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Reverend urges people to reach just as far as they can

Saturday February 17, 2001

By Mary Barrett 

Daily Planet Correspondent 


The Rev. D. Mark Wilson, pastor of McGee Avenue Baptist Church, at the corner of Stuart Street and McGee Avenue in south Berkeley, is celebrating two milestones on Sunday: the eighth anniversary of his ministry at McGee Avenue Baptist and the completion of his doctorate in sociology from the University of Michigan. 

Just 40 years old, Pastor Wilson’s call to God’s work began in his childhood church in Oakland. When the choir director waved her arms to lead the singing, he, a small child in the front pew, imitated her. Church music and the drama of the ceremonies were transforming. By 14, Rev. Wilson had started preaching at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in west Oakland. His mother Bittie Cheeks-Austin, who raised six children alone, would have been a minister herself had there been any women allowed into the ministry then. It was she who kept her son focused on the idea that “with God you can accomplish any dream.” 

Music and drama were central to the Rev. Wilson’s life throughout his years at Skyline High School; he played cello, piano, and started a gospel choir that continues there today.  

He also was among the first African American class presidents. A white classmate had told him he could never win, but the Rev. Wilson knew he had positive relationships with all the different cliques from the “rah rahs” to the “thugs” to the “stoners” to the “nerds.” He knew the power of coalitions and he was easily elected. 

Always a serious student, Rev. Wilson graduated from Howard University with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, from Harvard University with a master’s in divinity, and from the University of Michigan with a doctorate in Sociology. 

There is nothing like an anniversary to force one to take a long hard look at oneself and see how things measure up. Pastor Wilson asks himself, “Is my life productive?” By any standard, the answer would be a resounding “Yes!” 

Parishioner Geneva Sumrall calls the Pastor “innovative and dynamic, a real people person.”  

City Councilmember Kriss Worthington enumerates Mark Wilson’s accomplishments.  

“He has been an activist on housing and homelessness. He strongly encourages African American businesses. He is very egalitarian and has urged women to be ordained and to preach. He has increased his efforts in bringing HIV information to African American churches all over Alameda County. Rev. Wilson has been involved with mental health agencies in fighting addictions and the church has expanded its meals program.” 

Nonetheless, last Sunday’s 8 a.m. sermon did not come easily to Pastor Mark. Two hours before the service, the sermon had still not be written. “It may seem strange,” the Pastor told the congregation, “It seems I have so much going for me. Even so, things can feel weak and weary. I feel like a shrub out in the wilderness – dry, parched. All the work I’m doing, does it amount to anything?” 

Then he reassures the congregation as he reassures himself. “God says ‘Don’t worry when I’m already pleased with you.” He begins a metaphor prompted by Jeremiah. “God doesn’t want us to be shrubs. Check out your roots. God wants us to be trees seeking water. Trees draw on their resources. Trees seek to shade the fearful. A tree whose leaves are green fulfills God’s call.” 

Pastor Mark is urging the congregation. “Tell your neighbor ‘I ain’t gonna be no shrub.’” Some of the parishioners raise timid fingers and shake them at each other: “I ain’t gonna be no shrub,” they say. 

“Check out your roots,” he said, “We’re trees who give fruit in season.” In repeating lines and rolling cadences, Rev. Wilson preaches to his congregation, giving his energy and hope generously to those attending. 

Kriss Worthington describes the reverend’s preaching as stunning. “Rev. Wilson has a driving passion and intensity that you expect and it’s combined with a lyrical elegance and intellectual depth and breadth.”  

Congregates say he is engaging at the same time he is instructive. His voice is like a well nuanced instrument. Joy seems to fill the church after his sermon. 

Rev. Wilson has boyish humor also. Before the service is over, he removes his minister’s robes and shows the congregation his T-shirt, a shirt he’s had for many years, of a Black Bart Simpson. “Here’s an angry boy,” he says. “He’s mad. No one watered his roots. No one taught him.” He laughs with the congregation. “Next week I’m going to wear the pants I wore years ago, my mother thought she’d thrown them out. I’m going to show you my ‘old time religion’ clothes.” 

The stole around Rev. Wilson’s neck is a multi-colored quilt that his parishioners pieced together for him. Everyone contributed small cloth squares. He wears the stole with pride. This congregation has been through a lot. Just a few years ago, Rev. Wilson’s privacy was shattered when the Oakland Tribune announced that he was gay. Rev. Wilson says, in turn, the newspaper did him a favor because he was challenged to take a stand. McGee Avenue Baptist was a progressive church when he came; they already had women deacons. It is also, Pastor Mark states, a very loving community. Through a series of meetings and discussions, a decision was made and the congregation voted 2-1 to keep Rev. Wilson as their minister. One person told the pastor, “I don’t agree with it but God has told me not to attack you or to leave this congregation.” Rev. Wilson says that because he was given the chance to stand and say what he needed to say, others were helped to stand and say what they needed to as well. 

Pastor Mark is an adjunct professor at the Pacific School of Religion and is motivated to share his knowledge with others. Yet he feels the most important part of his ministry is restoring relationships between people and God. “There’s a lot of hurt there for people who’ve been told they are not what they’re supposed to be, my work is to help those who are struggling to love themselves.” He himself struggled to accept the fact that he’d never be the “heterosexual pastor everyone wanted.” Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Wilson says, “...any religion that concerns itself with saving the soul without changing the social structures that scar the soul, that religion is moribund.”  

It’s the unexpected things, the surprises that he experiences in the ministry that keep him nurtured. He is excited to see members of the congregation find “their gifts.” There is a joy he receives in knowing he can help people come through struggle to places of peace. Once when he wondered what an older parishioner thought of him, her statement, “You sure are a good person” delighted him. 

Pastor Mark quotes Jeremiah, Chapter 20 as a summation of his call to the ministry. “If I say I will not mention him (God) or speak anymore in his name then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones. I grow weary with holding it in, and I can not.”  

The Berkeley community is richer from the presence of Pastor Wilson in its midst. 


A celebration service honoring Rev. Mark D. Wilson will take place at 3 p.m. Sunday at McGee Avenue Baptist Church, 1640 Stuart.