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Heeding God’s call

Serving sacrificially in the big city

by Devin C. Manzullo-Thomas

Sarah H. Bert (front row, center) had a knack for drawing in young women in her urban Chicago neighborhood, teaching them to both sew skillfully and to follow Jesus. She was known for buying perfume—something no respectable BIC woman of her time would do—in order to get the door-to-door sales girls to come to Sunday school. Photo: Courtesy of the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives


The bustling metropolis of Chicago—choked by unemployment, flooded with immigrants, and plagued by tenement housing, unjust working conditions, and dangerous vices—was not an easy place to live in the late 19th century.

Yet it was the city to which Sarah H. Bert—a pioneering BIC urban missionary—moved in 1894, following God’s call. Born in 1860, Bert was a frail, timid Kansas farmgirl who felt the Spirit drawing her to work with the poor and outcast. Against all odds, she made the Windy City her home, ministering there for more than 50 years and becoming the first-ever female superintendent of a BIC mission.

Bert never married—not an easy decision in an era when women had fewer legal rights and less financial security than men. And yet her singleness enabled her to more easily connect with the young urban women to whom she ministered through sewing classes and Bible lessons. Her legacy can be summarized in the words she herself used to describe urban ministry in 1904: “Few would ever get to God if there were no deeds of kindness scattered along their path by Christian hearts and loving hands.”

This article originally appeared in the fall/winter 2015 issue of In Part magazine.

Devin C. Manzullo-Thomas is a church historian who works at Messiah College, serves the BIC Historical Society, and attends the Grantham (Pa.) BIC Church with his wife, Katie, and son, Lucas. devinmzt.com

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