BY LAEL CAESAR Wintley Phipps is one of those gifted individuals who may well have succeeded at anything. The testimonies of his friends and the range of his friendships speak with an eloquence all their own. Garth Gabriel, his six-foor-five-inch academy roommate, now a pastor in Michigan, remembers his athleticism. He was the fastest on the track, and a great ice skater. Distinguished Harvard epidemiologist David Williams, a graduate school companion, remembers him as a master chef as well as a smart learner because of his ingenuity with mnemonic devices. He also admires his multitasking ability, something also on the lips of another companion from college days, Delbert Baker, former president of Oakwood University and now a vice president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Baker knows him as an organizer, an administrator, a networker, and one who follows through.
Retired navy admiral Barry Black, chaplain of the U.S. Senate, comments on the respect Phipps commands among America’s statesmen, and Linda, his beloved wife, concurs. She knows that his business calls, on behalf of the U.S. Dream Academy, Inc., he founded to improve the lot of the children of the incarcerated, easily turn into seasons of ministry to the very celebrities whose support he is seeking. C. Diane Wallace Booker, the Dream Academy’s executive director, is still amazed at his recruiting skills, for it was those abilities that drew her from her comfortable law office to join him in something that was only a dream. Les Pollard, Oakwood University president, testifies to yet another of his gifts of God, the humility that accompanies the voice God has lent him. In Pollard’s opinion, “Wintley is a guy who walks in humility with the kind of gift that would probably strangle most of us.”
Phipps’ story opens with no world conquering scenes. Merv Williams, entrepreneur, impresario, and lifelong friend, first knew him as just a little boy who looked out for his kid brother on the streets of Barataria, their Trinidadian island village. But whether with little brother Wendell on Barataria’s streets, with mother at church in Curepe, or ahead of Garth on the Kingsway track, Phipps was always racing ahead of himself, trying to keep up with dreams.
Phipps as youthful dreamer was a perpetual dismay. His tricycle, turned on its side, was a magnificent racing car zooming down the highway connecting Trinidad and Tobago’s capital city of Port of Spain with the island nation’s main southern city of San Fernando. To keep him from rushing into the woods behind his dreams at night, Mrs. Phipps had to leash him to her arm.
Beyond his dreams of racing cars and flying planes, Phipps dreamed of meeting heroes, the greats of his world of music. God put music into his genes from the beginning. His mother loved to confound telephone callers with her own “basso profundo.” The voice she bequeathed him was complemented by the music of his native Trinidad, an island culture of intellectual sophistication and economic development dominated by carnival and calypso. Orchestral steel drum beats pulsating around the world began their rhythms in Phipps’ homeland. And added to his mother’s vocal riches and his island’s infectious cadences, there was Aunt Adina, accomplished musician, giving piano lessons, and the woman called Aunty Rebekah, who played kindly on your knuckles with the ruler if you did not play correctly on the xylophone with the multicolored keys.
“Hold fast to dreams,” wrote Langston Hughes, “for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”1
Phipps’ dreams of fame and grandeur in fast cars and soaring planes needed to die. God needed to teach His future ambassador that inside those land and air limousines were broken-winged birds that could not fly despite how high it seemed they soared. And he would learn by pulling off a major, bold-faced hoax. Sly Stone, of Sly and the Family Stone, one of the great rock, funk, and soul music interpreters and innovators of all time, was coming to Montreal, Canada, where Phipps’ family had migrated. The show sold out before Phipps could secure his ticket. But he still had the imagination that fueled his dreams. So, with the vision and initiative that have served him through life, Phipps contacted the main supervisor at the Montreal Forum, where his beloved Canadiens were still playing championship ice hockey, and where Sly and his band would perform. “Allo,” someone answered his call.
“My name is Bill Canton from New York,” teenaged Phipps sonorously intoned. “I’m with the press. My colleague and I are coming up to cover the Sly Stone concert, and I would be most appreciative if you would make special arrangements for us.”
Phipps singing Amazing Grace
“Certainly, Mr. Canton. When you arrive, just come through the stage door and ask for me.”
So it was that, two borrowed cameras in hand, Phipps and “press” colleague Reggie turned up for the big night, as he himself describes it, like two penguins at a dog show! “The supervisor, please,” Phipps requested, heart pounding against his ribcage. “Tell him that Mr. Canton from New York is here.”
Within a few minutes a stockinged Quebecois greeted them with a smile. “Come right this way,” he said. They followed with trembling knees, not certain whether they were being handed over to security or directed to special seats. “Mr. Canton, these two dressing rooms are for you and your colleague. Have a wonderful evening.”
The evening was anything but wonderful. Sly arrived two hours late, a frail, disoriented heap of humanity Phipps saw them lift from a limousine and take to a dressing room. Something riveting about the voice of the young pressman pierced his drug-stupored brain: “Get him out of here!” Sly began to scream incessantly. Phipps didn’t leave, but something left him. Sly’s sick insanity stopped his ears to all the music that night. His dreams had begun to die.
Meeting Tom Jones made it no better. He was standing in the lobby of Jones’ hotel, longing to meet him. Why Tom Jones? Because some unidentified morning before, perhaps in his fifteenth year, the boy Phipps had awakened singing like a man, with a voice that soared, and swelled and filled the room, and gloriously thrilled, and a capella at that. And when the youth now sang, popular comments made him keenly conscious of another commanding voice much like his, already wildly famous. Phipps longed to meet the suave Welshman who owned that golden voice.
“Are you waiting for Tom?”
“Come on up to the suite with us; he should be along shortly.” So the dreaming teen sat in his hero’s hotel suite, making small talk with Jones’ road manager, and willing his dream to come true.
Jones’ scowling arrival interrupted the chatter: “What are all these flowers doing in this room? It makes this place smell like a mortuary. Get them out of here!” It was the sad, sullen death of one more of Phipps’ heroes. And there would be other deaths, stars he met who turned out to be yellow, but not gold, who were not what he wanted to be, who did not represent the climax of his dream. Like Jacob’s Joseph millennia before, God wanted him to dream. But like Joseph he was learning that the way for his dreams to come to fruition would have to be God’s way. The God who had supernaturally gifted him with that awesome voice was teaching that the greatest of dreams are realized only one way—one, single, dedicated, self-denying, self-sacrificing way. If Phipps would delight in the Lord, commit his way to God, and trust in Him, then God would give Phipps his heart’s desires, and bring his dreams to fruition (see Ps. 37:4, 5). If Phipps would return to God in service the vocal gift God had given to him, then God would take care of that voice, and God would take care of his dreams.
The God Beyond the Dreams
If the world’s glitter dazzled Phipps’ eye, it was not because he had stopped looking elsewhere. Gabriel, his Kingsway College roommate, remembers his constant prayer. He was always praying, something that baffled Booker almost 30 years later when he was inviting her to dedicate her ample legal and executive expertise to the service of a hunch in his bubbling brain. During their early conversations Booker noticed that his watch kept alarming every 30 minutes. Why? she wondered. Because he needed to pray, Phipps explained. He never stopped dreaming. And he never stopped praying. As much as anything else, that has been his reaction to one answer from God more than 40 years ago, a prompt, specific, and obvious answer that Phipps never intends to forget.
Friends and Family: Wintley and Linda Phipps with Oprah Winfrey and their three sons (from left) Wade, Winston, and Wintley II.
He was climbing the stairs of the Kingsway dorm, climbing incredulously. Here he was, on a scholarship invented by the faith, musical discretion, and godly attentiveness of a tall, redheaded Australian named James Bingham, who had heard him sing. Puerile Trinidadian dreams were suddenly turning to something real and tracking him along the pathway to divinely appointed destiny. Falling to his knees, he prayed the first real prayer of his own that he can recall, an I-give-You-my-life prayer that surrendered everything. “Lord,” prayed Phipps, “whatever You want me to do, I’ll do. If You want me to be a garbage man for You, I’ll be a garbage man. Lord, You know I’d love to travel and use the talents You have given to me for Your glory. If that’s Your will for me, please open the door in some way—and let me see.”
One day later two men approached him: “Are you Wintley Phipps? We’ve been hearing about you. We’re from the Heritage Family Singers, and we want you to travel and do singing evangelism with us.” Phipps stood there dumbfounded. Never before had he prayed like that and seen such an instant answer. That summer he traveled with Jerry Leiske and members of the Canadian counterpart of the Heritage Singers. Through that enriching experience God made clear that He had heard one young man’s prayer and acknowledged his absolute and unreserved surrender to Him. God would answer that prayer in ways clearly divine. Phipps wanted Him. God would give Himself to Phipps as the soul mate of his spiritual communion, because He knew that for Phipps He meant more than any longing for musical or other success.
Dreams and Marriage
A most astonishing and perfectly understandable thing happened when Phipps moved to Oakwood College [now Oakwood University] in Huntsville, Alabama, from Kingsway College, Oshawa, Ontario. He met and married Linda. Everything about their story is the stuff of legend, or better, heavenly miracle. The astonishing element was that it made Phipps the answer to an almost-10-year-old prayer. What was perfectly understandable was that God could do that. After all, Phipps had given Him his life. So God could make him the answer to Linda’s decade-old prayer, and make her the miracle of the rest of his life. It was the awesome consequence of two precious youth independently and entirely giving over to God’s unique purposes all there was of their affections and decision-making faculties.
As a girl of 12, down in Fort Pierce, Florida, Linda Diane Galloway had given God supreme control of her life. As part of the understanding, she had made Him responsible for finding her a man who would know how to love her because he had given God supreme control of his life. A year before she met Phipps God assured her that she would meet the man she had prayed for. She had been in a five-year relationship with someone else, but when she met Phipps God told her that this was her man. They met on an entertainment program put on by the school bearing the exotic label of “A Trip Around the World.” Linda and Wintley are still on that trip. They have kissed on every continent of the globe except Antarctica. They have been hosted by the world’s social, political, sports, and entertainment leaders, including 30 years of American presidents, every one since Ronald Reagan. But feted and admired as they are in a world where breakups are normal, whether after a few years or after 72 days, they still have eyes only for each other. First love still flames in their hearts and souls. She still remembers the very first words he spoke to her that night, and they still thrill to the fact that the best of the journey is yet to come.
Dreams and Ministry
Phipps’ call to gospel ministry dominates every aspect of his global itineraries. He is both the pulpit pastor of a local congregation in Florida and ambassador plenipotentiary from the court of heaven to all courts and kingdoms of earth. His ministry to them transcends all their glitz and glamour. Their invitations he recognizes as divine appointments for blessing a talk show queen, a rock star, a house of prisoners, or a hall of prime ministers. Whether on the concert stage, at the Crystal Cathedral, on the 700 Club, or at a Billy Graham Evangelistic Association Crusade, Phipps is there to minister the gospel. Whether as local pastor, record maker and breaker, as advocate for religious liberty,2 or interceding with God at the request of and on behalf of morally struggling world leaders, Phipps knows that his real assignment is salvation proclamation to whosoever will. We may better understand his grasp of ministry if we include one of his favorite stories:
Miss America supports the Dream Academy
Phipps once sang at a large function in Washington where President Clinton spoke, then rushed across town to sing at a major meeting of the Grand Old Party. Once there, he announced that he had just come from singing for the president of the United States. There was some booing and mumbling. “Wait a minute,” he said. “Wait a minute. I always go where people really need the Lord.” There was polite applause. Then he continued, “And that’s why I’m here!” It’s the attitude he has always taken, that ministry, not politics and party affiliation, defines his purpose. “And sometimes,” he admits, “it causes me to tremble . . . , because you end up ministering to people who see each other as mortal or political enemies.”
Dreams and the Dream Academy
In 1998 Phipps founded the U.S. Dream Academy to help children who have been disadvantaged by parental incarceration. As a member of the board of directors of Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship, Inc., Phipps paid a life-changing visit to a South Carolina prison. So many of the prisoners looked as if they could be his own sons. It jolted him. Aware also that academic failure is a leading predictor of future incarceration, Phipps resolved to do something for children falling behind in school with parents in prison. Ninety-five percent of his students live in poverty. Phipps’ Academy, with its 10 learning centers across the country, has touched the lives of more than 6,300 children so far, mentoring and training them in skill building, character building, and, indispensably for their founder, dream building. Phipps is freeing them from the prison of a drug-run, crime-predicated, dead-end lifestyle, to a place where high school graduation, a college degree, and a professional career become their focus and their future. DreamKid alumnus Derrell met former president George W. Bush on a trip to New York City that was the first time he had ever left his Baltimore, Maryland, neighborhood. With one parent an addict and the other a prisoner, the academy was Derrell’s haven of hope. Thanks to its work, Derrell is now a Morgan State University undergrad after becoming the first member of his family to complete high school. In 2010 the Charity Navigator, an independent charity evaluator, gave the U.S. Dream Academy a four-star rating for its organizational performance. Phipps’ and his school’s integrity have earned them goodwill and more than $30 million in financial support over the years, from both private and public sources.
Dreams and Fulfillment: It Is No Secret
Perhaps the most compelling slogan that Phipps shares with his audiences from time to time is one that God downloaded to his heart early in his ministry: “You do not have to compromise to be recognized.” The words express more than abstract principle. They are his life’s story, his part of the deal he made with God 40 years ago on his knees at Kingsway College. They summarize his I-give-You-my-life prayer. God heard Phipps’ prayer, and answered once and continually. He kept His word to Wintley Phipps. And those endless notes of praise Phipps seems capable of sustaining out on the concert stage make it ever more apparent that he will never stop until the last ounce of his breath has been given for his God. His life and ministry reiterate the truth of Ellen White’s words: “There is no limit to the usefulness of the one who, putting self aside, makes room for the working of the Holy Spirit upon his heart, and lives a life wholly consecrated to God.”3
____________ 1 Langston Hughes, “Dreams,” in Arnold Rampersad, ed., The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (New York: Vintage Classics, 1995), p. 32.
2 Phipps’ varied roles in this arena include three years as an associate director of the Religious Liberty Department at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
3 Ellen G. White, Christian Service, p. 254.
____________ Lael Caesar is an associate editor of the Adventist Review who enjoys praising God in every possible modulation and tone. This article was published February 23, 2012.