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Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008 08:00 pm

‘Diversity is who I am’

Physician/pastor takes message of unity to Urban League banquet

Wesley Robinson-McNeese.

Wesley Robinson-McNeese was taught as a young child to disregard boundaries.

He grew up as a member of an East St. Louis church, the same church that later introduced him to a world outside the impoverished city's streets and instilled in him the drive to make a difference. He entwined his faith and his desire to help others, becoming a pastor and an emergency physician.

He lives and works by the belief that life wasn't meant to be homogeneous.

"To be honest with you, diversity and unity is not just what I do, but it's who I am," McNeese says.

As executive assistant to the dean for Diversity, Multicultural and Minority Affairs, McNeese recruits students of varied backgrounds to the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. As the president of the Springfield Ministerial Alliance, McNeese encourages spiritual leaders of all races and faiths to join the once traditionally black organization.

He helped orchestrate the inauguration of 2008 as the Year of Reconciliation to commemorate and move forward from the race riots of 1908. This weekend his poem, "Face to Face," will open Paint it Red, a production featuring the lives of those involved in the riots.

McNeese now seeks to transform his own church — the New Mission Church of God, which he founded in 2003 at the Washington Street Mission — into a hub of diversity.

"I have so much wanted to have a multi-racial congregation," McNeese says. "I want to see blacks, whites, Latinos and people all cultures worship together, and I want to see it under my pastorate. That's what I want so much I can taste it."

Even his license plate symbolizes his mission. It reads Umoja, Swahili for "unity."

Nina Harris, president of the Springfield Urban League, met McNeese three years ago and has since worked with him on several initiatives, including a health-career expo for high school students. When it came time to choose a keynote speaker for the league's 82nd annual anniversary awards dinner, she knew McNeese would be the perfect fit — especially since its theme is "United We Stand: Empowering Communities and Changing Lives."

Harris calls McNeese a true leader with a servant's heart, and has asked him to address the concept of unity and how it applies locally, in the Springfield community, and nationally, on the heels of the national election.

The community connects with McNeese, Harris adds, not only because of his warm personality, his smooth baritone voice and his ability to converse with people on all levels, but also because of his own modest beginnings.

"It is the mission of the Urban League to assist African-Americans, other emerging ethnic groups and those who struggle to attain self-sufficiency," Harris says. "Dr. McNeese, having hailed from a humble childhood and a humble background, most certainly can identify with individuals who struggle.

"Given his accomplishments and his career, he has also dedicated himself to assisting individuals to recognize the courage to do better."

The Springfield Urban League's 82nd annual anniversary awards dinner and meeting will begin at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 7 at the Springfield Hilton. Call 789-0830, ext. 102 to reserve tickets.

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com

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