A strong and passionate voice for those too sick, addicted, uneducated or oppressed to speak for themselves, Rev. Curtis William Wadlington was a force of life that inspired and empowered many.
He died Aug. 9, 2012, following a brief illness. He was 55.
Born in Philadelphia on July 31, 1957, as one of six children to the late Eugene Elmore Wadlington and the late Hazel Elizabeth Wadlington, both of Philadelphia, Wadlington was known and respected in many circles. He was known in religious circles for his clergy work, in human service circles for his work with wayward youth and recovering addicts, and in the gay and lesbian community for helping develop and establish BEBASHI (Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health Issues), the nation’s first and largest AIDS prevention organization.
What began as an effort in 1986 to educate often-ignored people about a little-known and much-feared virus, BEBASHI grew from operating on a $50,000 budget to operating on a $2 million budget for programs that targeted more than 25,000 people a year.
Wadlington grew up in Southwest Philadelphia and was educated in the Philadelphia public school system. He graduated with honors from Community College of Philadelphia with an associate’s degree in sociology. Wadlington continued his studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and at the time of his death, had been accepted into Temple University’s Honors Program, majoring in theology.
His approach to addressing social issues was often unique and ahead of its time. With BEBASHI, he tried to minimize the discomfort of discussing safe sex with teenagers by having them blow up condoms and examine the texture.
The kids “see (the condoms) are just latex,” he said in a story in the Philadelphia Daily News.
“After that, we make sure (the kids) understand that if they don’t use one, they put their life at risk.”
When a Christmas toy drive delivered hundreds of collected toys to HIV-infected children at city hospital clinics and living in shelters, Wadlington told a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, “We try to give some happiness in the midst of the struggle.”
Such mercy and compassion was typical for Wadlington. At the age of 16, he became the youngest person licensed by the United Methodist Church as a lay speaker.
He began a career in human services as a youth and family services counselor for delinquent youth in the family courts, mental health technician to special education experimental classrooms, and educational liaison to the board of education for dependent and neglected youth in treatment. He put that experience to work in the early 1980s to assist a friend, Rhasidah Abdul Khabeer, in developing BEBASHI.
Wadlington traveled in the United States and Africa developing prevention education programs and serving as a consultant to the National Football League, World Health Organization, African National Congress, Cameroon Ministry of Health, U.S. Army, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and numerous others.
Longtime community activist, David Fair, in a Facebook post, called Wadlington “One of the unsung heroes of my life ... who taught me so much and proved how powerful an unbroken spirit can be.”
When churches were initially confused about how to respond to HIV/AIDS, Wadlington began visiting hospitals, ministering hope and preaching funerals because no one else would. He believed everyone had a right to access God, and he used that as his mantra.
In 1995, and with 25 members, Wadlington founded and served as senior pastor at The Church Down the Way located in Millcreek, which was at the time one of the most violent and drug infested neighborhoods in Philadelphia.
The church soon established Millcreek Community Partnerships, a non-profit organization that serves as a catalyst for arts and culture, education, community based-initiatives, urban re-development and empowerment in Mill Creek.
Wadlington’s sister, Cheryl Ann Wadlington, called her brother “my hero, my friend, the family patriarch and the reason for the success” of her Evoluer House non-profit for at-risk teen girls.
“He saved souls and transformed the lives of people around the world. My brother left a legacy of greatness and goodness. He will live on in the hearts of many,” said Cheryl Ann.
Wadlington was preceded in death by brother, Eugene and sisters, Edna and Linda Wadlington.
Wadlington is survived by sisters, Cheryl Ann Wadlington, Rashida Abdul Karim and Jean Francis Wadlington; brothers, Albert Wadlington and Kenneth Wadlington; nephew, Justin Wadlington and niece, Chantay Wadlington, whom he helped raise; three young men he raised as sons, Darnell Simpson, Isaiah Proctor and Shadow Harris; special friends, Carlene Wyche and Cass Green; and other relatives and friends.
Services will be held August 25 at Ward A.M.E. Church, 4301 Aspen St. Viewing is at 9 a.m. Services will follow at 11 a.m. Burial will be in Merion Memorial Park in Bala Cynwyd.