On Sunday, the Rev. Mike Nickleson preached from his wheelchair at Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, the congregation on the southeast side of Fort Wayne he had served for decades. His theme: "My Goal is Heaven."
Wednesday, the seemingly indefatigable leader in the civil rights movement and equally tireless supporter of educational opportunity for black young people in Fort Wayne, died at Parkview Regional Medical Center. He was 63.
In Nickleson’s Sunday sermon, "He told his people he was getting tired," said the Rev. Vernon Graham, former executive pastor of Associated Churches of Fort Wayne and Allen County where Nickleson was a longtime board member and, Graham has said, "an elder statesman" of the city’s religious community.
Graham praised Nickleson for his perseverance, despite a decades-long struggle with diabetes that claimed part of his left leg and his ability to walk. "Anything good that happened in this community in the past 35 years in the way of race relations, he was right in the middle of it," Graham said, adding he had lost a friend and "brother in Christ."
Pastor Robert Bell of True Love Missionary Baptist Church called Nickleson "my spiritual father" for his knack of being a pastor to pastors. The Rev. Stephen Terry, pastor of New Life Church of God in Fort Wayne, said Nickleson was "a great bridge builder" who "loved people all around, regardless of who they were or what neighborhood they lived in."
Nickleson campaigned to prevent the closing of Paul Harding High School because of its importance to black students. That was unsuccessful, but years before he helped found Fort Wayne’s Timothy L. Johnson Academy charter school.
He also was active in found the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, a group of predominantly black pastors. One of that group’s first initiatives was helping secure a federal investigation of the use of excessive force by the Fort Wayne police in the 1990s, and the alliance went on to tackle issues of social inequality and community violence.
Nickleson also raised money for victims of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita.
When his leg was amputated in 2008, Associated Churches spearheaded a drive that raised money for Nickleson’s medical expenses and to move him into an accessible parsonage, as he continued to preach, teach, counsel and mentor.
Young men from his congregation would often carry him up the three steps in Mount Calvary’s sanctuary so he could deliver messages.
Fred Morris, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Fort Wayne, said Thursday he liked to invite Nickleson to preach, because his message "would be genuine."
"It would be from the Lord. You could tell. … We always said he preached as good sitting down as we could standing up," Morris said.
Among Nickleson’s survivors are his wife, Dot. Funeral arrangements are pending with Carmichael Funeral Service, 831 E. Jefferson Blvd.