly. One of the women told Whigham that Jesus loved him. He said, “I never forgot the look in her eyes when she told me that Jesus loved me. Even as a kid, I could see that she was really committed.”
Going to Buttonwood Mennonite, 24-year-old Whigham liked the preacher’s sound doctrine. “What struck me was what I now know as an Anabaptist perspective,” he said. More important, Whigham enjoyed the community aspect of congregational life. “Then they began to talk about the peace position, and that didn’t work,” he said. Whigham shared his perspective about what he saw in Vietnam; the congregation gave their thoughts on peace and justice.
Theological differences became even more pronounced when Whigham decided to go to college with help from the G.I. Bill. A church elder told him that was “blood money.” Even so, Whigham stayed committed to the Mennonite community, a place he finally found belonging, unlike in the military. He later became a pacifist while having a devotion one morning.”I remember walking away from that and the Lord speaking to me and saying, ‘how can you tell someone about Jesus and want to take their life?’” Though Whigham once sold young people on the benefits and pride of being a Marine, he’s now a committed mentor who believes in providing alternative opportunities for young people.
In 1975, Lancaster Conference licensed Whigham for ministry by lot. He was 25. “The Mennonite world was one that constantly intrigued and amazed and impressed me enough that they seemed to continually be in community,” he said. But community proved difficult.
Along with some theological disagreements, cultural differences arose, some more significant than others. For example, some people wanted Whigham to shave his mustache because it was representative of the military. But more important, he said, Lancaster Conference “passively” withdrew their support stipend for Buttonwood Mennonite, a mission church.
“So my family, for a short period of time, we were just out there,” Whigham said. “We were just literally out there, without any support from the church.”
For Whigham, it felt like a “control” move. “I vowed to my wife that I would never, ever trust my life to the church,” he said. “And even now, my income is not even fully church dependent. It’s ministry dependent, but not church dependent.” Whigham eventually got a job with Ehrlich Pest Control, and was later promoted to an executive position in Philadelphia. He spent a year traveling between Reading and Philadelphia before his family relocated to be with him in 1981.
That’s when he rediscovered Diamond Street Mennonite Church in Philadelphia whose members 20 years earlier included Emma Rudy and Alma Ruth, the mission workers who had gone door-to-door in Whigham’s neighborhood and told him Jesus loved him. While Whigham worked as a corporate executive, he enjoyed teaching Sunday school and other church service opportunities. At one point, he was informed through Diamond Street that a church in nearby Norristown needed someone to preach on a particular Sunday. So he volunteered as a guest preacher one Sunday.
“After I preached and was walking out of the church, the church ‘secretary’ walks up to me, hands me the key to the building and says, ‘We want you to be our pastor,’” Whigham said. “Now you talk about a search process that’s expedited, that is indeed.”
At the same time the Whighams had put money down on a house in the suburbs, however his wife told him “they want you; we need to be here.” The family moved to King of Prussia, and Whigham took the keys to the church. He and his wife Pat were blessed by God with complementary gifts in both children’s and pastoral ministry.
After about five years of ministering with Bethel Mennonite Church, in 1989 during a combined fellowship meal with the other two Mennonite congregations in town, Whigham envisioned how the three—Bethel, First Mennonite and Fuente de Salvación—could come together as one.
“As I looked at [these] three churches . . . all professing to serve the same Christ, called to be one people, it just felt like we needed to do something different in order to be something different for God,” Whigham said. “I shared my vision with the other two pastors and our congregations committed to a time of prayer and discernment.”
In 1990, they formed Norristown New Life Nueva Vida Church, an intercultural, multilingual congregation, with a three member intercultural (associate) pastoral team. In the late 1990s, Whigham also became a part-time Franconia Conference minister.
Today, Whigham remains within that community serving as associate pastor. On Feb. 3 he started an initial two-year term as executive minister of Franconia Mennonite Conference. He is believed to be the first African American to lead an area conference of Mennonite Church USA. Even with the new appointment, Whigham was committed to remaining an associate pastor with the Norristown congregation.
For at least the next two years, the conference board has prioritized for Whigham and conference staff to work at being intercultural, missional and formational, “and to bring those to the center in such a way everyone embraces them as the driving force behind why we do ministry and how we do ministry,” he said.
Whigham plans to encourage everyone from the pew to the pulpit and beyond to become passionate about the conference’s vision: equipping leaders to empower others to embrace God’s mission.
Overall, he believes his role is “to continue to bring clarity for what that means and for every person to be able to think and pray about how they can represent that [vision] in their particular context, as it relates to the whole.”