James Wilkins is walking down Bank Street in Franklin with his pockets full of drugs. Little envelopes of crack, which he also was using at the time, though he’d never been particular about his narcotics. LSD, weed, heroin — if you had it; he’d try it. Been that way since he was 13, a couple of years after his dad died. Not that he’s trying to rationalize. Just stating a fact.
He’s wired and tired and thinks it’s been a few days since he’s slept. It’s late and in the darkness ahead, he sees a parked police car, engine running.
“That’s for me,” he remembers thinking, eyeing the distance to the corner separating him from the cops. He bolts, emptying his pockets, the squad car now behind him, ahead a fence and beyond it, another squad car. A dead end.
Wilkins drops to the ground and stretches out flat, face pressed against the dirt and the grass, arms out in front of him. It is 1998. He is a 40-year-old man, a deadbeat dad to two sons whom he has never helped raise. He’s an ex-con with two years behind bars and less than a year back out in the world.
“What is my mom going to say?” he thinks, and shame overwhelms him.
And that’s the moment James Wilkins surrenders.
Seventeen years later, Wilkins, wearing a tracksuit and running shoes, is striding through the Lowe’s parking lot on West Broad Street toward a group of day laborers.
“Good morning,” Wilkins calls out, walking fast, as if at any moment they might turn and scatter, though he comes out here almost every morning. “Can I pray with you this morning?”
The Rev. James Wilkins praying with day laborers near the Lowe's on West Broad on Friday morning, Dec. 18. His ministry began five years ago with the men and women who gather near the home improvement store, hoping to be hired for a day's work. (Photo by Tina Griego)
“Good morning,” come the responses. “How ya’ doin’, reverend?”
They gather in a circle, holding hands, heads bowed in the gas station parking lot.
“This is really a special time for me,” Wilkins says. “Eight years ago at this time, in just a few more days, I would be coming home from prison. That’s right. Christmas Eve. You guys were my first ministry. You all know that, right? Praise God. Hallelujah.”
They are still his ministry: the homeless and once-homeless, the addict and former addict, the drinkers, the hustlers, the ex-cons, the people who've had it hard some days and harder the others. Wilkins came to them as his prison chaplain once came to him and his fellow inmates: in recognition of their humanity and their struggle to believe that God would find them worthy.
They know his story, how he spent 20 years as a drug user and dealer in Emporia and Franklin in Southside Virginia. They know about his two prison stints. If anything, The Rev. James Wilkins is known for keeping it real.
The Rev. James Wilkins congratulates an old street friend who tells him he's found work and a place to live. (Photo by Tina Griego)
“He came to us street-cut and raw,” says Edward Woodson, who lived on the streets for 20 years and struggles with drug addiction.
“I was sentenced to at least 65 years,” Wilkins says. “I served nine years and three months [with the remainder suspended], but this is the amazing thing, right? Statistically, if you crunch the numbers, you’re over 50 years old, you have 13 felonies, you have only a GED, with a drug history and no work history for most of your life, and you’re an African-American male, what are the odds? You end up dead or back in prison. But, you know what? It doesn’t have to go that way.”
Wilkins went back to prison determined to be a man who would make his mother proud: a humble servant of God. His mom, who is a pastor, as was his stepdad (and his two sisters) helped with that. She drew the line this second time around, saying she saw in his prison time not physical bondage, but spiritual freedom.
Over the years, Wilkins would study his Bible, become engaged in prison ministry, and mentor younger inmates. He built and strengthened his relationships with his sons, talking to them frequently.
He was “full of zeal,” says the Rev. Louis Collins, Wilkins’ chaplain in the latter years of his sentence at Greenville Correctional Center. “His approach was very strong and forward and blunt, sometimes too blunt.” Wilkins would come to understand that everyone has his or her own journey and it may not be like his. And his trials were still not over. He says a fellow inmate stabbed him in the head while he was working in the kitchen. Three months before he was released, his eldest son was killed in an accident.
“I believe that it is in our most vulnerable stage that we see Christ most clearly, when we don’t have any place else to go,” Collins says. "It is the true joy of my life when people see the light, and James did and wasn’t blinded by it. He became very focused. He became very receptive to the word of God, the will of God and the way of God.”
He’s “extraordinary on so many levels,” says Adria Scharf, executive director of the Richmond Peace Education Center. Wilkins spoke at one of the center’s youth summits in 2013, after his granddaughter was struck in the head and wounded by a stray bullet in Emporia. She was 11. She forgave the shooter, as did Wilkins, who later led a march against gun violence.
“There is his personal path and journey,” Scharf says, “but there is also his authenticity as a pastor, day in and day out, to the most disenfranchised among us.”
“I’ve invested in a lot of people over the years and have become quite familiar with the saying, ‘No good deed goes unpunished,’” says Dr. Charles Lovelady, who hired Wilkins to work in his household, then in Franklin, about a year after he was released from prison and came from Alabama to attend his ordination in 2009. “I have never regretted any investment I made in James, not emotionally, not financially. He has this inner light in him. I can see God working through him.”
“He walks around with that glow, no matter where he is,” says Wilkins’ son, Leon Robinson, who is now very close to his father. “I have been trying to figure it out. If he had had to serve all the years they gave him, he would have spent the rest of his life in prison. I think he’s thankful. I think he wakes up every morning thankful.”
Robinson, 30, put himself through college and is a residential counselor at a treatment facility (and the rapper and songwriter D85). Just before his dad was released, Robinson laid out his expectations for their future relationship.
“He said, ‘Don’t try to make up for what you never did. Don’t insult me like that.’ ” Wilkins recalls. “He said, ‘I’ll tell you what, you can do one thing for me.’ I said, ‘What’s that, son?’ He said, ‘Do something for yourself, so that when people ask me about my dad, I can hold my head up.’”
On a recent Sunday, just before 10 a.m., the Rev. Wilkins and his wife, Shirley, arrive at the Comfort Inn Conference Center Midtown on West Broad Street. "Good morning," they call to the desk staff, before heading down a hall to the Harrison conference room, which, since March, has been the sanctuary of the Nehemiah House of Prayer.
The Rev. James Wilkins, pastor of Nehemiah House of Prayer, celebrates Sunday services on Dec. 6 in the Hamilton conference room of the West Broad Street Comfort Inn. Wilkins, a former drug dealer and addict, served a combined 12 years in prison before he was released on Christmas Eve, 2007. His five-year-old ministry is largely focused on those in whose shoes he has walked: the homeless, the addict, the hustler, the ex-con. (Photo by Tina Griego)
Their first – and only – church started with a child care center in 2011 in a storefront just down the road at West Broad and Lombardy. The building owners had a new tenant, a tenant that could afford the rent. Theirs is a tiny congregation without means. Its members do what they can, but Wilkins supports the ministry with his full-time job as a subcontractor for Pastor Collins’ courier company. The hotel conference room for Sunday services was Mrs. Wilkins’ idea, and they’ve been able to manage the average $1,000-a-month rent. Mrs. Wilkins is beloved by the church members. She is gracious and kind and is unflappable, while he is excitable.
She sets out coffee and doughnuts, and soon enough, the congregation filters in. There’s Edward Woodson. It’s his birthday and, later, everyone will sing to him and he will choke up and say he never thought he’d live to see 62. There’s Ada Brown, recovering from her own struggles with alcohol and such, but doing well and happy, she says, to be in a church “where I can be myself.”
The Rev. James Wilkins anoints the granddaughter of church member Ada Brown at Sunday services on Dec. 6, 2015. (Photo by Tina Griego)
Sister Vanessa Fitzgerald arrives, and Wilkins will ask her to sing for them. When she does, the conference room becomes a cathedral and her voice lifts people from their seats.
Over the next hour, about two dozen congregation members arrive.
The Rev. James Wilkins calls a prayer circle as Sunday Services end on Dec. 6, 2015. His wife, Shirley Wilkins, wearing red, joins in. (Photo by Tina Griego)
“Numbers don’t dismay us,” Wilkins says, “because we understand that He is the same God with two or three as He is with 20,000. He has the same power. He has the same authority. He has the same wisdom."
He beams and shouts: “Are you all ready to get your praise on? Hallelujah!”
In the lobby, the desk clerk checks out guests and outside, over the next couple of hours, hundreds of people will pass the hotel, not knowing as they drive by that inside, a conference room has become a chapel filled with the joy of a man redeemed.
Please note that there won't be a Sunday Story next week (Dec. 27). Happy holidays to all.
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