“Jerry Willis: From Minister to Deacon,” Ensign, Mar. 1990, 68–69
When Jerry Willis was baptized a member of the Church on 26 June 1982, the Dickerson Memorial Community Church in St. Louis, Missouri, lost its pastor and the St. Louis Fifth Ward gained a deacon.
Brother Willis grew up in St. Louis, attended Harris-Stowe State College, then enlisted in the air force. After active duty in Africa, Germany, and California, he returned to St. Louis in 1954 and enrolled in a local bible school to study for the ministry. He entered the ministry in 1967.
“During this time,” Jerry recalls, “I renewed my friendship with Eva Matthews, a tall, athletic beauty I had known in high school.” He pauses and smiles. “You see, I grew a bit taller while in the air force, so I had to look her up again.” Then he winks at his bride of thirty years.
Jerry and Eva have been blessed with four daughters, all winners of academic and athletic awards in high school. Each also plays a musical instrument. Their oldest daughter, Cynthia, graduated from the United States Air Force Academy. Another daughter, Carol, a nurse, currently attends her parents’ ward. Cerise lives in New Jersey, and Christine lives with Carol in St. Louis.
In 1982, the missionaries first knocked on the Willises’ door. “As they talked,” Brother Willis recalls, “I was thinking to myself, ‘Mormons! Can’t they see I’m black?’ When they asked if they could return sometime, I didn’t want to be rude, so I told them they could. But I didn’t expect them to call again.”
Two weeks later, the missionaries returned for their first meeting, but Sister Willis refused to participate. After repeated invitations to join their discussions, she remembers, “My inhospitable behavior began to prey on my mind, and I finally went in to listen.” Before long, Brother Willis noticed something strange happening: Eva could find the scriptures in the Book of Mormon faster than the elders could. She had begun reading it on her own and had become interested enough to ask questions. A baptism date was soon set, and a year later they went to the Salt Lake Temple. “We were sealed by Elder Marion D. Hanks,” says Brother Willis. “Several of the former missionaries who taught us went with us.”
The Willis children didn’t accept the news of their parents’ baptism with enthusiasm at first. Cynthia was the most outspoken. Brother Willis told her that he would be willing to discuss the Church with her when she knew what she was talking about, so she took a copy of the Book of Mormon back to the academy in Colorado. Two weeks later, she was baptized. Carol and Christine have also joined the Church since then.
Brother and Sister Willis agree that they have been totally accepted. “The fellowship has been warmer than we could have imagined,” says Brother Willis. Then with a smile, he recalls some of the comments from members of his former congregation when they heard about his baptism. “They accused me of leaving my former church so I could get more money. Obviously they didn’t know much about the Mormon church. But we have continued to have good relationships with them.” Jerry was fortunate to have a second job—with the post office—that sustained the family financially when he left the ministry.
The Willis family currently lives in the Tenth Ward of the St. Louis North Stake, where Jerry is a stake missionary. He previously served as elders quorum president and Gospel Essentials class teacher. Eva teaches a class in Sunday School and is Relief Society accompanist. Together they have traced the Willis family back four generations and are doing name extraction work. “I thoroughly enjoy doing this work for people who can’t do it themselves,” says Sister Willis. “My sense of the importance of family has grown, tremendously.”
“Our marriage is stronger, and I’m a better father. We knew there must be something better than what we had,” Brother Willis remarks. “I’m thankful we finally found it.”