Paying it Forward

July 18, 2014

Willie James, Alumnus (M.A. '04, M.Div. '08) and current D.Min. Student

Doctor of Ministry student, Willie L. James, Jr., came from a long life of trials and victories to arrive at the point where he is today. From the streets of North Philadelphia, to the boxing ring, to seminary, to teaching, to pastoring, Willie tells his story of redemption in Christ and how he hopes to pass that on to the next generations of teenagers.

Willie James grew up in North Philadelphia and went to one of the worst schools in the greater Philadelphia region. “One percent goes to college, 0.5% finish. I was in the slow class for math and never really fully read a book, prior to becoming a Christian.” Before he became a Christian, his life was marked by alcohol, drugs, women, and abuse. Boxing became a way out for him. “Joe Hand Promotions was offering me $100,000 as a 19-year-old to sign a boxing contract. I won the Pennsylvania golden gloves, and I was on my way to the regionals, nationals, and Olympics.” It was then that the Lord came into his life and changed his course. “I got saved, married, called to preach, and left boxing all within 15 months.”

During the early 90’s, Willie was a bus driver for Greyhound. He got into a major bus accident in 1996; and, while he was healing from his injuries, the Lord prompted him to inquire about higher education for ministry. He told his pastor and he informed him about the Center for Urban Theological Studies (CUTS). “I went through CUTS and received an Associate of Arts in Biblical Studies and a Bachelor of Arts in Urban Ministry Leadership.” Again he asked his pastor, “What is the next level education I should take?” He said I should go to Westminster. That’s when I started to hear about the seminary and that’s what prompted me to come to Westminster.” Willie received a Masters in Christian Education from Westminster in 2004.

After seminary, Willie entered the Masters of Divinity (M. Div.) degree program in 2005. The first hurdles for him to get over while in the M. Div. program were the biblical languages: “I had 40 fights, I was 38-2 with 24 knockouts as a boxer, but boxing doesn’t have anything on Greek or Hebrew!” He struggled with the languages largely because of his poor education from an inner-city school. “The public school system failed me, I failed me, and my parents didn’t pass the educational legacy down. I was keeping up my grades just enough to stay on the football team. I didn’t have a firm foundation in English.” However, despite his struggles, the Lord provided him with understanding, through the help of tutors, dedication, and divine providence. “In Greek 3, we had a secret passage to translate from Greek to English. The professor said he was not going to tell us what the passage was but just study and be ready. The Lord prompted me in my heart to start to study Romans 6 in the Greek text. Guess what the secret passage was from? Romans 6! I couldn’t believe it but my Greek knowledge of Romans 6 helped me to pass the exam, and therefore, pass the course!”

From that experience, Willie was able to move onto the upper-level courses to gain a deeper and richer understanding of God’s Word. “One of the main highlights of my experiences at Westminster was during the M. Div. program, while I was in Dr. Tipton’s Salvation 1 and Salvation 2 classes [currently ‘Doctrine of Christ’ and ‘Doctrine of Salvation’]. Those courses were amazing.” He also greatly appreciated Dr. Oliphint’s “Doctrine of God” course.

Willie graduated with a M. Div. in 2008, and shortly thereafter began teaching Bible at the City School (formerly City Center Academy). Much of what he learned at Westminster now applies to what he is teaching the students at the City School. “One encouraging experience is with the Systematic Theology/Christian Doctrine course I am teaching.It is an elective with 19 chairs, and I have to turn people away. The basis of the course is from Westminster and its Christology. We really go shallow and deep – we can go four feet or 400 feet. In other words, I talk in teenage language, but I’m giving them Westminster language as well.”

Simultaneously, while he began teaching he also began to work on a Doctor of Ministry at Westminster. His project, “Young People Arise,” focuses on teaching teenagers and young adults how their Christianity and vocation are one. “You can’t have salvation and not have vocation in the kingdom; neither can you have vocation in the kingdom and not have salvation. It is a real model to reach young people. I’m looking to get the students to understand the big story of life, and how you fit in that story. [Many] youth between the ages of 19 and 30 go into their professions and drop their Christianity, instead of being a Christian doctor, Christian lawyer or Christian politician. They drop [their Christianity], and that’s a major problem. The Bible and your life are one, and all theology is practical in terms of being able to use it for your whole life. I tell the students the Bible is not a Band-Aid; it’s a body cast. It covers everything.”

Willie hopes that Young People Arise will be a model for vocational training among students in the future. “I’m teaching it at school now, for the most part, in my Christ and Culture class. I teach the seniors whose they are, who they are, and their God-given mission, vision, purpose, and plan, so they map out their whole life and ministry. I plan to use Young People Arise as a program or youth movement. I also plan to write books regarding apologetics and theology for practical living in the church arena and culture at large.”

Willie is currently an ordained bishop in the Church of God International (Cleveland, Tennessee) and serves as the senior pastor of Fitzwater Church of God located in South Philadelphia. Please keep Willie in your prayers as he seeks to impact the lives of young people for the gospel and finishes his Doctor of Ministry degree.