As Wilson, 75, prepares to retire after 46 years at the pulpit of Anacostia’s Union Temple Baptist Church, he enjoyed the adulation of more than 900 attendees at a sold-out retirement gala on Sunday night.
“For a lifetime, you have been shepherding the people of Washington, D.C.,” said Mayor Muriel Bowser, who brought her young daughter to the gala. “You have lived the belief that power concedes nothing without a demand.”
Wilson entered the event in regal fashion, sitting beside his wife, the Rev. Mary Wilson, on decoratively carved wooden thrones atop a platform that was wheeled in by a procession of men carrying golden staffs. At the head table, he joined his daughter, the Rev. Anika Wilson Brown, who will succeed him in April as the head pastor at Union Temple.
Speakers throughout the evening recounted Wilson’s history of activism, often dwelling on the times he provoked controversy. In 1986, Wilson accused the Chinese-American owner of a carryout restaurant in Anacostia of racism against black customers, and led a three-month boycott of the shop that some viewed as rightful but others thought was unfairly harming a small business, or inflaming tensions between Asian and black communities in Washington.
In 1999, three white D.C. Council members questioned Wilson’s nomination to the board of the University of the District of Columbia, claiming the pastor was insensitive and divisive on issues of race. He was eventually approved, 11 to 2.
“If you know Christ, you’re on a cross — like my brother has been,” Louis Farrakhan said, referring to Wilson, his friend of more than 40 years, as a spiritual sibling. “He has not been loved by everyone…. He’s living by the word that he preaches.”
In a recent interview, Wilson said his proudest achievement was helping organize Farrakhan’s momentous 1995 Million Man March. (Farrakhan, the inflammatory civil rights leader, spent the largest portion of his lengthy speech on Sunday talking derisively about his own critics.)
Wilson said he could name only one regret — endorsing the mayoral candidacy of Anthony Williams, whose administration he found deeply disappointing. Wilson was so fired up that he ran himself against Williams in 2002.
Wilson’s career entwined with that of Marion Barry, the larger-than-life mayor who defined D.C. politics for decades. When Barry was arrested for cocaine possession during his third term as mayor in 1990, Wilson invited the mayor and his wife to Union Temple, and told the congregation to give them “the most tumultuous welcome ever in the history of the world.” The churchgoers contributed $3,573 to Barry’s legal defense fund that night.
Barry was sentenced to six months in federal prison. Upon his release, Wilson came to collect him from the Pennsylvania prison with six busloads full of supporters who escorted him home in style.
Tributes on Sunday revealed influence that went far beyond politics. Surprise guest Lebo M, the musician whose voice famously opens “The Lion King,” described the welcome he found at Union Temple as a homeless African teenager. The movie musical he helped create is “not a Disney legacy, it’s a Union Temple legacy,” he said, belting out his famous “Naaaants ingonyama, bagithi Baba!” for the crowd. “That’s a Union Temple voice.”
The gospel musician Richard Smallwood, whose father was the founding pastor of Union Temple before Wilson took over the church six years later, told a similar story as he performed many of his greatest hits for delighted fans at the gala. He wrote “I Love the Lord” for Union Temple’s youth choir, he said, before Whitney Houston made it a hit by performing it in the movie “The Preacher’s Wife.”
Since Wilson began preaching, the city’s population has changed dramatically, growing whiter and wealthier. And with it, the black church’s influence has waned: Wilson points out that several churches which were once prominent have moved out of the city altogether, following their parishioners into the Maryland suburbs.