Wintley Phipps, best known for his vocal music, has recorded more than 25 studio albums and has sung for six U.S. presidents. He has met with giants of our age from Nelson Mandela to Mother Teresa. For the last 20 years, a large part of his focus has been on the U.S. Dream Academy, an organization he set up to support the children of people in prison.
In this exclusive interview with Spectrum, Wintley Phipps reflects on his four decades of ministry in the Adventist church, his mission from God, and what our political leaders should be thinking about now.
Question: Tell me about the U.S. Dream Academy. How many children are you serving now?
Answer: About 800 children a year. We have been around since 1998, so almost 20 years. Over 10,000 children have come through our program.
What goals do you have for the Dream Academy?
We want to help young people build a character based on the character of God. God gave us a framework — a divine plan for the development of a Christian character. There are the eight character traits listed in 2 Peter 1:5-7: faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love. We have built an assessment around those character dimensions to help people to grow.
It takes hundreds of thousands of dollars every month to do this work, and we pray often that God will send people to help us make a difference in the lives of children of prisoners.
Can you tell me a little bit more about how it all came about?
I’d like to start at the beginning and really tell you the story. I was born in Trinidad and reared in Montreal, Canada. I was born into a troubled home. I used to get away from my parents’ troubles by going to the back of the house, turning my red tricycle up on its side, using the wheel as a steering wheel, and dreaming I was flying to faraway places in the world, meeting important people, and doing important things. Even as a child, I was searching for meaning and significance.
When we moved to Montreal, my father would take us to the airport to say goodbye to departing friends. I would stuff a handful of luggage tags into my pocket. Then I would fill them out: Wintley Phipps, Flight 393 London or Flight 768 Paris. I have always been a dreamer.
Then I turned to music as the real ticket to see my dreams come true. It was really pop music I was into.
I didn’t have any voice teachers when I was growing up. I found my voice teacher on the radio when I was 14 years old. I would practice sounding just like my voice teacher on the radio.
Much later, I bought concert tickets to hear him and plane tickets to get there. I wrote him a letter and told him he was my musical inspiration, my musical North Star. I told him all I had done: I had sung for six presidents of the US; I was the last one to sing “Amazing Grace” for Mother Teresa before she died. I told him I wanted to thank him.
And then I got an e-mail saying “Sir Tom Jones would like to see you when you come to Las Vegas.”
Your “voice teacher” was Tom Jones!
When we got into the Green Room, I broke into song. “It’s not unusual, to be loved by anyone. . . .”
His eyes got big.
When I was 16 and 17, I had a lot of heroes in the pop world. I was able to see many of those heroes. But when I was a 17-year-old student at Kingsway College [an Adventist academy in Ontario, Canada], I surrendered my life to the Lord.
I told the Dean I was thinking about leaving school, and he asked if that was what I really wanted to do. He suggested that rather than focus on what I wanted, I should do what God wanted for once.
So I decided I would do whatever God wanted. I prayed: “God, I would like to travel and use my talents for you even if you decide that my singing should be on the back of a garbage truck.”
The very next day a man approached me and asked if I was Wintley Phipps. When I said I was, he told me he was part of the Canadian Heritage Singers, and they wanted me to sing and travel with them.
I was dumbfounded. I had never seen a prayer answered like that.
I walked the campus in deep conviction, and I listened for God like I had never listened before.
I believe that when I listened, God said to me: “I see your dreams. Give me those dreams, and I will turn them into something amazing.”
God is the ultimate dreamer. When God dreams, stars sparkle. When he dreamed for me, those were big dreams.
I believe that God spoke to me. He said that if I would be faithful, he would take my life down an unusual path. He said three things: He would give me a chance to speak truth to people of influence and power. He said that I should be prepared to articulate issues of religious freedom. And he said he would use my musical gift to give me the opportunity to sing everywhere.
Of course, I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want anyone to think I had a messianic complex.
But everything he showed me, I have been able to live it. Each of those three things, I have done.
At that time, I never dreamt my music would reach millions and millions around the world. [The YouTube video of Wintley Phipps’ singing “Amazing Grace” in Carnegie Hall has more than 15 million views from around the world.]
After seeing me online, a member of the European Parliament called and invited me to come and sing there.
I sat at a breakfast table with President Ronald Reagan.
Just a couple of months ago, President Jimmy Carter asked me to come and speak at his Boys and Girls Clubs in Georgia.
I met President Bill Clinton in the Oval Office.
Yes, there is no doubt I was given the opportunity to speak truth to people of influence and power.
I believe you met Bill Clinton more than once?
In 1990, I was singing in Birmingham, Alabama, when someone said that the Governor was coming. I straightened my tie. Then Bill Clinton walked in. Since we were in Alabama, I just assumed he was the Governor of Alabama. I kept talking to him about Alabama until it finally dawned on me that he was actually the governor of Arkansas — not Alabama.
After that, I didn’t see him until four months before the presidential election in 1992. When I spoke to him, I said, “You probably don’t remember me. . . .” But he did!
I sang for his first prayer breakfast as president. Afterward, he sent me a note of thanks and signed it: “The Governor of Alabama”!
During the Lewinsky scandal, I sent him a note and suggested that he take a look at Psalms 69 which God had impressed me to do. That Psalm, written by David, says: “Oh God, thou knowest my foolishness; and my sins are not hid from thee. . . . They that hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of mine head: they that would destroy me.”
At another function later, his Labor Secretary told me that the President had called some of his Cabinet members together. They were angry with Clinton, but he began to read to them from Psalms 69. Then he wrote his first speech where he really came clean about his indiscretions and untruths.
I was invited to be there to hear him give this speech. As I was sitting in that East room, I realized that everything God had showed me as a young man, I was living. I was being used to help nudge the President of the United States to truthfulness in a time of incredible personal and public difficulty.
Clinton sent me a note afterward, saying that he appreciated my counsel and prayers.
You can imagine how I feel, living what God showed me. There was no way I could have personally orchestrated this situation. Nobody could just plan to have breakfast with the next six presidents of the United States. And yet that is what God has done for me.
God has taught me some lessons along the way, including this: Treat people with respect even if you don’t know who they are, where they are going, or how they can help you.
Here is an example. A young lady in Baltimore, Maryland, heard me sing and said she wanted to talk to me afterward. She told me that she was having some trouble at work and felt unsure about what to do but that she had been inspired by my music. We prayed together. Not long after that she moved to Chicago to host a morning TV talk show — that woman was Oprah Winfrey.
Now, when Oprah has given me the chance to be on her show, many generous donors have stepped up to help the Dream Academy.
We have a little expression in the black community: “Look at God.” He has an amazing ability to do things we could never do on our own.
One day about 40 years ago, I took my first church assignment. I became the associate pastor of the Dupont Church in Washington, D.C. Later I moved to the Capitol Hill Church — the little church down the street from the U.S. Congress. It was a small church when I started there. One day, I looked out at the congregation and whom did I see but Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in our Adventist church.
A little over 30 years ago, I saw a man on an Amtrak train from Baltimore to Philadelphia who looked like he needed a friend. I asked if I could sit next to him. I learned that his name was Chuck Colson, and he was one of the most important people in Republican politics. He was Richard Nixon’s hatchet man. Many people believe he was the mastermind behind the Watergate scandal. He was sent to prison and had a Saul to Paul experience. He dedicated his life to one thing: working to help prisoners and their families. He began Prison Fellowship — the largest prison ministry in the world.
After I met him, he began taking me with him to visit prisons. He would speak, and I would sing.
Those experiences shook me. I had been raised in an Adventist cocoon and had not seen many of the difficult social realities that so many people — especially African Americans — are forced to deal with.
The number of black inmates struck me.
At a women’s prison, a pregnant woman introduced herself to me and informed me that my wife was her aunt. We had no idea that this relative was incarcerated. That really struck home.
Chuck Colson placed me on his board of directors where I sat next to some of the country’s biggest names and best minds. There I was exposed to something many Adventist pastors never are. I saw first-hand how you build and run a not-for-profit para church ministry with integrity. I learned how to build a board and how to be accountable. That was not something I was taught at the seminary.
While serving on the board, an alarming statistic surfaced: 60% to 70% of all those who end up in prison are the children of prisoners or have a family history of incarceration.
(The United States has 5% of world’s population but over 20% of world’s prison population.)
America has 2.3 million prisoners and almost 5 million under court supervision on probation or parole. That is over 7 million people who have been incarcerated in the U.S. If we figure an average of three children each, that is some 20 million children who are the children of people in the prison system.
I decided I wanted to start a ministry to try to break this cycle of intergenerational incarceration. Chuck Colson’s organization helped me start. What can we do to break this cycle of incarceration among children? I studied the research, brought in experts, and two things became clear:
1. The density of caring adults in a child’s life must be increased
2. Interactive tutorial academic support makes a difference
There is a direct link between school failure and incarceration. In the US, 60% of all black boys who don’t graduate from high school will be in prison by the age of 30.
I wanted to focus on three pillars:
1.Dream Building: Create opportunities for them to dream and for their dreams to become real
2. Academic skill building
3. Character building
The Dream Academy is now almost 20 years old with seven centers around the U.S.: Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, Houston, Salt Lake City, Cincinnati, and Orlando. We have 40-something employees around the country. We also have many, many volunteers and mentors. We raise about $250,000 every month to operate the Dream Academy. We have been blessed with benefactors who see the need.
We have also been funded by the Department of Justice which funds only a few of the community organizations that send proposals.
Thousands have come through our program. In Orlando, where the high school graduation rate is about 70%, 92% of our Dream Academy students have completed high school. We prepare them for school success.
Of course, as fast we make deposits of common sense, character, and virtue, there is a degenerate culture around them making withdrawals. Our kids live in some of the toughest neighborhoods in America. I walked home with students in Orlando one day. It floored me. We have no idea the gauntlet some of these kids have to go through just to get home.
So was your discovery that a member of your wife’s family was in prison a catalyst for you to get even more involved in helping the families of prisoners?
Yes, that was part of it.
I believe African Americans are disproportionately impacted by incarceration because they are the only group that did not come to the U.S. as families. Every other group who arrived in the U.S. arrived in families. African Americans didn’t have that. My wife is 63 years old, and her grandfather was a slave in America. Her father was born in the late 1800s. His father was born a slave. It really wasn’t that long ago.
It is critical to understand that storms always take out trees with the weakest roots first. I believe African Americans have weak family roots in this country. Alex Haley, the author of Roots, was one of my dear friends, and he did such a service to black people in this country. He began to help us connect to the somewhere we came from.
So yes, that had a strong impact on my decision to start the Dream Academy. But there was another driving impact for me. As a church, our focus has not been this group of young people: prisoners and their families. Our focus has been on educating the public about our truths. We don’t have a lot of on-the-ground social work. Yes, our church has prison ministries, but very few have focused on the children of prisoners. So when I saw this opportunity to help young people in the name of my church and to make a difference in the lives of the most marginalized young people in this country, that really excited and encouraged me.
How well do you think the Adventist church does at impacting the world we live in? Do we tend to be too insular? Should we play a greater role in politics and policy?
I think we have every right to be wary of politics as a church. But I don’t think we should ever distance ourselves in terms of ministry from leaders and political leaders. It has been my ministry to minister to political leaders, regardless of their party affiliation.
For example, I had to sing at a function in Washington, D.C. where President Bill Clinton spoke, and that same night I rushed across town to sing to the Republicans. When I announced that I had just sung to the President, there were boos. Those changed to laughter and applause when I said that I always go where people need the Lord. After a short pause, I continued: “And that is why I am here.”
Of course, the truth is that they all need the Lord, no matter who the leaders in Congress are. I have stayed connected to both sides of the aisle. I don’t know too many people who can say they have sung at the inauguration of both a Republican and Democratic president.
God gave me this destiny — He has orchestrated some amazing meetings. One day in 1997, I squeezed onto an elevator, when I heard a voice from the back introduce himself as Sam Brownback from Kansas. [Currently Kansas Governor; previously Republican congressman and senator from Kansas.] Brownback asked what I was doing the next day, then he asked me to sing "Amazing Grace" at a program for Mother Teresa in the Capitol. It turned out she died only a few months later.
While in the Capitol I felt a a tap on my shoulder and was told that the Speaker of the House wanted to see me. I was taken to an office, and then Newt Gingrich walked in. He told me that my music had touched his life. He said he wanted to make a difference in the lives of America’s youth who are at risk and falling behind. He asked me to call together leaders from around the country and put our heads together to see what we could do to help. I could hardly believe it. I told him that was a dream of mine, too, and that I was already working on something. I was able to give him a 10-page presentation about helping the families of prisoners. He condensed my proposal down to just one page and made arrangements to go to the Oval Office to present my plan to President Clinton the next day.
I spent some time then knocking on doors in Washington, D.C. to raise money. In 1998, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah (who is actually a prolific songwriter, having written for Gladys Knight and other big names), agreed to host a fundraising dinner for the project. Senator Hillary Clinton stepped up to co-host. With bipartisan support, we raised $1.6 million at that dinner.
I could never have done those things myself. God told me that if I would be faithful, He would do it.
You have had wonderful opportunities to meet many influential people. You are one of the best-known Adventists outside the church. But the church itself has not created this mission for you. You have represented the Adventist church around the world but not in an official capacity. Maybe the church is not organized to make good use of people’s gifts to reach the wider world.
I was on Robert Schuller’s Hour of Power television program more than any other singer in the history of their ministry. For 25 years I had the honour and privilege of working with Billy Graham. They were world-famous evangelists — but not Adventists.
Our Daily Bread Ministries [non-Adventist] has sponsored the last 10 albums I have recorded.
We have a system where a committee decides who uses their gifts?
A respected Adventist leader once told me: “The way you get to serve in this church is that after years of service, you are rewarded with a position. Let me level with you: You need a patron saint in the field. You have to get in with the man who hires and fires. Remember, it is not a call from God unless the committee votes it.”
In 1995, I was voted into the General Conference as Associate Director for Public Affairs and Religious Liberty. I served as the Church’s representative to Congress, the White House, and the United Nations.
Yet you were called to the General Conference because of the opportunities and recognition you had been given outside the church.
Yes. And frankly, I thought the fulfilment of God’s plan lay in reaching the General Conference which is what I did. But not everyone was happy about it.
I remember my first big meeting after I was named Associate Director for Public Affairs and Religious Liberty. I was leaving with lots of plans in my head. I waited for the elevator, and when the door opened, I joined one of the top administrators at the General Conference who was already on the elevator. When the doors closed, he told me that he would do everything in his power to get me out of that position.
Elder Robert Folkenberg was General Conference president at the time, and Alfred McClure was head of the North American Division. They had seen the unique relationships and access I had with political leaders and saw it as an opportunity for the church.
But I went from being the pastor of a church straight into the General Conference without serving in a conference, union, or division position. That almost never happens. Some said I leapfrogged over those who had been carrying the load and doing the work quietly. I was not viewed as someone who could do the work in the traditional way.
And those people created a difficult tenure for me. I only served one term.
Sometimes it seems the church is too focused on its own internal politics. We lose sight of the bigger picture and forget that the world is so much bigger than the Adventist church.
I have been so blessed working with the Dream Academy for the last 20 years.
And I still work on building relationships.
A great Adventist diplomat said to me once: “It’s hard to make friends when you need them.” I always try to remember that it’s critical to develop relationships with people even when you don’t know where they are going.
I have met many people before they reached their pinnacle of political achievement. And that gives you access.
What keeps you in the Adventist church?
- I truly believe that if Christ lived today he would teach and live by what the Seventh-day Adventist Church believes and teaches. I believe that those principles and biblical teachings would be part of his life — not his whole life of course, but part of his life.
- The Seventh-day Adventist Church was how I came to Christ. I was led to Christ by some young Adventist Christians at Kingsway College.
- I have an unflinching commitment and loyalty to the legacy and teachings and destiny of the church and its role in the world.
So all of those things have kept you within a system and a church that could not figure out a way to really use your gifts for music and relationship-building in a wider context.
This church is an anvil that has worn out many hammers. When I look at the arc of history, I don’t see much good coming from people who have opposed it and left it. People have told me I could start my own church. But my loyalty is unflinching.
I didn’t see you singing at the inauguration of Donald Trump.
No, I was not asked. I never know when or how or if it might happen, but if there is an opportunity to provide ministry, I will.
What are you praying for as the Senate deliberates Cabinet appointments and begins dismantling President Obama’s healthcare plan?
The thing I am praying for most is leaders of Christ-like character. That is America’s greatest need. We have come through a very nasty season.
I have actually heard some preachers say that we need meanness and toughness — that God doesn’t ask our nation to turn the other cheek or forgive our enemies. But I believe we need a president, congressmen, congresswomen, and senators who have Christlike character. Christlike dimensions of character include faith, self-control, kindness, love, and patience.
And frankly, it is my prayer that we will see a Christ-like character even more in our Adventist members and the leaders of our church. This is a great need among all of us.
And I stand at the head of the pack. I want to reveal the character of Christ in everything I do. There is an opportunity for us to present our truth and doctrine in the light of God’s character.
For example, we teach that the Sabbath is the sign “between me and thee” but don’t often teach what it is supposed to be a sign of. It is supposed to be a sign that “I, the Lord doth sanctify thee.” Ellen White says the Sabbath is the sign of sanctification — defined as harmony and oneness with the character of God.
So if the Sabbath is supposed to be a sign of God’s character, what does it say if you keep the Sabbath and yet don’t have his character?
This is true for our prophecy, too: what does it matter if you know the details, but in your character, are not prepared for the fulfilment of that prophecy? We must always reflect, resemble, and reveal the character of Christ.
Are you friends with Ben Carson, the Adventist who has gone the farthest in national U.S. politics?
I have been friends with Ben Carson for over 35 years.
What advice would you offer Ben Carson as he takes up his appointment by the new president as head of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development?
I would say the same thing that I say to anyone in public office: “Remember there is a title higher than the presidency: the honor of being a Christ-like Christian.”
My encouragement to him all through this process has been to focus on staying Christ-like. That has not been easy when Trump’s campaign showed that the one who wins does not necessarily adhere to those principles. It’s undoubtedly hard to stay Christ-like, to stay kind and patient and loving, and to choose to be at your best when the other person is not at their best. My counsel to Carson has always been to remember that the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said.
In the end, when all is said and done, the fact that you have “President of the U.S.” beside your name does not impress God in the least. The only thing that is impressive to God is that you in your character resemble his Son. Never lose sight of the most important goal: resemble, reflect, and reveal the character of Jesus.
Of the many people I have been blessed to know, the ones who have touched me, and whom I remember most, are not the ones with the biggest titles. They are the ones who had a Christ-like character. Mother Teresa I will never forget.
Who else remains large in your memory?
On February 8, 1990, I landed in South Africa with a delegation. The next day, I was in the office of President F.W. de Klerk in Cape Town. He said to us: “You have come a long way to tell us that apartheid is wrong. You are preaching to the choir. We know it’s wrong.”
What he didn’t tell us was that he had a meeting with Nelson Mandela the following day to discuss his release from prison.
Because we just happened to be in South Africa at that time, I was in the crowd that welcomed Mandela when he was released on February 11 after spending 27 years behind bars. That was an experience that will stay with me always. Nelson Mandela was unquestionably an icon and a tremendous human being — a giant of a man. I was fortunate to meet him a few times subsequently.
Are you still pastoring?
I have always stayed connected to a pulpit but not full-time. My title is pulpit pastor. I primarily provide leadership and speak on a regular basis. But others on the pastoral staff do much of the day-to-day work of a pastor.
You are involved in so many different things: preaching, recording, singing in concerts, speaking, mentoring, fundraising, the Dream Academy. How do you have time to do so much?
When I was getting ready to graduate from college at Oakwood, I realized that because of some miscommunication, two of the courses I still needed to graduate were both held at the exact same time. I wanted to graduate, so I signed up for both courses. One day I would go to class A and send a tape recorder to class B, then the next day I would switch off. I did that the whole semester. I got a B in one of the classes and a C in the other, and I graduated. I was taking a full load, traveling, singing concerts, yet I managed to complete two courses offered at the same time. The college president asked how I had done it?
I said: “I did my balanced best.” That meant that I could not give any one thing 100%, but if I spread my best around, like the loaves and fishes, God would bless it.
Wherever I have been, my churches have grown. The Dream Academy has grown and been sustained through millions of dollars a year, much of it generously donated. God has provided.
And what are you most proud of?
I have to tell you that I saw so many church leaders running around the world winning souls but losing their own families. So I decided early on that if I was going to be gone for more than four or five days, we would all go. My wife and three sons have now been with me on every continent except Antarctica. When I am invited places, I tell my hosts that my wife has to come too. Linda and I were on six continents in less than six months in 2014!
Out of everything you have heard me say, what I am most proud and grateful for is that I have been able to take my family everywhere I have been. That is really my proudest achievement.
What are your sons doing now? Are they all grown up?
Our oldest just got engaged; we are happy and grateful. Our middle son is working on his dissertation in hospital administration and works at Florida Hospital. Our youngest is in law school.
Can you tell us what have you been reading lately?
There is a quote that has stuck with me: “A desire to preach without the burden to study is a desire to perform.” I have a burden to study. I have been at my church for 15 years, and I have to study. Most of my reading is from the Word of God. I don’t have a lot of time for other kinds of reading. The most enjoyable reading I do is on character and on the character of God. And no other Christian writer in the history of Christianity has had more to say on the character of God than Ellen White.
What has been inspiring your prayers in the first weeks of 2017?
The pre-eminent theme I study about, pray about, and try to live is to resemble, reflect, and reveal the character of Christ. That is my prayer for my life, my church, our country’s leaders, and the readers of Spectrum.
Where do you see yourself next?
I look at the arc of my ministry as a pastor in the Adventist church. It has been an unusual path, just as God told me it would be. But I have no regrets.
I have been in ministry in the Adventist church for nearly 41 years. I know that we all have a life cycle, and I see my life cycle in traditional church ministry coming to an end. This feels like an exit interview. I will, however, continue to dedicate whatever life and years God gives me to helping others prepare for the second coming of Jesus.
Alita Byrd is Interviews Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.
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