In early November, Columbia International University (CIU) in Columbia, S.C., hosted its homecoming ceremonies, which included a special assembly to honor distinguished alumni for outstanding work in areas of mission and ministry. The 2011 Alumna of the Year Award went to Wilma Cross, a 1969 CIU graduate who has since dedicated her life to, as she says, “knowing God and making Him known.”

Not coincidentally, this phrase that has guided her life is also the motto for her alma mater, CIU, as well as that of Youth With A Mission (YWAM), with whom she is currently affiliated. Cross’ accomplishments are many, and her reach is far. Her dedication to God’s call has always been clear, but many may never have imagined this self-described introvert would become one of the leading teachers and trainers on mercy ministry in Chile.

Born in La Paz, Bolivia, to missionary parents, she certainly has missions and Latin America as part of her heritage. Following graduation from CIU, Cross went to Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis to earn her master’s degree in order to teach. After graduating from Covenant, she returned to Virginia and worked for two years as the pastor’s assistant at McLean Presbyterian Church.

Sharing God’s Loving Mercy

When Cross eventually joined World Presbyterian Missions (forerunner to the PCA’s Mission to the World), it assigned her to the WPM’s Bible Institute in Chile, where she taught for nine years. She soon felt called to mercy ministries and in 1979 began a Bible study with the women in Santiago’s Quillota prison. She eventually established Chile’s first evangelical prison ministry and became an officially recognized chaplain in women’s prisons.

During her time ministering in prisons, she learned of the difficult circumstances facing women after they are released. They often needed protection, as well as nurture and discipleship. So in 1987, in conjunction with YWAM, Cross established Ruhama Mercy Ministries with a threefold mission: sharing the Gospel with women in prison, training women for prison ministry, and operating a rehabilitation home.

Ruhama is a Hebrew word that means ‘the mercy that God feels,’” explains Cross. It is used in Scripture, according to Cross, as “the mercy that is deep, tender, and very loving.” This Ruhama mercy is exactly what Cross desired for those who would come through Ruhama’s doors. “I started the home by taking girls into my own house,” she recounts. In 1989, two years after its genesis, Cross found a house to rent and hired staff for Ruhama. She also expanded the home’s outreach from those coming out of prison to include children over age 12 whose parents were in prison.

Word spread about Ruhama, and soon the state was asking Cross for help with other marginalized people. “We began taking in girls who were in the court system,” says Cross. And because Ruhama was not officially state-affiliated, it was able to be a safe house to hide girls and women who were being abused. “We had to protect these women so they wouldn’t get killed,” explains Cross.

A Vital Support System

While Ruhama Mercy Ministries is affiliated with YWAM, Cross has always been deeply connected to her home church and to MTW. In fact, when Ruhama was established in 1987, McLean Presbyterian wanted to assist this unique ministry among women, so it formed a mission board called Wilma’s Partners in Ministry (WPM) in cooperation with MTW.

“I have been so blessed by what they have done for me,” Cross says, recalling the hard work of her then-pastor Steve Smallman and MTW’s Carl Wilhelm. She now counts several PCA churches among her loyal supporters and has hosted many MTW missionaries over the years.

Cross’ mission board, a vital support in her ministry, advocated strongly for her nomination for the CIU alumni award.  “Wilma is a woman who walks with God,” says Lynn Crafford, a Wilma’s Partners board member, adding, “She has a level of intimacy with God that I want to have.” Crafford says that Cross truly exemplifies what she teaches. “She’s a woman who is full of mercy and has the right things to say when faced with hurting people.”
Training Future Generations

Over the years, Ruhama has evolved from a resident home and safe haven to a training and ministry center. Cross would like to see Ruhama host women and girls again, and she is praying for staff to be able to fulfill that role for the long term. In the meantime, the house is host to Cross’ seminars, as well as YWAM’s School of Mercy. Cross also stays busy traveling to churches around Chile doing training and seminars. “She’s working now on passing the torch,” says Crafford, “and teaching others how to do what she has done.”

Cross realizes not everyone will go into prisons or house victims of abuse, but she believes that mercy ministry principles can apply to anyone. “There are just so many broken people,” says Cross. “Our basic verse is Luke 4:18 — to preach good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, and to release the oppressed.”

She intends for her teaching not only to equip attendees for ministry, but also to bring them to an experience of mercy and healing. Whether teaching a group of women about mercy ministry or training pastors to care for sexual-abuse victims, she conveys the same message: We cannot extend mercy unless we know mercy.

Wilma Cross has already left a rich legacy in Chile, and she still labors to know God and make Him known. “I don’t intend to retire right away,” says Cross. This hard-working pioneer is truly a meritorious recipient of CIU’s alumni award.