Reverend Louis E. Sibley III was born in 1947 in Alexandria, Louisiana, where he grew up as the fourth child in a church-going family. His grandfather, who died before Sibley was born, ministered the Nazarene Baptist Church. Sibley’s maternal uncle stepped up to serve their home church. Sibley and his brother, who was eight years older, followed their uncle into pastoring the home church. Sibley’s younger brother also entered the ministry; all three Sibleys are currently practicing in their own churches.
Sibley always thought that he would carry on the family tradition of entering the ministry, but this thought became conviction when he was 18 and heard Evangelist personality Pastor Hayward Wiggens preach. Sibley then majored in religion and philosophy at Bishop College, Dallas, Texas. He earned a master’s degree in Pastoral Care and Counseling at Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts. Knowing that the emotional and psychological needs of parishioners are as critical as their spiritual needs, he went after a post-graduate degree in Psychology and Clinical Studies at Andover Newton, in Newton, MA.
After serving three churches in Massachusetts, Sibley was called to Milwaukee to serve as the Senior Pastor of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church. Twenty-six years later, he continues in this position. He “found more than enough work to do in Milwaukee to last a lifetime.” Under his guidance, the church opened a daycare facility and a food pantry, and built an addition that includes 200 more seats in the sanctuary and 20 classrooms for Christian Education. The acquisition of the Atlas Apartments, Mt. Zion Calvin Courtyard and several duplexes has enabled the church to offer housing to seniors and people with low incomes.
In 1988, Sibley accepted Cheryl Spivey-Perry’s request to be one of the seven pastors who united to found Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope. “The needs of our community created MICAH,” he said. The seven congregations represented by their pastors crossed denominational and ethnic lines to make “a powerful voice in the community and nationally through the Gamaliel Foundation.” This grassroots network of non-partisan, faith-based organizations is in 17 USA states, South Africa and in the United Kingdom. “In Wisconsin,” Sibley added, “the Gamaliel Foundation is represented by WISDOM, which is a network of social justice organizations around the state. This connection gives us a position and a voice of power.”
Karen Royster, who was head of the Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee, sent employee Cheryl Spivey-Perry to attend one of the Gamaliel week-long community organizing leadership trainings in Chicago. The driving force behind this action was the need to get at the source of why people are hungry. When Cheryl Spivey-Perry returned, she inspired seven pastors, including Sibley, and MICAH was born.
What surprised Sibley was that seven different pastors came together for once reason. But, each of them, he said, “(I)s a leader, director, chief administrator in a congregation which functions by itself, and in no need of connecting to anyone or thing else, which makes pastors kings in our own kingdoms, if you will, which usually serves to work against unity. And yet, we all came together to fight for social justice.”
Sibley, like so many faith-based activists, attended the Gamaliel one-week leadership training in Chicago. He said that it was a “mind-blowing, different experience.” He said, “The church teaches humility, and the Gamaliel Foundation teaches that each person has the personal power to make change. This seemed conflicting: How can I be powerful yet humble at the same time? Gamaliel taught us that we have the power to change structures in our communities and in the world by having a unified voice for justice.”
To establish MICAH, the founding pastors recruited congregations rather than individuals. After the Gamaliel training, Sibley took the initiative to involve Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in MICAH by writing a personal check for the membership dues. Unlike other pastors, who had to wait for their Church Councils’ approval, he then announced to his congregation that they now were members of MICAH and that he “wanted his money back.” Of course they repaid him and became active in MICAH.
The original pastors of MICAH had agreed to bring a certain number of congregation members to the first public meeting at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. Sibley said he would bring 300 people from Mt. Zion. He approached this goal by inviting the church’s auxiliary groups: his “two spirited and spiritual choirs” and the ushers. When other members heard about this opportunity, they joined, adding up to the promised 300 number of Mt. Zion participants.
Even though MICAH presidents usually serve two-year terms, Sibley’s two terms extended to a fifth year: 2005–10. MICAH was in transition in ’09 after the economy crashed and grants fell through.
When asked what his most memorable times with MICAH were, Rev. Sibley, without hesitation, said, “The first major action that we took was our challenge to 17 local banks to set aside $50 million for the development of housing for Milwaukee’s inner-city. This initiative was led by Rev. James Leary, MICAH’s first president. As a result of this action, a number of banks became involved and together awarded about $700 million to this need for decent housing in the inner-city.
Sibley also remembers vividly the time that faith leaders spent the night in then Milwaukee County Executive Tom Ament’s office. It was fun, and exciting, the Reverend said, “even having to sleep on the floor, and the snoring,” he added. “It was an important and successful action that ensured that the county would keep for five years the $5 million level of funding for treatment-instead-of-prison for the uninsured.
Another highlight is January 15, 2003, the day that faith leaders gathered to protest the war in Iraq. MICAH members blocked the doors to the Reuss Federal Building with the intention of being arrested to raise awareness of the atrocity that a war on Iraq would inflict, not only on innocent Iraqis, but also on US citizens, most of whom had joined the armed forces to get away from poverty.
This rally and act of civil disobedience was intentionally held on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, January 15, 2009,” Sibley said. According to MICAH’s media release issued January 14, 2009. The organization “wanted to honor his spirit of nonviolence and commitment to both peace and justice.” This release also went to the chief of police and to the mayor. MICAH Religious Leaders, “engage in an ongoing struggle for justice in Milwaukee, and in grief over the daily violence on Milwaukee’s streets, which resonates with these words of Dr. King: ‘I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.’”
Sibley said another landmark action was the time that MICAH Religious Leaders “viewed the impending war on Iraq as immoral, as an expression of spiritual bankruptcy, as a cynical tool for controlling vast reserves of Iraqi oil, and more evidence of the Bush Administration’s disdain for the poor of America. Americans who fight and die in (in Iraq) will be primarily from areas of poverty, including the inner-city of Milwaukee. Iraqis who die will also be primarily from areas of desperate poverty, created in large part by sanctions and the despotic policies of the tyrant Saddam Hussein.
Six pastors and two nuns were arrested that day: Reverends Sibley, Ellwanger, Jacobsen, and Jacobs to name a few. Sibley remembers that it was sub-zero weather that day, and yet, the photograph he has of himself being escorted to jail by two policeman, each gripping one of his arms, shows him with his coat unbuttoned, and buffeted by the frigid wind. The Rev. said that the cops want to know how tall he was, “6’2,” and how much he weighed, “285.” The rest of the faith leaders were escorted by only one policeman each.
Sibley says that MICAH has become a force to be reckoned with. One cannot go anywhere without the name MICAH being recognized by politicians across the country. Thus, MICAH has become the force of power that it set out to be back in 1988. This progress has been achieved by one-on-one meetings with bank officials, political leaders, entrepreneurs, press conferences, spending nights in the offices of political figures, getting finger printed, being held by the police, being on probation for a year, and more. The Reverend said, “We were one of many protesting the War with Iraq.”
Sibley said that the election of 2012 “(would) determine whether or not life will be more difficult and dangerous because middle class and poor people have experienced what life is like to have jobs. If you take away people’s hope for freedom and bettering themselves by … going to school, and obtaining jobs, you’re going to have riots, you’re going to have hell on your hands.
“I am very sure that the opposing 2012 presidential candidate, who without thinking said, ‘Go ask your parents for money to start a business; I’ll bet you $10,000.00,’ just doesn’t know what he is doing. That was the difference between the two parties vying for election to the presidency of the United States of America.
“There are efforts being made by congregations and pastors who are working hard to hopefully do enough against those who would destroy an equal playing field. Today, we need to engage young people where they are, such as at the malls, to hopefully get them on the voting rolls. Mt. Zion provided transportation to and from the polls on November 6, 2012.”
Reverend Sibley said he was chastised by a Republican African American for offering transportation to people who have no other way to get to vote in November. “He’s on a different plane than I am since he thought we shouldn’t help people get to the polls …
“There’s a verse in the bible: ‘Know I’ll be with you.’ What’s so powerful about people who stand together praying and singing, no weapons, just being together, is that these actions open doors and make for tremendous change.”