From Delinquent to Missionary
It was August 6, 1950. I was standing with my mother in Yankee Stadium, New York City. We were attending an international convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Neither of us was then one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I looked around in amazement at the throngs of people, more than a hundred thousand in the stadium and surrounding area, but there was no pushing, no abusive speech or fighting, no displays of anger. I recall saying to my mother: “This is unbelievable. The organizations I’ve been in and the places I’ve gone to have usually involved fights. Mom, this has to be the truth!” She just squeezed my hand tightly and smiled, for she knew my past as only a mother could. Permit me to reminisce a bit.
I was born in Metropolis, a small town on the banks of the Ohio River in southern Illinois. The year was 1930, and the Great Depression had the world in its grip. I was the 9th of 11 children. I was raised in the Lutheran religion. In the afternoons my mother used to sit down and read to me from the Bible, and I truly enjoyed those sessions. She taught me the scripture at John 3:16, which says: “For God loved the world so much that he gave his only-begotten Son, in order that everyone exercising faith in him might not be destroyed but have everlasting life,” and told me never to forget God’s love for us. I often remembered that text and would repeat it to myself when I was alone, but I could not understand just how God loved us and what it would mean in my life. I remember asking various ones who were religiously inclined, and they gave me an array of answers, such as: “God gives us trees and flowers”; “God gives us life”; “God gives us the animals, the beautiful stars, and the rain to make things grow.” Then I would think: ‘But all those things were here before Jesus was born. The text promises everlasting life, but my brother and sister died.’ When I asked about that, I was told: “Oh, but that comes after you die.” Thus, as a mere boy, I was confused and very early in life lost interest in religion and Sunday school.
By the time I was ten years old, I was a juvenile delinquent and a member of a street gang, even heading it at times. I was constantly in difficulties with the authorities. When my father would see a police car on our street, he would assume that they were coming to inquire about me and say: “Call Robert. Here come the police.” My parents suffered a great deal because of my delinquency, and my father would plead with me to stop my association with the gang I was running about with. He was so disheartened and would tell me: “You have caused us enough trouble to make up for all the other children, and it’s just because of your associations.” Strangely, however, Mother would tell Father: “He’ll change. You watch, Robert will be a minister someday.”
God’s Truth Changes Me
Then something happened that was to have a big effect on my life. My sister Evelyn began studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1948. However, at that time all that I knew about the Witnesses was their neutral position on national and political issues. I was very inclined to nationalism and didn’t want my sister to get involved with these people. I opposed her strenuously. Nevertheless, she recognized the truth of what she was learning and did not listen to me. To this day she and the majority of her children and grandchildren are faithfully serving Jehovah God. Now I thank her and God for her persistence because one day I overheard her discussing the Bible with her Bible teacher while I was in the kitchen. I found out about the Paradise earth to come and the possibility of living forever on it. John 3:16 came back to my mind, and I thought: ‘This is God’s love for us through Jesus.’ After that, each week I would listen from the kitchen. Soon they invited me to sit in on the study. Thus I came to know the loving, true God, Jehovah.
My parents had also attended the study, and after moving to Ypsilanti, Michigan, they continued to study the Bible. Soon after, I joined them there. In 1950 I went to my first convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses, an international one at Yankee Stadium, New York City. That week-long demonstration of true love convinced me that these were the kind of people I wanted as my close associates for the rest of my life. At that convention I made my dedication to serve Jehovah, the true God.
During our return to Michigan from the convention, we had the joy of visiting the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead, a school for training ministers to serve as missionaries in other countries. At that time the school was located in a beautiful country setting near South Lansing, New York. On that visit, I set my goal to be a missionary.
On September 10, 1950, I was baptized along with two others in a small creek on a farm. I was then 19 years old. My associations had been undergoing a change, and when I met many of my former associates, they would ask me what had happened. Some would tell me that I was crazy. But, truly, I had never felt more sane in my life! My father was amazed and very happy.
In 1951 I married Earline Merlau Olson. Her background was very different from mine, as she had been raised by parents fully dedicated to God. She had spent her school vacations in the full-time preaching activity and was hoping to expand her service to the missionary field.
Pursuing Goals in Spite of Difficulties
Because of my stand for Christian neutrality, I once again became involved with the authorities, and for the first time in my life, I went to jail—for being a Christian! During the day and the night that I was held in the county jail, I was vividly shown God’s loving watchcare. One of the prisoners, apparently the cell boss, told the others that he wanted to hold a kangaroo court and make me the victim. What should I do? Revert to acting as I had for so many years as a youthful delinquent or trust in God? I beseeched Jehovah to help me to continue faithful and to give me wisdom and strength. Immediately another prisoner came to my aid. He told the others to use him for their victim and, physically putting me behind him, said: “You’ll have to come through me to get him.” There were several tense moments. Then the cell boss said: “Forget it. It’s not that important.” I thanked God! Legal counsel secured my release the following day, but the legal proceedings continued for three years until I was finally exempted from military service as a minister.
On May 1, 1955, my wife and I embarked on our career of being full-time preachers, or pioneers. We pioneered for two years with the congregation in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Then we were invited to serve as special pioneer ministers, beginning May 1, 1957, in Burlington, Vermont, devoting even more time to preaching. During our two years there, we shared in the reestablishment of the congregation. Our first Kingdom Hall was in the very center of town! On Sunday the public talk was “Communism or Christianity—Which Will It Be?” Since some threats had been made to prevent our meeting, I went to the police to inquire if we could count on their protection if needed. They assured me that they would handle the situation. About 20 minutes before the meeting started, a carload of men parked in front of the Kingdom Hall. Within minutes the police came and talked to them, and they left. We had a peaceful, well-attended meeting.
Missionaries at Last!
We were invited by the Watchtower Society to become part of its headquarters staff in New York City, starting May 1, 1959. As we were getting things ready in order to go, another letter came inviting us to attend Gilead School to be trained as missionaries, starting September 1959. Two grand blessings in one year! Finally, we had in sight our goal of becoming missionaries. Our sacred service continued to expand!
In February 1960, after nearly six months of study and training, we graduated in the 34th class of Gilead. We were assigned to Bogotá, Colombia, where we arrived on March 1, 1960.
Our first challenge was to learn Spanish. My misuse of words was a source of much laughter. I recall working in the Rooming Department during our first district convention and asking the brothers to lend us mattresses (colchones), but I used the word cochinos (pigs). They kindly asked me: “What do you need them for?” I said: “For the brothers to sleep on.” After the laughter, we got the mattresses.
While enjoying God’s creation in the natural beauty of the majestic snowcapped Andes, the jungle areas, and the plains, we had many unforgettable experiences. One was while we were visiting the special pioneers in Villavicencio, where the llanos (plains) begin. In the town of San Martín, we met with the group of Witnesses from Granada. This would be the first time for the people of San Martín to hear the Kingdom message. While my wife was talking to a lady at her home, a boy approached my wife and asked her what she was doing. When she told him, he left but then came back and told her that a customer in the drugstore across the street wanted to talk to her. The man heard the message gladly and asked for all the Bible literature she had. When she offered to have the Watchtower and Awake! magazines sent to him by mail, he told her: “I live so far out on the plains that there is no mail service. I would have to pick the mail up here in San Martín, and I only come here once a year for supplies.” Providentially, that year he had come during our visit.
We greatly enjoyed sharing the truth of God’s Word with the Colombian people for 16 years, traveling by every means of transportation available: piragua (dugout canoe), airplane, bus, car, horse, and burro. Wherever we went, we found friendly people who were happy to discuss Bible truth and come to know and truly understand the love of Jehovah and his dear Son.
Sacred Service Once More in the United States
In 1976, due to personal responsibilities, we had to return to the United States, where we were able to continue our sacred service as pioneers. Then, in 1980, I was in a position to visit a number of congregations in a circuit as a traveling overseer. Thus, I was assigned to serve in the Spanish-speaking field. We have been delighted to work with our warm, loving, spiritual brothers and sisters in circuits located in various parts of the United States.
When I was a child, my mother told me: “Never forget God’s love!” I thank Jehovah for helping me, through his earthly organization, to understand his love and what it means for mankind, as well as helping me to be transformed, by his Word and spirit, from a juvenile delinquent into a person acceptable to him for sacred service. He has poured out his blessings, making it possible to achieve the goals I’ve set along the way. For our abundant privileges in God’s sacred service and a life overflowing with happiness, my wife and I give thanks to Jehovah, his Son and his faithful organization.—As told by Robert D. Reed.
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Robert and Earline Reed
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Laundry day in Colombia for my wife, Earline