To African-American Adventists, Neal Wilson Was a Trusted Friend
Brought pastors into leadership, rebuked segregation [Main Story]
BY MARK A. KELLNER, news editor
In their first encounter a half century ago, Charles D. Brooks, then a young African-American Seventh-day Adventist pastor in Cleveland, Ohio, knew there was something different about his ministerial colleague, Neal C. Wilson.
The setting was a seminar for area Adventist clergy, conducted by leaders from the Columbia Union Conference. Many of those leaders, Brooks recalled in an interview with Adventist Review, were visibly “uncomfortable” being in Brooks’ church, the Glenville Seventh-day Adventist Church, at that time, the start of the modern U.S. civil rights era, and a period when race relations were often strained.
At the end of the day’s events most of those leaders gladly left Brooks’ church for the trip home. As he walked back to his office in the church building, Brooks saw a group of men gathered around the piano, conversing and getting to know each other.
COMFORTABLE CONVERSATION: Neal C. Wilson (front row, fourth from left) made racial integration a priority, says Charles D. Brooks (back row, right).
[Photo: GC Archives]
In the center of that group was Neal C. Wilson, whose December 14, 2010, passing at age 90 provided an opportunity for Brooks to share some memories of his colleague.
“I just saw this young White guy have a comfortable conversation,” Brooks recalled. “I asked someone, ‘Who is that?’ and they said, ‘That’s N. C. Wilson.’”
That day was the beginning of a decades-long association between the two. Wilson brought “C.D.,” as the then-Columbia Union Conference president called him, to the fore as the region’s evangelist. In that role Wilson told constituents about the great young preacher they now had available; Brooks’ ministry expanded, hundreds were baptized, and eventually he became a general field secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, as well as the founding speaker of the Breath of Life television ministry.
Brooks said Wilson actively assisted when he first came to the Columbia Union: “Neal Wilson found me a house,” he recalled, noting that the assistance came while Brooks was conducting a multiweek evangelistic campaign. “He called me and said, ‘I think you’re going to like this.’ ”
Wilson, Brooks said, “was one of the greatest men I met in my life, because of his humanity.”
And the former GC president’s fame spread far beyond the shores of the United States, Brooks said. When Brooks held a speaking series in Egypt, he was taken to a souvenir store to buy gifts for people back home. The evangelist was introduced to the store’s owner—a non-Christian—as a Seventh-day Adventist.
“Do you know Neal Wilson?” the shop owner asked Brooks.
“Yes, I do. He’s a good friend of mine,” Brooks said he told the owner. Then he added, “That man wouldn’t let me go. He kept me there all afternoon and dressed me from head to toe like a sheikh, so I could have a picture taken.”
Such, Brooks asserted, was Wilson’s ability to touch people: “He had a gift,” Brooks said.