The Rev. Dr. Justine Wilson, of Cherokee and Ojibwe descent, heard the call to ministry when she was very young. In her perception, ministry was for people with gray hair, so she ignored the call. She saw it as something meant for later in life.
“I came out of a conservative tradition, and women didn’t do that and were instructed not to do that,” said Wilson. She was a single mom living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with a 6-year-old and an infant when she connected with a Native pastor who encouraged her to take the leap into seminary.
“When I went into seminary, Plan A was to finish, go into the ministry and then, in a few years, pursue a doctoral degree,” she said. In the second week of classes at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, she found herself questioning theology class because she felt the textbooks did not speak to her experience with God. Soon, a tragic turn of events had her questioning her faith even more.
During an evening class, the seminary librarian pulled Justine out of class with devastating news. Her older son had been hit by a car in front of the student dorms.
“I asked him if he was OK, and he said, ‘You just need to go right now,’” she recalls. She would later learn that he was internally decapitated, and doctors did not believe he would make it. For the next six months, she stayed by his side in the hospital in intensive care.
“It was a miraculous thing for him to eventually survive,” she said. The seminary set up 24-hour care for the infant and brought him to her around the clock to nurse. She also remembers strong support from all the seminarians practicing their pastoral care during the difficult time. She ended up taking the first quarter off but had to maintain grades and classes to keep her scholarship and housing.
“My son was still in a coma; I was nursing the baby and had to go to school full time,” she said. “My faith journey changed dramatically from what we went through and so did my theology.”
She recalls questioning why a good God would make an innocent child suffer. How could this all happen if she was answering God’s call? She began to realize she was substituting God for Santa Claus; if she did well, she would be rewarded.
“That’s not what the gospels say,” said Wilson. “Jesus says, ‘Take up my cross and follow me.’ So, it’s not going to be an easy road, but it’s a road you do not have to walk alone.”
The realization did not change things immediately, but it allowed her to get through each day. She said she wasn’t really looking down the road but, rather, getting through the next hour, and that was enough.
“If it weren’t for the incredible grace and hard work of other people, I would not have gotten through,” she said. Because her son was still in a fragile state when she completed seminary, Wilson decided to stay in school to be close to a major medical facility. She pursued a doctorate degree in New Testament and early Christian origins from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Two decades later, Wilson is senior pastor at Norman First American United Methodist Church in Norman, Oklahoma. She is working with the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference to create a Native American course-of-study program. The unique course includes Native theology and explores ways to bring tradition, culture and religion together in ministry.
“It’s a burden that I have to want to give back and to make sure every person gets through the course-of-study program because someone helped me get through,” she said.
The course is essential because mainstream seminary education does not speak to Native students who want to know how to explain the theology of the Sun Dance or other cultural practices, according to Wilson. She said Native people have had to choose between culture and Christianity for a long time, but they shouldn’t have to do so any longer.
“It’s not one or the other; you can be both at all times,” she said. “You get to be whole in every circumstance.”
She also tells her students there is nothing that they are going through that she won’t believe.
“‘I will believe it,’ I tell them, because I’ve been there,” she said. “You don’t have to convince me; I already believe you. The question is, ‘How do we work together to get you through?’”
Wilson led OIMC’s first Native satellite course March 6, 2020. It is a collaboration between the conference, Perkins School of Theology, and the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church.
Wilson’s oldest son, 27, graduated with honors from the University of California and now works in disability advocacy; her youngest son, 21, is attending the University of Oklahoma.