Missionary Gena Wilson, who walked the 2014 New York City marathon representing cancer survivors, lost her battle with a third bout of the disease May 13 at home with her family in Beaufort, S.C. Wilson, 51, served more than 20 years as a Southern Baptist missionary in Scotland.
“Gena Wilson shared hope because she had hope,” said IMB President Paul Chitwood. “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.”
John Brady, IMB vice president for global engagement, said of Wilson: “Gena showed us what it means to run the good race. She had a fierce love for the people of Scotland, but 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 co-worker 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,” said Howington, “these words come to mind: family, friends, Scotland, laughter and Jesus.”
She loved them all, said Howington. “And,” she added, “she loved to laugh and make others laugh! Oh, how she could make you laugh!”
Lydia Pettus*, another IMB staffer who knew Wilson, remembered a call from Wilson soon after she arrived in Scotland. “Lydia, I go with my Scotland friends to play soccer, and I am playing with the world.”
Wilson explained that there were so many nations represented in those soccer games and 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, says 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.
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 troubled kids. 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.
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, Wilson 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. As part of an overall strategy shift, she set out to recruit co-workers from among Southern Baptists in the United States and reconnected with the Baptist Union of Scotland and local churches for church planting and discipleship.
Shortly before the cancer returned a third time, she turned over leadership to a career missionary couple, whose team also included a missionary apprentice couple and three missionary Journeymen. Wilson wanted to stay in Scotland but also knew how much her family in South Carolina wanted her home with them.
Wilson was born in Livingston, Tenn., and grew up in Beaufort, S.C. She received her bachelor of science degree in business administration from Lander University, Greenwood, S.C., where she participated in basketball and tennis, and a master’s degree in biblical counseling from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C.
She is survived by her parents Betty and John Barton, and Glenn and Susan Wilson; a sister, Glenda Londono (Rafael), a brother, Greg Wilson (Julie); and a number of other relatives.
A memorial service was held on Saturday, May 18, at the Baptist Church of Beaufort.
See a full obituary here.
Mary Jane Welch has long written about missions and edited missions publications and websites.
See related stories: