Williams Reaches Out in Reconciliation
At age four Marvin Williams was present when his mother was beaten with a billy club by a policeman during race riots in Philadelphia. The 1972 beating left his mother permanently disabled, and she continues to struggle with her health and emotions today. But Marvin preaches the gospel of reconciliation. It's been a long journey for the soft-spoken young man of twenty-eight, who has just finished his first year in the Master of Divinity program at RTS/Jackson. Marvin knows it was God's grace that protected him from developing hatred, animosity, and bitterness about the event, which dramatically changed his mother and their family life.
After the incident, the bank foreclosed on their home, forcing Marvin's mom and her three boys (two girls came later) to move in with Marvin's grandmother for a time. Though his mother eventually sued the city of Philadelphia and won the court case for police brutality, the family would never be the same. Martin, who never knew his father, marvels that his mom was able to raise her five children and instill important values in them, values such as education and prayer.
"I had a desire to attend college from a very young age - even before I really knew what college was all about," Marvin remembers, attributing that desire to his mother's emphasis on the importance of education.
He also recalls praying together as a family. "But," he says, "by the time I was a junior in high school, I knew instinctively that I really didn't belong to Him." Martin was taught that a clear distinction existed between "being a Christian"- having a head knowledge of Christianity and holding to its teachings rather than that of Islam or Buddhism - and "being saved" or belonging to God.
"I knew that I wasn't a true Christian and that I wasn't saved," Marvin says. "Because of that, God didn't have to answer my prayers."
COMING TO CHRIST
Life was rocky for Martin during this time, including school. He had been kicked out of the more academic Central High School because of poor attendance due to the on-going turbulence in his family life. He was forced to go to South Philadelphia High School, ominously nicknamed "the drug store." By God's providence, however, Marvin escaped the drug scene; in fact, that year (and the next) at South Philadelphia High proved to be pivotal in the direction of Martin's life.
It was during that first year that he met a Latino believer named Joelson De Victoria, and was attracted to Joelson's gentle spirit and firm conviction. "He and I talked as our friendship developed," he says. "We discussed spiritual things about God. I knew that he knew intimately the God that I prayed to."
During Marvin's senior year his friendship with Joelson continued to grow, and Joelson invited him to church many times. Marvin distinctly remembers one Saturday night in 1987 when his life began to change. He bad been partying until two a.m., but woke up at four a.m. because he didn't want to be late getting to Joelson's house to go to church. Martin still believes it was God's Spirit that awakened him early to catch a bus to Joelson's house.
"We went to his small, pentecostal church for prayer," remembers Martin. "It was a tiny house church, meeting in a gutted-out store. I remember kneeling there; my prayer took about five minutes. While we were kneeling, I could hear him pray. I began to pray his prayer. When he prayed something specific for his brothers, I'd pray the same for my brothers."
After prayer the two returned to Joelson's house for breakfast. They then attended Promise Presbyterian, a small, predominantly-white church plant in a working class Italian neighborhood. He thought to himself, these people must really love God to come to a place that doesn't look very nice to worship God (the congregation met in the basement of a Lutheran church).
Eventually they left Promise and returned to Joelson's pentecostal church. As they walked into the church, people were praying and praising God in Spanish. Mentally Marvin pictured something similar to what one would have read in the Old Testament of the glory of God filling the temple. Through God's providence, that Sunday morning was one of the few that the sermon was in English.
"I'll never forget that the person was preaching about the Apostle Paul," says Marvin. "He told us that Paul had a knowledge of and desire for God. But even as he sought to serve God, he was running from Him. That described me and my life. I had a knowledge of God and I prayed often, but I knew that I didn't belong to Him."
When the speaker gave an altar call, Marvin struggled with God in his heart. He was into partying and had a greater desire to please people than to please Him.
The speaker asked those who wanted to submit their lives to God to raise their hands. Marvin raised his hand and had a picture of raising his hand into the presence of God. As he did so, the tears began to fall. Mow he had a new life in Christ. It was a night and day conversion. The Marvin he was before that day was different from the Marvin he was after that day. The year was 1987; Marvin was nineteen and graduated from high school the next month.
A CALL TO MINISTRY
Even though he received Christ at Joelson's church, Martin quickly realized he couldn't be discipled at the Spanish-speaking church. Joelson spent time at both the pentecostal church and Promise Presbyterian, so Marvin stuck close to him and went to Promise where he was discipled by the only black member of the church, an older man named Paul Selby, over the phone. They talked for hours, and when they finally left each other, Paul left Martin with Scripture passages to look up which they would discuss in a later phone conversation.
"Paul was a walking concordance," Marvin says of the man who eventually became his roommate. "He was a spiritual father to me. During my discipleship, I constantly soaked up and poured out like a sponge. The more I learned, the more I talked to others. I witnessed every opportunity I had. I dont think there's been a time in my Christian walk when I didn't share my faith."
After high school graduation, Martin enrolled at Community College of Philadelphia, where he majored in business. During his two years there, he also studied the Word of God. After taking Evangelism Explosion at Promise Presbyterian, he eventually became an EE trainer "I just shared my faith all the time, everywhere." He also listened to Charles Stanley tapes almost daily. Later, he began leading a home Bible study for new believers. And he began to feel the call to a pastoral ministry. All this within a year of his conversion!
"People in my church really encouraged me in my gifts, and my pastor allowed me to do a trial sermon," Martin recalls. "Paul Selby was the first to plant a seed that the Lord would call me to the pastoral ministry. As the church confirmed it, I began to believe it.
Paul Kreamer, former pastor of Promise Presbyterian, remembers Martin as a young man who was "intellectually capable, very teachable, and eager to learn. There was a gentleness about him. And he was fearless in his willingness to share his faith. It was obvious that he could be a good pastor."
Martin decided to pursue the call to the pastoral ministry, so he left Community College and transferred to Covenant College in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1989. The four years spent there obtaining his bachelors degree in business administration were challenging and rewarding. Marvin was surprised to experience a type of racism that he had not known in Philadelphia.
"I see it all as God's plan," he explains. "God was teaching me how to love in the midst of people trying to show love to me and not always knowing how." He came to realize that many of the students came from white, middle-class, suburban homes and private Christian schools; many simply did not know how to relate to him.
Marvin had initially thought that one day he might plant black PCA churches, but the years at Covenant snuffed that vision temporarily. On top of his own racial struggles, he met at least five African-American men that had been involved in planting black churches and had, in some way, become disillusioned with it. It seemed to him that his denomination lacked the staying power to have a lasting ministry among blacks. But through his disillusionment and disappointment, God was at work and would eventually restore his hope for his home denomination to plant black churches.
While difficult in some ways, those years at Covenant were also years of great blessing. "I received superb academic and spiritual preparation, especially in developing a Christian world view" he says. That is also where he met his wife, Rowena, who finished her bachelors degree in secondary education the year before Marvin graduated. She then moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked on her master's degree in education from Howard University. They were married in her hometown of Chattanooga in June, 1993, after Marvin graduated. They then moved to Washington, where God provided a ministry position for Marvin with Urban Young Life. He worked there for almost three years.
"From that experience, I learned relational ministry," recalls Marvin. "I discovered how to meet non-believers in their own environment and minister Christ to them, not only through words but through a lifestyle. It's been said, 'Preach the gospel always and speak when you have to.' I learned to let my life be my first witness and then let my words follow."
REVIVAL OF A VISION
After working with Young Life, Marvin and Rowena moved to Atlanta and began an internship with Pastor Louis Wilson at Redemption Fellowship. Redemption is a predominantly African-American suburban church plant with about fifteen families in the Atlanta area under the umbrella of Perimeter Ministries.
"That was a great experience for me, Marvin says. "I felt as if I had come home again. Louis Wilson, in the work of Redemption Fellowship, renewed my hope for planting black churches within the Presbyterian Church in America. Spending time with him at the church really turned the tide for me, broadening my vision and making it more specific."
"I'd like to pastor a church that plants churches," Marvin continues. "I'd like to see black churches planted. I know that some work is being done with multi-cultural churches, and I am in favor of that, too. At one time I felt like churches needed to be multi-cultural in order to reflect the kingdom of God. But I also see a great need for black Presbyterian churches because they tend to reach a different group of black people. Among other significant factors, most black people worship differently than white people."
Almost immediately after Marvin arrived at Redemption Fellowship, he knew that he needed to be in seminary. While he and Rowena began praying about seminaries, the timing just didn't seem right to Marvin. As is often the case with urban missionaries, they had been underpaid and overworked. Marvin had planned to spend a few years establishing a financial foundation for his family. But God had other plans. When his internship was completed in August, 1996, they left Atlanta and began classes at RTS/Jackson.
Thus far, Marvin has enjoyed his studies at RTS. "I don't think the family atmosphere here can be matched anywhere," Marvin remarks. "I know what it is like looking for housing for your family. Living in the seminary-owned town homes near campus is fantastic; it is a comfort to know that my family is surrounded by other believers with whom they can fellowship and by whom they can be supported."
Marvin believes he should continue to minister to others as much as possible while at seminary. Already this year, he's preached at Christ Tabernacle Baptist Church and spoken for a youth banquet at Open Door Mennonite Church.
Looking back over his life, Marvin can see that God plucked him out of a difficult background and is preparing him for a broad-based ministry of reconciliation. Consider the diversity of his experience:
He grew up in a Baptist church, was saved in a Spanish-speaking pentecostal church, discipled in doctrine in a predominantly-white Presbyterian church, cut his teeth in ministry and honed his skills through a para-church ministry in urban Washington, and interned at a black suburban church in Atlanta.
Through it all, he has learned that Christ is the common denominator of all ministries.
"I have seen God at work in many denominations and in many people groups, says Marvin. In my varied experience during nine years as a believer, God has shown me to preach Christ wherever I am, wherever I go. Christ is the key. Hes the one who cuts through all the barriers." For Marvin, the gospel of reconciliation is founded upon the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Reformed Quarterly, Volume 16, Issue 2