The small plaque hanging on the wall of the 58-year-old’s office pretty much sums her up
"It’s a rare person who can take care of hearts while also taking care of business."
For the Rev. Canon Dr. Sandye A. Wilson, rector of the Episcopal Church of St. Andrew & Holy Communion in South Orange, taking care of hearts is her business.
Under Wilson’s leadership for nearly eight years, St. Andrew has evolved into one of the most diverse, socially conscious and creative religious communities in New Jersey. She has brought liturgical dancers (ages 8 to 80) onto the altar and children to the "Small Fry" service every Sunday. There are poetry slams, science and arts camps, peace camps and drama camp; there is a Holocaust Remembrance and hunger drives with Jewish synagogues, as well as hurricane and earthquake relief work in partnership with the Jamaican Nurses Association. She cooks formal dinners for teenage boys at the rectory so they can practice their social skills, and then takes them to a restaurant of their choice to practice those skills.
A few years ago, the church even opened its doors to Buddhists, allowing them to use its library for weekly meetings until they found their own space.
"We do that all the time — not forgetting who we are, but learning about, and being in, a relationship with people across the community in different faiths," Wilson said.
Patrice Henderson, a member of St. Andrew for 25 years and the chairperson of the search committee that chose Wilson in 2004, puts it more simply.
"She’s very innovative," she said. "The community is energized. There’s a place for everybody under the tent."
The church’s "tent," according to Wilson, includes a congregation of approximately 500 "Africans, Caribbeans, blacks, whites, Asians, Australians and Native Americans; Democrats, Republicans and independents; straight, gay, bisexual and transgender."
‘A LITTLE UNITED NATIONS’
"It’s like a little United Nations," said Michael B. Curry, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, who has known Wilson for more than three decades. "It takes a courageous and skillful leader to lead that kind of community with that much diversity. That’s no easy task. But she’s figured it out, and that’s a witness to society that it can be done."
Wilson also loves the challenge of heading a church in New Jersey, as opposed to Minnesota, where she was a rector for 10 years.
"This is much more difficult work than being at a place where everyone is the same," she said. "I know New Jersey. I get New Jersey. And New Jersey gets me."
In fact, she believes she’s been "called and compelled" to New Jersey, and even seven years after moving to South Orange, remains eager to roll up her sleeves and "do" for other people.
St. Andrew & Holy Communion actually does a little bit of everything for a lot of people: serving food at a soup kitchen that is part of the Interfaith Hospitality Network for Essex County’s homeless, building houses with Habitat for Humanity-Newark, gathering clothes for the Battered Women and Children’s Shelter in Essex County and a men’s shelter in Newark. And then there’s collecting books and school supplies to send to the children in the Darfur refugee camps.
"She brings the world into the church and the church into the world," said Curry.
St. Andrew & Holy Communion is also one of the first environmentally certified places of worship in the United States, by virtue of its participation in the Interfaith Partners in Action for the Earth. The church is currently investigating solar panels and geothermal heating systems as a way to make its operations more energy efficient.
EVER THE ICONCLAST
Being on the cutting edge, however, is familiar territory for Wilson. In 1982 she became the world’s first black female rector of an Episcopal church when she took over St. Mark’s in Bridgeport, Conn. She has since headed congregations in Asbury Park — where Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band helped purchase a new organ for St. Augustine — as well as in Denver and Minneapolis.
"She’s not afraid to break the door open for others," Curry said. "She’s been a trailblazer."
Wilson is also an eclectic mix of the high brow and the homespun. A graduate of Vassar (bachelor’s degree in economics, ethics and German), Union Theological Seminary (master of divinity) and the Graduate Theological Foundation in South Bend, Ind. (doctor of ministry), she has also studied in England, Germany and Vienna, and before becoming an Episcopal priest was a Wall Street economist and Time magazine business reporter.
She is fluent in German — but also in football. When she was a rector in Colorado, she had vestments made in the orange and blue of the Denver Broncos, and also threw out the first pitch at a Colorado Rockies game. She is an avid swimmer and percussionist — that was her on the timpani and kettle drums at Christmas Eve midnight mass — and likes nothing better than sitting on the floor with a flock of children, listening and talking.
She’s also a tall, bald, beautiful black woman who is not afraid to wear elaborately textured black tights under her religious collar and skirt, or vibrant crimson nail polish on her long, slender fingers. As for her résumé, well, it’s as creative as she is:
"Risk-taker, Visionary Community Organizer, Bridge-builder, Relational Leader, Conflict Manager, Vocational & Life Coach, Mentor" are just a few of more than a dozen items described under "summary of qualifications."
Sandra Antoinette Baldwin was born in 1953 and grew up in the affluent Baltimore neighborhood of Forest Park. Her biological father, Evangylee Baldwin, left the family when she was an infant. When he died in 2008, he’d led a full life not only as a medical school professor, but as an NFL referee and an ordained minister in the Episcopal Church — more on that later.
When her mother, also an educator, remarried after the divorce, her new husband, William Llewellyn Wilson adopted Sandye and her twin brother, Anthony.
The only problem was, their mother was Roman Catholic and their new father was Episcopalian. According to Roman Catholic doctrine, an interfaith marriage is permissible, but one of the conditions is that the children born to the couple are raised as Catholics. The Wilsons decided on a rare compromise.
"We went to confession on Friday and to Mass at the Episcopal church on Sunday," Wilson said.
She can still recite the Roman Catholic Act of Contrition, she says — and then does so, in rapid fire fashion, in case you doubt her — but when she and Anthony reached the fourth grade, their parents, fearing permanent confusion, allowed them to choose between the two religions. They both picked the Episcopalian Church.
CATCHING THE SPIRIT
Rev. Wilson likes to say she believes faith is "caught" more than it’s "taught," and if that’s the case, she was swept up early.
"There is something about the mystery (of religion), the incredible connectedness with a God who loved us so extravagantly — it got into my soul as a little kid."
Her grandfather was a music instructor who taught Cab Calloway and conducted the Baltimore Colored Symphony Orchestra when it played for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1935. When she was just 17, her adoptive father, who had been devoted to the family, took his own life after struggling for years with paranoia."
After college and three corporate jobs — all part of her master plan — she was ordained an Episcopal minister in 1980. A short time later, she came across the name of her biological father in an Episcopal clergy directory and was stunned. All she knew about her father back then was his name and that he had taught medicine. She was almost 30 when the two reconciled, but it wasn’t easy.
"I had to get over a lot of rage at him," she said. "I had to get over a lot of resentment and what felt like hatred. (Eventually) I realized I couldn’t treat him less than the way I treat the people in my church."
When Baldwin died in 2008, Wilson gave the eulogy. She remains devoted to family. Her mother married for a third time 17 years ago. Today she has cataracts and her husband has early Alzheimer’s, but they live alone in the house in which Sandye Wilson grew up, which is why the busy minister travels down to Baltimore once a week to spend time with them and take them on errands.
"She puts others in front of herself even to her own detriment," said Alice Pinderhughes, a lawyer and lifelong friend. "She’s exhausted, but if someone is in trouble or needs help (she’s there). She keeps up with parishioners’ children — birthday parties, graduations, soccer games. You don’t see that a lot, to be that involved in their lives."
For Wilson, it’s the other way around:
"It is such a privilege to do this work."
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