Bethesda News

Sherburne P. Hill Remembered: 1925-2021

Bob Manbeck, former Director of Community Relations

Ambitious, caring, creative, faithful, joyful, resourceful: these are just a few of the character traits exemplified by the late Sherb Hill, who served admirably in leadership roles at Bethesda Mission over three decades.

Sherb was a volunteer in rescue mission work for several years, prior to joining Bethesda’s board of directors in 1970. His board service came at a time when the mission adopted a survival policy, due to near financial insolvency. In the early 1970s, the mission accepted a challenge to become the first alcoholic shelter under a state pilot program for alcohol rehab. The famous pool at the men’s shelter was filled in and the area converted into a 22-bed dormitory.

This shelter served the community for about a year while awaiting promised state funding. When approved, it was diverted to another organization and Bethesda was $30,000 in the red while the mission was operating on a budget of $70,000. The surrounding community became aware of this issue through news reports. Several other human service organizations, the City of Harrisburg and the State Department of Public Welfare wanted to see ‘Harrisburg’s Good Samaritan’ become solvent. Under Sherb’s leadership, several faithful and determined board members worked together to get the mission beyond this financial low point.

After serving several terms as Board President, Sherb resigned from the board to become the mission’s first Director of Development. It followed his successful 19-year career in the life insurance industry. He was later promoted to Executive Director in January 1983, becoming the eleventh director since the mission’s founding in 1914.

His tireless passion for changing lives through this “House of Grace” became well known among local church leaders. He was a visionary with a bevy of real-world experience, who championed the term “friend raising,” which led to consistent fundraising that subsequently provided for robust growth in mission programs and outreach.

A former Patriot-News columnist, known for capturing the essence of regional business leaders, likened Sherb’s drive in a feature article to the “tenacity of a bear that refuses to quit.” The article paved the way for some recipients of mission appeal letters to better understand what drove Sherb’s passion for mission guests. After reading his letters, some called to ask Sherb for a facility tour, which later led to them becoming mission volunteers.

An extrovert with a welcoming smile and hearty laugh who was ready to meet any challenge, Sherb formerly served in the Army Air Corps as a Staff Sergeant flying in B-29s during World War II. He was also a chemical engineer and cryogenics specialist and served as vice president for development at Philadelphia College of Bible.

While working in the high-pressure field of cryogenics, he observed a co-worker who appeared to be untouched by the stress around him, who had something more going on in his life at the time. A curious sort, Sherb asked co-worker Art Steele why he had a “different” approach to life. Art told Sherb that he “had Jesus Christ,” which resulted in Sherb examining his own beliefs.

As shared at faith promise banquets the mission held during the 1980s, Sherb admitted that previous to accepting Christ, he did not like himself, even though he had not experienced crisis or confrontation. So when he picked up a Gideon Bible one day in a hotel room, he prayed for God to take over in his life. From that point on, he provided Christocentric discipleship and outreach to people from all walks of life, both through the mission and his local church. He became a sought-after speaker for business and civic organizations throughout the midstate and earned the respect of governmental officials, one of whom personally brought homeless people to the shelters.Under his leadership as Executive Director from 1983-1998, several programmatic enhancements ensued. Perhaps foremost among them was the establishment of a center for women and children. Working with human service organization leaders to meet a new challenge, Sherb located an empty building on 20th Street in the City of Harrisburg that was built in 1902 as the Pleasantville Elementary School. It later was home to a barber’s institute. The unbudgeted price tag was $30,000. Knowing that this was the place God intended for ministry to the growing number of women and children who remained out of public view, Sherb issued a challenge to attendees at a faith promise banquet to help raise the funds. He said that what followed was miraculous.

A mission donor, who only a few years earlier became acutely aware of the emerging issue of homeless women and children in the region, was led to contribute the entire amount… Within a few months, the vacant structure and annex were vigorously transformed by volunteers and mission staff into a shelter that included plans for 40 beds and cribs. Twelve women and children were welcomed on the first night the shelter was open.

Later that year, the Pennsylvania League of Cities designated Bethesda Mission as “Outstanding Non-profit” of the Year. At an event attended by some 300 local, state, and federal officials, the late City of Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed proclaimed “Bethesda has carried on a tradition of Samaritan services that have brought significant impact to the community as a whole. But, more specifically, to thousands of citizens who benefited from the mission’s programs. While doing so, the mission has also relieved the pressure on overworked and overburdened municipal agencies.” The same sentiments were expressed by several other governmental and business officials as the mission grew while under Sherb’s tutelage.

“Servant” was the word most utilized by Sherb when referring to himself and all that he strived to be in tandem with his faith. Throughout his work at the mission and beyond, he faithfully exuded the qualities of a servant intent on helping to change hearts. Perhaps above all else, Sherb’s heart attitude is what beamed beyond his impressive credentials, discipleship, and vocabulary. Throughout robust mission growth, he maintained daily staff Bible studies, spoke at hundreds of churches on his own time, and met with anyone curious about the mission’s roots and spiritual direction. Yet, his priority was equipping mission staff members with what they needed to adequately share Christ with guests.

In one of his newsletter columns published in 1989 marking the mission’s 75th anniversary, Sherb epitomized his vision for future outreach in these words:

“By the time many of our guests reach the mission, they are well down the broad road, and they can see the big sign up at the end – DESTRUCTION AHEAD. Most have been travelling the road for many years, but don’t believe it and drive on to the very end. Others believe and ask for direction to the narrow road that leads to life, because (as scripture states), ‘Enter in at the narrow gate, because narrow is the gate and hard is the way that leads to life, and few are there who find it.’” – Mt. 7:14 

“For many, it seems so difficult to walk the narrow way after enjoying the ease, the fun, and the pleasures of the broad way. It is a hard way, and hardness is seldom sought.

For 75 years, Bethesda Mission has stood beside the broad way as a haven for its travelers, and its placement is very near the big sign at the very end. For the next decade, however, we are going to place emissaries closer to the entry end of the broad way – to intercept the young men, women, and children just starting their journey. Our prayer is that we can effectively divert many to the narrow road of life at an early age, thus making the journey of life more profitable and more joyous.”

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