Not many pastors are asked to restart a church in one of their community's most at-risk areas, but the Rev. Dallas Wilson is not just any Christian pastor.

He was briefly a Muslim as a teen, had joined a gang while growing up in New York City and landed in Charleston after he had a vision while was passing through the city in 1984.

That set in motion a series of events that eventually would culminate in him resuscitating St. John's Chapel, a historic Episcopal chapel on Charleston's East Side, a chapel that had been dormant for years.

Wilson, known simply as "Brother Dallas" to most folks, is poised to retire from St. John's later this month. He turned 75 this year, and his last service at St. John's will be Sept. 24. A community celebration is set for 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 16.

But while he said he is ready to leave what he calls "the organized church," he won't be leaving spiritual work.

"I am so ready to leave the organized church. I am absolutely ready to leave," he said, "but I would love in my heart to sit in a corner in anyone's church and talk to people interested in being in ministry." 

Wilson's journey to St. John's had many steps. Pastor Fred Richard of Northwood Assembly first brought Wilson from Georgetown to Charleston in 1985, a year after Wilson's vision, with the idea that Wilson would start a church on Charleston's East Side.

Meanwhile, Bishop Edward Salmon was looking for a way to rejuvenate St. John's, which had a rich history but which had fallen into disuse. It opened in 1859 as the city's second "free" Episcopal church, meaning its congregants were not expected to rent pews there. (St. Stephen's was the first such church founded in the city about 17 years earlier).

In 1958, St. John's congregation moved to a new West Ashley church building on Arlington Drive, but that burned down a year later. The East Side property afterward became a mission center, but that was shuttered in 1986.

Wilson took on the church and tried to reach both residents in the city's struggling East Side neighborhood and those far beyond it. While Mayor John Tecklenburg grew up in the Catholic church, he and his wife Sandy have attended St. John's a lot in recent years.

"It's multiethnic, multicultural, multidenominational," Wilson said. "We operate on something called 'uncomplicated worship.'"

"Our liturgy is driven by the music," he added. "We're going to read the scripture. We love the Eucharist, but they're going to be blown away by the music."

"My job was to be able to talk to people who don't look like me and to people who look like me but don't act like me," he said. "My job was to sit between them and talk about Christ."

The Rev. Al Zadig, rector of St. Michael's Church, has worked with Wilson for two decades.

"He has a tireless and entrepreneurial spirit when it comes to the Gospel," Zadig said of Wilson. "He will be missed at St. Johns as well as the Diocese, but knowing the good brother, he will be active in ministry right until the Lord calls him home."

While Wilson has been one of the city's black parishioners, he has shied away from involvement in groups such as the NAACP, the National Action Network or the Charleston Area Justice Ministry.

"I don't do marches. There's only one place in the Bible where I see a march, and that's the wall of Jericho," he said. "If you give me civil rights, don't you have the power to take them back away from me? ... There is no permanence in civil rights. There is only permanence in moral rights."

Wilson said he also does not believe in racial reconciliation per se. "I think racial reconciliation calls us to look at something the Bible doesn't call us to look at at all."

That said, Wilson said he takes heart in positive change he has seen since arriving in the city.

"It's really the spiritual improvement, the Biblical improvement that we have been fortunate enough to be part of," he said. "It's me being able to hug someone on East Bay Street as if we were in my house who doesn't look like me and feel them hugging me back."

Wilson also led Elpis Inc. and Agape Ministries of Charleston, an umbrella for the several nonprofit efforts, including Midnight Basketball.

But Wilson said he is most proud of his wife, Janie Dingle Wilson, who recently received a doctorate biblical counseling from Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary and who has focused her ministry on women and children.

"We blend very well together. It's almost like hand in glove," she said. "We have the same objectives, perhaps different ways of getting there but the same direction, the same purpose."

She also handles all the finances. Wilson said he doesn't even know his own salary, that's how uninterested in money he is. He also hinted that money often can loom as too large a factor in societal ills.

"It's not money that's the problem. It's not the actual level of poverty that's the problem," she said. "It's not having a true and accurate Biblical understanding."

Any conversation with Wilson likely will trigger several biblical citations from him, but as he approaches retirement, he said the 25th verse of Psalm 37 looms especially large in his mind:

"I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread."

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.

Robert Behre works as an editor and reporter. He focuses on the historical landscape, including architecture, archaeology and whatever piques his interest on a particular day.

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