“I love them just as I love you”: How God broke the heart of a nurse who started street outreach to people with HIV and AIDS

This International Nurses Day (May 12), Salt&Light salutes nurses the world over for their sacrificial care and dedication.

by Gemma Koh // May 9, 2023, 8:14 pm


A horse riding accident in 1977 changed the trajectory of Emmy Wilson's (left) nursing career. She would go on to start a street outreach for Holy Trinity Brompton in London, and later bring the Alpha course to prisoners around the world. All photos courtesy of Emmy Wilson.

Nurse Emmy Wilson’s remarkable life’s work includes being called to start a street outreach to those with HIV and AIDS, prostitutes, drunks, drug addicts and the homeless.

She also took the Alpha course to prisoners around the UK and the world.

And it all started when Emmy was in Australia in 1977 when she was flung off a runaway horse. She landed in a burr bush, damaging her spine and cracking her ribs. 

Emmy Wilson

Emmy (with her parents) almost missed becoming a nurse. She started her training in the UK one term before minimum qualifications of ‘A’ levels kicked in. Despite only having ‘O’ level passes, she graduated with the prize for being top nurse in her cohort.

“It took me months to recover,” a newly-retired Emmy, 70, told Salt&Light when she was in Singapore in April.

Emmy, whose mother was from Australia, has lived in England for most of her life, 14 years of which were spent in nursing.  

The grumpy prayer

As Emmy had damaged her spine and could no longer lift patients, she looked for an alternative nursing role when she returned to the UK.

She became involved in the endoscopic procedure where tissue was taken from patient’s lungs to diagnose HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). 

This was in the 1980s – when little was known about the new killer illness which was generating a huge amount of fear. 

“In those days, people thought that you could catch AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) just by touching someone,” she told Salt&Light wryly. 

“We had to have full protective clothing – masks, gloves, goggles and hats – when patients came in. I looked like a green spacewoman.”

Emmy Wilson

Emmy with her nephew. Before the horse riding accident, she worked in the surgical ward and the pediatric plastic surgery ward in the UK.

Emmy heard accounts from patients sick with HIV “about going to a sauna or a Turkish bath and literally having sex with six different people in one evening”. 

“I had to wire up my jaw because I didn’t know people did those things. It was a shock to me,” admitted Emmy.

A new Christian at the time, she told God: “No wonder they’re sick with HIV because they are so promiscuous.”

That is when she heard the Holy Spirit say very clearly: “You’re judging.”

That is when she heard the Holy Spirit say very clearly: “You’re judging.”

An indignant Emmy told God: “I may be judging, but it is quite disgraceful how they live.”

And she heard Him say: “Look, I died for them just as I died for you. And I love them just as much as I love you.”

She repented.

“I knew that the first commandment is to love the Lord with all your heart, and the second commandment is to love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mark 12:30-31)

‘I knew I was not doing that well, and that is when I prayed ‘the grumpy prayer’: “Lord, if I’m supposed to love these people, you need to change my heart.”

“This verse is for you”

Shortly after, Emmy was moved by teachings that revolved around Matthew 9:37-38 where Jesus looked out onto the harvest field and said: “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore to send out workers into His harvest field.”

“It was as if God were saying, ‘This verse is for you’,” she related to Salt&Light

“I had no idea what it meant, or how it would begin, but I knew I was being called as one of His workers.”

“I had no idea how it would begin, but I knew I was being called as one of His workers.”

Fearful that Emmy would catch AIDS, her parents suggested a career change.

“When your parents tell you to do something, you often dig your heels in and choose not to do what they say,” admitted Emmy.

When Emmy was on a ski outreach to Zermatt, Switzerland, with a team from Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), the church Emmy was attending, she got to talking with Sandy Millar. (He became vicar of HTB shortly after.) 

Sandy asked her about her life and what she was doing.

She told him about her work with patients with HIV and AIDS, and how God was changing her heart and attitude towards them. 

After talking to his wife, Sandy invited Emmy to join the staff at HTB.

The church wanted to start a street ministry in an area a mile up the road, where most of the people living with HIV and AIDS congregated when they came to London.

“If we weren’t reaching out to the AIDS and HIV community, we weren’t fulfilling the Gospel.”

At that time, HTB had two services, and the Alpha course was small. It had no outreach beyond the walls of the church.

“The vicar realised that if we weren’t reaching out to the community, we weren’t fulfilling the Gospel,” said Emmy.

“Working for the church was not on my radar,” she admitted. (Neither was public speaking – something which she would come to do later when bringing the Alpha course to prisons around the world).

Two Christian flatmates helped her pray through this invitation.

“I felt it was right to say yes even though I didn’t know what it would mean,” she said.

Loo or prayer first?

Before starting her career with HTB in 1985, Emmy went with Sandy and a team to a John Wimber conference entitled Teach Us How to Pray in California. 

“If I’m starting a new ministry, I need a foundation in prayer. I didn’t know what the ministry was going to look like, how it was going to develop.

But she knew: “If it’s founded in prayer, God will build it.”

On the third morning, Wimber gave a word of knowledge at the end of his talk.

She vowed: “I didn’t want to be a nurse with a hardened heart.” 

“I knew I needed to respond but I had a very full bladder. Do I go up for prayer and then go to the ladies’ room? But then my bladder won.” 

When she came back from the toilet, she saw people receiving prayer, and thought she had missed the opportunity.

Then she heard God say: “Don’t move into self-pity. Go and bless what I am doing.”

So she went to the front and started to pray for the people there. 

“As I was praying, the Holy Spirit fell on me. And I began to cry and cry and cry.”

The crying got so intense that she ended up lying on the floor.

“I thought I was going to have a heart attack. Some people gathered to pray for me. I heard someone turn to someone and say, ‘Don’t worry, God is just breaking her heart.'”

That was exactly what God needed to do, thought Emmy.

“As I was praying, the Holy Spirit fell on me. And I began to cry and cry and cry.”

Early in her training days as nurse, Emmy and the nurses had been told: “You have to have hardened hearts because you see so much suffering. And if you don’t protect your heart and make it hardened, you won’t cope seeing all the suffering.'”

But she vowed even back then when she was not yet a Christian: “I didn’t want to be a nurse with a hardened heart.” 

“Because I thought if you are my patient and I am nursing you with a hardened heart, you wouldn’t have a very good experience with me.” 

But she admitted to Salt&Light: “My heart had grown cold and hardened when I was being judgemental towards the people with HIV and AIDS. 

“So God actually broke my heart in response to that grumpy prayer six months earlier.”

“Just love them”

“It was really difficult to go from my nursing career to a street outreach because I had no training,” admitted Emmy.

“In my nursing career, I had three-and-a half years training. Whereas in starting The Earl’s Court Project, no one had told me how to speak to a prostitute, drug addict, drunk or someone lying to homeless on the streets. I felt very inadequate, very ill-equipped.

“I said to Sandy Millar, ‘I really don’t know how I’m going to do this.’

“His reply was, ‘Just love them’.”

Sandy Miller, Nicky Gumble, Emmy Wilson

Emmy with two consecutive vicars of HTB. Pioneer of the Alpha course Nicky Gumbel (centre), who succeeded Sandy Millar (left), got Emmy involved in taking Alpha to prisons.

Emmy said: “In the early days, I was overwhelmed by thoughts of, ‘We need to get them clothes, food, help with their finances to bring their lives together. How can I do this by myself?’

“I didn’t have to do it because God brought people.”   

Among them was the leader of Youth With A Mission (YWAM) in that area.

It became a joint ministry; the YWAM leader brought with him his background of training in street ministry in evangelism, and Emmy brought with her volunteers and resources to finance the project. 

“Ask me why I’m here”

The Earl’s Court Project started as an outreach from a coffee bar on Friday nights. 

Over time, there were up to 90 volunteers running it.

A third of volunteers would be praying, a third would be serving hot meals, and a third would go out into the streets, local bars and pubs and invite people to the coffee bar for a hot meal, and to hear the Gospel. Volunteers would be rotated so that everyone got experience in these different areas.

Many of the people they invited were unemployed. “They used their unemployment benefits to go to bars and drink.”

There, they  started a destructive lifestyle because they had nothing else to do. 

“Loving people unconditionally involved hearing their stories and hearing their pain.”

“That saddened me,” said Emmy. 

“Just loving people unconditionally involved hearing their stories, hearing their pain and not pushing it aside, and putting yourself in their place.”

The team met people who were “so bent because they spent the night in a telephone box protecting themselves from the rain, or who were so drunk on alcohol that they wet themselves”.

When they were able to build a relationship with the people in the streets, they were able to counsel them and help them understand that “there was more to life than what they were experiencing”.

They helped those who wanted to embrace the faith and “build the foundations of their new lives”.

“God started to change their hearts of volunteers involved in the Friday night ministry as well,” said Emmy. Many, including herself, eventually got ordained and became clergy. 

Rev Emmy Wilson baptising a prisoner’s child the day after she was ordained in Northern Uganda in 2011 as Chaplain to the Worldwide Prisons.

Emmy would also go back to the HIV ward in the hospital where she had previously worked as a Sister – this time as a volunteer arranging flowers. 

She prayed: “Lord, get the patients to ask me why I am here.”

Some of them recognised her from her time when she was a Sister there and would inevitably ask: “What are you doing now?”

This opening would enable her to share her faith – and hopefully sow some seeds. 

A safe house

After two years on The Earl’s Court Project, Emmy went to Hong Kong to work with British missionary Jackie Pullinger who has been serving there since 1966.

“I wanted to see for myself how people were coming off drugs through the power of prayer,” said Emmy, who came to be called “the Jackie Pullinger of Earl’s Court” by some.

On her return from Hong Kong, Emmy and her team prayed about buying a safe house.

“I realised that if people truly wanted to change their lives, we had to bring them out of the circumstances they lived in and put them in a safe space.”

“It was prayer that helped transform lives.” 

The target was to raise a quarter million pounds.

“The money came in and we bought this house and we started to bring people into the house to come off of drugs.”

When Emmy eventually started getting involved in prisons ministry, ex-offenders came to live in the house.

God multiplied the work of the people involved in Earl’s Court.

Through it sprung ministries that support people affected by AIDS. They include an intercessory prayer group, and a service that provides outings for and visits to children with a HIV diagnosis in the family.

Professional training for counsellors in the area, debt counselling and a nightly homeless shelter also had their roots in the project. 

“The key aspect of The Earl’s Court Project was founded in prayer,” said Emmy.

“It was prayer that sustained it. It brought the money in for the safe house. It was prayer that helped transform lives.” 

Check back soon for Part 2 of this story in which Emmy Wilson shares how the Holy Spirit worked through her and prisoners to bring the Alpha course to prisons around UK and the world. 


“Meet you at the gate”: Prison Gate Ministry helps ex-offenders chart a fresh life

Home away from Home: Churches and charities express God’s love to stranded Malaysian workers

Smoking by 8, wanted in Singapore by 25: This “no hope” prisoner is now a pastor

About the author

Gemma Koh

Gemma has written about everything from spas to scuba diving holidays. But has a soft spot for telling the stories of lives changed, and of people making a difference. She loves the colour green, especially on overgrown trees. Gemma is Senior Writer & Copy Editor at Salt&Light and its companion site, Stories of Hope.