What if we’ve gotten it wrong from the start?
Donnie Wiltshire, special ministries consultant with the
Baptist State Convention, grows quiet near the end of a long interview in his
office decorated with stacks of projects in process.
He ministers among exceptional people, those who cling to
the margins of a society that feels inconvenienced by their special needs.
Wiltshire leans forward and retells the story of an
imprisoned John the Baptist sending two disciples to ask if Jesus is “the One
who is to come.”
“Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard:
The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the
deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.
(Luke 7:22 NIV)
“We lose touch with our Head,” Wiltshire whispers, his eyes
filling. “Jesus did not build a single thing. We have no idea how many were
baptized under His ministry.
“Jesus’ response to John’s question was to say, tell John
the deaf hear, the lame walk, the blind see and good news is preached to the
Wiltshire believes beyond budgets, baptisms and buildings,
that if Christians became a people concerned with the proof Jesus sent back to
John, “there would be such a movement of God among us because we would see
people and love people for who they are and see their need for Christ.”
Wiltshire, 56, has been passionate about ministry among
exceptional people since as a Royal Ambassador at age 13 he fell in love with a
beautiful girl who signed the Lord’s Prayer at RA camp.
After a career that carried him to New Orleans, Texas and
Memphis, for the past 10 years he has worked out that ministry in North
Carolina with people who are deaf or blind, people with developmental
disabilities and those with literacy needs.
When describing his ministry, it is always “people” first:
people who are deaf, not “deaf people.”
While ministry in this area will never fill vast
auditoriums, it is important first because “Jesus cares,” Wiltshire said.
Churches across the state have people who need a specific
type of ministry, said Wiltshire, who knows of 113 churches with ministry to
the deaf; 187 with ministry to people with developmental disabilities and close
to 100 churches and associations with literacy missions.
Wiltshire provides training and connection to resources.
We are meeting people at the point of their need and sharing
Christ there,” he said.
“You can tell the goodness of a culture,” he said, “by
how it treats those who are marginalized.
“The further we push them away the sadder we are as people.
When the ‘unfittest’ are a valuable part of who you are as a people, then you
are different from the world. That’s why I give my life in this area.”
Wiltshire works with four distinct people group ministries.
He considers Deaf a language cultural group. He works with
those who are “culturally deaf” meaning their lives are defined in great part
by the fact they do not hear.
Just as in a foreign nation, the gospel must be shared in
their “heart language” which is primarily American Sign Language.
This group was born deaf or became deaf very early in life.
They often received a deaf school education and marry a deaf person.
Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., estimates that two
to four people per thousand in the population are deaf. That would mean 16,000
to 32,000 in North Carolina.
Deaf is not “hearing impaired,” which often occurs as people
Wiltshire used to wish he was deaf so he fit better into the
world for which he is so passionate. Although he is very well accepted in the
Deaf world, he is still a hearing person, still separated by his “extra” sense.
- Blind and Visually Impaired
Wiltshire’s office provides an audio version of the Biblical
Recorder free on audio disc, and will provide a player if necessary.
They provide very limited Braille services, and help clients
locate Braille resources.
An annual spring retreat draws 30-35 to Caraway Conference
Center. Volunteers help participants navigate the strange surroundings.
- Developmental disabilities
“People first” is the byword in the disabled community.
are not characterized by our disabilities, we are people,” Wiltshire said.
“We are people who have a developmental disability of some
kind. We need always think of people as being people and not thinking of people
being parts, especially defective parts.”
The increase of diseases like ADD, ADHD and autism are
beginning to affect “many, many churches,” he said.
Wiltshire will help churches overcome the “attitudinal
barriers” that are the primary obstacle to ministry with developmentally
It is not uncommon for parents whose child suffers from one
of these disabilities to be asked not to bring the child to church.
Wiltshire wants to help a church “think about the ministry
opportunities and help them find ways the church can minister to these
One helpful way is to develop a buddy system with a
volunteer who shadows the disabled person and provides the needed extra care
Sometimes disruptions come not from a child acting out, but
from his or her own sense of frustration or being over stimulated.
Nothing in North Carolina Baptist ministry with
developmentally disabled persons resounds like the five “happiness retreats”
held annually for persons of all ages and categories of disability.
The talent show portion seldom leaves a dry eye in the house
and laughter is the most frequent sound heard all weekend.
Typically 800-900 persons, including campers, staff and
“All of them can respond to the love of Christ and many can
respond to the gospel message by professing faith in Christ and growing in
their faith,” Wiltshire said.
Without fail, he said, campers teach leaders “great truths
about child-like faith; unconditional love; non-prejudicial acceptance of
others no matter what, courage in the face of huge adversity.”
Wiltshire’s complaint about a little arthritis seems
dramatically insignificant when he sees his friend with Down’s syndrome, “who
has challenges I’ll never be able to understand,” who is always smiling and
ready with a hug.
“We think we are whole,” Wiltshire said. “But we are missing
some important things.”
- Literacy missions
Literacy missions helps people who can speak English but
can’t read or write it.
It involves tutoring children who struggle in school, and
teaches English as a second language.
“These ministries are ways we can meet people at the point
of their need, help them with this serious language challenge and share the
love Christ,” Wiltshire said.
He emphasized it is very important that churches not “bait
and switch” in literacy missions, offering to teach English only as a pretense
to draw people to a classroom as a captive audience. Integrity requires they
provide the service and establish the relationship.
Last year 525 tutors trained through the North American
Mission Board’s literacy training system served 1,800 students. Seventy-six of
them committed their lives to Christ.
Church based ministries
Wiltshire is a consultant who trains church members for
these ministries. As a one-man department he is multiplying himself through the
volunteer force resident in every church. It is churches that must see the
human need and enlist Wiltshire to help them organize, train and meet the need.
He joined the Baptist State Convention staff in 1999, from
First Baptist Church, Memphis, Tenn., where he was pastor of the Deaf
He is a graduate of Howard Payne University in Brownwood,
Texas, and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
He earned a ThD in church history at New Orleans Baptist
Theological Seminary and planted a Deaf congregation in New Orleans which he
pastored for 12 years.
He then was pastor to a Deaf congregation in Memphis for
almost 10 years before coming to North Carolina.
Wiltshire has been married to Irma for 36 years and they
have three children.
One works for the State Board of Missions in Alabama; one is
a missionary candidate with the International Mission Board and “the baby” is a
student at Gardner-Webb University.
He has had a pilot’s license since 1972 and shares ownership
of an airplane that on rare occasions he can use in his work to save hours on
Planning ahead for 2010
- Baptist Fellowship Retreat — April 30-May 2, 2010
- Deaf Youth Retreat — May 14-16, 2010
- Together in Christ Deaf Conference — May 14-16, 2010
- Deaf Interpreter’s Training Program — May 14-16, 2010
Developmental Disability Events
- Western Happiness Retreat — June 4-6, 2010
- Happiness Retreats — July 23 – August 1, 2010
Contact Maria Luoni at (919) 467-5100, ext. 5629, or (800)
395-5102, ext. 5629, or e-mail [email protected].
Special series — Body parts
Did you know you have a large church staff? Your gifts through the
Cooperative Program support a staff resource at the Baptist State
Convention of North Carolina that exists to serve your church.
The Biblical Recorder continues a series — Body Parts —
featuring one of your Convention staff members, and churches which has
grown through that staff member’s ministry. Body Parts is inspired by 1
Cor. 12:12 — “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts;
and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with
Christ” (NIV). The parts of the Baptist State Convention exist to serve
Visit Body Parts, a Biblical Recorder special series.