From Hitchhiking Hippie to South American Missionary
I WAS hitchhiking into Birmingham, England, with my French girlfriend in 1974. Two of Jehovah’s Witnesses driving home from work passed us, and as one of them, John Hyatt, looked back at us, he wondered aloud to his companion, “How do people like that ever learn the truth about God?” Of course, I didn’t know about this until later. Anyway, they didn’t stop for us; you wouldn’t have stopped either. I looked the typical hippie.
But let me start at the beginning. I was born in Richmond, Virginia, U.S.A., in 1948. The very first thing I remember is being five years old and not being able to walk. I had polio. My mother bathed me on a stretcher in the tub. Fortunately, after four or five weeks, with help from my parents and doctors, I recovered. I was able to walk again.
Ours was a typical Southern family—conservative, Southern Baptist. Our parents required that we children—two brothers, my sister, and I—attend church until we were 18. At 18 we left the church. I had been baptized when I was seven years old, at a Billy Graham crusade. I was serious about my baptism; it was not done in an emotional frenzy. I remember distinctly that I dedicated my life to God, although I really didn’t know who he was.
Our parents taught us good morals, respect for authority, and respect for the Bible. Those early ideas influenced the decisions I would make the rest of my life. To this very day, I am grateful for that parental training.
In the sixth grade, I remember considering the world situation and thinking: ‘This can’t go on.’ Even then, I didn’t think the political systems could continue.
In my teen years, I developed scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine, possibly brought on by the earlier polio. I became a guinea pig as the doctors imprisoned my body from hips to neck in a Risser cast, a jacket that acted like an exoskeleton.
Not the image I would have chosen. I looked like a walking statue. The other kids at school were kind, but the lesson that I learned while I wore the contraption my junior year in high school: Accept what we can’t change.
Attending college was expected of me, so I went. I was in the class of 1970. In the ’60’s the hippie movement was in full swing, and immorality and drugs were the order of the day. I worked my way through school, and my job in an office required that I have short hair and wear a suit. But the free spirit and nonconformity of my friends beckoned to me. They were as disgusted with the system as I was. I wore jeans under my graduation gown.
Education had not proved to be satisfying. Observing my wealthy uncle had convinced me that money wasn’t the answer. He was no happier than poor people. What was the point? So I dropped out, let my hair grow, and went in search of a real purpose in life.
I traveled in Europe on a Eurail pass and a thumb. My objective was to hitchhike around the world. Maybe somewhere I would find the answers. In my backpack I carried two pairs of jeans, three shirts, and a Bible.
Sitting in pubs, drinking beer and reading the Bible, I would ask questions of those around, getting all kinds of different answers. I was searching, looking, groping—for what? I wasn’t sure.
In London the “Children of God” caught my interest. But like the message of all young hippies, their whole message was childlike—undiscriminating love. No answers here for me.
On a tour of a very beautiful Anglican church, a former Catholic cathedral, I was awestruck. I asked the vicar who had conducted the tour why he had become a priest. He held his hand up and rubbed his thumb and fingers together in the sign of one feeling money! I was devastated. What hypocrisy! Fed up, I gathered up all my religious literature and put a match to it.
September 1973, I was on the road again, thumb out—on to Liverpool to see the Beatles and hear their music. Gordon Marler picked me up. The Bible became the subject of our conversation because we both read it, and so we exchanged familiar scriptures.
Thereafter, Gordon became my “truth” connection. We kept in touch by letter and in the spring of 1974, he wrote that he was having a Bible study with Jehovah’s Witnesses. I had no reaction to the name Jehovah’s Witnesses, never having been contacted by them in Richmond. Months later a letter arrived with an invitation: “Come on up for a Bible study.” He said his study was on Wednesday evening. So on a Wednesday morning, the thumb was out again. My French girlfriend’s presence made it easier to get a ride.
We went with Gordon to his Bible study. The host turned out to be John Hyatt, the one who had passed us up earlier and had wondered, ‘How do people like that ever learn the truth about God?’ When introduced, he exclaimed: “Oh, the hippie couple from the road, the Yanks!”
And so it began. I had lots of questions as a result of my Bible reading. There wasn’t enough time to get the answers, since the Witnesses’ big convention was to begin early the next morning. John gave me a book, The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life, and told me to pick a chapter, bring all my questions, and come back the next Wednesday. He invited me to the convention on Sunday. The clean, polite people impressed me. My girlfriend wasn’t interested. When I told her that I loved God more than I loved her, she left.
On Wednesday, I was back at John’s house, having picked the chapter on Jesus Christ. I had specific questions about sexual conduct and Daniel’s prophecy of the 70 weeks of years. John was a full-time evangelizer, who really knew the Bible. He told me the Bible’s view is that sex is restricted to married people, and he clarified the 70 weeks of Daniel for me. All the loose ends from my Bible reading were being nicely tied up. At two in the morning, I said: “This is the truth.” I had intended to sleep in the park, as I had frequently done in the past, but John said no and had me bed down on the living room floor.
It seemed providential that he did so, for that night a gang of skinheads were raising a drunken ruckus on the elevator. My appearance would surely have made me a target for a violent beating.
As the studies progressed, I learned that I had been right as a child. The system can’t go on. It is careening toward oblivion. God himself will make things right by means of his government, the Kingdom I had prayed for but never understood. (Daniel 2:44; Matthew 6:9, 10) My distaste for hypocrisy was validated. Jesus didn’t like it either. (Matthew, chapter 23) I had groped for God, and he had let himself be found by me.—Acts 17:27.
I talked about this truth to everyone I met. Right away I wanted to go home and share the knowledge with my family. Back in Richmond, I did just that.
I also called the Kingdom Hall. Brother Herbert Lohwasser answered the phone. He was working on the new hall, preparing it for its dedication. I told him I wanted a Bible study. He told me about a large meeting the next day where all the city was invited to hear a Bible lecture. I went.
I stuck out like a sore thumb, my appearance announcing that I was a visiting stranger. A young single pioneer there named Mike Bowles introduced himself and invited me to sit beside him right up front. Afterward, the crowd was buzzing with the question, “Who was that girl with the long beautiful hair sitting beside Mike Bowles?” That was me!
After my third study, I got my hair cut and changed my manner of dress. My outsides began to match my insides. I joined the Theocratic Ministry School in October and in November started in the public preaching work. Soon I was conducting Bible studies with others. In March 1975, I was baptized again, this time in symbol of my dedication to Jehovah, the God I had at last come to know.
I began the full-time ministry, like those who had helped me so much. Brooklyn Bethel, world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses, became my home in May 1976. I had two jobs, running an elevator and delivering mail. Both allowed me the privilege of talking to spiritual brothers daily.
After two years, I returned home to Virginia and preached full-time for a while. Eventually I became an elder in the congregation. The work was a pleasure, but there was an uneasy feeling inside of me. I kept thinking: ‘There has to be more that I can do in God’s service.’ Missionary service? Could that be it? I applied for the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead and was accepted for missionary training into the 1983 winter class.
Before graduation, my missionary assignment was announced: Colombia, South America. I was on the road again but not traveling by my thumb this time.
My first stop was at the Watch Tower branch office in Santa Fe de Bogotá, where I studied Spanish intensely for three months. Then I was assigned to a missionary home in Medellín, where Spanish was studied for four hours a day, six days a week.
Starting to preach in a new language had its moments. Early on I went knocking on a door all alone as a Spanish-speaking sister observed within earshot. I offered our Christian magazines to a woman for 30 pesos. The woman looked indignant and shut the door! Returning to the sister, I got the explanation. “Be careful of your pronunciation,” she said. “You said besos, not pesos.” I had asked the woman for 30 kisses!
Colombia is a beautiful place. The great attraction is the people. They are warmhearted, closer to the earth than people in more industrialized societies. Therefore, teaching the Bible is different. Colombian people respond to stories, illustrations, real-life experiences without complicated details. They are more attuned to real life. People live close to people here. They have strong feelings and are responsive. My audience is like the audience Jesus spoke to, the people of the earth; this causes me to try to imitate Jesus closely in teaching. The people remind me of Ephesians 3:19, where Paul spoke of “the love of the Christ which surpasses knowledge.”
In 1989, I was given a new assignment, circuit overseer. That means I travel to a different congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses each week and stay with them, going along in the door-to-door search for those who want to know God, giving talks in the Kingdom Hall, and accompanying the local brothers and sisters on Bible studies.
Jehovah continues to discipline and refine me in many ways. One incident in particular comes to mind. Mosquera, outside Bogotá, was the congregation I was to serve, and as usual the brothers had arranged for me to stay with a family—a sister, her unbelieving husband, and two children.
I arrived to find, essentially, a one-room house with a sort of cubbyhole office, containing bunk beds, that was separated from the rest of the house by only a sheer curtain. I was directed to that space, and having been told to choose my bed, I picked the lower bunk. That was Tuesday. As I lay reading the Bible about 9:30 p.m., the two children entered, and plop, plop, they were in the upper bunk.
My thoughts raced. ‘Oh, no! I need more privacy than this. What am I, a man used to having his own room (or at least his own private space in a park), doing here?’ I determined I would certainly seek other accommodations for the next visit and went to sleep. Each night the same scene was played out. But on Thursday as I read, a little head peeked down from the top bunk. It was Andrés, nine years old. “Brother Fleet,” he asked, “are you asleep?” My answer was a curt no. Another question. “Brother Fleet, have you prayed yet?” Another no.
Then Andrés asked, “When you pray, could I come down, and you pray for me too?” I was touched. My attitude changed. In fact, my attitude about the whole visit changed. Here was a little “fatherless boy” who wanted a man to pray with him. I was the man. I prayed with him. And I stayed with this family on a later visit. Little Andrés helped me to focus less on my own needs and more on the personal needs of the brothers. I began to seek out ‘the fatherless boys’—those who are groping for God, just as I was as a child. (Psalm 10:14) Andrés’ father is now attending meetings at the Kingdom Hall and has joined us in the public preaching work.
Since I arrived in Colombia, the number of those worshiping Jehovah has grown from 22,000 to 55,000. I no longer contend with that uneasy feeling that there is more I should be doing. I am content to be in this good place. Forever I will be thankful to the merciful God who looked right through my hippie outward appearance and saw a person struggling to find the true God, whose name is Jehovah.—As told by Richard Fleet.
[Picture on page 19]
Richard in 1973
[Picture on page 21]
Richard Fleet, South American missionary