As the church approaches All Saints Day, the ELCA mourns another storied member of our family joining the communion of saints. Cheryl Stewart Pero, a theologian, writer, advocate and educator, died Oct. 28. She will be remembered by many for her contributions and her legacy in Lutheran education, and as someone who shaped and challenged the status quo in the church.
Pero’s death also comes on the heels of the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women and the 40th anniversary of the ordination of women of color in the ELCA, amplifying Pero’s status as the second Black Lutheran woman ordained in the Lutheran Church in America, a predecessor body of the ELCA. She was also the third woman of African descent in the ELCA to receive her doctorate in New Testament studies from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC).
The impact Pero had offers an inspiring look at a person who has been referred to by friends and colleagues as a “fierce advocate,” a “trusted mentor,” a “warm friend” and a “dedicated pastor.” Her dedication and accomplishments are a part of the history of the ELCA and will be remembered by many for years to come.
“One of Dr. Pero’s last acts toward me was perhaps a blessing,” said Beverly Wallace, associate professor of congregation and community care at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn. “Indeed, if it wasn’t for Cheryl, who [would have said I should] not do PhD work but clinical pastoral education work, which challenged me to do otherwise. If it wasn’t for Cheryl, who mentored so many, I would not be the sole African American Lutheran woman teaching theologian in any of our seminaries. In honor of Dr. Cheryl Angela Steward Pero, the work of a womanist initiative will go forth.”
Joined by her husband Albert “Pete” Pero, Cheryl and other ELCA teaching theologians of African descent developed the Conference of International Black Lutherans (CIBL), the African descent teaching theologians of the ELCA. Representing CIBL, Pero was a longtime leader at the ELCA Theological Roundtable, convened by the Office of the Presiding Bishop. She also worked with her husband to form and lead The Albert ‘Pete” Pero, Jr. Multicultural Center at LSTC.
“She was concerned about worship, and how historic patterns of Christian assembly could be appropriated and given new life in the Black context. We had to run to keep up with Cheryl.”
“I was stunned and surprised when Cheryl died,” said James R. Thomas, senior adjunct associate of cross-cultural ministry at Lenoir-Rhyne University/Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, S.C. “I am saddened by the loss of a friend and colleague. She leaves a huge footprint. Cheryl blossomed as a mentor and guide to many who were being formed as ministers and workers in the public square. She was concerned about worship, and how historic patterns of Christian assembly could be appropriated and given new life in the Black context. Forward leaning, we had to run to keep up with Cheryl.”
Thomas recalled that Pero was excited about using her training as a New Testament theologian in the academy and the community and looking forward to teaching in Liberia next semester.
Many members of the ELCA would also recognize Pero’s name from her significant contributions to Luther’s Small Catechism with African Descent Reflections (2019, Augsburg Fortress). She also shared a reflection about her journey as a leader in this church for Living Lutheran in the “We are church, we are called” series.
“Mama Cheryl was a part of my seminary, pastoral and theological journey for over 10 years,” said Kwame Pitts, pastor of Crossroads Lutheran Church in Amherst, N.Y.
“She imparted both encouragement and empowerment. She introduced me to scholars such as [theologian and professor] Cain Hope Felder and invited me into the sanctity of her home that she shared with Papa Pete. She entrusted me to care for her when she went through her back surgery. She is what an elder and mentor should be. Not too many people can say they have a deep love for their professors, but I do love her and will continue to honor her. That’s my responsibility as a practical womanist theologian.”