Emmy Wilson, 70, has lived an extraordinary life, treating AIDS patients as a nurse in the 80s and taking Alpha into prisons around the world
Before I met the Lord I had a clear plan for my life – to succeed in my nursing career, find a husband, get married and have six children. However, God had another plan entirely!
Even though I was bought up in a church-going family and would have called myself a Christian, it was not until I was 27 that I knew what it meant to be a true follower of Jesus. My sister had become a Christian through a mission held at Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB). I already thought I was one but when she said: “I now have a day-to-day personal relationship with Jesus Christ” I was intrigued and, after asking her lots of questions, a week later I gave my life to the Lord on 27 January 1980.
Working as a nurse
By that time, I was the nursing sister of the Gastroenterology department at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, where we also diagnosed patients sick with AIDS through taking biopsies during a bronchoscopy. Listening to the consultants interviewing patients in the outpatient department, I was shocked to hear how promiscuous lifestyles often led to this frightening illness.
One day, while waiting for a patient to come for a bronchoscopy, I started to have a conversation with God, which went along the lines of: “No wonder they’re sick with AIDS; they’re so promiscuous.” I heard the Lord say: “You’re judging. I died for this person just as I died for you. And I love this person just as much as I love you.”
I knew the two greatest commandments are to love the Lord God with all of your heart, and to love your neighbour as yourself, but realised I wasn’t doing very well with the second one. So, I prayed a grumpy prayer: “Lord, if I am meant to love these people, you’d better change my heart.”I soon realised that God likes grumpy prayers, and I found he started to give me a love for my patients.
Around this time, I went to Lee Abbey in Devon. The person who was preaching spoke from Matthew 9:35-38, about the harvest being plentiful but the workers few. I knew I had to go out into the harvest field.
Soon after, Sandy Millar, then curate at HTB, invited me to lunch and, after hearing my heart for those sick with AIDS, asked me to join the staff of HTB in order to start a street ministry responding to AIDS, prostitution, drug addiction, alcoholism and homelessness in the Earl’s Court area. It was the last thing I was expecting!
Having my heart softened
I left my nursing career in July 1985, but before I started on staff at HTB, I went to a Vineyard church conference in California, called ‘Teach us how to pray’. I knew if I was starting a ministry, it had to be birthed in prayer. At the end of the morning session, I went to the front to start to pray and, as I did, the Holy Spirit came on me and I fell to the floor. I started to weep, and thought I was having a heart attack, as I felt a deep pain in my heart. One of the girls who was praying for me commented: “Don’t worry, God is just breaking her heart.”
As a student nurse, you’re always told that you have to harden your heart because you will see so much suffering. I actually made a vow to myself that I would never allow that to happen but I realised over the years that my heart had got hardened, and God literally was needing to break it.
The Earl’s Court Project
I started working for HTB in October 1985 to pioneer the Earl’s Court Project. I met up with the head of Youth with a Mission (YWAM) in the area, Richard Lahey-James, and it became a joint mission.
We began with a coffee bar outreach on a Friday night in what is now St Mellitus College. Then, in 1990, Sandy Millar, who was on the board of visitors of Holloway Prison, asked me to go and help the chaplain with all the pastoral care of the women.
Two months earlier, the Kansas City prophets had visited HTB for a conference. I was prayed for by Bob Jones and John Paul Jackson. Bob Jones touched my hands and, as he did, if felt like 20,000 volts of power went through my body, and I could not move. They then started to prophesy. Part of what they said was that I would be a “key unto many who in themselves could no longer be free.”
When Sandy asked me to get involved in Holloway, I re-read the prophecy and knew God was in this. I have learned that obedience to God is so important, even if we don’t understand where he’s leading us. I started at Holloway in 1991.
Healing in Holloway
Just before starting my job, I spent three days in Toronto, where a fresh move of God had begun.
I had already got to know a Christian prisoner called Mabel, who had had a baby in prison. I found her lying in bed, unable to move because she had damaged her back. She asked me to pray for it. I prayed but nothing happened, and eventually had to move on.
At teatime there were about 14 women feeding their babies in the communal area. I found myself exclaiming: “Listen, everybody, the Spirit of God is moving powerfully all around the world!” Suddenly Mabel appeared, jumping up and down in the air declaring: “My back is healed!”
I was shocked, but the women there said: “There must be a God, because we know she couldn’t move”, and then they all asked me to pray for them!
Alpha in prisons
Several months later, Nicky Gumbel – who was now curate at HTB – rang me up and said: “I’ve had a call from an inmate in Exeter prison. His girlfriend’s doing Alpha at HTB, and he has asked if I’ll introduce Alpha in Exeter.” Nicky said: “You do prison ministry; can you take a team?” My initial response was: “No way, I work in a women’s prison; I’ve never been into a men’s prison.” But Nicky convinced me, so on 14 December 1994, I took a team of seven people to the prison in Exeter. Michael Emmett was sharing a cell with his dad. They’d been caught importing 4.5 tonnes of cannabis worth £11.5 million.
Obedience to God is so important, even if we don’t understand where he’s leading us
We spent time in the chapel with them and some other prisoners, telling stories about the Holy Spirit and leading them in worship. At the end, we simply said: “Come Holy Spirit.” The Spirit fell in the most extraordinary way; there were people laughing, crying and shaking, just as we’d been seeing in church.
Michael and his dad went on to do Alpha, and then they were moved to a prison on the Isle of Sheppey. About 24 hours later, I got a call from the prison chaplain asking if I would introduce Alpha there. Then Michael and his dad were transferred to Maidstone prison. Again I got a call from the Maidstone chaplain asking for us to take Alpha there. This happened in every prison they moved to, so it was through two serving prisoners that the Alpha course grew in prisons!
I led a team on a Global Alpha training event (GAT) in Gulu, northern Uganda in 2011. Bishop Johnson Gakumba had been the chaplain of Luzira prison in Kampala, where I had met him five years previously, and he welcomed us the night we arrived.
On the second day, he turned to me and said: “I would like to ordain you.” I was shocked, as being ordained was never on my radar. He went on to say: “I’m going to speak to Sandy Millar and Nicky Gumbel about you.” When I got home I rang Sandy, as I thought I should tell him my surprising news, to which he responded: “I should have ordained you years ago!”
That is how I came to be ordained on 26 November 2011. There were 5,000 people present, and I made history when I became the first white woman ever to be ordained in northern Uganda. I was given the title ‘Chaplain to the worldwide prisons’ in honour of my worldwide ministry.
Continuing my mission in retirement
I retired from HTB on my 70th birthday earlier this year after 37 years, where I was the longest-serving member of staff.
I am happily single and, although I would have loved to be married, I just never met the right man. My focus is to love Jesus with all my heart and, in so doing, everything else is put into the right perspective.
I’ve learned that the enemy always wants to trap us in self-pity. We use words like: “I’m not married” which is so negative. What about saying, instead: “I’m a princess in the kingdom of God. I’m loved by the King of kings.” What more could you want than that?
My vision now is to continue to go to the nations and share what I have learned about loving God, and loving my neighbour.
For the Life Lessons series, we want to hear from women over 70 so that we can share their stories and learn from their wisdom! If that’s you or someone you know, contact us at email@example.com