Marianne Worthington calls him “The Acts Man” in her beautiful poem. (Stop. Click the link. Read the poem. Come back.) We called him the Bicycle Preacher. I’ve recently been informed that his name was Mr. Wilson.
Knoxville was his beat. Some say they saw him on Clinton Highway, others on Magnolia. We always encountered him on Western Avenue, smack in the middle of Mechanicsville, on our way downtown for Sunday Mass, or traveling the “back way” home from Knoxville Catholic.
Here is all I can say for certain about Mr. Wilson: He took the following mandate from Jesus extremely seriously and he made it his lifelong mission. “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” Mark 16:15-16. (I’m using the King James version here because it’s pretty safe to assume that would have been the version Mr. Wilson preferred.)
Ms. Worthington’s poem tells us that she remembers him riding around Knoxville as early as 1965, and other people recall him as a Knoxville fixture in the 50s. I can’t remember the last time I saw him, but it was probably during the last year of his life–I’ve learned he died in 1985, on my birthday. That’s a long time but then 30 years isn’t nearly long enough to preach the Gospel to “every creature.” Of course he wasn’t preaching the whole Gospel, but the verse he focused on was a good starting point: “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” Acts 2:38.
As Christians, we are all called to evangelize: to spread the Good News. Modern Catholics are generally uncomfortable with that mandate. We prefer the St. Francis method: “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words only when necessary.” (Which, by the way, he did not actually say.) We cringe when Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormon missionaries come knocking at our doors. We don’t know what to say when our Southern Baptist relatives ask, “Are you saved?’ or “Have you accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?” We get a little sinking feeling when someone asks, “Do you have a church home?”
But you know what? Even though I don’t share their beliefs, I admire those people. I would be scared to do what they do. I would even feel afraid to invite someone to come to church with me. I say that I want to evangelize through the way I live my life, but isn’t that just a little bit of a cop out?
So although some may have thought Mr. Wilson was crazy or misguided, I say that in his own way he was trying to do what he thought Jesus wanted him to do. And I’ll bet he’s riding now on some streets that are paved with gold.