In Memory of Thom…
by Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburg Gazette
With his ponytail and gift for spoofing goofy elements of evangelical subculture, Thom Hickling was not a stereotypical evangelical media personality. But Mr. Hickling, who died Tuesday in a car crash in Zambia, shaped Pittsburgh’s evangelical culture in the 1980s and 1990s through his family’s radio station, a singing ministry, a newspaper and two television shows.
Through a life that was often difficult, Mr. Hickling “stayed very, very faithful to Christ and to a view of Christ’s kingdom that had justice and compassion for the poor very central to his understanding of the holy drama,” said Reid Carpenter, of Sewickley, president of the Leadership Foundations of America.
“Within the evangelical world, he was pretty radical, and he had a very, very acute taste for the outsider and a heart for communicating the good news.”
Memorial services will be held in Pittsburgh and in Baltimore, where he had lived since 1997, but dates have not been set. A memorial Web site is at www.thomhickling.com.
Mr. Hickling, 51, was in Zambia to visit his daughter Holly, 23, a volunteer relief worker in the Meheba refugee camp. Mr. Hickling, his daughter and another relief worker were in a car on a two-lane road when they were struck head-on by another vehicle. Holly, whose leg was broken, was being removed for transport and asked her father if he was all right.
“He said, ‘Yeah, I’ll be fine,’ and then they took her away in a truck,” said Paul Hickling of Crafton, his brother.
Police asked a passer-by to call the phone number on Holly’s identification. At 8 a.m. Tuesday his former wife, Cathy, received a message that “a dead white man” had been found in a car registered to Holly. His family prayed that the car had been stolen, but the U.S. State Department confirmed his identity and located Holly in a hospital. She will fly back to Pittsburgh today.
Mr. Hickling was born in Illinois to a Baptist pastor who started Christian radio stations across the nation. But Mr. Hickling rejected the faith. He graduated from the University of Tulsa with a degree in political science and went to Washington, D.C., as a lobbyist for the National Taxpayers Union. There he exposed government projects such as a study of how vodka affects fish.
His mother, Dolores, gave him a challenge.
“He had read all of these philosophers in college, and I challenged him to read the Bible straight through. I said that if he could find something that didn’t mesh or wasn’t right, and he challenged it, then I would accept his decision. But not until he read the Bible through from book to book,” she said.
He returned to the faith, and met his future wife. His parents had started a radio station in Pittsburgh, WPLW-AM, and he came here to run it in 1977 when his father became ill. He and Cathy introduced Pittsburgh to what was then called “Jesus music,” both through the station and their own performances in churches and coffee houses.
Mr. Carpenter met them when they sang for his youth ministry. He later gave financial backing for their newspaper, Expression, which began monthly publication in 1981, went Web-only in 2002 and folded in 2003.
“Expression was very unifying for the evangelical community. They did a very notable job of not getting defined by any one theological perspective,” he said.
“They could never quite make it [financially], but they came close a few times.”
To keep food on the table for their four children, the Hicklings freelanced. For years Mr. Hickling produced a daily newspaper at the annual convention of the National Religious Broadcasters, including at the height of the televangelist scandals of the 1980s. While he appreciated the power of the media for evangelism, he saw its flaws.
“He had to fight his way out of the kind of fundamentalism he was raised in, and I don’t think he ever found a home in the institutional framework of the church. His work was always in reaction to or outside of it,” Mr. Carpenter said.
He worked with his close friend, the late Tom Green, to create Lightmusic, a nationally syndicated Christian music video show. It was produced for Cornerstone Television in Wall, which then asked the Hicklings to develop a show for unchurched baby boomers.
“His Place,” in production from 1989 to 2003, was set in a diner. Some characters acted out soap opera scenarios concerning faith, while the camera eavesdropped on interviews with real people in the booths. Mr. Hickling was on camera for many years as an interviewer. But he was best known as the guy who read letters from viewers. He appeared superimposed on bizarre locations, such as a yacht in a war zone or Purgatory, and he made a comedy schtick out of reading the station’s ZIP code.
He developed features unheard of in Christian television. “Stump the Bishop,” featured the quick-witted Episcopal Bishop William Frey, then dean of a local seminary. A seminarian would join him in a booth to pose questions such as, “Why are you Episcopalians so bent out of shape over ordaining homosexuals when you ordain pompous, self-rightous gluttons without any problem at all?”
Mr. Hickling created a fictional New Christian Guy, a zealous convert who believed everything he heard about the faith. In 1989 he read the (real) book “88 Reasons the Rapture will happen in 1988,” and diner patrons had to convince him that he had not missed the rapture — when some Christians believe they will be drawn into heaven.
“He was so goofy that it was hard to take him seriously, but he would take seriously the goofy things that people believe,” Mr. Hickling said in a 1991 interview.
In production meetings, Mr. Hickling “was always trying to get us to stretch and grow beyond what could sometimes be a very cloistered, insular world,” said Andrea Hopkins, who played a waitress.
“I think the program sorely missed his creative input after he left.”
In 1997, after the break-up of his marriage, Mr. Hickling became a writer for International Living. He traveled the world, but missed ministry, his mother said.
His daughter’s blog described him in Zambia last week.
“He arrived in a red hat, carrying a sock of goodies for me and Meheba [refugees], including CDs, books, soccer balls, clothes and more. It was wonderful, but mostly I’m just happy to be with him,” she wrote.
An accompanying photo shows them both on Christmas Day in Santa hats, playing guitars and singing for patrons of the Kuomboka Backpackers Hostel and Guesthouse. According to a letter Mr. Hickling posted on the site shortly before his death, they sang Christmas carols, American folk, classic rock and blues.
In addition to his daughter, mother and brother, Mr. Hickling is survived by two sons, David and Ben, and a daughter Jeana, all of Crafton; and a sister, Judi Handy, of Mission Viejo, Calif.