An evangelist, a visionary, a friend of the poor. That is how his friends and colleagues describe pastor and leader Dr. Ben Wilkinson, who passed away on Jan. 27, 2016, in Decatur, Georgia.
“Ben was an evangelist, day by day, one on one,” said Jim Baird, a fellow PCA founder, who met Wilkinson at Columbia Theological Seminary when they were classmates in the 1950s. “It’s one thing to preach evangelistic sermons, but it’s another thing to be a personal evangelist.”
Wilkinson, born in Gloster, Mississippi, on July 6, 1932, grew up in the Jim Crow era of segregation. Those early experiences of seeing blacks treated as second-class citizens deeply affected him and informed the rest of his life. As he grew in faith, Wilkinson became passionate about reaching out to those of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. He later formed the Rock of Ages Presbyterian Mission and pursued full-time ministry in inner-city Atlanta, in the shadow of the Braves stadium. “He was always drawn to people hurting,” said Baird. “He had tremendous compassion for the poor. It was a sacrificial life calling.”
After graduating from Columbia Theological Seminary in 1957 Dr. Wilkinson pastored a number of churches in Alabama and Georgia before entering into full-time evangelistic work with Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship (PEF) in 1966. He served as its executive director from 1973 to 1995. In the early 1970s, he served on the 12-person steering committee that formed the PCA out of the PCUSA.
“From the beginning, when the PCA started, Ben wanted it to be both evangelistic and missions-minded,” said Dr. Kennedy Smartt, who also served on the steering committee. In fact, the PCA’s newly-formed missions agency, Mission to the World, built its ministry model on PEF’s.
Wilkinson was also passionate about education, particularly as it supported the inner city. He and Charles Dunahoo, former coordinator of the PCA’s Committee on Discipleship Ministries, together formed the Atlanta School of Biblical Studies in 1971. And many graduates of the school went on to start neighborhood churches in downtown Atlanta.
He was a one-of-a-kind, dynamic, creative preacher, says Dunahoo. “I always remember that his favorite sermon was, ‘Once More Round the Tombstone Charlie.’ I don’t remember it, but you better believe it was about salvation!”
Perhaps he will be best remembered for being a warrior for Christ, a friend and encourager who “pulled no punches.”
Smartt recalls a time that Wilkinson recruited him to attend an all-night prayer service. “I’d been to other all-night prayer services, but this time we were on our knees all night. We were sore by the time the morning came. Praying with Ben was always just an earth-shattering experience.”
Wilkinson is survived by his wife of 61 years, Mary Ruth Pittman Wilkinson, and three children: Evangeline, William, and Glen.
A worship service of praise and thanksgiving to God for the life of Dr. Wilkinson will be held at the Grace Church of All Nations (PCA) in Stone Mountain, Georgia. on March 4, 2016 at 7 p.m. www.grace-pca.org