Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional series on “20-somethings” in Milwaukee.
Sam Coleman envisioned himself becoming a police officer. Growing up in the community of Arlington Heights sparked a desire to prevent crime and serve the Milwaukee area. He thought a career in law enforcement would be the perfect opportunity to do just that.
But Coleman, 28, abruptly changed his mind. After a year studying criminal justice at Waukesha County Technical College, he decided it was not the career for him.
“I think people need hope,” Coleman said. “I heard the call that I could be that person to give hope, and to encourage love and promote love at some of the hardest points of life. So I did.”
Twelve years ago, soon after Coleman arrived at Parklawn Assembly of God, a Pentecostal church in Sherman Park, the youth pastor asked Coleman to speak about the power of prayer at a church service. He has since blossomed into a minister and community member respected by his peers and those he serves. In addition to his church involvement, he is dean of students at Universal High School, located at 6850 N. 53rd Street.
Coleman specializes in community outreach. He teaches people about public health and encourages civic engagement, but said his involvement with Milwaukee youth is most important. He added that he knows what it is like to be poor, angry and depressed, so he tries to be open and honest to help those experiencing similar circumstances.
“I grew up with challenges I know I wouldn’t have made it through if it wasn’t for being able to hope in something bigger than me, and realizing that that something was God,” he said. “It was God that could love me through my fallings, and then give me the capacity to love other people.”
The third of seven children growing up in a single-parent household, Coleman successfully used religion to overcome adversity. As a minister at Parklawn, he enjoys helping others do the same.
“I think some of the biggest accomplishments would be seeing people transform their lives,” he said. “Watching mothers take a different approach to raising their children, seeing young men who abused drugs or sold drugs make a decision to contribute to society – that’s what matters.”
Coleman has helped others overcome a variety of hardships, from battling substance abuse, to dealing with depression, to struggling academically.
“Pastor Sam is like the big brother or father figure most of us never had,” said Robert Meyers, 23, a former member of Parklawn’s youth ministry. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be the man I am today. He always says I don’t owe him anything and I know I could never repay him, but I feel like I owe him my life.”
Coleman works to extend his ministry beyond Sunday services. He attends neighborhood barbeques. He visits people in the hospital. He attends graduations. He is part of the community.
“I really like being there for those life-defining moments,” he said, “and then being there again during the challenging moments.”
Coleman said he tries to be selfless, striving to ensure that his work reflects God’s work.
“Sam Coleman represents the epitome of a generational leader,” said Gregory Washington, Parklawn’s executive pastor. “He’s an accumulation of setbacks which he’s turned into stepping stones. That makes him that much more influential.”
Coleman earned a bachelor’s degree in human services management from Cardinal Stritch University as well as master’s degrees in public health from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and in education counseling from Concordia University.
He now leads the congregation in worship every Sunday. He has not just touched the hearts of young people, either.
“I have one biological mother, but I have about 15 moms,” he said, pointing to the people in the community and church who appreciate him and what he stands for.
“I love him like he is my own son,” said Cheryl Bledsoe, an associate principal at Milwaukee’s Cross Trainers Academy and a 12-year member of Parklawn. “He is a powerful young man with so much promise in his life. I’d go to war for him.”
Coleman said he wants to buy a house in Sherman Park to strengthen his ties to the neighborhood. He will remain involved as a dean at Universal in the near future, but is still trying to figure out his future. No matter what, he plans to continue serving his community.
The pastor said he is flattered that so many people think highly of him. “But I have to be honest, I’m nothing special. I’m just some guy that grew up in the ‘hood and tries to do what he can to spread some love and make the world a little better.”