The potential was in the air in the late 1960s for an unprecedented expression of unity among local Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christian churches. But somebody had to put a foundation under it, and that person was the Rev. W. Lee Hicks.
Rev. Hicks, of Regent Square, who died Feb. 13 at age 82, is being remembered as a pioneering champion of Christian unity. He was the founding executive director of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, long recognized nationwide as a leading regional ecumenical organization.
“He was just a very exceptional leader that knew how to pull people together and get them to do things they didn’t expect to do,” said the Rev. Nathaniel Roe, retired executive presbyter for Washington Presbytery, who was on the original council of Christian Associates. When there were differences between denominations, “he seemed to know how to state the problem in a way that opened doors,” said Rev. Roe. “He picked out those things we had in common and lifted them up and brought us together.”
He was born April 19, 1933, in Canton, Ohio, to Wilbur Duane Hicks and Vera McClain Hicks. He graduated from Barrington College in Rhode Island and Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. He was ordained an American Baptist minister in June 1958.
He worked in religious education in Illinois and Missouri before becoming associate executive director of the Council of Churches of the Pittsburgh Area in 1965 and then executive director in 1968. At the time, the council was a body representing Protestant and Orthodox churches in the region.
In the heady days after the Second Vatican Council, with its call for Catholic cooperation with other Christians, Rev. Hicks initiated contacts with local Catholic bishops. The result was an entirely new, broader organization, Christian Associates, which launched in 1970 and brought a wide array of bishops and other denominational executives around the same table for regular council meetings and other activities.
“It was his leadership that made it happen,” said the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, vicar of church relations for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, who worked for many years in communications at Christian Associates. “People all had a deep ecumenical spirit.”
In 1969, Rev. Hicks outlined the social emphasis of the soon-to-form organization: “The church now is more concerned with how we relate to our fellow man,” he said. “This is what Jesus talked about most of the time, but for some reason the church for a number of years seemed to overlook that. If we’re going to be Christian, we’ve not only got to be concerned about God, but we’ve also got to be concerned with our fellow man.”
Christian Associates activities in its first several years included the launch of a cable television channel, providing counselors for people after magistrate’s hearings and advocating for the poor and unemployed, particularly during the steel-mill shutdowns.
The organization was recognized as the outstanding ecumenical agency of its kind in 1975 by the National Council of Churches.
Rev. Hicks’ “boundless vision and energy guided Christian Associates to become a nationally recognized leader in regional ecumenism and an essential part of Southwest Pennsylvania’s religious landscape,” said the Rev. Liddy Barlow, the current executive minister of the organization, which consists of 27 Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant bodies in 10 counties in the region. “It is our privilege to continue his legacy.”
Rev. Hicks left the organization in 1988 and went to work for Ketchum Inc., providing consulting for nonprofit organizations conducting capital campaigns throughout the East Coast.
He is survived by his wife, Barbara Smetana Hicks; daughter Cathy Haughwout; stepdaughters Jennifer Kovach and Kathleen Kovach Weyand of Seattle; nine grandchildren and numerous nephews and nieces. He was predeceased by his first wife, Arlene Kober Hicks, and their son, Steven Lee Hicks.
A memorial service will be held at 12:30 p.m. April 2 at Calvary Episcopal Church. Arrangements are by Jobe Funeral Home and Crematory, Turtle Creek.
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org.