Rev. Willson: College town pastor

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Rev. Daniel Willson of Williamsburg Baptist Church (Brandy Centolanza/WYDaily)
Rev. Daniel Willson of Williamsburg Baptist Church (Brandy Centolanza/WYDaily)

Home. Heart. Help. Hope. That’s what Rev. Daniel Willson intends for you to find as soon as you walk through the doors of Williamsburg Baptist Church.

Willson came on board as the church’s senior pastor in May 2015, arriving from a stint as an associate pastor in Martinsville, Va.

One of his main goals is to attract a younger crowd to the church. Williamsburg Baptist Church works with the Baptist Collegiate Ministries at College of William & Mary to assist students with finding their way through faith.

“I’ve always fancied myself as a college town pastor,” Willson said. Since taking over services at the church, the college student population has grown from about five students to an average of 20 students every Sunday when class is in session.

“I’m proud to have these college students in our lives,” he said. “It’s been a gift to have the chance to leave an impression on them and to grow with them. I would love to have a lot of the younger people partner with us in our life and in our mission.”

Keeping up with the times while maintaining religious tradition is another goal for Willson. He hopes for Williamsburg Baptist Church to be a place where members are open-minded and willing to allow others to express opinions and doubts without fear of being judged or rejected.

It was something Willson wish he had had growing up. The reverend grew up in Southern California in a strict, conservative, fundamentalist community. Willson attended Pensacola Christian College in Florida, where he began to feel a disconnect with the church. It was during his time at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., that he began to figure out where he wanted to be in his faith.

“I worked out some of my own questions about my own faith,” he said. “I began to have a better understanding of what it truly means to love your neighbor.”

Willson later attended Duke University Divinity School. He considered becoming a professor, but “ministry was a growing interest to me, and I felt that I wanted to follow in that path,” he said. “I’m still interested in academia. I think any Christian community should be a learning community. The idea of moving here and being across the street from the College of William & Mary was a big draw for me.”

He made the move with his wife, Wendy, and their four children in part to be closer to family in Newport News.

Willson says he would like to expand his congregation to include more families and children. His hope is to provide a safe environment and a more modern curriculum for children and young adults to learn, grow, and discover who they are and how they can help others beyond themselves.

“I want us to work at fulfilling our call to be a community that takes care of each other and is close to one another in our community,” Willson said. “To fulfill the call to love God and love our neighbors with all that we are.”

In addition to working with charitable organizations such as United Way, Greater Williamsburg Outreach Mission, Community of Faith Mission, Fish, Avalon, and others, Williamsburg Baptist Church works with other churches and faith-based organizations to make a difference.

Willson has spoken at other congregations, including First Baptist Church across the street as well as New Zion Baptist Church, and he is a frequent guest panelist on religious and social matters. He’s served on an interfaith panel on religion and compassion at College of William & Mary and has led workshops on racial justice in Newport News. Willson also helped organize a multi-faith memorial service at College of William & Mary earlier this year in the wake of the tragic shootings in Orlando.

“Social justice is a big part of our church,” Willson said.  “I want to ensure that we are working so that everyone, regardless of skin color, religion, or orientation, has the same rights as all American citizens. I want to ensure that we are actively loving our neighbor and that Williamsburg Baptist Church continues to be a healthy, open-minded neighbor in the community.”

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