New UCC pastor traveled a hard road to pulpit

BRADENTON -- The road Pastor Robert Sichta took to the pulpit was quite unusual.

Hard, too.

Ran away to join the Navy as a teenager during Vietnam.

Rode the bench for Virginia Commonwealth University basketball.

Earned a law degree at William & Mary.

Specialized in mining law.

Spent time in federal prison for securities fraud.

Found God on Miami Beach.

If you think that’s incredible, so does the Sichta, the new pastor at Congregational United Church of Christ on 26th Street West.

“Fifteen years ago I was getting ready to go to prison and I had no idea what was going to happen in my life,” said the Champaign, Ill., native. “Now, I don’t have any real conclusion other than to simply accept the fact I really let God into my life and now I’m overwhelmed with wonderful things.

“It’s a miracle.”

Sichta came here from a UCC congregation in Barneveld, Wis., a farming community just outside Madison, the state capital.

He joked that he’d keep his homilies short on fall Sundays so the farmers could get back to their fields and Packer season ticket holders could get a head start on the three-hour drive to Green Bay.

“I think church should be fun,” Sichta said. “It has serious moments, a place to be considered sacred, but it’s also a place to enjoy. I think church has to be a place where people want to go, where part of that worship experience fills them, but also makes them feel good about themselves. When the message is appealing to you in helping you understand your life better and hopefully help you reach out to other people in a better way.”

Sichta was in Barneveld five years and thought he’d stay longer, but for those Wisconsin winters.

“The first was OK, but after three successive winters of record snow and cold? We were ready to go,” he said. “Then when this opened up I really wanted to come here. Florida had the appeal of having lived here before. I always had this thing in my mind I’d end up back on the Gulf coast.”

The last time was 1997-1999 when Sichta was incarcerated at the minimum security prison at Eglin Air Force Base.

A savvy attorney for 22 years, he was practicing in Denver when his world blew up.

“I and some other people came up with a scheme we were convinced would fool everybody and it fooled nobody. We all got arrested and we all went to jail,” Sichta said. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me. When you’re doing time, you have a decision to make -- is this going to be a prep school for going out and doing the same thing again? Or is this a place you can really turn it around?

“I got my head on straight, came out knowing I had a chance to restart my life. Came out having had the good fortune of encountering the right people, who got me thinking the right way, about other people instead of myself. Got me understanding I had talent and ability. I needed to get out there, do something for the good of others and by doing that I’d be helping myself.”

Beth Holloway was a member of the church search committee, which received 76 applicants.

That Sichta was a convicted felon did not deter them.

“This is a man who did his time and paid the price,” Holloway said. “One of the most important things for us as Christians is forgiveness. We all fall short of what the Lord wants us to be.

“Turning your life around is an important tenet of our being Christian and our pastor has done that. He has a lot of ideas, a lot of energy, the ability to inspire and he is passionate about his faith.”

After being released from prison, Sichta moved to Miami Beach where two daughters from his first marriage lived. He got a job as a corporate paralegal and began attending the UCC there.

“I felt this call, but I wasn’t sure. The one day I went home to my one-bedroom apartment, on parole, broke,” he said. “I went into my bedroom and something just drove me to my knees and I started hearing this voice, ‘You belong to me.’”

At the UCC pastor’s recommendation, Sichta enrolled at Miami’s Florida Center for Theological Studies. He went there at night for five years, pastoring at a homeless shelter in Homestead where he founded a UCC church.

Then came Barneveld, Wis., and now Bradenton.

“I’m thrilled they chose me,” Sichta said.

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055.