GLASGOW, Scotland (BP) -- If you listen to Gena Wilson imitate the Scottish brogue, you'll think she was born in Glasgow. After 17 years, the woman from Beaufort, S.C., can speak in a Scottish accent that even the locals mistake as their own. She used to stick out as "the American" who for some inexplicable reason chose to live in one of the city's poorest areas.
Now, she's just known to them as Gena -- a friend, a mentor, a follower of Jesus.
She's led assemblies at the local high school, but most teenagers there have gotten to know her over a basketball or volleyball game, hamburgers at a café or Bible study in her apartment.
At first, "the American" was just a cool novelty to hang out with, but she's become more like a mother figure to some of the troubled youth in her neighborhood.
When Graeme was suspended from school, Wilson counseled him. When Carol* was beaten up by her boyfriend and needed a safe place to go in the middle of the night, she went to Wilson's flat. When Jessica's* mother was threatening to throw herself out of the window, she called Wilson. When Charles* was bleeding after a knife fight and needed a ride to the hospital, Wilson drove him.
For Wilson, a Southern Baptist missionary to Scotland, loving these young people is as easy -- and as hard -- as loving sons and daughters. She's been a part of their lives for more than a decade and seen their triumphs as well as their stumbles.
Wilson breathes the message of Jesus into these relationships, but it isn't always easy. She has seen some people turn to Christ and continue to follow Him. Others, like Graeme, have turned away from their faith and chosen to believe in their own abilities.
"It saddens me that they would choose to think that they can manufacture a life for themselves that's greater than what God can manufacture for them," Wilson says. "That saddens me that they would want to basically be god in their lives."
Many years ago, Wilson and a ministry teammate spray-painted the Gospel message in pictures in an old greenhouse -- a popular teen hangout. Today, the area is littered with used condoms and drug paraphernalia. Time and other graffiti have eclipsed the drawings, but Wilson can still see where a youth who used to attend her Bible studies painted on top: "Nobody cares, Gena."
Success is hard to measure in Glasgow. Addiction, violence and self-sufficiency war against her message of hope, deliverance and surrender. She has felt disheartened, she says, but she trusts in the redeeming heart of God.
Keeping the faith
Graeme was one of the kids Wilson met on her neighborhood's block of flats 11 years ago.
Alastair Cochrane, a science teacher at the school where Wilson has served as chaplain for nearly 10 years, says Graeme was one of the kids who was always in trouble, always getting into fights and skipping school. But then Graeme met Wilson.
"She was interested in people," Graeme says, "she didn't fight, she didn't go out and get drunk, she didn't laze about all day.
"There was also how she lived her faith," he continues, "... trying to care for other people, trying to tell them about her faith and how that influenced her."
When Cochrane's second daughter was born, Wilson brought Graeme to her dedication. "... it was just the most beautiful moment for me," the teacher says.
"This kid … I used to be really scared for his future and be quite uncomfortable in his presence ... celebrated with us that God had blessed me with a daughter.
"That's what God did with Graeme through Gena."
When Graeme started participating in school clubs with Wilson and then Bible studies in her flat, he made the decision to become a Christian.
The kid that was headed down the path of drugs, violence and dropping out of school graduated from the University of Glasgow. Wilson sat beside Graeme's mother during the graduation ceremony.
"I value her friendship immensely," Graeme says. "She's a big source of wisdom."
But success was a double-edged sword for Graeme. He moved away to pursue further studies. He saw others doing good things without relying on God, and his faith wavered.
Graeme talks regularly with Wilson over the phone and through social media.
"I don't view him as a project" she says. "He is a person who I love and desire to see God's best in him. I get the privilege of continuing to journey with him, believing that what God has started in him, He's going to bring to completion."
Wilson has to remind herself that God's plans are not her own. That message became evident on a scheduled trip to the U.S. in 2011. She went to the doctor to have back pain checked out. The news in the days ahead wasn't what she expected to hear: It's a tumor wrapped around your spine. It's cancerous. You'll need surgery. You'll need chemotherapy.
And so her struggle against non-Hodgkin's lymphoma began -- a challenge that lasted 17 months and had her wondering if she would see her beloved Scotland again.
Through Facebook messages and video updates posted on YouTube, Wilson kept the messages going back to Scotland and around the world. She even recorded a special Christmas message that was shown at Springburn Academy, where Wilson regularly counseled students. Her message was clear -- God can be trusted even in the midst of cancer.
"It's so good that this happened even if all that wanted to accomplish was to teach me how to trust Him even in the midst of suffering," she says.
After close to a year back in Glasgow, the cancer returned in the form of a brain tumor. Wilson doesn't remember much about those first weeks when the tumor was discovered, but she does remember the love that surrounded her from her friends there.
Wilson returned to South Carolina in February 2013 for treatment.
Speaking from her Beaufort home, Wilson says the hardest part for her now is not having a return ticket to Scotland. Her heart is in Glasgow, and she doesn't entertain the thought that she won't go back. In August 2013, her doctors told her that she was cancer-free. Wilson is hopeful that she will make a full recovery and be back in Glasgow by early 2014.
She is quick to tell those who watch her videos or read her updates, "God's goodness is not defined by my health. Cancer can't touch heaven. The best is yet to come."
Marie Curtis writes for the International Mission Board from Richmond, Va. See related video http://vimeo.com/71043564.
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