Entitled “Lots of Hope,” his book is a discourse on the powerful role that hope plays in the lives of individuals and communities, particularly his own.
In October 2007, Wilburn, a graduate of the Princeton Theological Seminary, was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. As a result, he stepped down from his pulpit near God’s Acre.
He left New Canaan with his wife, Bev, and moved to Baja, Calif., to write – believing that a warmer climate might help mitigate the progression of his disease.
Determined not to let the ailment hinder his pursuits, he began working on his oeuvre and released the first book in the series, “The God I Don’t Believe In: Charting a New Course for Christianity” in December 2007.
Wilburn has also become a spokesman for ALS stem cell research since his diagnosis. “You and I share a strong sense of passion for the possible,” he recently told a group of doctors at the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
“God is not just ‘out there’ somewhere; God is ‘in here’ with us, in the makeup of every cell, every motor neuron, every thought, every emotion. That is why I titled my newest book ‘Lots of Hope.’ There never was a night or a problem that could defeat the sunrise… or hope.”
Being a spokesman for stem cell research may seem an unusual role for a former pastor, but Wilburn had spent his career in New Canaan – as well as senior minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Stamford and of the historic Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, Calif. – advocating progressive, inclusive Christianity.
“I am a parish minister,” Wilburn said, “not an academic; and I have repeatedly seen this new approach to faith work in real life. Our large congregation of mostly young adults doubled over the past decade and (grew rapidly) because of our clear commitment to progressive faith.”
During his time in New Canaan, Wilburn made it his mission to soften the boundaries between religions and was instrumental in bringing together Islamic, Jewish, and Christian leaders to address regional and national issues.
“I think the most important word in Gary’s approach to Christianity is ‘inclusion,’” Meyrick Payne, who along with Wilburn is co-founder of ProgressivePubs, a publishing company dedicated to promoting resources for progressive writing, told the Advertiser. “He believes that everyone is the same in God’s eyes no matter what religion you are. There is no exclusivity in Gary’s Christianity. His church was never a ‘club.’”
Wilburn’s effort in promoting interfaith tolerance won him many converts in town and led the Interfaith Council of Southwestern Connecticut to present him with its “Clergy of the Year” award in 2001.
Wilburn, who was the fraternal delegate for the United Presbyterian Church to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in South Africa during apartheid, spearheaded a project as part of the United Nations Day Committee to raise money to adopt a village in Cambodia and remove landmines that had remained from wars past – just one example of many similar charitable projects undertaken during his career.
Peter Hanson, a member of Wilburn’s congregation who was involved with the United Nations project, said, “Gary’s faith in me empowered me to do things I would not otherwise have tried. His encouragement always kept me going.”
It was his all-encompassing theological philosophy and compassionate nature, Hanson said, that inspired him to leave the Congregational Church and join the First Presbyterian Church.
“Gary is one of the true leaders I am privileged to know,” Hanson said of the former pastor. “He is a fisher of men.”
As a leader, Wilburn told the Advertiser, echoing the founding principal of Buddhism, one comes to understand that “suffering is universal, and that we may not be able to prevent it from happening.” But that should not keep those in a position to do so from trying, he said.
It is this perspective that informs Wilburn’s writings, including “Lots of Hope,” and the final work of his trilogy, “Lots of Love,”.
“In my book, ‘Lots of Hope,’ I not only talk about how we can be more hopeful on the personal level, but how we can be more hopeful in our families, our citizenship, our businesses, and our international relations, because ‘hope’ is the force that gives our lives meaning,” he said.