46 Years in Ministry: Hugh and Di Willis

Hugh & Di sitting on their couch looking through a photo album, smiling at each otherThe EncouragerHugh and Di Willis have stepped outside of the spotlights, but don’t call it retirement. The couple is still very much part of the ministry. With Kirsty Armitage at the helm in the role as ‘National Director’ of Elevate Christian Disability Trust, Hugh and Di continue to give her their full support, with all the mana and aroha that this role deserves.

These two co-founders look back at their 46 years in the ministry. We gave them ten words to respond to. In a few lines, otherwise it would become another book.

The year 1976

Hugh & Di's living room. There is a fireplace on the left, a couch in the middle of the room and a cabinet between 2 large windows that look out on the garden.

“It all started very small. The Lord shared the vision with me (Di) to start a ministry with people with disabilities. A little later I connected again with my friend Margie Willers, who had just returned from a healing conference with Kathryn Kuhlman in the United States. Margie came with the hope of being healed from her Cerebral Palsy, but instead God showed Margie she should use her talents, just the way she was.”

The vision was to invite people with disabilities to come together, to run camps, to grow closer to God, and to be included into whatever churches were doing. “It all started here in our living room in Torbay on Auckland’s North Shore, in the same house where we still live.”

1 Samuel 16:7b

“This Bible verse is the absolute key of our ministry. That is what we always quote to new visitors. The Lord told Samuel: ‘The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart’. It’s an amazing scripture. God gives skills and talents to everyone, even if it is just the skill to smile at someone. There are no excuses not to use what you have for God.”

Elevate Christian Disability Trust

“It used to be Christian Fellowship For Disabled (CFFD), later Christian Ministries With Disabled Trust (CMWDT), as an umbrella organisation for all the different branches and ministries we do. People found that a difficult name to pronounce. So back in 2012 we were looking for a better name. One of the helpers mentioned how our ministry was about ‘elevating people into knowing Jesus and celebrating life’. That was well said and the verb ‘to elevate’ stuck.”

Evangelize, Equip, Educate, and Encourage,“those are ‘The four E’s of Elevate CDT’. Evangelize comes first. We talk about Jesus a lot. We love to see people grow in their faith. For many of our folks I think that encouragement is the most important. We all have the need to feel included in the Body of Christ, and sometimes churches and families find that difficult. We expect our folks to live their lives according to their capacities. That is where the education and equipping comes in. If I talk to one person, or to hundreds, I just ask God what it is He wants me to say. Sometimes we get new volunteers, who have no clue how to be around people with a disability, at the start. Their eyes are opened, and their hearts.”

The Elevate whānau

“The ministry is like family. We have met thousands of people over the many years. We loved their stories. Yes, it is all about people with disabilities, but in addition, so many other lives were touched. It is amazing, how hearts have been changed, how people came to faith. So many people have given towards the ministry, with their love, their time, their finances, it has been amazing. All glory goes to God. Elevate belongs to all of them. Mind you, we have the CFFD branches at eight different cities in the country, and Joy Ministries as well. The local committees are so committed and wonderful, they do deserve acknowledgements for many years of faithful services.”

“Many stories are very personal. We saw people meeting each other at the ministry and getting married. We saw miracles happen, and people receiving healing in other ways than they expected. I don’t use any names, there are too many that God has brought on our path. And yes, we have lost a lot of dear friends over time. What a grace to know that they are all in Heaven, living an eternal life without pain or sorrow.”

‘The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart’.. 1 Samuel 16:7b

173 Mt Smart Road

“Our national office in Onehunga, with the Drop In Centre, is a second home to us. It was an absolute miracle how God led us to get it, over twenty years ago. God told me He would buy us a building, and He did. So many things happened in that building. We had so many visitors, students, politicians, some from overseas. We once had this guy from Romania. He only came once, but he was so touched that he promised to do something similar in his home country. The building had some alterations done to it, and more needs to be done, but it has been a huge blessing over the years. We couldn’t do our ministry without it, and God knew that from the start.”

Hugh & Di on their couch with a photo album open on their laps smiling at the cameraThe Knife Edge of Faith

“That book tells our story. It is such a testimony of how people made the ministry of Elevate to what it is today. The book is about faith, about perseverance, about not giving up, about trusting God to provide. We made lots of mistakes over the years, but despite that, God used our work. We just tried to do what we thought God showed us to do. Yes, we had to live our life with a faith that was on the knife edge sometimes. This is a ministry that totally relies on God, and on its financial supporters. That is not always easy. We experienced that even on the day that the book was launched at Elevate’s 30th Anniversary. We had a bit of a celebration organised, but up to minutes before the meeting would start, we still had not received any copies! Again, it was a last minute thing. We thought, God, do you really have to go to those extremes?”

Elevate National Camp

“Our camps are maybe the biggest blessing of all. Well, no, you can’t say that of course, but sometimes it feels like that. Words can’t describe how important camp is. People love to come. They make new friends and catch up with old ones. They learn more about how to live out their faith. People get saved, some get baptised, and lots of volunteers have an amazing experience in serving someone with a disability. New helpers often say how they learned that camp was not about themselves, it was about serving. So the camp is about learning, about acceptance, about fellowship and encouragement. It’s our favourite weekend of the year. Jesus is there.”

Encourager Magazine

“It started in 1977 as a two-sided letter; 40 copies, that Margie typed with her mouth. Look at it now. We print 5,800 copies; and they get send to 40 different countries. It is amazing how it came together. We asked many people to come up with a name for our newsletter, and the name Encourager is really suited. That is our main purpose. The magazine has encouraged its readers tremendously. It is often received at the exact right time. Other readers are inspired, as the magazine educates them how to engage. The magazine has been God’s work from the beginning. We remember the days we had 30 people coming to our home to fold and collate the pages. The electric stapler would go on for hours. Our dear neighbour heard that sound continue until the early hours of the morning. Rest assured, that work is now all done professionally, at the printer.”

Kirsty Armitage

“We are very, very proud of Kirsty. She is a God ordained person, very capable, very talented, the ideal person to take the helm. Kirsty has been around with Elevate for nine years now, and many people will know her from the camps and our communications.”

Di loves it that Kirsty is also an Occupational Therapist, just like herself. Di realises of course she is a different personality. “Kirsty is probably more orderly, a bit of a perfectionist. Her husband Brent will support her all the way.”

“The best advice we can give her is to put God first. He is still the centre of this ministry. Keep close to Him in prayer, and reading the Word. But also, stay in touch with the different ministries, enjoy the company of all these good people.

Have fun doing the role. A sense of humour is essential, but Kirsty has plenty of that.” Have you read Hugh’s book ‘On the Knife Edge of Faith: Stories Behind the Ministry’? Copies are available for purchase from the National Support Office.

Written by Onne Hiemstra


The Encourager Magazine 174



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