Pastor Steve Jerbi Reflects On His Time In Milwaukee

Aug 11, 2017

Milwaukee has said goodbye to one of its prominent -- and outspoken -- faith leaders. For the last 10 years, Steve Jerbi was senior pastor at All Peoples Church on 2nd and Clarke.

He stood out as a white man leading a predominantly black congregation. He also became known for his passionate pursuit of racial and social justice.

This Sunday -- for the first time in a decade -- the congregation will gather without Jerbi, because he's moving to California to take a position with a church there.

WUWM Race and Ethnicity Reporter Aisha Turner attended a couple of Jerbi's final sermons in Milwaukee. She sat down with him to reflect on his time here, and the fight for justice that’s at the center of his faith.

At Pastor Steve Jerbi's Final Service

On August 6th, a packed crowd at All Peoples lifted up their prayers. Pastor Steve rocked black canvas sandals and short sleeves that didn't even attempt to conceal his tattoos.

His sermons often evoke the sounds of protest. He’s made the fight for police reform, for racial equity, even for food justice a central part of his ministry.

Pastor Steve administers the Sacrament of Communion.
Credit Aisha Turner

Unlike many churches, All Peoples is diverse. All Peoples is made up of about 60 percent African Americans, 30 percent white people, and 10 percent Latinos.

The building that houses it was erected in 1906 as Epiphany Lutheran. Pastor Steve said by the '80s, the original church faded, due to white flight.

"So," Pastor Steve explained, "All Peoples was the resurrected church in its place and it made a firm commitment to be rooted in the Harambee neighborhood."

The church remained Lutheran, and that commitment to the neighborhood was part of what drew Pastor Steve to All Peoples 10 years ago.

It was a reflection of the values he learned growing up. His dad is a pastor and a former member of the Rainbow Coalition. He protested the Democratic National Convention in Chicago back in 1968. "He was down there and he got his head busted open by the police there," Pastor Steve explained.

Yet the take-it-to the streets attitude that would define his reputation in Milwaukee wouldn’t come until college, during the “Battle in Seattle.”

In 1999, Members of the World Trade Organization convened in Seattle, Washington. The meeting drew thousands of protesters concerned about the environmental hazards and rising inequality brought on by globalization.

"Hearing stories coming out of that helped me reframe what growing up were kind of liberal ideals but what it actually meant to put those in practice," Pastor Steve said.

By the time he was in seminary, protest and politics would become key elements of his faith. "It was actually a WTO protest in seminary where I first wore my collar to a rally," he added.

As Pastor Steve’s activism grew, so did his interest in Milwaukee. "I was living in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee had this great reputation in the Lutheran realm for innovative urban ministry."

For instance, The Lutheran Synod had a big hand in forming MICAH, the interfaith group committed to addressing issues such as education, housing and drug abuse.

Gun Violence, Police Violence

Pastor Steve landed at All Peoples in 2007. The Church would push him far beyond what he could have imagined.

In May 2012, 13-year-old Darius Simmons was gunned down by John Henry Spooner, his 75-year-old white neighbor. Darius, who was black, had spent his summers working in the church’s community garden. His mother was a member of All Peoples. She was standing on her doorstep when her son was killed.

"So, because she was an eyewitness to the murder, standard protocol calls for her to be isolated from the scene and then investigated as quickly as possible. And the way they did that was in the back of a squad car while her baby boy bleeds out on the street," Pastor Steve explained.

This outraged the community.

"And there were hearings, and (the) Fire and Police Commission did a review of it. And ultimately there was a non-apology given, that while it may be perceived as insensitive no rules were broken," he says. "So the lack of humanity in that moment for how Patricia was treated, I think, and because of her connection to the church and as part of her family's involvement in the church, we had to -- as part of the pastoral care in that moment -- be involved in the police-community conversation."

Pastor Steve joined protests and even called for the resignation of Police Chief Edward Flynn.

Then, in 2014, he was pushed further. A police officer killed Dontre Hamilton in Red Arrow Park. Dontre was shot 14 times.

Pastor Steve could be found shouting “black lives matter” side by side with the Hamilton family.

Dontre’s brother Nate Hamilton said he drew strength from Pastor Steve. "He has been amazing to not just my family but all families that he has came in contact with," Nate explained.

The church blessed Pastor Steve Jerbi and his family during his final service.
Credit Aisha Turner

In his final sermon at All Peoples, Pastor Steve spoke of providence: "Providence is what tells us how to do all things through Him who strengthens me...When I think about the ministry that we have done together in this place, it has been a ministry of providence. There have been some dark times for our community. There have been times when it seemed like the enemy was gonna win."

Pastor Steve also celebrated the joy of those years, and recalled the church working to expand a local meal program and hosting summer camps to help young people find their purpose. "There have been times when we have put the weeping aside. We have had great victory (with) this work. We have stood side by side in the search of liberation and justice," Pastor Steve told his congregation.

Connecting Internationally

In order to reach the victories, the church had to work together with the community, and even rely on international partnerships to sustain momentum.

A replica of a cross from the Lutheran Church in El Salvador honors the ties between Milwaukee and the Central American country.
Credit Aisha Turner

All Peoples is connected to a congregation called the Heroes of Faith in El Salvador.

"The pastor there has been incredible (offering) encouragement and support to me in my time here, even though my Spanish is terrible and his English is as good as my Spanish. And yet when gang violence hits his community, I know what it is to minister to parents who have lost children to violence," Pastor Steve explained. "And so we have this deep connection and this prayerful commitment to one another that language barriers can be brushed aside because the connection of faith and brotherhood is so strong between us."

The pastors have visited each other a handful of times. Mostly, they offer prayer and guidance via Facebook, sending messages in the middle of the night. "And then we pray that Google Translate does a decent job," he said.

All Peoples Without Pastor Steve

As for the work he and his parishioners here have done together, Pastor Steve expects it will linger. "Folks will wonder, will All Peoples Church still be known as a visible sign of God's providence in the world?" Pastor Steve told his congregation, "I am confident that you will continue to answer that call."

He asked parishioners: "Do you even know the power that is in this place?"

"This is not a church that is afraid of hard things. It is not a community that will let the forces of the enemy conquer us. This is a community that stands firm on the promise of justice and peace.

That this is a community of faith that knows what the kinship of God will look like and strives to be that beloved community...that this is a faith community that will always step up for what is right.

We are called to be servants of the world to get down and wash the 'stankiest' feet out there... to do all it takes to make sure the gospel of love that we know in this place gets declared on every corner we go to - that we can do all things through The One who strengths us."

This summer, Pastor Steve is heading west to lead the congregation at Bethel Encino Elca outside of Los Angeles. It’s a church that’s looking to take its outreach and charity work to the next level of justice and advocacy. He hopes to help them in that journey.

Mural at All Peoples Church.
Credit AishaTurner

Race & Ethnicity reporting supported by the Dohmen Company.