Bill Wilson is more than just a visionary with a big heart for children; he has literally impacted thousands around the world with his message and lifestyle. Read this inspiring interview of one man who truly makes a difference.
Contributed By Glynisia Yeo
Whenever you are back in New York, you still drive the Sunday School bus every week. What is it about driving the kids to church that you love so much?
It’s important for me not to forget where I came from. I was that kid who was sitting in that corner, that nobody wanted.
For me, because I’m on television so much, I write books, I teach in university, I do leadership conferences all over the world and that’s great! But it’s real easy … like a lot of guest speakers, to forget where they came from. Suddenly they become too important, and the very thing that brings them success in the first place, is now the thing they no longer do. That’s very common for preachers. The thing that brought them this level of acclaim … now they feel like they’re too good to do the thing that brought them there.
So it’s very important for me to stay connected with people. That’s why I stayed in the garbage dump for a couple of days when I was in the Philippines, with our kids that go to the Sunday School at the dump there. I think it’s very important for me to still live in the ghetto—I still live there, in Brooklyn. These are very important things that keep me grounded, to keep me rooted; they keep me connected.
That’s why every Christmas Eve, I go back to the corner where my mother left me waiting for three days. I sit there all night in the same place and I start to remember what it was like when nobody wanted me, when I was completely abandoned, when I had nobody, until the Christian man stopped [to pick me up]. I’ve done this for years now because I don’t want to forget where I came from.
So it’s a time of reflection to where I was, and the feelings and the emotion and all of that. And yet a time of thankfulness that even though nobody wanted me, the one man whose own son was dying of leukemia, in his own need and out of his own struggles and problems, he still chose to stop.
Those are the things that I think keep people connected. And when you don’t allow yourself to go back to those places, even if it’s in your mind, you end up in this mindset that says, “Well, OK, I did this.” Or “I got myself here.” Or “This is great now!” I think its human nature to have to work at not thinking this way [because] I think like that at times. But it is more important to always remember where we come from.
In your travels all over the world, you have seen different countries, churches and communities. Is there any one place in particular that has impacted you personally, and why?
That’s a tough one, because all these countries have their own unique culture and side to them. For instance, when I come to Singapore, I think I have enjoyed the people here very much, the hospitality. I think their generosity, their heart toward missions… so I see that side of the Singaporean culture that I don’t always see in other parts of Asia. Yet at the same time when I go to the Philippines, it’s such a huge need.
When I went there—it’s been 10 years ago that I started the Sunday School there—I spent 24 hours walking the streets of Manila, I never went to bed. I walked around and we found this little girl, dead, laying face down in one of the garbage dumps. I saw her ponytail sticking out of the garbage. I stopped, moved the garbage … One of the other preachers who was with me, he threw up. The other one stepped back. I moved forward, moved the garbage. She was laying face down in the garbage. I rolled her over and her face was covered with ants and the ants had eaten the eyeballs out of her head.
That was the catalyst for me starting Metro Sunday School in the Philippines. So you go from Singapore to the Philippines, two totally different contrasting cultures and yet it takes [the Christians in Singapore] to empower men like me to go to places like the Philippines and that’s what I call the power of partnership, where I’m crazy enough to go do what I do.
I’ll be going to the refugee camp next month [October] on the Kenya-Somalia border, where kids are dying by the thousands. I don’t know what I’m walking into there. I’m going to have to wear a bulletproof vest. I’ve done that before [because] I understand violence—shot in the head, thrown off the building, ribs broken, jaw broken. That’s part of the lifestyle that I live. But each one of these cultures is dramatically different.
For instance, up in the north of India, we’ll be starting Metro Sunday School in Delhi next year. And yet up in the north, there’s a part where people … It’s very common when people bury the dead, their funeral consists of them putting the body on a wooden raft, put it into the Ganges River and letting it float down the river. So we ran into some groups of cannibals. What they do: They wait down river for the dead people to float by; they pull them out to a religious ritual. Then they cut them up and eat them. We actually have the video of this guy taking an arm, cutting the arm off and eating it like a chicken leg.
So again, you have this part of the world that is so contrasting. You’ve got from Taiwan, different culture, Hong Kong, different culture, Malaysia, different culture, Australia, different culture, India, different culture, Philippines, different culture. I speak at the largest churches in Japan. We have had tremendous support from churches in Japan. But again it’s a different culture.
But I think when all of us realize that as the Bible tells us, not all of us are an eye. Not all of us are the ears, not all of us are the nose. We all have different parts to play and I think that’s a challenge to so many of the countries in Asia that have the ability to help some of these other countries, that have children that are in such tremendous need, that are having such a struggle, that if we can communicate to the nations that have, that have been blessed, that they have been blessed so that they can be a blessing. And if we can somehow challenge some of these churches…
And that’s why I think why I’m getting invited back now more and more to Asia, because people see what Metro is doing around the world and they’re saying, “Look, we want to partner with you.” They may not be able to go to the garbage dump; they may not be able to go up where the cannibals are. But I do. This is what I do. And I think so many of these folks here in Asia want to partner with a ministry that has a 43-year track record.
I’ve been in the ministry for 43 years; I’ve been in New York for 30. Metro is the largest Sunday School now in the world. We have 50,000 kids a week that we work with. So I think people want to connect with ministries of integrity, a ministry of great vision, and to be able to see beyond the little proverbial bubble or the little world that so many Christians build for themselves, because they want to go past success to significance.
Over here in this culture, if you have money and a job, a good education, that’s success. Just because you’re successful doesn’t mean you’re significant. And I think this is what we need to communicate to the Christian community. It’s not about being a success; it’s about being significant. To the whole world you may just be one person. But to one person, you may be the whole world.
That’s really the byline of Metro Ministries. It’s connecting through our child sponsorship program. It’s called Won By One, where one person, for instance in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, can take a child in Africa or India or Philippines and say, “I may not be able to change a nation, may not be able to change a city …” but just be like the man who picked me up. He had to borrow US$17.50—he didn’t even have it—he had to borrow it, which was what it cost to send me to Christian camp that summer in 1961. He invested a little bit in my life, but with great return. I was a pretty good investment of US$17.50.
And so it is, that these people can sponsor a child, can speak into the life of a child, can make it possible for a child to hear the gospel like that man did for me. It’s a S$30 a month commitment. And this is a great … it’s letting people be challenged to say, “OK, I’ve been blessed. I have a great education. I have a place to live. I’m blessed to live in a part of the world like Singapore, or HK.”
But people have to see past the vision. From Isaiah 6, how do you get that kind of vision, where Isaiah 6 v8 says, “Here am I Lord, send me.” It’s a process and if people want it, it’s not reserved for just a few hotshot preachers or for a few folks. It’s a process that if every believer wants to step into that vision that really changes things, that changes people, it’s possible.
In your ministry with children, can you share with us one story about your most memorable encounter with a child, and how he/she left a deep impression on you?
I would think it would have to be these children [in general] that became the catalyst for us starting Sunday School.
For instance, this 5-year-old girl that we found dead in the garbage dump in the Philippines. It was a defining moment for me. Personally. Not just as a pastor, but as a man. When you look at that, and how the ants have eaten the eyes out of her head, it puts you in a position where you have to put up or shut up. It’s nice to talk a good game. A lot of preachers talk a good game. They love crowds but they hate people. They love the microphone, they love the crowd but you get them one on one, they’re lost as a goose in a snowstorm.
To me, those are defining moments. For instance, this cannibal situation up in India, these are defining moments for me.
In NYC for instance, the one girl now that works on my team—there’s three of us that do my bus route in Brooklyn—so when I’m not there, like for this week, they just do it. She started riding my bus when she was 6 years old. Now she’s in Bible school. She comes back on the weekends, works on the bus route, that’s a connection that will be a lifetime connection; that will be a lifetime friendship with her. And when you find kids like this, whether its New York or situations in the Philippines or India, these are things that we all have to be open to.
One of the things I’ve always said is that, big doors open on really small hinges. It means as believers, we’re all waiting for the call of God, the proverbial audible Voice, burning bush… To me, I’m glad when that man picked me up off the street, he didn’t have to pray about it. He didn’t have to put it in a Hillsong tape to get in the mood; he didn’t have to pick up Joyce Meyer’s book and read about it to figure out what to do.
The need was the call. I might have said that to a few, people now say it all over the world. I’ve been saying this for 30 years and people quote that probably more often than anything else I’ve said, because if you see the need and you can fill that today, that’s the call of God for you today. That’s the key. And so it’s the little things that God puts in front of us almost everyday that if you’re faithful in those, then the big door [will open].
Who would have thought that when I started doing this when I was 19 years old—driving a van, picking up kids when I was a teenager, but that my faithfulness there created what became the fastest-growing Sunday School in the state of Florida back in the 1960s. Because of that, it opened the door for me to work with Tommy Barnett, which became the fastest-growing church America back in the 1970s.
Because of that, my faithfulness there, I was able to go to New York in 1980 and I had credibility. I already had a track record. I had credibility and so people wanted to get behind the New York project. But see, it started out with the small things. That’s why the Bible speaks clearly, to be faithful in the smaller things.
But a lot of Christians are waiting for the huge opportunity, the big break, the audible Voice. And then 40 years old comes pretty quick. Once you get past 40, your life starts picking up speed.
Life is like a song. When a musician writes a song, anybody watching doesn’t know what kind of song it’s going to be. You put one note on the sheet, you don’t know what it is—is it blues, is it jazz, is it gospel, is it rock—you don’t know. Then you add another note. And as you add the notes to the song, that song begins to take shape.
That’s like life. Life is like a series of notes on a music sheet but every decision becomes the note. The decisions you make in life are the notes. So as you make decisions, what you are doing [is that] you are putting together a song of your life. Most young people aren’t smart enough to know that. They make a series of hodgepodge decisions, this that, this that …
For instance the most important decision you make, or the second you make, is who you marry. The first is what you do with Jesus. The second is, who you marry, because who you marry, especially if you’re going into ministry, will greatly determine how far and to what extent you go in fulltime ministry.
And so you look at these notes, these decisions in life, and then one day, usually it happens early 40s, mid-40s, and then you have these series of decisions that you have made, that you can’t go back and re-write. So now your song has been written. Your song has been written and now you get to live with the song that you wrote. That’s how it works.
And most young people don’t get it because they make hodgepodge decisions here and there … and you’re putting these decisions as notes. That’s why when you get into your 40s and 50s, you don’t really have a song; you have just a bunch of noise that has no flow to it. There’s no flow, there’s no direction; it’s just notes on a page, decisions that you make. And now the decisions you made in your 20s and 30s will now hold you hostage in your 40s, 50s and onward because you made decisions when you’re young that determine the rest of your life.
That’s why its so critical in your 20s and 30s… you’re writing your song. What kind of song do you want? Pick your notes carefully. And that’s good advice for everyone.
You have faced many near-death situations in the course of your ministry. Was there any one instance where you felt that you were not going to make it? How did that experience change you and your approach to life and ministry?
I think when I got shot in the face; I think that was another defining moment. He (the mugger) had the gun in my mouth, these two guys, it was a robbery, and he was choking me. He had a gun, which was a 38 revolver. The other guy was punching me, in front of me, the other guy was behind me choking me, had the gun jammed in my mouth.
I don’t know how much you know about guns—this is Singapore you probably don’t, not many guns here. There are certain guns that would jam, but the kind of gun he had was the revolver, they do not jam; they do not misfire. That’s why people carry them. They shoot every time.
He pulled the trigger, it didn’t go off. If people know anything about guns, a 38-caliber revolver does not misfire; it just doesn’t. It’s a very reliable piece.
I knew they were going to kill me. I heard the hammer of the gun click. I thought, “He’s gonna kill me…” So I went down and fought. I went down to try to break lose. So I went down and the gun went down. He squeezed the trigger again—that one went off. It blew off the whole side of my face here.
So now, apparently from the explosion in my mouth, it must have knocked me out for a second. So I got up … I was on my hands and knees … I saw them running away, and the blood was just pumping out of the side of my face.
I got up. I walked back to the van, the church van. I drove myself to the hospital. I got on my cell phone … If you call an ambulance, you’ll die. It’s New York City. So I knew I had to get myself to the hospital.
So I called my office, said, “I’m going to Woodhull Hospital. It’s going to take me 15 minutes. Call the cops. Call the hospital. I’m coming in.” And I’m driving the van like this, and the blood—it’s splattering against the glass of the van and I’m watching it pile up on the floor.
So I’m watching myself bleed to death. 15 minutes to the hospital—you can think about a lot of things in 15 minutes. Your mind runs about a lot of things. “Is this it? Am I gonna make it?” I don’t know …
I’ve been through … I’ve had hepatitis, tuberculosis, dengue fever, thrown off a building, ribs broken, jaw broken, I’ve been in three airplane crashes, and now, is this it? Is this it? It’s a long 15 minutes, a long 15 minutes.
And I prayed, and I remembered what I prayed. I said, “God, if I get through this, I will do more, with what’s left of my life, than I’ve ever done up to this point.” That was a defining moment. And that’s why I have nothing put away for retirement. I have no money put away for retirement. Why? Because I’m not going to retire! This is it until I die.
That was a moment in time that I can look back at, and you can feel sorry for yourself—I’ve had three operations, you can just see a place I’ve had plastic surgery [on the left part of my face]. I have no feeling on this side of my face. So I’ve had three operations, lost 50 percent of the hearing in this ear, but I’m alive and I’m talking with you.
So guess what? India. Africa. The refugee camp. Are you afraid? No. Not if you’ve been through what I’ve been through …
See that’s when faith is tested. See, real faith is tested. When they were cutting the hole through the roof to bring the paralytic down to Jesus, do you remember what Jesus said when He looked up? “And when He saw their faith …”
If you are people of great faith, it’s obvious, it can be seen. So when somebody, when a Christian says, “I have great faith,” and you can’t see it, they’re lying. They’re lying, because if you have faith, people will know. People can see it. Don’t talk about your faith unless I can see it.
If you had 10 minutes with God today, what would you talk to Him about?
If I had 10 minutes? Wow…
I will never ask Him “Why?”. I wouldn’t … because I’ve learned in life that you can only see to the corner, but you’ll never be able to see around the corner. People always ask why. You will never see around the corner but if you see the One who can see around that corner, that’s all you need to see!
You will never see around the corner, you can only see to the corner. But if you can see the One who sees around the corner, if you see Him, that’s all you need to see.
See for me, one of the great things that I’m asked on television and I’m asked on interviews like this, is: “How have you been able to endure?” It’s about endurance. It’s about endurance.
In America, a thousand preachers quit every month. A thousand close up their Bible and walk away. That’s not senior pastors but that’s licensed, ordained ministers.
I’ve been in the ministry 43 years, been through horrendous pain, shootings, broke my hip last year, broke in half—I got a titanium rod from here to here—it’s one thing after another. It’s endurance.
People ask me, “How have you been able to stay in the ministry when people have lied to you, when people have lied about you, when people have stolen money from you, when people have walked away from you?”
I’ve never been disillusioned with people. Why? Because I was never “illusioned” [in the first place]. If you don’t get “illusioned,” you can never get disillusioned. People are what they are. People come and go.
But here’s the thing that you need to understand and your readers need to understand: My commitment is stronger than my emotions. You understand that?
You see, with most Christians, it’s all about emotions. “How do I feel?” “Oh, if it doesn’t feel right anymore, then the Lord must be leading me to other things … that thing the Lord is leading me to another ministry.” Because the reason why I’m sitting here with you, doing this? You know why? Because I didn’t give up! Otherwise you and I wouldn’t even be here today, correct? Well it makes sense.
See, my commitment is stronger than my emotions. It’s never been how I feel. It’s my commitment to Him, my commitment to a generation that over shadows, that outlasts and will outlive any emotion. Have I wanted to quit? Of course! There’s no sin in wanting to quit. The sin is when you quit. All of us are going to want to give up. Every one of us. And if anybody says they’ve never felt that way, they’re a liar. Cos we all want to give up. We all get tired.
I’m 62 years old, ok. I’ve had enough diseases and problems and struggles, and fist fights and knife fights and all that … if anybody wanted to quit, it’d be me. But it’s not about that; it’s about a commitment.
You see this is old school stuff. Your generation doesn’t understand this. I was raised with the old missionaries whose wives died on the mission field, whose kids died on the mission field.
When you talk about people … Have you ever read Fox’s Book of Martyrs? You need to. You look back at what men and women before us in the faith have gone through. We have nothing to complain about. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It’s foolishness. You get people like David Livingstone, went to Africa. Almost got his left arm chewed off by a lion … ended up you know, sending the family home. Ended up dying on the mission field. They found him dead in a rainstorm. He died in prayer.
If I had a chance to talk to God for 10 minutes … You thought I forgot the question didn’t you? I’m old but I’m not senile [laughs].
I would not ask Him why. But I would thank Him for allowing me to play a little part to serve. I will thank Him for the man who picked me up off the street, I would thank Him, that in all the struggles, I was able to fight a good fight, to finish the course, to keep the faith, and be able to thank Him in person.
And I believe some day I will have that opportunity. But until then I’ll serve gladly.
We know about your painful background and how you were abandoned as a child. How do you reconcile that sense of loss when you came to the Lord, and how has that affected the way you share the gospel to others?
I think what makes me the communicator that I am is … I think for me, how I can communicate is again, all the ministry, all the stuff, all the stories, this isn’t something I used to do, I still do it. Most, as I said, most preachers, they feel like they’ve “graduated,” they don’t do the things they used to do.
I’m still very hands-on. I’m still very frontline. I’m driving the bus; going to the refugee camp, doing these things … I think that’s important for me. So when I get up to speak, it’s not about wanting people to feel sorry for me, it’s not about me trying to reconcile anything. It’s about me understanding that all things work together for good, to them that are part of the purpose of God, ok? That’s why I don’t ask why.
You see, a lot of Christians struggle, “Well, why is all this bad stuff happening to me?” It’s not about why it’s happening; it’s about making choices about what to do with it. The apostle Paul said everything that happened to him happened and he used it for the furtherance of the gospel.
I take all of these issues, I’ll communicate with the audience hopefully by the grace of God, to challenge them to go to the next level, to catch a greater vision. It’s not about where they’ve been to but where they can go, it’s not about what’s happened but taking what’s happened, turning it around and using it to encourage people.
I mean look, Hebrews 11 is a classic, because most preachers always preach from the first half of Hebrews 11: Great faith, ra-ra-ra … very few preaches will ever preach from the second half of the chapter, because they don’t want to hear about people cut in half, burned in oil, died for the cause. Because a lot of prosperity preachers, a lot of faith preachers, a lot of grace preachers—and these messages are all great and it’s all part of it, but it’s not the whole message—don’t preach it.
Understand: John got his head cut off. Peter was crucified upside down. The disciples, I mean, do you not read that part of the Bible? There was nobody that was none of great faith like them. But for some reason, we like to pump Christians up. But then the problem is, is when they go through something, they panic.
Like, you don’t get strength for a battle; you get strength from the battle. That’s why David—it was a process how David had great faith. It was a process. He didn’t run from the lion, he didn’t run from the bear. So when he faced the giant, it was just another fight. But with us, with Christians in our day and time, we don’t like to fight. They don’t like the battles, they don’t like the struggles.
Ask yourself this: At this point in my life, what do you think would make me quit? What? Think there’s anything out there that would have that capability over me, to discourage me, to disappoint me, to disillusion me that much to walk away at this point? You think?
Let me answer it for you. There isn’t. Cos I’ve been through everything. I’ve been called everything a man can call. I’ve been called crazy, people thought I was having a breakdown because of what I do, and where I go and the places I go.
I’ve been through all this. So what is it now that would make me walk away? Nothing! I’ve taken all of those things, all the battles, all the struggles, all the pain, all the disappointments, all being misunderstood, and what … I use them to encourage people like you, to encourage people I talk to. I can feel sorry for myself, I can have a pity-party, I can call 1800-CRYBABY …
I could do all that. But I’ve chosen not to do it because I’ve taken all that has happened to me and I use it to encourage people, which I hope this article will do. I hope it will encourage people, so that they can go, “If he can do it, if he can make it, I can make it.” That’s what this needs to do: it needs to motivate people to win the lost and at least challenge Christians to hang in there. I hope that’s going to be the result of this article. I trust that it will.
You have been a believer for many years now. What is it about Jesus that still captivates you today, the same way it captivated you the first time you heard about Him?
There used be an old song they used to sing in the church when I was a kid and the song was: He paid a debt He never owed. I owe a debt I can never pay. So I’m a grateful man because of what the Lord has done.
Jesus paid a debt on the cross on my behalf and because of what He did, I will never [need to] pay for it. Does that mean I’m saved by works? No. I’m saved by grace. So whatever I do is an overflow of the gratefulness I have toward the Lord in my life. When I think of the Cross, I feel very humbled.
Yet faith without works is dead.
I’ve also been to various places, where the great men and women of faith have walked before us and it’s a humbling experience. I’ve been in the coliseum in Rome; I’ve been underneath the coliseum where they kept the Christians before they brought them up to be eaten by the lions. And when you stand alone in the coliseum in Rome, it’s very humbling [when you remember what they went through for their faith].
That’s the thing with Thomas. He never understood the resurrection until he touched the wounds in the body of Christ.
When we as Christians touch the wounds in the Body of Christ, it pulls something out of you. When you touch a child dying of AIDS, it does something to you. Most Christians today in our cultures don’t want to be close enough to touch it, because the urgency demands something from you.
There was this wealthy couple who had been supporting our ministry for years, who visited us one weekend. They got on my bus and sat behind me as I went around picking up the children for Sunday School. That seat actually belonged to a boy, Matthew, who was dying of AIDS, so I leaned over to the lady and said, “Just put him on your lap and hold on to him. He has AIDS.” Her eyes swung open because she had never been around someone like that.
But because Matthew was always so sickly and tired, the moment I put him down, he laid his head on her chest and just closed his eyes. And I watched this woman go through a metamorphosis in about 10 seconds as her arms wrapped around him in an embrace. When she left New York City, that lady told me, “I came here wanting to be a blessing to the kids. But they were more of a blessing to me, because now I will never look at life the same again.”
When you touch the wounds in the Body of Christ, when you get close enough to touch them, and it’s real, and you can’t forget it.
That’s real life. That’s church life. It’s not being-on-a-platform-life. That’s real life.
Find more information, visit www.metroministries.org, or follow Bill Wilson on Facebook (search ‘Pastor Bill Wilson’). To contact the Singapore office, write to Metro Ministries Singapore, Katong PO Box 199, Singapore 914307 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.