Rev. Bill Winston is known in parts of this country, and even in other parts of the world, for being the pastor of a 20,000-member congregation in Forest Park named Living Word Christian Center, but not many know that he flew 250 missions in an F4 Phantom jet during the Vietnam War.

His Distinguished Flying Cross Medal hangs in a frame on the wall of his office at Living Word. According to the Office of the Secretary of the Army, the medal is awarded “to any person … who has distinguished himself or herself by heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight.”

Winston is proud of that recognition of the service he gave his country. But equally important, he is proud to be connected to a storied group called the Tuskegee Airmen, a group for which he delivered the invocation at their 75th anniversary gathering at the Bessie Coleman Aviation Facility in Gary, Indiana on Aug. 27 (and the 40th anniversary celebration of the Chicago “DODO” Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc.).

The Tuskegee Airmen began as an experiment in 1941, during World War II. Jim Crow Laws were still in effect in many states and the U.S. Armed Forces were still segregated. Black men had been excluded from flying aircraft in what was then the Army Air Corps, but the War Dept. needed pilots.

The Tuskegee Airmen were an experiment to see if “negroes” were mentally fit to fly airplanes. The group of African Americans who assembled at Moton Field in the city of Tuskegee, Alabama not only proved themselves capable but served with distinction in World War II. The last flyer in that group recently died in his 90s.

Winston was a boy growing up in Tuskegee at that time and attended the Tuskegee University lab school, called the Chambliss Children’s House, with many of the children of the African American men in training. His father was a medical technologist at the large Veterans Hospital in town. He remembers his dad taking him out to Moton Field on the weekends to watch the pilots training to fly. Chappie James, who eventually became the first black four-star general, was part of that pioneering group, and his daughter Denise was a classmate of Winston in the second grade.

It was only natural, therefore, for Winston to follow in the footsteps of these role models. He joined the ROTC program as a student at Tuskegee University and flew jet fighter-bombers for the Air Force during the Vietnam War.

“That experience,” said Living Word’s pastor, “set the course for the rest of my life. It’s through the discipline, the excellence and the proficiency required to be a pilot that I went on to win sales awards at IBM and then to be pastor of Living Word. In ministry, all of what I learned in the Air Force gets applied because you have to plan your mission and set goals in ministry as well as in the military.

Teamwork, he said, was one of the most important lessons he learned as a pilot. The two-man crew in the F4 requires teamwork in itself, but Winston listed all the people he depended on to successfully complete his missions: people to take care of his helmet and flight gear, share intelligence with him before the flight, take care of the airplane, make repairs if something malfunctioned, download the onboard cameras, and debrief him.

He bombed targets such as bridges and roads in an attempt to prevent the North Vietnamese from getting troops and supplies into the South. Sometimes he would fly support for B52 bombers, but his favorite missions were when he was called to aid servicemen who were caught in ‘situations.’ 

“We would fly missions,” he recalled, “where we would have to liberate our guys by keeping the bad guys away until the ‘Jolly Greens’ would come in and pick them up.”

Now Winston is the pastor of a megachurch, but in his flying days he was not close to God. He said that as a child he had gone to church but later got away from it. Like a lot of people in the military he referred to God as the man upstairs but didn’t have the kind of relationship that he developed following a profound religious experience while working in sales with IBM years later.

What lessons could society learn from what he experienced in the military? 

“What we have today is a blaming society,” he replied. “When I came out of the military, I was disciplined, and I see people now who look like me, but they don’t seem to value what they have. In the Air Force, I put my life on the line and saw how a person could get shot down.

“Today it’s almost like people have removed God from the picture. They say they make their own decisions and make their own standards and it’s led to anarchy. It’s caused a lot by the breakdown of the family. There’s not this discipline that comes from the home, and you have kids raising kids — especially in the black community.”

What he preaches at Living Word and what has attracted a large following of people is an emphasis on fundamentals: committed marriages, stressing morality and discipline in the home, going to church every Sunday, and replacing a feeling of entitlement with a sense that “I am responsible for my own life.”

“Everybody has potential,” Winston said, “and the way potential is manifested is through work and through faith. We have to realize that wherever we are now, there’s more that’s in us. We have to keep going. I want encourage people not to stop where they are now.”

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