Today, Wilma Lewis tells the story of a dream she had of pursuing a successful legal career when she saw her godmother, Superior Court Judge Eileen Petersen — the first female Judge in the United States Virgin Islands — preside over her courtroom.
She hurried home after one visit and shared that dream with her parents, the late Walter Lewis, a United States Postal Service worker, and Julia Lewis, the Assistant Director of Customs for the Virgin Islands. They were excited about the revelation of their daughter and encouraged her to pursue those dreams.
Two months after their daughter’s birth in 1956, Walter and Julia Lewis brought Wilma to the Memorial Moravian Church in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, to be baptized by the Rev. Marvin Henkelmann. The Memorial congregation and her 13 godparents were happy to welcome this beautiful baby girl into their midst.
The members immediately embraced Wilma and her brother Warren as their parents brought them to the worship services each Sunday. Wilma was enrolled in Sunday School and participated in other youth activities. Rev. Norman E. Prochnau, who prepared Wilma and her classmates for confirmation, was impressed with this particularly bright and articulate member of the confirmation class. “Wilma Lewis was a person who exuded confidence in every undertaking she committed to, and displayed the keen interest of a great student,” remembered Rev. Prochnau.
When she entered the All Saints Cathedral High School in 1970, Wilma was disappointed that the school did not have a band that would have allowed her to pursue her musical interests. That changed when Rev. James Salzwedel arrived in St. Thomas with an illustrious musical background to serve as the interim Pastor at Memorial Moravian. He saw the opportunity to put into practice the motto that characterized his entire music ministry —“Uniting People Through a Musical Art.”
With the encouragement of the Joint Boards of the Memorial Congregation, Rev. Salzwedel introduced hand bells to the Virgin Islands and trained the first bell choir on St. Thomas. He had a great impact on the lives many Moravian young people, but it was his commitment to excellence that attracted Wilma to this new and exciting form of ministry. She embraced the challenge and became a member of the newly-formed hand bell choir.
Wilma trained with the hand bell choir while maintaining high standards in her work at school. She maintained High Honors (95 % and above) in the major academic subjects. Among other awards, she received medals for the highest scores in the Territory for two consecutive years in English Language and Science, and was the top student for three years in mathematics. In addition, she excelled in basketball, volleyball and lawn tennis.
It was no surprise when this accomplished student was chosen as All Saints Cathedral High School’s Valedictorian in 1974. In her address to the graduating class, Wilma challenged them to join her in pledging a portion of their time and talents to public service. For her achievement at school her parents presented her with a framed copy of a poem by Helen Steiner Rice entitled “Climb ‘Til Your Dream Comes True” — a prized possession she still displays.
Armed with a scholarship from Hess Oil Company on St. Croix and the encouragement of her family, Wilma enrolled in the Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania to continue her education. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science, with distinction, and later attended Harvard Law School and graduated in 1981 with a Jurist Doctor degree.
Wilma saw many firsts in her illustrious career. In 1995, she was appointed Inspector General at the Department of the Interior — the first African-American to hold that position. In 1998, Ms. Lewis was appointed United States Attorney for the District of Columbia — again, the first woman to hold that position.
In 2009 President Obama invited Ms. Lewis to be a part of his administration, appointing her Assistant Secretary for Land & Minerals Management at the Department of the Interior. She was the first African-American to serve in that capacity.
A Moravian focus
Always willing to share a positive experience with young people, Wilma Lewis launched the Hand Bells Ministry at Faith Moravian Church in the Nation’s Capital, Washington D.C. Not forgetting the religious roots that nurtured her, Wilma dedicated much of her time and talent to the Moravian Church. She has been involved in the leadership position of the congregations to which she was attached and served on the Board of Management of Faith Moravian Church.
In 2006, Ms. Lewis was elected to serve on the Moravian Theological Seminary Board of Trustees and was later elected its chairperson and vice-chair of the Moravian College Board. During her time on these boards, she provided significant leadership to the development and implementation of a new strategic plan for Moravian College and the Seminary’s most successful fund raising campaign in its long history.
Christopher M. Thomforde, president of Moravian College, suggests that Wilma Lewis has been endowed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit that have made her an excellent worker in all areas of her life. “Wilma works hard balancing zeal with knowledge and compassion,” said Dr. Thomforde. “Before she makes judgments and pronouncements, she deliberates on the issues involved, but above all, she pays attention to you and she listens to what you are saying because she cares about you. Wilma is good humored, bright, steady, encouraging and has always displays a faithful Christian disposition,” concluded Dr. Thomforde.
A Virgin Islands judgeship
Last spring, when President Obama nominated Wilma to succeed the retiring District Judge Raymond Finch in the Virgin Islands, she knew that the dream that captured her heart as very young girl on St. Thomas was about to become a reality. The U.S. Senate confirmed her to the position on June 30, 2011.
In preparation for the investiture ceremony, Wilma needed to complete two urgent and important activities. First she, had to return to say thanks to God who gave her that dream and sustained her through the circuitous journey. She invited her friends and family to join her at the Memorial Moravian Church on St.Thomas for a praise and thanksgiving service in November. She could not stop thinking about the words which are inscribed boldly on the wall at the Memorial Moravian Church: “Bless the LORD, o my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” Psalm 103:2.
Secondly, Wilma shared the good news of her appointment with her dear Godmother Superior Court Judge Eileen Petersen. Wilma thanked her for being the great role model she had been and invited her to officiate at the investiture ceremony on November 10, 2011. Judge Petersen graciously accepted the invitation and thanked her for the honor bestowed on her.
As she led the Investiture Ceremony, thousands of thoughts flowed through the mind of Judge Petersen. She reflected on the responsibility she accepted when she promised at Baptism, “in reliance on divine grace, to teach Wilma Lewis the truths and duties of the Christian and by prayer, precept and example, to bring her up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” She kept that promise as she followed Wilma’s progress through frequent telephone conversations on the island or abroad. She also made frequent inquiry about her progress from her parents.
In addition to the significance of Wilma’s appointment, Judge Petersen suggested that two important lessons were unwavering in her mind. “First, parents and guardians have the awesome responsibility to be vigilant in training their children and assisting them in wholesome activities,” says Petersen. “Second, Wilma Lewis demonstrated that one is not too young to have dreams and that they should do all things to accomplish them. She has certainly fulfilled those dreams.” ν
The Rev. Leon Matthias is a retired Moravian pastor living in Silver Springs, Md.
From the March 2012 Moravian Magazine