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On Neal Wilson

Neal Wilson and I sat in an office on the first floor of the building that upstairs housed the Adventist minister in Alexandria, Egypt. It was an evening in the late 1940s. He was a young minister reading papers, preparing to report the next morning to my father, President of the Middle East Union. I was a six year-old. Too young to be in school, I pestered the visitor to keep talking and playing with me. But despite my pleas he continued to concentrate on his reading. Finally, I took a waste basket full of papers and dumped them on Neal Wilson’s head.

The point of this vignette is not that I fled in shame from the office, ran upstairs to my folk’s apartment to confess my sin and ask to be punished. The point is that everyone—including six year olds—wanted conversations with him to keep on going. Wilson listened to everyone, and heard more than they told him. At the end he knew better than they did not only what they said, but why. Others noticed his talent. He remembered that during a period of discouragement during his time in the Middle East my mother told him not to flag. “One day you will be President of the General Conference.”

Later, watching Pastor Wilson chair committees, I saw him show respect for those who had disagreed with him, by accurately and subtly summarizing their positions. He became prominent because of how intelligently and sensitively he focused on others and their thinking. He early became respected as a tireless mediator of disputes. If he hadn’t become one of the longest-serving presidents of the General Conference, he could have been the nationally respected chair of the federal National Labor Relations Board.

Wilson’s curiosity in those around him kept expanding. Neal Wilson, the son of a missionary leader of the world church, N.C. Wilson, grew up in Africa and India. He studied not only the Seventh-day Adventist church, but the world’s governments and cultures, the fascinating complexity of his time. And Neal Wilson delighted in what he saw and learned. He never wavered in embracing people of all races and working for racial justice. He revived the practice of General Conference Presidents issuing statements at General Conference Sessions declaring a moral position on the central issues of the day: war and peace, racial equality, human rights, and the health of nations.

Wilson was energized by discovery, and enjoyed being in the company of those who were curious and adventurous. That is why he treasured Adventist institutions: educational, medical, and media. That is why he encouraged some of us to start Spectrum and the Association of Adventist Forums. Neal Wilson felt it necessary to do some things with which I publicly disagreed at the time, but I was able to do so because he had encouraged the church to officially endorse a free press within the Adventist community. Pastor Wilson didn’t just tolerate others; he affirmed and enjoyed them.

Even after once publicly condemning the contents of an issue of Spectrum, he never tried to prevent church employees from writing in it. Years later, Pastor Wilson made it financially possible for me, the editor, to be a part of one of the earliest post-Mao delegations of academics visiting the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Because the trip took place at the moment when the country was cracking open, I was able to go to Shanghai carrying messages of greeting from the General Conference to surviving leaders of the Adventist Church. When I returned, Pastor Wilson had me report to the Administrative Committee of the General Conference. He introduced me by saying that some people in the General Conference were rumored to be readers of Spectrum—then from his pile of papers, he pulled out and brandished a copy of the latest issue.

Neal Wilson was never fazed by any kind of paper flying around his head.

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