I Said, “Yes!”…an Interview with Bill Wilson

by Stephen Simpson
Publication: One-to-One, Autumn 2014

Imagine being a 12-year-old boy, and your father is deceased. Your mother is an alcoholic. One day, you are Bill Wilson with childrenwalking with her and she says, “I can’t take it any more.” She tells you to sit on a sidewalk bench and says, “I’ll be back.” So you wait for her, and wait, and wait. You wait for three days. She never returns. You are scared, hungry, and alone. Can you picture it?

This is what happened to Bill Wilson. After three days, a man approached him. It could have been a bad man; it could have been a dangerous man. But, instead, it was a kind man, sent by God. The man said, “Are you OK?” Bill said, “I’m hungry.” Soon, Bill was being fed and getting the care he needed. Within days, he was on his way to church camp, where he learned about Jesus and had a life-saving encounter with God. History was changed forever.

By the time Bill was 19, he was driving a church bus, and picking up kids for Sunday School. Today at 65, he still does. And, he oversees a global ministry based in Brooklyn, New York, that reaches more than 100,000 kids each week with the love and Good News of Jesus. That ministry, Metro World Child, provides much-needed care for at-risk children on every continent.

Pastor Bill has paid a high price for his willingness to go to hard places. He has been shot in the face, had his face smashed in with a brick, been mugged and beaten, and has endured many other hardships. Watching him and hearing him speak reminds me of what it must have been like to be around the Apostle Paul. He is the author of numerous must-read books, including his autobiography, Whose Child Is This?

Recently, Pastor Bill was the special guest speaker at our annual CSM Gatlinburg Leadership Conference. He shared the most gripping stories about the lives of children they are reaching and he actively engaged us in ways that we can disciple the next generation. Here are some excerpts from our conversation with him there.

—Stephen Simpson, Editor

121: One of the things about you that grabs people’s hearts right away is that as you reach out to kids who have been hurt and abandoned, you’re a person who was once hurt and abandoned. Can you tell us a little about your childhood and how God saved you?

BW: My mother left me in St. Petersburg, Florida. I was born in Boston, and then my parents moved to San Francisco when I was 10. Then that marriage fell apart and we moved to Florida. My father died immediately after that. My sister left, and it was just me and my mom, but they had already been into the whole alcohol scene. That was part of the drama.

And one day, we were sitting on the street corner and she looked at me and said, “I can’t do this anymore…you wait here.” And, she never came back.

But I still go back to that street corner every year. To me that is a very critical time. It keeps it in perspective for me. Maybe that’s not for everybody … that’s just … that’s me. And I also go back so I can visit with and take care of the man who found me there.

121: What happened after you met Jesus?

BW: I was raised in a very unique church before there were many big churches in this country. I was very fortunate that it was my home church. When that week of camp was over, I had nowhere to live. Literally. So they let me stay in a broom closet at the church where the man that had found me went to; it was First Assembly of God in St. Petersburg. So they cleaned up the closet, put a little piece of foam rubber in there, and that was my mattress. I lived there for three years.

And that was in the 1960s, so it was a different time in this country and I was fine, but during that time because of the size of the church, we had all of these folks, extraordinary missionaries, as examples. And that inspired me. It seems like we don’t hear those kind of mission stories enough any more.

121: Why not?

BW: Have you read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs? You just don’t hear a lot of stories like that anymore, because not many people we know are willing to lay it down. Missionaries used to put all their personal possessions in a casket and sent it out to the mission field. That’s how it went, because they knew they were going to die on the field.

How many people do you know today that have that kind of commitment? Not many. But, that’s how I was trained in ministry. And that’s why people look at me now like I am from another planet. Yet my level of commitment at one time would have been considered very normal. What I do would not have been considered abnormal 75 years ago. But now I am a weirdo.

I am unusual. Technically, what I do should be normal Christianity, but because it is not normal, I am looked at as abnormal. But that was the mindset of men and women that went in those days. George Mueller, David Brainerd, Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, David Livingstone, and the list goes on and on and on, but you don’t hear stories like that anymore.

You know the Moravians? There were two Moravian boys who sold themselves as slaves to this island down by Madagascar because the islanders wouldn’t let missionaries in there. There were just all slaves. So these Moravian boys said, “Okay, we will sell ourselves as slaves.” And that’s how they got in so they could minister the Gospel. I mean, who does that? Who thinks like that today?

Nobody thinks like that today. We don’t preach it. We do not have a level of expectation at that point because it doesn’t fit in with our little culture. It doesn’t fit.

Well, we all have choices that we have to make. That’s why, in our own way, I am trying to keep that spirit of old time Pentecostal missionaries alive and that’s why people bring me in. That’s why I do missions. That’s why I do conferences, because people want to know about it, they want to hear it, and they are struggling with it. I make it a little more doable. Because I am not an extremely talented person, I am not an overly gifted person. I am just very committed to what I do. And anybody can be committed.

When I started out in ministry, it wasn’t fancy; there were no cameras and lights. All I had was my testimony. My home pastor asked me if I would drive the Volkswagen van to pick up kids for Sunday School. I was 19 and I said “yes”. That was it. That’s what I’ve been doing now for almost 50 years. Just more of it all over the world.

121: What was it that eventually brought you to Brooklyn?

BW: It was the worst place in the country. If you’re going to spend your life, spend it where it is going to make a difference. You know, anybody can go to most places now, but not everybody chooses to go to those kind of spots.

121: And you’ve stayed in Brooklyn?

BW: I live there in a warehouse. Right there on site. I still drive the bus about twice per month, and I am there most of the times on Saturday. If I have to travel, I leave town on Saturday night. We have Sidewalk Sunday school six days of the week, and my day is on Saturday. I do the three sessions on Saturday, and then I am out. And then on Sundays, I am somewhere for adults.

It has really just evolved strongly in the last couple of years. We have the learning, earning, and then the returning stages of life. I am at that place now where people realize that I am actually pretty serious about the returning…the giving back. It took 50 years to be the “overnight success”! But I think that governments, denominations, churches, ministries, and other groups are bringing my team and I into their situation and saying, “Look, we need this kind of ministry in our city, in our country, and we want you to come in and set it up here.”

121: How can you get people to see a vision for reaching the children in their communities?Bill Wilson with girl on bus

BW: I think this is why I stay so busy. I think the key is the “sight”. Are people seeing it? That’s why people come to Brooklyn. They spend a week with us. They are out in it, to be exposed to it. I have people go with me on the international trips and they just drop their jaws. You know…just to get them to see it.

A lot of times, people won’t see it where they are because they choose not to. But if you can get them in an environment that is so forcibly in their face, then they can’t un-know it, and then they have to answer some more questions. Some will get it and some won’t. But it just makes it easier then for people to really hear their pastor when he ministers or challenges them, because now they’ve been close enough to these issues. If people are close enough to the urgency of life, the urgency demands a response. And that’s why most folks don’t get around the urgency for an extended period of time, because it demands something from you… you can’t un-see something once you’ve seen it. This is why we have groups that come to New York every year for a week. Some of them come as boot campers. We have an internship program that is a four-month deal. I think it is the only free intern program of its kind in the country. It is there, and it forces them to deal with it.

By and large, American Christians are very complacent. They’ve allowed themselves to just get into this lethargic mentality. And most pastors…quite honestly… are held captive, because if you push people too hard…you know… the pastors are held hostage by the big givers in the church. That is a fact. So many people just want to have their best day ever, and they don’t want to be confronted and they don’t want to be pressed.

121: How did the American Church come to this place?

BW: We have allowed it. There has been a gradual shift in our culture. It has become more of a spectator mentality, even with all the machines, and social media…I mean it is what it is. It is much easier to become a spectator and piddle than it is to become hands on, to get dirty, to get out there and mix it up. Our culture has changed. We are in the midst of that. We are in the midst of an entitlement mentality. It is not about sacrifice.

I mean, I am very old school. I grew up around the old Pentecostal church. Whatever it takes, pay the price. Those are the words I grew up on. You don’t hear that preached anymore. You don’t. Now, it is all about me, it’s all about a show, it’s all about making me happy. That’s NOT what this is about! But that’s what we’ve turned it into. And it’s a conscious decision that people are making: either they don’t go to church at all or when they go to church, it is for them. They come with their flip flops and their big gulps and it’s entertainment for them with the lights and smoke machines and all that stuff.

121: How has your neighborhood changed since 1980 and how has your ministry changed?

BW: It has changed in some respects because we have kept a strong presence there, which is why I was invited to work with President George H.W. Bush (41) on the National Commission on America’s Urban Families. They saw what had happened in the neighborhood, and after they did research, our name kept coming up. In time, we have been featured on national TV news programs such as Nightline and 20/20. I’m more interested in that than just being on Christian TV, because when you have the secular community that recognizes “This is where change came from,” then that’s what really testifies about God, not just a bunch of insider Christian goofy stuff, you know.

As would any major city, our neighborhood has changed and improved somewhat; and there are other parts nearby that are technically worse than they were before. And you’re not really going to catch that unless you live there. When you are out in it every day, you watch it evolve.

121: What does it take to do what you do?

BW: You can do whatever you want, but you are not going to do high intensity, high level, high risk mission work without serious commitment and focus. You will only influence other people in direct proportion to what you are willing to sacrifice yourself.

That’s how this works. Everything is a tradeoff. How much do you want to trade? Do you want that? OK. What do you want to trade it for? Because you can’t have it both ways. Can’t do it. It’s like the lady that goes window shopping, sees the dress, wants it, goes in the dress store, goes to the dress rack, goes to the dress…what is the first thing she looks at? Price tag!

And there becomes your defining moment. You want it. You now don’t want it less. But the question is, are you willing to pay the price that it takes to get it? And that becomes the breakdown in our Christian culture in America.

Because if you ask somebody if they want to make a difference, they will look at you face to face and tell you “yes”. But when it comes down to it and they see the price tag, they may not want to pay the price. That’s what all this conversation comes down to. And it is so simple, but we’ve made it complicated. Because we want complicated. If it is complicated, that means we don’t have to do it.

The truth is, anybody can do what I have done, but most don’t want it bad enough. You want to travel every week for 34 years?

I don’t want to do that. But it doesn’t matter what we want to do. That’s the tradeoff. That’s what it takes. You work through being sick, getting shot, going through all this. Nobody wants to do this, but that’s what it takes. There is always a way to do something, I don’t care what it is. They said you can’t go to Indonesia. Okay. Alright. But now, we are reaching 10,000 kids in a week. Don’t tell me I can’t do something! But too many just don’t want to do it badly enough. Put that in your interview. It’s true. It’s a tradeoff. Everything is a tradeoff.

121: So what do you say to parents who are grappling with whether or not to send their kids into this kind of intense mission, or seriously into harm’s way? It is almost like going to war.

BW: It’s the same thing…it is like self-defense. Okay, you have to know ahead of time what you are going to do. If you are thinking about what you are going to do when you get into a fight, you’ve already lost. You better know what you are going to do when the enemy comes up.

You have to know if your kid goes somewhere and something happens, you better have had that figured out. Or else you’re gonna flip out. You won’t make it.

It’s the same way with fighting…you’ve got to be ready. That’s why I walk on the street side of the sidewalk rather than the building side of the sidewalk. And that’s just natural to me. From all my years in New York, I never walk next to a building. I always walk by the street. If someone is trying to jump you, then you have about a second or second-and-a-half to turn and face them. A regular person doesn’t think like that….making decisions, knowing when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away, and know when to run! It’s assessing quick. You’ve got to be quick, or you don’t stay there.

But it is the real thing, and Americans are not up for that. By and large they are not up for that because it is not taught from the pulpit. This kind of conversation – where could we have this kind of conversation? People look at us go and say, “What the heck? What are they talking about?” There is a very limited audience to have this kind of conversation. Either we believe what we say we believe or we don’t. It is amazing to me how Muslims will die for their bogus faith and we can’t even get to church on time. They spend three years learning how to fly a plane knowing that they are not going to land. OK. But, you can’t even get a lot of Christian people to give to missions.

I think we must choose to see with our hearts; too many times, we don’t. It’s all pragmatic it’s all spectators, it’s all about me, and it’s all translated into our culture now. But, I still believe the old prayer, “Break my heart with the things that break your heart.” To go out effectively, it takes somebody willing to be poured out. I’ve seen it happen; I know that it can.

For more information on Pastor Bill Wilson and Metro World Child, visit: www.metroworldchild.org.

About the Author:

Stephen Simpson

STEPHEN SIMPSON is the Editor of One-to-One Magazine and the Director of CSM Publishing. In addition to publishing ministry, Stephen has served in leadership for churches and ministries in Costa Rica, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, and Michigan, as well as being the Senior Pastor of Covenant Church of Mobile (2004-2013). He continues to travel in ministry across North America and in other nations.