Ten years ago when they were students attending Hampton University, publicist Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes and her now husband, pastor Andrew Wilkes, fell in love and became deeply committed to one another. They were certain from the beginning that they were meant to be and destined to build a life together. During their college years, many of those around the young lovers advised them to perhaps test the waters before continuing their relationship—a criticism that couples who fall in love young often face. Not phased by the feedback, they trusted their guts and leaned on the solid foundation they’d built their relationship on. They continued to date for five years before tying the knot and becoming husband and wife.
Today, five years into marriage, the happily married professionals are on a pastoral mission together. Living in New York City, the Wilkes help run a young adult ministry that focuses on positive relationships and social justice at the Greater Allen A.M.E Cathedral of New York. Providing a pillar of inspiration within their community, The Wilkes use faith and communication to inspire young 20 and 30-somethings to love and grow. We sat down with the couple to learn more about their mission and their message.
ESSENCE: What do you feel makes your love story inspirational to others?
REVEREND ANDREW WILKES: That we enable ourselves to be individually ambitious and mutually supportive of that ambition at the same time. We started dating at the end of our sophomore year at Hampton University. We were individually ambitious together and supported each other in that. I think that’s been the cornerstone of our love.
GABBY CUDJOE WILKES: When we were younger, people would ask, “Why? Why are you guys so committed to this relationship? You could meet anybody or do anything,” Now that we’re older, people ask, “How? How did you all do it?” I think what’s most inspirational about us is that when we knew that we had found the person that we were looking for, we just hung onto each other and made it work.
ESSENCE: Sounds like there’s a message there for some of those early naysayers.
CUDJOE WILKES: I know when you’re younger you’re told not to be too attached to relationships because there’s more fish in the sea, so do what you need to do, but we just happened to find each other younger in life. What I tell people now is, “When you know, you know,” and it doesn’t mean you have to build your life around that person but don’t just break up with that person because folks tell you that you should because they don’t understand why you all decide to stay together. I’m really grateful that we didn’t listen to the folks who wanted us to separate just because we were so young when we met.
ESSENCE: Young woman do often feel pressure to wait on love? What other things did people say?
CUDJOE WILKES: As a woman, what I heard a lot of was, “Don’t tie yourself down. Date around,” and basically, if you tie yourself down to one guy and the guy breaks your heart, you’re going to find yourself lonely, single, and older when your options are fewer. I understood it in concept but I also knew Andrew and I had something special.
ESSENCE: Were you told many of the same things, Andrew?
WILKES: Yes, you’re told that you shouldn’t be with one person and you should be experimenting…that committing to one person is a reduction of your time.
CUDJOE WILKES: Another thing that I heard a lot, and that I hear a lot when I’m working with young adult women, is they don’t want to get into a relationship that’s serious because they don’t want to derail their aspirations for getting their degrees or achieving something… I heard a lot of “Get your stuff done and get your degree. Get what you need to get done, and then find your mate,” which I think is bad advice because sometimes being in school is the best place to really build and connect with people.
ESSENCE: Do you think meeting your spouse at a younger age strengthened your bond?
WILKES: There have been doors that I literally would not be in had Gabby not pitched into those doors, so [it’s about] the support that we have for each other in every facet of our life; it’s an idea of marriage not just as partners, but as career counselors…covenantal mates, to use Christian language, which is important to us.
ESSENCE: What type of advice do others seek from you when you’re counseling at your church?
CUDJOE WILKES: We deal primarily with adults in their 20s and 30s who are just figuring out life. Our slogan’s actually “Doing Life Together.” People come to us because they have had a lot of superficial relationships and they really want something that’s sustainable and a lot of times we find that they’ve had so many broken relationships. They don’t really know how to trust people and they don’t really know how to take a chance on people. I find with the women that I work with and even the men, I find that a lot of it is just undoing that fear of actually committing to somebody and putting a label on something and taking a risk and explaining to them it is a risk but in the same way that you take a risk professionally. Love is a risk worth taking and it’s not going to be perfect, but you have to go for it if that’s something that you want.
WILKES: One of the things I hear a lot among guys is that they feel people pressure them to be in a relationship. I think a lot of guys don’t know themselves, and don’t know what they want, and they allow themselves to go into relationships prematurely can end up hurting themself and hurting someone else.
ESSENCE: Tell us more about the mission behind your ministry.
WILKES: One of the reasons I’m glad that Gabby and I are serving ministry at Allen is that the A.M.E. denomination is committed to racial equity and social justice and our pastors are committed to that. We’re trying to be about a Christianity that does something culturally as well as that does something for healthy relationships.
CUDJOE WILKES: I’m sure you have talked to women who will say that men in the church are the ones that hurt them more than men in the world because they basically run game on them and women may have had less defenses because they’re in church. Another part of what we do, and a lot of what my husband does, is we really take it seriously that if you’re going to be Christian, you’ve got to be ethical, even in the way that you date—even if you’re not married.
ESSENCE: What do you believe are the secrets to making young love last.
CUDJOE WILKES: I think one of the things that has helped us and that I encourage couples to do is to really have honest and deep conversations about who you are as people, not connected to what you do or what you want to be professionally, but who you are: What makes you who you are? What are you passionate about? If you know those things, then you can grow with somebody.
WILKES: I think so often relationships among millennials and young professionals is that it’s just more than a one-night stand, but [the other person] is just a glorified conversation partner. With Gabby, I found someone, even as a teenager, with whom I felt completely vulnerable. I love her the best I can but she loves me so deeply, and when I’m with her, I want to be a better man for myself and also for her. Also, for men, I think it’s important to actively resist patriarchy and to try to come to a decision as best you can together because loving on an even, level playing field can stop some of the intimate partner violence that is killing love and spiritually so many of our folks in relationships.