Innerviews: Priesthood evolves from war-torn boyhood in England
Born in a different place, a different time, he might recall playing war games with tin soldiers and toy fighter planes. But Gil Watkins grew up in a real war. Reared in England in World War II, watching aerial dogfights and bombings was a way of life. To this day, the sound of a siren stands his hair on end.
After the war, at 18, he suited up for the British Army. He served as a butcher, slaughtering sheep for the troops. Then, he joined the British police as an authentic bobby, a street cop.
He joined his family in America and worked as a mechanic. Next, he opened a Ford tractor dealership.
Something was growing inside him, a subtle but undeniable calling. One day, he dropped everything and prepared for his new life as an Episcopal priest.
That brought him to St. Mark's in St. Albans. There, 30 years ago, he started Christ's Kitchen, a church and community supported program that offers full lunches to the needy five days a week.
Of all his interests and achievements (tinsmith, blacksmith, pilot, photographer), nothing remains dearer to his heart than his mission to feed the hungry.
"I was born in 1930 in Birmingham, England, an industrial center. I stayed there through World War II. Dad was a factory worker, so he didn't have to go in the Army.
"I remember the day our war started. We only had radios, so when something big came on, everybody would open their doors and windows and turn the radios on. Chamberlain was declaring war on the Nazis. I was 9. The sirens went off. The barrage of balloons went up.
"It was scary, and it just got worse. We had day bombers and night bombers. On my particular street, one of our own shells came down on a duplex. There was a row of duplexes and the Germans dropped a bomb there. I walked to school past all this stuff smoking.
"We were supposed to be in shelters, but we would come out and watch the dogfights. It wasn't scary because that was my life. At first, you would get anti-aircraft guns, so you would see puffs of smoke all over the place. Occasionally one would get hit, and we would jump up and down thinking how fantastic it was. Suddenly, the artillery would stop, and we got really excited because we knew our fighters would come knock the planes out of the air. We wanted to kill Germans.
"When we saw a plane get on fire and a parachutist come down, we thought it was fantastic because we knew the farmers would probably kill those guys.
"I live out in Riverlake. Every week at 12 o'clock, they used to have the sirens on, and my hair stood up on the back of my neck. The sirens scared us more than anything because we knew the bombers were coming.
"After Dunkirk, when the Germans threw us out of Europe, mom decided we would go to the north of Scotland where there wasn't any bombing. This was 1942. She rented half of a big manor house and billeted all these soldiers that came off the beaches of Dunkirk.
"I was 11 or 12. One day, we were on top of this hill, and I saw this plane coming. Just north of us was a British air base. So we were waving. As it came closer, there were swastikas on the side. I go cold thinking about it.
"They were trying to go under the radar. They would strafe while they were at it. It's the most scared I've ever been. We thought we were dead. But as it went over, the rear gunner waved at us.
"When the war ended, we lived in Blackpool, a seaside resort with a tower almost the size of the Eiffel Tower and it was full of all sorts of people.
"You never knew what language you were going to hear or what uniforms you would see. England was an armed camp before D-Day. There were more Americans than anybody. The only trouble with Americans is that they were oversexed, overpaid and over in our country. We would grumble about the damn Yanks picking up the girls. But so were the free French and Poles and everybody else.
"I love castles. I had a special one with a particular tower I wanted to go into. I would go up in the turret. I'm an incurable romantic. The last time I was there was right before D-Day, and the place was filled with boxes of hand grenades.
"When the war ended, everybody went crazy. It meant such a lot because we were deep in it. We were just 18 miles across the channel from the whole blooming mess.
"I was in the British Army when I was 18. I asked for foreign work. In three months, I was in Egypt in the Suez Canal area. I was a slaughterman. I killed cows and sheep the whole time I was in the Army. All the armies except the Americans had a butchery section.
"Later, when I was in Duerna for almost a year, my job was to buy sheep off the Arabs. We had been taught how to inspect sheep by veterinary officers. I served between 900 and 1,200 troops. I killed 40 sheep a day usually.
"I joined the police when I came out. It was a good job, paying about 15 or 20 percent more than I could make in any other job.
"The British police are more into social stuff than they are here. You walk everywhere in towns. You know all the shopkeepers, all the people. You are a street cop. New York would be close to that here. You are into social work. You get called about someone dying and you have to go see them die. Or two people are having a fight, domestic violence. But I loved the social work side of it.
"I only left England because some Canadian representative recruited us to the Toronto police force. I was a 135-pound weakling. You had to be 155 pounds. Weight wasn't an issue in England.
"So I couldn't get a job. Mom had some friends in Connecticut. So we came down in Christmas of '51 to America.
"I did floor covering for about 12 months. I've always been mechanical. I fixed my own motorcycles and stuff since I was 16. So I worked for Ford in New Canaan, Connecticut, for a while, then Lincoln-Mercury. Then I opened my own repair shop in Norwalk.
"I got into being a Ford tractor dealer. The regional manager said a guy was interested in a dealership and wanted to see how my business worked. I was involved in the church. I had done everything but be a priest. I felt I really needed to do that. I said to my wife, 'I think I am going to sell my business to that guy and try to be a minister.'
"She bought me a book, Norman Vincent Peale's 'Power of Positive Thinking,' and I read that, and I guess you could say I got religion. It evolved. I went to a book shop, and they had a pile of books for a dollar. They had a new testament by a man named J.B. Phillips, quite a theologian. As I read that, I kept saying, ' Oh my god, oh my god.' The Lord really meant something to me, and I had to do something about it.
"I dumped everything. I sold my business in '72. I hadn't been to college, so I went to a community college to catch up and then went to a seminary on Long Island. I got a research scholarship to Yale Divinity School and did a year there. Mostly, I studied on my own.
"Then I had to find a bishop who would ordain me. It's not as easy as it sounds. In Connecticut, they said I hadn't done the normal things. I found a bishop in West Virginia, Bishop Campbell. He became a good friend. He came to visit me in Connecticut. I was ordained in the Northern Panhandle as a deacon and a priest.
"I found a very fulfilling job. I love fussing with people.
"I went to St. Paul's in Williamson as a deacon -- me, from outside New York. It was unbelievable. Monica wore dark glasses the first three months because she cried so much. One of the kids said one day, 'Are we still in America?'
"I was there four years. I came to St. Mark's Episcopal in '78 and left it in '93 when I retired. I was an archdeacon in the diocese. I had the title 'venerable' at that point. Can you imagine me being venerable?
"I worked for the diocese with the bishop for two years and went around filling in. I went to St. Peter's in Huntington and stayed 12 years. So I retired a second time in 2010.
"This is the 30th year for the soup kitchen. They had Manna Meal in Charleston, started by Jim Lewis. I talked to Jim about it. It took me months to get this going. The local folks didn't want a soup kitchen around here.
"Back then, the St. Albans Ministerial Association called me everything in the book. I went into the community, to Rotary Club and different places, and got the community behind me. But we had to really push.
"It was hard to get the people out of Amandaville to come to an Episcopal church. They thought we were snoots. I had a Cherokee Jeep, and I would go pick up drunks off the corner. I can street talk. I've been around. I told them in no uncertain terms, 'If you are going to drink, get your behinds in the back of this vehicle.' I'd take them to the church and go back and get another carload. That's how we got them started.
"At first, we probably didn't have more than 15 or 20 a day. Now they feed an awful lot of people.
"I don't work there. We have a deal in our church. Once you leave, you can't get involved as a minister. But I come chatter with the people. And I bring stuff down here, anything that can be used. These folks need a lot of stuff. They have fallen through the cracks.
"A lot of people say, 'Oh, they get drunk.' Well, if I had to live like they do, I'd get drunk, too. I can see the end of the tunnel even at my age. These people can't see the end of the tunnel. They can hardly see beyond the next meal. You don't understand that unless you get amongst them. They are wonderful people.
"I was tinsmithing for a while, and blacksmithing. I fixed a trailer up as a portable blacksmithing shop, and we went around to the schools to show the kids about blacksmithing. I'm interested in too many things.
"I've had seven or eight planes. I made one into a British liaison plane. I've got a British flying suit with all my RFC on it, including two stripes for corporal. I refurbished it with Benny Mallory at Mallory Airport. I flew out of there for 25 years.
"I go to church at St. Christopher's in Charleston. I fill in there as much as I can. I'm even writing a book. I've been writing it for 20 years. I don't think it will ever get finished.
"I sit with a bunch of guys over coffee at McDonald's. They will start talking about photography. And I will say, 'I used to do photography.' One guy said, 'You would have to be 105 to do all the things you've done.' I'm still looking for different things to do."
Reach Sandy Wells at 304-348-5173 or email@example.com.