A Talk with Dwight Wilson

Johanna Jackson, Communications Associate for Friends General Conference, recently had a conversation with Dwight Wilson about his ministry, career, and inner spiritual life.

‘Why does he think he’s the smartest one in the room? Why does he always think he’s the smartest one in the room?’ That is a line from Hamilton. But we bring all these Quakers together and almost invariably, there’s going to be a number of us in that space who think we’re the smartest one in the room.

We ain’t. If the Holy One is there, the Holy One is the smartest. So, we just need to learn to shut up and listen. And so many times, we don’t listen for guidance, for holy guidance. We just depend upon our own minds, and we get ourselves in trouble. I know that every major mistake I’ve ever made was because I listened to what Dwight wanted to do, not to the Holy One. Every last one of them. Every last one of them. And it’s a long list.

Dwight Wilson

Dwight Wilson was the first Black General Secretary of Friends General Conference, and he has held many jobs besides that, including minister, educator, administrator, and author. He’s also given much of himself as a hospital volunteer. In each role, and as an author, he has worked to advance equality, opportunity, and understanding. Many of his books are for sale at QuakerBooks. In 2018, he participated in the FGC Gathering of Friends as the facilitator of Bible Half-Hour.

Enjoy the conversation below, via YouTube. The transcript follows.

Johanna: I’m here with Dwight Wilson, a recorded Friends Minister who has a gift for recognizing what’s reverent and loving in daily life. Among the many things that Dwight has done during his life, he is a retired educator. He was head of school at the Friends School in Detroit. Dwight was General Secretary of Friends General Conference and the first Black person to be General Secretary. He has served on the National Board of the American Friends Service Committee. And he donates countless hours to volunteering.  Dwight, thanks for being here today.

Dwight: Sure.

Johanna: Dwight, what’s one thing that you learned while serving as General Secretary of FGC?

Dwight:  Well, that’s a mouthful right there.  It had never been on my radar, to be General Secretary.  I say that, knowing, admitting that I was an ambitious young man. Coming out of the projects, which was where we lived in high school and was the best place we ever lived, we were, we were homeless for 10 years of my life growing up.

I remember living in, while we were in the projects, I bought a stereo. And there was a record that resonated with me called “You’re going to hear from me.” Now, if you go from me, from my parents, all the way back to Eve and Adam, nobody had graduated from high school.  But my mother told me since I was three years old, you’re going to college.

She’d never seen a college. I don’t think she ever saw a college campus until she came to my graduation. So, I had given the keynote at Friends United meeting in ’76. And when I was shaking hands after I had spoken, somebody said, did you know that Friends General Conference is looking for a new General Secretary?

I knew next to nothing about FGC. But I said to myself, ambitious young man that I was, at age 25 or 26, “Why don’t you apply and see if it helps you in the interview process?” And that is what I did. I was shocked that I made the semifinals, shocked that I made the finals, floored that I became General Secretary Select. And I was 27, when that happened.

I was not familiar with the politics that is involved with being General Secretary of FGC. I came in with the impression that we would listen to the Spirit, we would follow the Spirit’s guidance. But there were more things going on politically than I could have anticipated. Now, we’re centered in Philadelphia, and I’m from Ohio. And, Philadelphia Friends, at least when I was General Secretary, think that they are the center of the world. I’ve never been convinced that that is true. New York Yearly Meeting, I’m just going to choose a few of them, thinks that they are the most sophisticated. And we’re talking about the time when I was at FGC, that’s ’76 to ’82. New England is clear that they were the first in the United States.

So you’ve got all this contention, and I am universalist beyond what even most liberal Quakers are. Because I will speak to anybody. I will find truth, wherever it presents itself. Even if you happen to be an evangelical. Because I don’t know who the Spirit is going to come through at a given time. So trying to navigate this politics was a very interesting thing.

And I should add, I am very seriously a follower of Jesus. I don’t call myself a Christian, because too many things are done by so-called Christians that are just plain evil, period. Well, there are people who didn’t want me to even talk about Jesus. Can’t go there. I have been in the ministry. I was — I accepted a call into ministry just before I turned 18.

So I am who I am. And yet, when I look at my friends, I don’t — most of them, I don’t even know what faith they belong to, or if they’re atheists. I don’t care. All I care about is, are you a good person? Everything else is totally irrelevant. What you say is not necessarily the truth. Now, I grew up in a household where my father used more violence than most people. He used to say it — it was, it would irritate me when he would say it. I mean, he was the most quotable person I’ve ever known. He would say, “I ain’t the worst guy in the world. I’m just one of them.” Now, I really, really, really don’t want to hear that

My mother would say, “He loves you in his own way.” No, show it to me. Show it to me. Conversation is totally irrelevant to me if you do not follow what you are saying. And you can be completely silent, and it’s cool with me, as long as you are treating people with love and respect.

Johanna: Love and respect. What was it like as you stepped into Quaker leadership roles?

Dwight: What I learned, one takeaway I had, is:  Friends will select a leader and ask her or him to put their leadership on hold. Now, I was ready to be a leader. And you’re going to ask me to put it on hold just to make you feel comfortable? That’s hard. That’s hard. But that was one takeaway.

Johanna: Yeah. When you talk about that tension between moving with Spirit and moving through the political web, I’m wondering:  What helped you stay faithful to your gifts?

Dwight: As long as the Holy One and I have an understanding, I don’t care what other people say. It’s just like, you grow up as I did where you’re -as a Black person, you’re not even, um, you don’t read anything about yourself. The whole society is telling you you’re worthless, that you have no history, and you have no examples of Blacks who have been successful in the way you would like to be successful beyond spirituality.

And the best person I ever knew, the absolute best person I ever knew, was my mother’s aunt, whose name was Obelia but everybody called her Doll. Not because she was like Barbie (because she had no shape whatsoever) but spiritually, she was like — oh my goodness, you could just be around her and you automatically would be better.

She didn’t have to — she never spanked anybody. And I come from a family where you are, you’re spanked seriously. She never even raised her voice. But she made you a better person. Now, that kind of strength, oh my goodness gracious alive! That’s what I wanted! That’s what — that’s what I wanted. I wanted — I wanted to be so loving that I emanated love. That’s how she was.

Now, I, I never reached that. I never reached that. I’m 75 now, and and I don’t think I’m gonna get there. ‘Cause if you’re offensive, the chances are I’m going to become defensive.

Johanna: Wow. Wow. She had a real anchor, a security in herself.

Dwight: That’s a good word. That’s a good word. Anchor, anchor. She — she knew who she was. And so many of us around her didn’t know who she was. We had an angel. And that’s not a word that I, that I typically use. I only know of maybe two. In my life.

Johanna: As you’ve been moving through life, what helped you stay faithful to your gifts?

Dwight: Well, my mother got pregnant with me out of wedlock. (And back in the day, if that happened, a woman got expelled from school. The guy didn’t get expelled; of course, my father had been expelled already when he was in the seventh grade, so they couldn’t kick him out.) And so we lived for the first three years with my grandparents in their house. And it was clear it was their house and we were, we owned nothing there. We had no rights there whatsoever.

Well, we moved out of there and at age 23, my mother had three kids living. She’d already had a set of twins that had died while she was in childbirth, because the white ambulances would not take her to the hospital. So it would have been five of us, and my mom’s 23. Where daddy is? Ask God. I don’t know. So, we were on the street, and we were, all our little belongings were in brown paper bags.

And we didn’t know, you know, we’re kids. I’m six, and there’s a 15 month old, and a three month old, or two month old, baby.  Mom was at a loss. So she called her mother, and told her mother, while I babysat. I’m sitting on a porch, holding one baby, and holding hands with toddler, and she went and made a telephone call. And then her mother came, sent my auntie, my mother’s only sister, over to pick us up. She brought us into her house and when granddaddy came home, he was upset.

He said, “Why are they in my house?” And my grandmother told him — and she told us this the day immediately after the funeral, when we came over to the house after his funeral. So, I was an adult, all of us were adults by this time, and we never knew this story. She said, “I’m gonna tell y’all how you came to live with us.” And she told us what had happened. And then she said, when your granddaddy asked why we were in the house and he was really mad, I said to him, If you don’t mind your own daughter and grandchildren being on the street, you put them out.”

Now, I lived there for 10 years. I never saw my grandmother stand up to him.

Well, she called his bluff, and we stayed there. What my grandmother taught me is: you never give up the high ground. She would say that all the time, you never give up the high ground. And that was an example of her living her faith, but she told all of us that. Never give up the high ground.

Johanna: With that story — I didn’t know that you held a baby when you were six. And I’m wondering if that has a connection to your holding babies as an adult. How did the ministry with babies begin?

Dwight: They tell me, — and all of those aunts, uncles, grandparents that I respected in our life, I did all of their funerals. But I was told repeatedly that I got to hold one of the babies that my mother had that the white ambulance would not take to the hospital. And they both — one baby died after an hour, one died after a day.

I don’t recall it. I have no recollection; I was only two years old. But I do recall, and I’ve always recalled, how much she missed those two, even though six of us made it. She would always talk about Wayne and Dane, the twins that she had lost, but she never told us the details. She was dead 25 years before my aunt told me that the white ambulance would not take her. And, because my aunt had been out of town,   down in Georgia with my grandfather, nobody who could drive – my grandmother couldn’t drive – was around. And so the only way she could get there was to get an ambulance to get her to the hospital when her pregnancy was in deep trouble.

So the first time I held a baby I was about — I was two, if they were telling me the truth, but the first time I babysat by myself, I was six. My mother joined a club, a women’s club that used to play cards, every once a month or so, let’s say the first Saturday night, and daddy was supposed to babysit while she did this.

And so there was a two month old and, and Daddy said to me almost as soon as Mom left, “You know how to take care of babies. I’m out of here.” And he left me with the baby! And I’m five or six years old. I was scared to death! And I’m there by myself! And so then, the baby woke up. He was right. I knew how to take care of the baby, because she taught me, Mom taught me how to change the diaper, how to get a baby express milk if she wasn’t there. And so when the baby woke up, I warmed up the bottle. I changed her diaper, I sat on the porch, I gave her the bottle, and I cried. We lived in a three-room shotgun shack at that time, across from the coal yard that had big mounds of coal. And it was on a Saturday night. And to this day on Saturday night when it becomes dusk, a sadness comes over me.

But I promised myself, sitting on that porch, or — no, it wasn’t a porch, I was just sitting on a stoop. I promised myself that I would never be afraid again with a baby, ever.

So Mom came home, and she was livid. And I hadn’t put the baby back in the bed. I’m holding the baby like it’s a teddy bear. And so she and Daddy had a great row, I’m sure, but I was asleep by the time that happened.

Being able to parent children was something she taught me to do. She taught me how to be a good mother. And I’m not saying a good ‘parent’ because daddy wasn’t doing — he wasn’t on the case. Now, if any of my siblings see this, a couple of them may be upset because I’m saying this, but this is how I saw it. I grew up in a situation that was different than some of them.

I wasn’t pleased when I was replaced as the baby. And I know that’s true, I remember being mean to my sister who replaced me. But my mother said to me, “I need you. I need your help.” And I believed her. And when she told me that, that made me put my energy into helping her with the babies. And she had one more, two years to the day after she lost the twins.

And then she had another one 13 months later. I changed all my brothers’ and sisters’ diapers. I made all their formulas. I disciplined them, I babysat, I did everything for them. And I did the same thing for a number of my first cousins. So, I grew up loving babies, and so that’s a part of me doing the volunteering, holding babies for 13 and a half years, now, in the Pediatric Cardiology ward.

That and the fact that my twin brothers deserved better than they got. They deserved a lot better. I want the babies who I come in contact with to have the best. The one I had yesterday, that I was given — usually a nurse won’t give me a baby unless the baby is awake and in distress. But this time I was given a baby that was asleep. Most nurses won’t give me a baby who’s asleep. As if they think: “Okay, I’ve got some solace now because I’m handling three or four or five babies at a time. And if this one’s asleep, you know, just let it lay.”

But the nurse said to me: “Dwight, the mother can never be here because she’s got other responsibilities.” And I’m not going to go into detail, because I want to keep her privacy. The nurse said, “The baby deserves to be held. That’s why I want you to hold this baby.”

Now, nobody should be alone, let alone a baby who’s fighting for her life. Or his life. A baby that’s got 27   meds and six, seven, eight wires hooked up to oxygen. Nobody, no. That’s why I do it. That’s the origin of it. They deserve to be loved.

Johanna: That’s beautiful.

When I looked at what you share online, you shared a perspective about holding babies on Facebook. And, and someone replied something like “bless you.” And you said, “both the babies and I need it.” So I was wondering if you could talk about that need and what sustenance you gained from that kind of volunteering.

Dwight: Well, my contract was broken at Friends School in Detroit. And I was crushed. I was crushed. But we got a new board chair and he decided — the clerk, he decided that he was going to push cutting salaries. And since I was being paid the most, why don’t they take my salary and divide my responsibilities, among three of my assistants.

There were 161 students when I left. That was more than they’d seen in since they’d had a high school. And, and at the time, there was no high school. The high school had been done away with years and years before. Anyway, they dropped to  — within three years, they had dropped to 81.

And they couldn’t keep the doors open. A lot of parents —  they dropped 40 students that first year – because parents would refuse to have the kids back. Because, because they loved me, and they thought it was being unjust. My wife says to me, “Dwight, why don’t you do what you want to do? All the kids are out of college; they’re even out of graduate school. You’ve been working since you were 10 years old. You don’t even like money! Why don’t you do what you wanna do?” So the first thing I set in place was holding babies on Monday morning.

So. And I knew my major weakness in life, was babies. I can remember two times when my wife said to me — we were having open houses at, Friends School in Detroit. And as soon as somebody brought a baby in, I would go and ask for the baby. And she said to me, “that’s not right, for you to take advantage of people by asking for their babies and they may not even know you.”

I said, “Honey, anybody who has power and refuses to use it doesn’t deserve it.”

Johanna: Wow.

Dwight: Yeah. And you know, if you’re looking to put your child in school and you won’t let the headmaster hold the baby, hey, so what.

Johanna: Wow. I like that phrase. “Anybody who has power and refuses to use it doesn’t deserve it.” It helps just to take responsibility for only what’s yours, and not anything more.

Dwight: Yes.

Johanna: Speaking of power… you have a powerful voice, and part of that is being a writer. We had talked about your reading something aloud. And so I’m wondering if there’s something you’d like to read aloud while we’re here.

Dwight: Yes. [holds up a book] Well, this became a pamphlet. At the gathering in 1980, I gave a talk called “Quaker and Black, Answering the Call of My Twin Roots.” Well, I gave it extemporaneously. In those days, I never wrote anything out. But somebody transcribed it. And they made some errors in their transcription, but I’m going to read part of it.

I believe that God called us all to be ministers, but I believe each of us has some different talents. Tom Jevons taught me a definition of leadership that I love. I’ve stolen it from him. One time I used it and didn’t even quote him, but he’s here now, so I’d better do it. He said, ‘the leader is the first one to obey the spirit.’

A simple definition, the first one to obey. I like that definition. And sometimes I long to be not in an executive position so that I can be the first one to obey. Once I said, ‘I’m concerned that we are having all of these friends leave us, retire, who came from the CPS camps. We’re going to have a leadership vacuum. I want to do something to work with you so that we will be training our own leaders and stop bringing in so many leaders from outside of the Religious Society of Friends.’ I thought it was a legitimate concern. But I was told by members of my Executive Committee that the problem with this country is leadership.

In quotes: “We don’t need leaders,” they said.

No, I realized God called me to be a servant. But my mother reared me to be a leader. There’s tension involved in these two.

I’ll just stop right there.

I think that, that there is – and this is me speaking from the 21st century now, not 1980. One of the false narratives that we live with in the West is of King Arthur’s round table. The table may have been round, but everybody knew who was leading! It didn’t matter if the table was round! They knew who was leading. So I do not believe that if we do not take equal responsibility for the fall, that we should have equal responsibility for moving forward.

Johanna: Hmm. Yeah. What are some challenges in working in Quaker community?

Dwight: I remember once when I was – the first time I was eldered, and I have been eldered at least three times. Two times, they were wrong. But this time, they were right. Okay. So, we’re in New England Yearly Meeting, 500 of us are there in a room. Everybody wanted to move forward except one guy, and he stopped us. We were going on in this discussion for an hour, 45 minutes, I don’t remember how long — but it was, as my kids used to say when we were taking a drive across the country, “Daddy it’s taking longer and longer!” It was taking longer and longer. And we’re not moving forward. So I got up and I left! And someone who I respected greatly followed me out. And he said to me, “You had no right to leave that meeting.” He was 100% correct. I didn’t, because part of what we believe is that — as Quakers we say we believe it, that “one with God can be a majority.”

But if I’m the only one that can be fired, and you can come in and you can make a decision that can stop a committee, that’s not right. And I saw this happen when I was General Secretary, where we’d had a committee that had been working for over a year. They brought forward their recommendation and a guy who had never even been to the meeting stopped it.

It’s like, what’s wrong with this picture?

I don’t… I think it’s pretentious for us to say that we are all equal. For example, I’m speaking to you in my in my home. In the face of the Holy One, everybody who comes into this space is equal. However, don’t come here and tell me to rearrange my pictures on the wall. Don’t tell me, ‘No, I don’t want to eat what you’re planning on serving for dinner. I want this and that and the other.’

No! It don’t work like that! It does not work like that. We are equal in value, but if we don’t take equal responsibility, it’s not fair for all of us to our voices to be heard as equal.

And I’m going to go to a place where most of us don’t want to touch. But I’m going to say it, because it needs to be said. One of the things that frustrated me when I was Head of School, and when I was Dean at Oakwood and at Moorestown Friends, was: you have board members who, because they went to school, think they know how to run a school. And so they’re telling you to do things because they went to school.

But I had two grandmothers, both of whom were certified matriarchs. They never rode in the back. I don’t care who else was in that car! They always rode in the front seat, though neither one of them could drive. But we knew that that seat was theirs.

Just because you know how to ride don’t does not mean you know how to lead. I discovered — well, the first time I discovered that — I’m laughing now, but I wasn’t laughing at the time. I played basketball, five years, I won five championships. When I went to Oakland for school they asked me to coach. I’d never even thought about coaching. The first year I coached, it was a JV team. We lost 13 straight games. I had only lost five games in five years as a player! I didn’t know how to coach! So, we were ahead 11 times at halftime, and we still lost 13 games in a row. And I said to myself, “I’m not gonna take positions like this anymore. It’s not happening.”

So I studied how to coach, and we won the championship the next year! That’s my pride. I know it was my pride.

Johanna: That’s fun. I have another question. What makes a good leader?

Dwight: If you’re not open to the Holy One — if you don’t understand that the leader is the first one to obey, not her or himself, but the Holy One, you can end up burning the house down. So when I use Tom Jeavon’s quote about the leader being the first one to obey, I have often put it together with: “If you’re in a house and the house catches on fire and a baby sees it first, the baby is the leader. Not you. The baby was the first one to saw it. If the baby saved you, the baby was the leader.”

We don’t pray enough. We don’t listen enough. So many of us are well-educated, that it’s like in Hamilton. Did you see the see the play Hamilton?

Johanna: No.

Dwight: Oh, it’s so wonderful. It’s my favorite musical, which is crazy for that to be my favorite musical because I have loved West Side Story and Sound of Music and South Pacific all my life.

But Hamilton is a favorite. “Why does he think he’s the smartest one in the room? Why does he always think he’s the smartest one in the room?” That is a line from Hamilton. But we bring all these Quakers together and almost invariably, there’s going to be a number of us in that space who think we’re the smartest one in the room.

We ain’t. If the Holy One is there, the Holy One is the smartest. So, we just need to learn to shut up and listen. And so many times, we don’t listen for guidance, for holy guidance. We just depend upon our own minds, and we get ourselves in trouble. I know that every major mistake I’ve ever made was because I listened to what Dwight wanted to do, not to the Holy One. Every last one of them. Every last one of them. And it’s a long list.

Johanna: What are some of the costs in our religious community, of that not listening?

Dwight: My Quaker heritage goes back to the first generation.   I didn’t know that until I had maybe two years more at FGC. One of my ancestors was first cousins with William Penn — one of my ninth great grandmothers, excuse me. I know where we worshipped, before the 20th century. Now most of those meetings are gone. And that’s the price of not listening.

The fact that we don’t focus more on listening to how we can embrace our children and allow them to use the gifts that they’ve been given, means that we lose three out of every four of them. We’ve been saying that for decades.

If we had listened to the Holy One, for example, in the antebellum period, most of America would be Quaker. But we wouldn’t accept Blacks as equals in most of our meetings. They had to sit in the back seat, or they couldn’t even get membership. If Quakers had embraced listening, the Religious Society of Friends would be filled with Blacks, if we lived up to our written tenets.

And such things as Donald Trump becoming president? Couldn’t happen, could not have happened. But we didn’t listen. Now we can look back and say, “Well, you know, slavery is racist.” We could say that slavery was wrong, but we couldn’t say that Blacks should be equal. That was from not listening. That was from not listening.

We’ve got so much blood on our hands, it’s painful.

Johanna: Thank you. I wonder if we could look at the opposite before we wrap up. Which is when you look around, what are some examples of faithful listening?

Dwight: If you, if you read the Bible — and I’m thinking about starting my 12th time, cover to cover from Genesis to Revelation, and probably will do that in September — you know that there always was a remnant who were faithful. From Moses’s time on, there was a remnant. It wasn’t the whole group that was faithful. But we have shining examples of abolitionists — many of whom got kicked out of their yearly meetings, monthly meetings, who ran to other faiths — but they saw the truth, and they lived the truth.

In real time, I have four sons. I have traveled among Friends of all persuasions, from those who say that they are atheists to those who practice evangelical beliefs. I have shown up at people’s houses, with one, two, three, sometimes four of my sons and wife, and across the spectrum, I have been treated with respect and love and stayed at people’s homes.

That’s consistent. That’s consistent among Quakers. When I named the best people that I have known, the two best men and two best women, half of them were Quakers. And they were shining examples of   truth-bearing. Of loving.

This will make you laugh, because it — it threw me. Oh, man, it threw me. I mentioned that one of my mentors, the one who’s my spiritual mentor for the longest for more than 50 years, she is the one that brought me back to Quakers. I was raised nominally a Baptist.

But I’m up in Maine. I’m 21 years old. A semi-programmed meeting, Durham Friends Meeting, comes to me, sends a committee and they talked to the president at the theology school where I’m attending. And they say that they’re looking for a pastor and he points them to me.

When I go to the room for the interview, I am told that the reason they want to see me is they hear I’m a great preacher. Now I’m 21 years old! At 21 years old, somebody tells you you’re a great preacher, you want to hear that! Yeah, okay. I’ll listen to your conversation. So they went on to say that they’ve been looking for a minister for the past six months. And they couldn’t agree because it had to be by the sense of the meeting.

Now I knew what the sense of that meeting meant. They broke it down and said that that means that it has to be by a unanimous decision: one person can stop us from going forward. So I go down there. I end up pastoring; they selected me; I’m the only Black — there are no Black members in the meeting, none whatsoever! There is no Black person in the town besides me and my ex-wife.

Now, this woman who became my mentor, she was a clerk of that committee. She taught me classical Quakerism. She told me which books to read because I wanted to give them Quaker sermons.

And we remained close. She died early in the pandemic, but the year before she died, I went there to visit. And they asked me to speak. And she says — before I got up, she says, “Now we’re going to hear real preaching.” And that’s an incredible statement for somebody to make, let alone, this weighty person! And she was the weightiest person in New England.

Okay, so. Her daughter is my closest friend, after my wife. We will zoom every Friday that is possible for us to zoom. So we have a conversation a couple months ago, and she says that — the daughter says that the mother has died, and I was supposed to have given the mother’s funeral, but I couldn’t because of the pandemic. Anyway, she says, “Mama was such a Republican.”

I said, “Time out. What did you just say?” She said, “Mama was such a Republican.” I said,” Your mother was a Republican?!” We have never had a Democrat that was within 10 steps of my politics, and your mother, who was my mentor for over 50 years, was a Republican? And she said, “Yes.”

I said, ” How could that possibly be?”

We loved each other dearly all that time. And I never knew that she had been a Republican. So I said — my mother was a maid all her career. She died at 44, but she was a maid all her career, professional career. She was a volunteer for the Democratic party, shook John F. Kennedy’s hand. So being a Democrat, that’s just who I am. But I would be something else if we had something far to the left Democrat.

So I said, “What did she think of Trump?” She said, “She thought he was a fool.” And I said, “Well, what did she think of Democrats?” “She thinks that most of the time they’re fools too.”

So we’ve known each other all this time and she goes to her grave without me knowing that we were in different parties! Now, that’s what love will do. That’s what love and respect will do. And her Quaker roots are deeper than mine because her people continue to be Quakers. And some of them got read out of meeting for being abolitionists.

But there are great, there’s greatness within Quakerism. I’ve known so many people who were faithful. And that’s why I stayed. I stayed for the remnant. And I stayed because the only faith that makes sense to me on paper is Quaker. That’s the only one that makes sense to me. The rest of them it’s like, “Okay, yeah. You sound alright sometimes, but most of the time, forget about it.”

So. If we can live up to who we are called to be, we are the cat’s meow.

Johanna: Those are fighting words! Wow, thank you. I’m curious, is there anything you are afraid of?

Dwight: One of my dear friends, he said to me some time ago, about a month ago, he said, “Dwight, what do you fear the most?” And he was referring to my cancer. I said, “That I will outlive one of my sons.” He said, “No, no, I’m talking about the cancer.” I said, “I’m not afraid of that. My mother died of 44 and I’ve outlived her by over 30 years.”

So if I’m taken by it, whenever, I’m taken by it. But having said that, I’d be disingenuous if I did not admit that there are hundreds of people who have been praying for me across the world, and who tell me that with regularity. I have every reason to believe that I am a four-time winner against cancer — and I know nobody gets out of this alive — because of all those prayers.

I know that. I know that. And somebody said, “Well, it’s because you’ve been faithful.” No, my mother was faithful. She died at 44. It’s not that. It’s that all these angels are… are holding me up right now.

I never turn down people’s good wishes, prayers, “holding in the Light,” as we say, whatever.

Johanna: What, if anything, have you learned from having cancer?

Dwight: I don’t, like I’ve said, I don’t believe in retreating. So I used to take students when I was Dean at Oakwood away. Once a semester to various places, and I would call it an “advance.” Well, I learned how to retreat and regather myself, because of the cancers. And even while I was in them, there are people who would share with me what they were going through: other cancers, a loved one dying of cancer, MS, leukemia, all manner of diseases. And they would do this privately, because I was being open about what I was going through. And it was giving me strength, because I was able to do something for somebody else, rather than just focus on myself.

One of my former students is now — well, it shows how ancient I am. She’s a retired nursing professor now. And when she was in my youth group, and she was 12, I was moving from Durham to go to be Assistant Chaplain at Oberlin College. And just before that, I went to visit her house. I was close to a number of people in her family. And she said: “What can we do to help you move?”

And I said, “Nothing. I got it.” And she said, “You are so unfair. You always do things for us, but you never let anybody do anything for you.”

That struck me hard, because she was telling the truth. So when we got back together on Facebook in about 2009, I told her about that quote. She didn’t remember. I said, “I’ve lived by it since then. I feel that I don’t have a right to turn somebody down who wants to help me because of what you told me.”

I don’t deal in debts. I don’t owe you anything but the best of me; you don’t owe me anything but the best of you. But I’m not going to call you on it if you don’t give it to me! I’m not going to call you on it.

So many people have helped me, but I’ve also helped myself. I’ve helped myself by looking at how I need not always to be going full speed. I need to sometimes sit back and let the Spirit clarify where I am. I got off all boards, all commissions, everything. But I want to go back in September.   I took like four months off after the last, the last cancer. I said, “Man, you need to just get yourself together.”

And I remember Jesus did that. He retreated at least twice. And when he was in the garden of Gethsemane, what was he doing? He was retreating. He wasn’t praying to himself. He was praying for guidance, for how to move forward.

Johanna: Your illness has required endurance and faith.

Dwight: Yes. The only way I can be defeated by an illness is if I say, “run over me.” If I stand up, you can’t beat me. You cannot beat me. And I’m standing up and, I’m going to lose my life at some point, but I’m not going to give it away. I’m not going out like that.

Johanna: Having the strength to stand up reminds me that sometimes we might need to stand up, even though we don’t know what we could walk into. Even if we might not have a positive picture of why we’re standing up.

Dwight: Mm-hmm.

Johanna: Dwight, have you ever gotten mad at God?

Dwight: No! No. And I know all kinds of people who have. There are people who I’m really close to who are really spiritual, who talk about being mad at God. I’ve had, I’ve had so many blessings. I have gone so much further than I dreamed I would, living in the Projects when I first started to dream. No.

But do I think that others have a right to? Sure. If you want to get mad at God, go for it. And Jesus did! I mean, the way it’s recorded. Well, one of my professors — who I don’t even think. believed in most of the Bible, and there are large parts that I can’t agree with — he said,” if anything is embarrassing that’s recorded in a Bible, it probably happened.” So Jesus is on a cross, and he says, “Why, my God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?”

He’s mad. It’s like, “Man, I showed up for you. Why aren’t you showing up for me?” And I think he was wrong. I’ve always thought he was wrong, that he was not forsaken. And so if I’m going to come to that conclusion from the time I was like 12, 13 years old, that Jesus was wrong about being mad, then why should I be mad? No.

I have never been alone in all my sufferings. All the wrong things that have happened —  betrayals by others who were close to me, self betrayals. I’ve never been mad at God.

Johanna: Dwight, thank you again.

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