From Paratrooper to Pulpit

Ninety-two. That is the number of times the pastor of Frisco’s Lebanon Baptist Church has jumped out of a working airplane.

While there is safety behind the pulpit he has manned for the past 16 years, Dr. Ray Wilkins can sometimes be found sitting at his desk listening to Glen Miller and other Big Band music while he writes Facebook posts about theology and history. But every now and then, the occasional daydreaming post about jumping from the back of a plane slips into the mix.

Looking back on his time as an Army paratrooper, Wilkins wonders how he is even still alive. “Not because of combat,” says the always-smiling Wilkins, “but because of my lifestyle.”

The 49-year old Wilkins grew up in Campbell, California, located a couple of hours from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and 20 minutes from the beach. As a teenager, Wilkins said he was “well educated in the Bible,” because his family never missed a church service, but he had not yet made a profession of faith. Yet, he recalls having “sporadic thoughts about ministry”, even as a teen. It would not be until Wilkins was discharged from the Army at 22 before he would accept Christ and be baptized by his uncle, an SBC pastor. Just months afterward, he felt the call to full-time ministry and began his formal education at Jackson State University in Tennessee, followed by Masters and Ph.D. studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“I am surprised I am still in Texas,” he said. “In 1995, I would not have thought that I would have remained here for more than 22 years.” Of that time, Wilkins has spent 16 years as pastor of Lebanon Baptist, the only church he has ever served as a staff member. He and his wife, Christie, have four children; Brett (27), Carrie (21), Jonathan (18), and Jenna (14).

Army Sgt. Ray Wilkins jumping into Gatun Drop Zone outside of Colon, Panama in the late 1980s. The Rio Chagris river controls the level of the Panama Canal. Triple-canopy jungle covers the landscape on either side. (Photo courtesy of Ray Wilkins)

Wilkins enjoys fishing and hunting, attending his kids’ sporting events, and going to the beach. “I just really enjoy being outdoors and going to new places. My favorite place is always a beach somewhere, either snorkeling or body-boarding.” Wilkins said he wants his passion for history and travel to take him to visit Italy, “to see some of the historic sites…and the food.” Wilkins said he has a passion for teaching, and in the future would one day like to teach at a Christian college.

But the pastor will always be influenced by his time as a paratrooper. Wilkins often shares stories about his time in the Army. “It was Christmas Day, 1989, I was in downtown Panama City, Panama after having successfully participated in the invasion to remove Gen. Noriega,” he said.
“That morning, about 0700, a Private and myself, a Sargent, were patrolling down a street in the old French Colonial section when a man came to the door of his apartment, I use that term loosely. He waved us over and we cautiously approached. In his hand, he had two plates with fried fish and plantains that his mother, an elderly Panamanian had cooked. She came to the door with two cans of Coke.” Wilkins said they thanked the family and the two soldiers sat on the sidewalk, “with our M16’s across our laps and a full combat load
of ammo and grenades” as they ate a Christmas breakfast. “I have had many large Christmas gatherings with a great deal of food,” he said. “But that is the best and most memorable Christmas meal I have ever had.”

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 From Paratrooper to Pulpit