Cheryl Stewart Pero, 69, known by so many alumni of LSTC as “Mama Cheryl,” died Oct. 28 after becoming ill and hospitalized on Oct. 14. She was surrounded by family and friends at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Ill., when she died. Esther Menn, academic dean, called her “a trusted mentor, warm friend, fierce advocate and dedicated pastor.”
A virtual memorial service will be held Sat., Nov. 14, 1:00 p.m. CST. Zoom information and dial-in options will be shared on LSTC’s Facebook page and by the Metropolitan Chicago Synod as it becomes available.
Pero made ELCA history twice—in 1980 as the second African American woman to become ordained in the Lutheran Church of America (LCA), a predecessor to the ELCA, and when she became the first African American Lutheran woman to earn the doctor of philosophy degree in biblical studies, which she received from LSTC.
Pero was LSTC’s pastor to the community in 2009-2010. At the time, she credited the African American Lutheran community and the Conference of International Black Lutherans (CIBL) for encouraging and supporting her as she studied and wrote. “I did this as much for them as for myself,” she said.
“We will deeply miss her warmth, wisdom and joyful voice and laughter,” Menn said. “We honor her work as director of the Pero Multicultural Center, including her tireless support and advocacy on behalf of students of color and international students, and her development of ethnic-specific ministry emphases in coordination with the ELCA.” She noted that Pero went from being a student in the PhD program in New Testament to the instructor of a popular course on Multicultural Biblical Interpretation.
Since Pero grew up in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, she assumed she wouldn’t be a pastor. But during her Lutheran year at LSTC (while a student at Andover-Newton Theological Seminary) she became connected to “Lutherans in general” and the LCA in particular. She served in the LCA office, in parishes in Chicago and in campus ministry, was a convener of CIBL, and in 2010 became director of LSTC’s Pero Multicultural Center, named for her late husband, Albert “Pete” Pero. She retired in 2017.
Priscilla Austin, a pastor in Seattle, said, “Cheryl was a mentor, elder and an approachable icon to me. She had a capacity to see possibility in me before I did. She had a way of drawing out what was hidden within us. She showed me how to be strategic, with my energy, in my life, but especially in the church. I'll be forever grateful for her voice in my head, telling me I can do anything and that I belong in any and every room. I am heartbroken at her passing, but also so happy for her, that she is reunited with her beloved, Pete. I can just see them kicking back with Jesus and having a grand ole time.”
A 2010 Epistle story about Pero noted that “trusting the advice of others” was a recurring theme in her life. But from the avalanche of testimonials on social media following her death, many were equally appreciative of the advice she gave.
David Petersen, a pastor in Belvidere, Ill., wrote on Facebook how influential Pero’s High Tea was (it featured Refectory sandwiches for hungry students): “The sense of welcome she conveyed offset the awkward feelings I had as I struggled to find my place at school. The conversations at teatime were an extension of the academic classroom that prepared us for future engagement in the world… Cheryl honored me as a witness at my ordination. She stands tall and bold in my formation. So full of grace and wisdom.”
Richard J. Perry Jr. and Pero were friends since 1976-77 when they overlapped as students at LSTC, and eventually became colleagues. Their relationship was like brother and sister, he said, partly because of the way they debated issues: “It was invigorating to be in conversations with Cheryl.”
“She practiced hospitality with a deep love for being with a variety of people. She and Pete opened their home, especially to international students. There was always a lot of happiness and celebration… It all reflected her faith and her understanding of who she was and her faith in Jesus Christ... Our church is going to be at a loss. We won’t have her voice reminding us about what we’re called to do.”
Pastor to the Community and Director of Worship
The Lutheran School of Theology (LSTC) is dedicated to bearing witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. Based in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, it is the leading urban Lutheran seminary training students for purposeful vocations in the global community. Aligned with its Lutheran heritage and built on a foundation of intellectual rigor, LSTC’s innovative, nationally recognized curriculum gives students skills for visionary Christian leadership in the public sphere.