I thank God for several men whom I count as my counsellors and godly examples in my life. They are the Paul, and I'm the Timothy. One of those men is John Wilkerson. God has used him to make a great impact on my life. This is one of many instances in which God used Pastor Wilkerson and his family to make me more Christ-like, and I will never forget it as long as I live.
Linda, our baby daughter Elisabeth, and I had just returned to the States from a month-long survey trip to Cambodia. We had been on staff at First Baptist Church of Long Beach under the pastoral leadership of John Wilkerson for one year at that point, and still had a year left until we returned to Georgia to start deputation. Two days after returning from Cambodia, on a Saturday morning, I attended our regular men's prayer breakfast which was held every Saturday morning at 7:30. There were usually around 200 men who attended that meeting on a weekly basis, and on that morning I was excited to see every one of them having been away for a month.
I arrived at the breakfast about 10 minutes early to see friends I had not seen in a month, and what a blast it was to have that fellowship with some of my favorite people in the world. As I greeted and joked around with my friends, I noticed that Bro. James Allen, our assistant pastor, and Pastor Parada, the pastor of the Spanish ministry, were heading to the front of the room to approach the podium. As they stood behind the podium, the talking of the group of men hushed down and all eyes were directed to the two men. I remember thinking, "Huh, where is Pastor Wilkerson. He's usually the one who starts the prayer meeting." I sat there puzzled for a few seconds.
Bro. Allen stood there for several seconds in complete silence, even after the entire group of men had stopped talking altogether. He kept looking down and then looking up. Then he finally forced these words out: "Last night Tyler Wilkerson (Pastor's oldest son- 17 yrs of age) was with two other members of the church heading up to Santa Clara. They were involved in a terrible car accident. Tyler didn't make it."
I remember sitting there thinking, "What do you mean Tyler didn't make it?" It took several seconds for the tragic truth of Tyler's death to sink in. I remember the complete silence that covered the room. We paired up with our prayer partners and began begging God to help in this situation that seemed so surreal. I remember I prayed with Tim Egge, my good friend and first-year principal of the Christian school, in his office. I remember walking across the parking lot to our apartment, entering the front door, and telling Linda that our pastor's son had just died.
The announcement was made that Pastor Wilkerson was going to address the church at our weekly Saturday soul winning rally called Victory Club. There were normally a couple hundred church members who gathered every Saturday at 9:00 for this time of singing (we would usually sing 15 to 20 uplifting songs) and listening to a Bible challenge before going into the community to give the Gospel. I was the song leader for this meeting- one of my favorite jobs at the church. I remember showing up 15 minutes early to prepare the songs that we would sing. The place was overflowing with people. Normally, the people who attend Victory club would be in the chapel laughing and fellowshipping. But when I walked in, I noticed that there was not an empty seat (the chapel we met in could hold about 250 people), and no one was talking. I saw Bro. Jerry Vargo, another assistant pastor, and asked him, "Bro. Vargo, I don't know what to do. Should I just start the singing as normal?" He told me to pick some songs of comfort and to start the service with singing on time as normal. So I picked out several comforting songs, stood behind the pulpit, and began leading the group of over 300 people (many were standing in the hallway in the back) in singing songs like "Beulah Land" and "In Times Like These."
I knew that Pastor was supposed to arrive at any time to address the church family, but nobody knew exactly what time he would be there. We sang several songs together, and in the middle of the song "Rejoice in the Lord", Pastor Wilkerson entered through the door at the front of the chapel, to the immediate left of the pulpit from the congregation's perspective. He walked in, followed by Mrs. Wilkerson and their seven children. They sat down on the front pew on the left side of the chapel, which had been reserved for them. I finished leading the song, and then looked at him to see if he was ready to come to the pulpit. He signaled for me to sing one more song, so we sang "Amazing Grace."
After singing several verses of "Amazing Grace" I stepped down and Pastor Wilkerson came to the pulpit. God's grace was obviously working in him and his family. Tyler had just passed away a few short hours before. He told us of the car wreck, and of receiving that awful phone call that confirmed Tyler's death. He led the congregation in two verses of his favorite hymn, "Day by Day." He taught us the song he used to sing with Tyler when Tyler was a toddler, "Jesus Gives Me Peace." Then he said something that will be forever etched in my heart and memory. This is not verbatim, but this is my best recollection of what he told the precious people of First Baptist Church on Long Beach just hours after learning of his firstborn son's death:
"Before last night's events unfolded, we had already committed as a family to visit a needy person who is in the hospital. In just a few minutes my family and I are going to leave here, and we are going to honor that commitment we made to visit this person. After that we are going to go home and take some time as a family to begin coping with the death of our son, Tyler." And that is exactly what they did. Their first action after learning of Tyler's death was to minister to another person.
The next day, Sunday, Pastor and his family arrived at the church and were greeted with thousands of hugs, tears, and prayers from one of the most precious church families in the world. Pastor stood and preached a message entitled, "God Makes No Mistakes."
Pastor and Mrs. Wilkerson, Linda and I thank God for you and your precious children. You have been used of God to demonstrate to us the meaning of true Christianity. We love you, and are praying for you as you enter this new exciting phase of your ministry. God has elevated your influence because you have sought after Him above all things, and because you have not sought after the praise or approval of men. May He continue to use your lives for His glory.