Interview with Don Richardson
While Don missed the People Magazine list of fascinating people again this year, few Hollywood movies are as improbable as Don Richardson’s life. A missionary among cannibals and headhunters (the fascinating subject of his best-selling Peace Child), Don is a talented story-teller, a linguist, and an anthropologist. As he showed in his folksy yet intellectually ambitious Eternity in Their Hearts, Don has the knack of changing how “civilized” peoples think about God and history almost as much as the Sawi tribe whose life he and his wife Carol helped revolutionize. Rather than resting on his laurels, in recent years he wrote a controversial book on the dangers he believe Islam poses to Western civilization. He is also preparing to publish on science and faith.
Don talked with me by phone from his home in Florida, about his life, God and anthropology, his controversial book on Islam, and a new book , on science and faith.
A little chilly here in Seattle today . . .
I saw that on the weather report. Snow and ice . . .
You’ve been based in California and Florida. Did New Guinea spoil you for a temperate climate?
Yes, I think it did. And it made me enjoy Florida, because other people say ‘It’s so humid.’ And I say, ‘This is humid? You don’t know what humidity is – sea level in New Guinea.’
You were born in Victoria, BC, right?
I was born in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.
Oh! On the other side of the country!
Yes. I was ten years old when we moved from an island in the East to an island in the West of Canada.
So you grew up partly on Vancouver Island, anyway?
Yes, from the age of ten on.
How did you know God was calling you to become a missionary?
I became a believer in Jesus as 17 years of age, through the influence of another teenager, actually about two years older than me – Jim Sadler. I wanted to go climbing in the mountains of Vancouver Island. In fact there were peaks there that had never been climbed. And at 14 years of age, I needed someone to go with me, because there were cougars and black bears and things out there. And in case someone gets hurt, the other guy needs to help him get out to civilization. So Jim was willing to go, and because he was willing to go, my widowed mother agreed to let her oldest son trek off into the wild.
And Jim was such a consistent believer, and had such a wonderful character, compassion, and was a true friend. He would invite me to go to Youth For Christ meetings in Victoria from time to time. I went. And I really liked their cheerful singing – I’d been raised Episcopalian. These songs were youthful and joyful, and people sang to God in the first person, instead of just singing about Him in the 3rd person. That impressed me.
But I felt uncomfortable with the altar calls at the end of each meeting. I thought, ‘This is intruding upon my privacy, I’m not sure I like this.’ But all the people involved were like Jim. And I thought they all had the same thing, what is it? Why do I find myself admiring them? I admired almost no one else at the high school I went to, except my teachers. The other teenagers I knew were kind of crass, crude, vulgar . . .
My father who died shortly after he deposited us in Victoria, BC, he was the epitomy of wisdom. I was living by what he taught me, and he taught me a lot of good things – none of it included being born again, and trusting Jesus as your Savior. So, I liked this Gospel business because of the nice influence it has on the people who believe it, but it was not for me. Because my Dad didn’t say anything about it.
So the Holy Spirit needed a redemptive analogy, to get past that barrier in my thinking. And he did . . .
What do you mean by ‘redemptive analogy?’
It’s something in a person’s culture, someone in a person’s background, that he or she cherishes, feels very close to – something that is unique to him and his group of people in the world. And it is also like a ‘cultural compass’ pointing to Jesus. It links somehow with at least one aspect of the Gospel.
What was the redemptive analogy for you?
Well, Jim invited me – he was getting rather discouraged, because three years he’d spent just climbing mountains each summer, and sharing a lot of experiences, ping pong etc, I still didn’t come to the Lord. But he said, “I’m going to invite Don to just one more Youth For Christ meeting, and if he doesn’t come to the Lord tonight, you’d better get someone else. Because I feel I’m awfully ineffective here. Find someone else who’s more effective than I am. So I agreed to go.
And that evening, the man who was to going to speak was hidden behind the pulpit. But I didn’t see him until he was introduced. Then he stood up. I was amazed, because Percy Wills from a distance looked almost exactly like my father.
And he preached the Gospel, and it was as if my father had come back from the grave to say to me through him, “Don, I didn’t say anything about this while I was alive with you. But I’m telling you now through this man, this message is true, believe it, and you will not be disloyal to me.”
And that’s all it took. All I wanted, I said, you know . . . you want me to raise my hand, ask me, I’m ready. And so, when the invitation was given, I raised my hand.
And then someone from the back saw that, and came down. I thought every head was supposed to be bowed, every eye closed – but that didn’t include the counselor.
Next thing I knew, a man had his arm around my shoulders saying, “Son, will you come to the prayer room with me.’ I knew I didn’t need to go, because when I raised my hand, and he said, ‘Invite Jesus to come into your life,’ I did, and he came in and I knew it. It was like suddenly a river of love was flowing right through me. And I knew I’d passed from death to life, but I thought, ‘If I say ‘No’ to this kind gentleman, I’ll hurt his feelings. God has just forgiven me, how can I hurt someone else’s feelings in the next minute?’
So I said ‘Yes.’ And I went down with him.
He was starting to quote Scriptures and asking me questions about them. He was interrupting my fellowship with Jesus! SO I prayed again, and said, ‘Lord, how can I make this man be quiet, without hurting his feelings?’ Immediately, God gave me the answer: ‘Just ask him to pray for you!’ Oh, yes, that won’t hurt his feelings!
So I asked him to pray for me. He was a little confused, because he hadn’t yet finished the Four Spiritual Laws or whatever. But he said, OK. And he was talking to the Lord, and I was fellow shipping with the Lord, and everything was just fine.
Well, Jim was just delighted.
Two weeks later – to answer your last question – someone invited me to a camp meeting out in the forest of Vancouver Island. And there for the first time, I heard a missionary from Africa speaking about missions, and saying ‘the greatest privilege any Christian can have, is to be selected by God to be his emissary, the first to cross a new frontier somewhere in the world, bringing the knowledge of Jesus to lost people.
I listened, and about 20 minutes into his message, I remembered that while I was 9 years old, back on the other side of Canada, I prayed asking God to help me find out what I should be when I grew up. Cause people always asked me, "What are you going to be when you grow up?" And I got tired of saying, "I don’t know." I prayed and said, "Lord, please help me find out, so I can tell them!" And I said, "And I hope it's something really interesting!" I felt peace at the time, that He heard me.
Well I remembered praying that prayer, and suddenly, the presence of God was there, and I knew that what this man was talking about, was God's answer to me.
So I wan't just willing to go – I was going, it was just a question of when, and where.
Sounds like that prayer that you prayed when you were 9 years old was answered!
Yes, it was like God was saying, "I had to wait until I called you to my Son. Now that you've come to him, I’m calling you to serve Him."