My first encounter with Tom Willson was in 1989, in a missionary prayer meeting in Juazeiro do Norte, CE, Brazil. I was a skinny 17 year-old kid, and Tom was a veteran missionary. After a devotional and a time of prayer, Tom took me aside and gave me a quick overview of the Juazeiro’s culture and spiritual condition.
During that conversation, and every other conversation I ever had with him, the word that came to mind was “passion”.
Tom Willson never did anything half way. When he preached, he did it with all of his energy. When he taught he was famous for becoming red in the face as he exerted himself to get his point across. Students who lived in the dorm at the Cariri Baptist Seminary while he and his wife Evelyn were dorm parents would tell of epic wrestling matches, which he rarely lost. He himself told me of one such match that he lost–to none other than Jim Elliot while both studied at Wheaton.
Tom belonged to the same generation of missionaries as Elliot, and had the same determination to spread the Gospel, no matter what the cost. He followed his brother, Jim Willson, to Brazil, and together they were instrumental in developing the Cariri Baptist Seminary. Jim eventually left for another mission field. Tom stayed.
His legacy in Brazil includes the Cariri Baptist Seminary, many church plants, a son who continues the work, and many, many pastors who call him their “father in the faith”. Indeed, I would say his greatest work was in developing young men for the ministry. Those of my friends who came under his influence joke about his high standards–yet speak in hushed tones of the investment “seu Tomé” made in their lives.
Tom Willson was of a generation of “super men” in missions, men who went into the most unlikely of places, lived in the most precarious of circumstances, and persevered for the sake of the Gospel. They knew no limits, and never took “no” for an answer. Those of us who follow in their footsteps reap the benefit of their sacrifice, and fear that we are not made of the same stuff.
Many of Tom Willson’s disciples have preceded him in glory, and, if I may be permitted this flight of fancy, I can imagine the standing ovation they must have given as their beloved “seu Tomé” stepped into their midst this morning.
Correction: I had originally stated that I met Tom in 1998. It was 1989.