MEMPHIS, Tenn. (BP) -- Former Southern Baptist missionary Wade Watts, who miraculously survived severe brain injuries in a head-on collision in Peru in 1996, died June 6 at his Memphis, Tenn., home. He was 56.
Thousands of Southern Baptists prayed for Watts, his wife Nancy and their sons Joshua and Marcus in the months after they were injured in a Feb. 1, 1996, car wreck on a winding mountain road in Peru. Nancy and Joshua suffered broken bones but fully recovered. But the accident left Wade and then 9-year-old Marcus in comas; doctors didn't expect them to live.
Nine months later, Marcus made a 90 percent recovery. But Wade lingered in a coma as Southern Baptists -- and national believers in the Watts' beloved Peru -- prayed for another miracle.
About a year after the accident, Watts emerged from the coma and began to speak. One of the first things he expressed -- through speech slurred by his injuries -- was a desire to return to Peru as a missionary.
When Peruvian Baptists heard that news, "it was such a 'wow factor,'" said Kevin Shearer, former IMB missionary to Peru, now a Mississippi Baptist pastor. "They were amazed that someone who went through what Wade did would want to come back to Peru and continue doing ministry. The Peruvians joined him in some very emotional prayer that God would allow that to happen one day."
Later Watts regained some of his mobility and much of his mental capacity but never realized his dream of returning to Peru. Yet he remained a missionary at heart, friends and family said. Although he was confined to a wheelchair, he found new ways to serve the Lord in his hometown of Memphis.
"Wade had such a heart for missions," said his wife, the former Nancy Tate from Memphis. "He always wanted to do God's will. Even though he couldn't be a missionary on the field after the accident or be mobile enough to do a lot of mission activities here, he still wanted God to use him. And God did."
Watts counseled Peruvians via the Internet, did Spanish-English translation projects and shared his faith with others. He was a faithful intercessor, praying daily for his country's leaders, Southern Baptist missionaries on their birthdays and many other prayer needs.
He also worked with Tennessee Baptists' Royal Ambassors (RA) mission education program for boys, a ministry he volunteered with before his service in Peru.
Karl Wallace, IMB missionary to Colombia who had served with Watts in Peru, told of participating in a Skype call with Watts and some boys attending a Tennessee Baptist RA event two years ago.
"We had a great conference call. The boys asked multiple questions about our work in Colombia," Wallace said. "I distinctly remember one of them saying he wanted to grow up to be a missionary like Mr. Watts."
Watts also encouraged fellow church members at Bartlett Hills Baptist Church in Bartlett, Tenn. Despite his disabilities, he and Nancy tried to attend church there every Sunday, and that in itself inspired others. So did the couple's positive attitude.
The couple made a decision not to become bitter about the accident but instead to "be a blessing to others," their pastor, John Finley, said during a June 9 memorial service for Watts in Memphis.
"You never heard a negative word from [Wade and Nancy] about the accident," said Tennessee Baptists' RA specialist Frank Green. "It was amazing how they maintained their missionary spirit. They continued to be missionaries even after they returned to Memphis. They just shifted their focus."
Missionary colleagues who worked with Watts in Peru described him as kind, patient, gentle, easy-going, friendly and a good listener.
"Wade was the most servant-minded man I knew among our missionaries," said Dan McLaughlin, former IMB missionary to Peru, now a music minister in Missouri.
"He was always on the go, looking for new ways to share the Gospel," said Ken Bowie, now an IMB missionary in Chile. "He never saw the glass half empty; it was always half full."
"Whenever we talk about Wade and Nancy, we always remember some funny story about them; they were just so enjoyable to be around," Shearer added. "We always felt at home with them."
Colleagues also said Watts was deeply respected by Peruvian Baptists, so much so that they invited him to become director of missions and head of Baptist Men's work for the Peruvian Baptist Convention.
"Out of the many missionaries who have served in Peru, I would put Wade among the top five as far as relationships with the national brethren," said Gary Crowell, a former IMB missionary who now is on staff at the Tarrant County (Texas) Baptist Association. "When Wade arrived in Peru, the nationals sort of took him in as one of their own. I never met a Peruvian who didn't like him. There was nothing about Wade not to like."
Many Peruvian Baptists stayed in touch with the Watts after the accident and continued to pray for them through the years.
Bowie recalled visiting the Watts family in Memphis 12 years ago, accompanied by Peruvian Baptist leader David Trigoso. The two men had been told Watts was having some memory issues because of the accident, so they weren't sure what to expect.
During the visit, "Wade began asking David dozens of specific questions, all in Spanish, about pastors and laypeople ... throughout Peru," Bowie recalled.
Later as they left the home, tears streamed down Trigoso's face. "They said [Wade] might not remember many things," Trigoso told Bowie, "but he remembered everything about the ministry that God gave him in Peru."
The Watts were appointed IMB missionaries to Peru in 1986. Wade first served as a teacher of missionary kids (MKs) in Trujillo but quickly became involved in evangelism and church planting. He and Nancy also ministered through their local church in Trujillo, where Wade taught discipleship courses. One believer he discipled was a young Peruvian woman named Armida, who later married Wade's brother Mark.
"Brother Wade loved us [Peruvians] like God loves us," Armida saikd during Watts' memorial service. "He worked hard in so many places in Peru, walking, knocking on doors, getting involved in our Peruvian culture ... I pray we all will be faithful to God and be an example like [he] was."
"Wade was a man of God who followed God to the very end," Wallace said later.
"He never gave up," McLaughlin said.
Before missionary appointment, Watts taught high school in West Memphis, Ark., and served as a staff worker at an RA camp sponsored by the Tennessee Baptist Convention. He and Nancy also served nine months as volunteers in Burkina Faso through a Tennessee Baptist partnership.
Watts earned bachelor's and master's degrees in education from Memphis State University. He also attended Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo.
In addition to his wife Nancy, Watts is survived by his sons Marcus of Memphis and Joshua, of Pensacola, Fla.
The family suggests memorial contributions to Bartlett Hills Baptist Church, 4641 Ellendale Road, Bartlett, TN 38135 or the International Mission Board, Box 6767, Richmond, VA 23230-0767.
Maria Elena Baseler is an International Mission Board writer/editor living in the Americas.