Missionary to urban Scottish youth, profiled in 2013 Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, dies of cancer

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Gena Wilson, who died of cancer May 13, crossed the finish line of the 2014 New York Marathon with U.S. Army veteran Cedric King. A photo of King and Wilson at the finish was featured in the Nov. 6, 2014, issue of TIME magazine. Her mother, Betty Barton, and sister, Glenda Londono, both from Beaufort, S.C., walked part of the race with her. PAUL W. LEE/IMB

By Mary Jane Welch

BEAUFORT, S.C. (BP) — Gena Wilson, a missionary to Scotland who walked the 2014 New York City marathon representing cancer survivors, lost her third battle with the disease May 13 at home with her family in Beaufort, S.C.

Wilson, 51, who served more than 20 years as a Southern Baptist missionary, “shared hope because she had hope,” said Paul Chitwood, president of the International Mission Board.

“A battle with terminal cancer did not dissuade her because death held no power over her. Might the Lord of the harvest send out more hope-givers like Gena into His harvest,” Chitwood said.

Wilson’s story was highlighted as part of the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering emphasis in the Dec. 12, 2013 issue of The Christian Index.

While undergoing aggressive treatments for cancer in the U.S., the late Gena Wilson’s message stayed the same: “Cancer is not my biggest problem. Jesus has already taken care of my biggest problem, so the best is yet to come.” IMB/Special

John Brady, IMB vice president for global engagement, said Wilson “showed us what it means to run the good race. She had a fierce love for the people of Scotland, especially the disadvantaged youth in Glasgow.”

“As she openly shared her battle with cancer, those who knew her on both sides of the ocean saw clearly how much she loved God and how it led her to love others.”

David Moench, who leads IMB work among peoples of Western Europe, used the word “formidable” to sum up the friend and coworker who had fought to help disadvantaged youth in urban Glasgow. “No challenge was too great for her to tackle,” he said.

Kris Howington, IMB staffer who first got to know Wilson in seminary, agreed: “Gena was always larger than life! When I think of Gena, these words come to mind: family, friends, Scotland, laughter and Jesus.”

“She loved them all,” Howington said. “And,” she added, “she loved to laugh and make others laugh! Oh, how she could make you laugh!”

Lisa Farrell, another IMB staffer who knew Wilson, remembered a call from Wilson soon after she arrived in Scotland. “Lisa, I go with my Scotland friends to play soccer, and I am playing with the world.”

In a local restaurant in Scotland, missionary Gena Wilson laughed with Graeme McKelvie, whom she befriended as a youth and is now a law graduate of the University of Glasgow. IMB/Special

Wilson said so many nations were represented in those soccer games that she was in her “sweet spot.”

In her early years in Scotland, Wilson worked as assistant treasurer for the organization of Baptist missionaries there, a job that brought her to the office in Moench’s home three days a week. She discipled his daughters, said Moench, later inviting each to spend several weeks as an intern in Scotland during their high school or college years. Several, he noted, are now on the mission field themselves.

When Wilson wasn’t in the office, she was working with Scottish youth. When she applied to return to Scotland after two years as a missionary Journeyman, Wilson wrote that she wanted someday to work among “youth who did not have the same opportunities as others.”

She did just that. In 2001, Wilson moved into an urban high-rise, where she stuck out as “the American” who for some inexplicable reason chose to live in one of the city’s poorest areas. She led assemblies in the local high school, but mostly got to know local teens over a basketball or volleyball game, hamburgers at a café, or Bible study in the apartment.

“… she loved to laugh and make others laugh! Oh, how she could make you laugh!”

At first a novelty, she became more like a mother figure to some of the troubled youth in her neighborhood. Graeme was one of those. When he was suspended from school, she counseled him.

A teacher at the school where Wilson served as chaplain said Graeme was one those kids always getting into fights and skipping school until he met Wilson. As Graeme saw the way Wilson lived – and loved – he was moved to become a Christian and graduated from University of Glasgow. Although his faith wavered as he saw others succeeding without relying of God, he continued his friendship with Wilson.

Wilson lived in that high-rise until she was kicked out because the building was to be imploded. But she moved nearby to continue her ministry among disadvantaged urban youth.

“I’m in an area where God is providing opportunities for real, authentic, genuine relationships,” said missionary Gena Wilson in Glasgow, Scotland. IMB/Special

During a scheduled trip to the United States in 2011, Wilson went to the doctor because of back pain. Moench and his wife Laura happened to be in her hospital room when the doctor came in. Wilson had a tumor wrapped around her spine, he said. She would need surgery and chemotherapy.

From the beginning, Moench said, Wilson was very open about her battle with cancer, and God used that to touch many. She shared her journey through Facebook and YouTube videos, which were played in the school where she had been chaplain. She kept sharing her story for eight years, he added, giving people in Scotland and America an opportunity to hear about God through her faithfulness.

Because of her openness, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society asked her to participate in the 2014 New York City marathon to raise awareness of the disease and money for its cure. Wilson walked the marathon, 26.2 miles, in over nine hours – and returned to Scotland.

In Scotland, Moench said, Wilson showed her willingness to face other challenges. At one point, she found herself the only Southern Baptist missionary in Scotland working with urban deprived youth. She knew the students she was reaching needed more than she alone could offer. She built a partnership with the Baptist Union of Scotland and local churches and set out to recruit coworkers from among Southern Baptists in the United States.

When the cancer returned a third time, Wilson wanted to stay in Scotland but also knew how much her family in South Carolina wanted her home with them. Shortly before she left, she turned over leadership to a career missionary couple whose team included a missionary apprentice couple and three missionary Journeymen.

Wilson was born in Livingston, Tennessee, and grew up in Beaufort, South Carolina. She received her master’s degree in biblical counseling from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest and a bachelor of science degree in business administration from Lander University in Greenwood, South Carolina, where she participated in basketball and tennis.

She is survived by her parents Betty and John Barton, and Glenn and Susan Wilson; a sister, Glenda Londono, a brother, Greg Wilson (Julie); and other relatives.

A memorial service was held on Saturday, May 18, at the Baptist Church of Beaufort.

Gena Wilson (Lottie Moon Christmas Offering) from IMB on Vimeo.

Mary Jane Welch has long written about missions and edited missions publications and websites.

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