A person is more than simply their name and a set of facts. On this page, we’ve collected a variety of remembrances about Julia Wilke, one of the founders and namesakes of the Institute for Discipleship, from those close to her. We hope it will give you an idea of Julia’s character, passions, and theology, all of which helped form the mission and direction of the Institute.
(click the title to expand the written piece)
February 29, 2016
Mom had a practical theology. She was a disciple of Jesus all her life and turned to him each day. Mom believed that Jesus had a clear vision for her life and all others. She believed that by daily giving one’s life to Jesus, a partnership was formed that would shape each person into becoming their very best. This partnership would result in a mysterious outcome of being more like Jesus and being more unique. For her, discipleship provided both unity in the body of Christ and a personal customized purpose.
One of her sayings was: “if two people agree all the time, one of them isn’t necessary.” She understood God to be so large that it would take every living creature “being Christ” to even begin to reflect God’s image. This belief led to confidence that giving one’s life to Jesus would be countered by Jesus giving it back – bolder, better and more beautiful than if one lived it on their own. For her, the discipleship road was one that led away from sameness and toward individuation. For her, the family, the church, the world was a symphony, with lots of different instruments, playing in harmony, under one conductor.
In practical terms, this led to her amazing ability to accept, engage and encourage every person she met. Every person was a “work in progress” that God was loving and she only needed to be alert to those around her and respond, as God directed.
This led to her understanding as a mother to her four children as, being “God’s babysitter”. We were never hers, we were always God’s. Her role was never to control, but to guide and support. When each of us kids were dating, she only had one request. “I just want them to love me”. Her loving them was a given.
Her discipleship also led her to very intentional living. Jesus was alive and working in her life each day, and she was joyful in the process. This led to her easy ways of inviting others to consider Jesus.
As a teen, I talked to her about not going to church and not being sure I wanted to be an active Christian. Her response was very supportive of my questioning. She thought it appropriate that I was considering all my options. Her advice was simple: look around and start taking note of other people’s lives (especially older folks) and examine how they lived, the choices they made, and use that to influence my own thinking. Over the years I have marveled at how amazing that was for her to not feel pressured to push me to be the “good preacher’s son” that was so much the expectation of the moment. In hindsight, I have also come to know that she brought some amazing Christians into my life. So with a smile, I know she and Jesus, “stacked the deck” in regard to the role models available to me.
Mom’s life with Jesus was the source of her loving Dad, family, friends, and most anyone she met. She lived an amazing journey filled with optimism, love and joy. She was a living testimony to the power of being a disciple of Jesus. She was both like Jesus and like no one else.
Celebration of Life for Julia Kitchens Wilke
First UMC, Winfield, KS; March 3, 2016, 10:00am
How does one describe Julia Wilke? Fortunately for me Julia didn’t leave that for us to determine. She secured her reputation by the deliberate choices of her daily life. Her life’s theme verse was Philippians 4:8: “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
Like the old saying about our thoughts becoming our actions, and our actions our habits; and our habits our character and our character our destiny; Julia’s thoughts became her destiny. She fixated on the values of truth, nobility, purity and love…and that defined her actions and character.
She came by this desire honestly. Growing up in Texarkana in the 1930s and 40s, Julia and her sister Liz, learned from their doctor-father what it means to have compassion for all people. They learned that you might not like what everyone does, but you don’t confuse what they do with what they are.
This influence formed an underlying commitment in her life to “be kind and compassionate, forgiving others just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Eph 4:32) However, this compassion might be communicated with a dry wit. On occasions when I and the other children might launch into complaints about the difficulty of ministry she would quote us the verse from Hebrews about how we have not yet submitted to the shedding of blood. Then she’d let out that silly giggle of hers as if she didn’t mind being the only who thought it funny.
From their mother Julia and Liz learned to love the art of learning. Julia’s mother lived with a sense of wonder; wondering about things she didn’t know. That curiosity passed onto her children. Julia was more than a novice on topics ranging from astronomy to botany; music to meteorology; genealogy to ornithology; literature to painting. She was a learned and extraordinarily gifted woman.
Of course Julia’s knowledge morphed into amazing resourcefulness. You wanted to have Julia as a fellow contestant on Survivor. She knew about climates in other parts of the world, what the body needs to survive, and what kind of bark from a tree is edible. Before this modern age in which being resourceful means knowing which web sites to go for the best deals, Julia lived in a time where resourceful meant saving a buck by learning how to upholster chairs, and fix the kitchen disposal, and even do mechanical repair on everything from washing machines to furnaces.
She was a quite an accomplished seamstress as evidenced by the matching outfits she made for all the kids when they did their singing tours reminiscent of the Von Trapp family. Julia’s resourcefulness was also seen in her ability to replicate her own version of the Fish and Loaves Miracle, otherwise known in the family by the code FHB. Whenever guests were invited at the last minute to a meal, Julia would whisper those initials to the kids which they all knew stood for Family Hold Back! That way the guests had plenty to eat. But what you also need to know is FHB was often followed by MIK—More In Kitchen, meaning once the guests were gone she would go to the kitchen and start another meal if necessary to make sure her kids had enough. Julia never allowed being resourceful to make her family feel like they were missing out. It takes a resourceful person to live with limited means and possess a spirit of unlimited blessing and opportunity.
But let’s go back to Texarkana. Julia left there when she went to college at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. While at SMU she met a Kansas boy named Richard Wilke and a romance blossomed. In fact it steamed ahead to one decisive moment. As Dick has told on a number of occasions there was a night when they were in the car together. Back then I believe it was called “parking.” Following a moment of passionate kissing Julia looked at him and said, “Richard Wilke, do you love me?” It was what you call a “put up or shut up moment!” Leave it say that 62-plus years later we know the answer.
Right after graduating from Southern Methodist University, Julia and Dick got married and moved to Connecticut where Dick attended Yale seminary and Julia taught school. Following seminary they moved to the West Kansas Conference and served a broad range of appointments from a rural to new church start, to a university church to a large downtown congregation with a three year stint on the district wedged in there, which is what brought them to Winfield. After Dick’s election to the episcopacy in 1984 they were assigned to the Little Rock Area where they served for twelve years.
They were a quintessential team. Dick’s ministry was Julia’s ministry. She would host small groups in the home, cook Christmas dinners for all the pastors in the district; and, as most insiders know, do the heavy lifting on the research for Disciple Bible Study. Some might be tempted to look at her life and say Julia was confined by the traditional roles she had to fill as a woman at that time, but Julia never lived in a box. The life she lived was the life she desired, though that’s not to say she desired every part. She did reach a time where after about the hundredth introduction in which she heard, “Bishop Wilke and his lovely wife,” she wanted to scream, “My name is not Lovely Wife!”
Those who really knew Julia knew she was never a help-mate or supporting actress. She was co-star at minimum and often in the leading role. If truth be known, when it’s Dick turn to follow her home, he will probably be met by St. Peter who will introduce him to others as “Julia Wilke’s Lovely Husband!”
Everything she did was part of a grander purpose. She wasn’t just cooking meals or making a beautiful home in which to live. She was building a family that would love each other and love God. Julia was immensely proud of all four of her children bragging that each one was her favorite. The fact that all four are in ministry today is testimony to the way Dick and Julia were people cut out of the whole cloth. They lived lives of consistency and integrity so that the mom and dad publicly seen in church were the same at home behind closed doors. They loved God wholeheartedly and sought to make their home and marriage a haven of blessing and a place of peace.
Julia delighted in her nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. If they studied or were interested in music, art, dance, sports, theology, science, water conservation, or education, then those became her interests. Whatever they were reading whether it was Harry Potter or Hunger Games, then she read those as well. She wanted to talk about the things that were interesting, fun and exciting to them. That was her secret for making members of her family feel important—she took time to invest in what was important to them.
But she spent those credits wisely. She used the influence she earned to share what was important to her and that was her faith in Jesus Christ. She was never preachy but she was always bold in her faith. Unconditional love was the defining quality of her life. If there was ever opportunity to judge someone because of their choices or direction Julia was fond of saying, “Let’s just leave that to God.” She chose to do what was in her control and that was always to love. She was a theologian in the Wesleyan tradition: Optimism of grace. She prayed for all of us more than any of us could know. She wanted everyone to know the love, hope and goodness of the Lord.
If heaven were a place of our deserving then Julia Wilke would belong there. However, we, nor she, believe that. It’s all about God’s grace. It is about letting our lives be lost in wonder, love and grace.
So I come back to my question: How does one describe Julia Wilke? Extravagant grace.
Words from the family at the Celebration of Life of Julia Kitchens Wilke, March 3, 2016
On behalf of the Wilke family, I want to express our appreciation for your love and support. While we feel a deep sense of loss, we have a greater knowledge of joy and peace.
My mother loved the Lord; and surely, the presence of the Lord is in this place.
She loved the church; special thanks to the College of Bishops and UM Clergy here today.
She loved you. Thank you all for being with us today!
My mother had a saying: “I love you the most!”
Each child and grandchild heard her say that to us and we were absolutely sure that we each were the favorite… However, she didn’t mean that she loved us more than the others, She meant that she loved us more than we could love her! She took loving seriously, which is why there was always so much joy and laughter when it came to affirming the love in our family.
While dad was the preacher and author, Mom was our theologian. She believed in Love. It wasn’t that she disregarded doctrine…the reality of Julia Wilke was that her doctrine was LOVE.
Today we thank God for a precious gift. It takes a very good God to give someone like Julia Wilke.
While we will try to capture a bit of her life, I am thinking of the words in John’s gospel about our Lord.
Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. John 21:25
I feel this way about my mother….and appreciate the part of her story that you bring today and that continues to be written in each of us.
Thank you for sharing with us in this celebration of her life.
I have known Julia personally for close to 20 years, and I most admire her as a mother. Julia is the matriarch of the Wilke family in the truest sense of the word. She raised her four children on the foundation of Christ. Her children, their spouses, and their children respectfully looked to her for wisdom and guidance which she was well-qualified to provide. Along the path, they also received unwavering support and encouragement as well. Her pride in her family members and their accomplishments has always been as evident as her love for Jesus.
Julia could encourage people like no other. I recall with joy the numerous times she put her arms around me, looked deeply into my eyes, and lovingly said “Thank you for helping Steve with the Institute.” She always helped me to feel welcomed in the Wilke world of which I am grateful to play a small part. I love her and will miss her warmth and presence.