Willie Jemison – A Gift to the Covenant

Post a Comment » Written on February 2nd, 2006     
Filed under: News
By Craig E. Anderson

CHICAGO, IL (February 2, 2006) – Following is a tribute to Dr. Willie B. Jemison written by Craig E. Anderson, retired associate superintendent of the Central Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church who is a close friend and ministry associate.

Pastor Willie Jemison has been a gift of God to the Covenant! It’s as simple as that. When he joined the pastoral team at Oakdale Covenant Church, a struggling little congregation in a predominantly African American community on Chicago’s Southside, he brought with him experiences and gifts that were just what Oakdale needed to create a hopeful and preferred future.

He came to Oakdale from the staffs of the Moody Bible Institute and the Mount Calvary Baptist Church. At Mount Calvary, he had served as director of Christian education for several years with his then late and dear friend, Pastor Ed Curie. During those years, he learned from Pastor Curie and another friend, Pastor Clay Evans, what it takes to build a vital church. He also honed important skills in Christian education including teacher recruitment and training. One of the first things he did at Oakdale was to retool the Christian education program at the church. Long a believer in the value of education, he worked diligently to provide excellence in the Sunday school program of the church.

Pastor Jemison also understood what was needed to make the life of the church more relevant to the Oakdale community. Although sensitive to the traditions of Oakdale, he nevertheless set about to gradually transform the church program and its worship to make them more appealing to the community. Gradually, worship at Oakdale took on a fresh new look and sound. That, together with his solid biblical preaching, attracted new attendees. In a short time the little church at 88th and Normal was packed on Sunday mornings. At the same time, the Sunday school was growing both in numbers and effectiveness.

Soon there were plans to expand the facility on two adjacent lots. The neighborhood, however, resisted that expansion due to concerns over parking and congestion. An attempt was then made to purchase an existing church facility in a predominantly white community. That effort was thwarted not only by small-mindedness, but also by blatant racism. Although these setbacks were discouraging, pastor Jemison’s faith never wavered. He trusted that God had an answer for Oakdale. In time the church located a parcel of land for sale on Vincennes Avenue near 95th Street, and soon thereafter it was purchased. Before long a large sanctuary with Sunday school rooms and a fellowship hall downstairs were constructed. A few years later, a spacious adjoining Christian education facility was erected to house Oakdale’s large Sunday school, youth program and the Oakdale Christian Academy, which he was founding. In a few short years, Oakdale had gone from a handful of members to the largest congregation in the Central Conference. It is a wonderful story of God’s blessing and one man’s determination, faith and ability to enlist and deploy laity in Oakdale’s ministry.

Pastor Jemison’s contributions were not only local but also regional and national. He liberally shared his gifts with the Central Conference and with the larger Covenant denomination. Over the years, he was called upon hundreds of times to speak in churches, at camps and at conferences and other gatherings of Covenant folk. He was always generous with his time and his gifts. He provided counsel and guidance to Covenant leaders, including pastors and lay people. His genuine warmth and generosity of spirit, characterized by his big smile and gregarious personality, endeared him to us all. He was instrumental in supplying pastors for the Covenant, encouraging young people with the call of God on their lives to pursue seminary degrees and take their place as leaders in the church.

His generosity of spirit and love, however, did not blunt his prophetic edge. He could be tough as well as tender. He was willing to risk misunderstanding to be an advocate for justice and to say what needed to be said to the Covenant family. He understood that racism and injustice were not only matters of the human heart but something embedded in the structures of institutions. He worked tirelessly to help our Covenant understand that and to effect needed changes. His counsel was not always heeded. Desired and needed change is often resisted and transformation comes about slowly and painfully. There were times when he was very frustrated, but always he persevered believing that God was in the business of change. I like to think that near the end of his ministry, the changes he knew were necessary if the Covenant was to be an attractive option to people of color were beginning to happen.

One of his qualities that stands out is acceptance of himself – his roots, his traditions, his heritage. He was at ease with himself. Often he has reminded us, in as many words, that what you see is what you get. Although he has moved among this predominantly white church with seeming comfort, he has never done so at the expense of compromising his essential identity. Always he has been true to himself – never trying to be someone he is not. Willie Jemison has been a man at home with his own skin and proud of it. That authenticity, which so rings with truth, endears him to us.

It is difficult to sum up Jemison’s many contributions to the Evangelical Covenant Church. Perhaps it is enough to say that he was an angel, a messenger, sent by God not only to build a strong and vibrant evangelical church in one of the nation’s great urban centers, but also to bring about transformation to an ethnically white denomination with historic roots in Sweden. For us he has been a light whose radiance will continue to illuminate our way for years to come. His legacy of love and service is written not only in the pages of Oakdale’s history, but also on the face of the Covenant church today.

On a more personal note, Willie Jemison has been a gracious friend for forty years. When he and I became yokefellows in the Oakdale ministry, I was fresh out of seminary and he was a more seasoned church worker. Our relationship was warm and close – like Timothy to Paul. I have learned from him more than he will ever know. We worked together at Oakdale for about a year until I sensed God’s call to another assignment. (I think my decision to accept another call was the only point of disagreement we ever had, and even in that, he was gracious to me.) He has been an important influence in my spiritual and ministerial journey. He quickened my love for the gospel, demonstrated what committed pastoral leadership is all about, and further sharpened my commitment to racial justice. I was privileged to have him as a colleague at the beginning of my life’s work. Willie Jemison has been a model and a mentor. But, more importantly, he has been a dear friend in Christ.

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