John Hewlett – 90 years on and still going strong
Reverend John Hewlett has been part of the OMF fabric for as long as some of us can remember. We have seen him involved in various capacities for over 60 years, including 17 years as the National Director of the New Zealand office. John has always had an infectious enthusiasm and shows kindness, humour and love to all he meets.
As a young man, John studied Theology in Australia for five years, where he was challenged to consider a future in mission. It was that conversation that saw him fill out the forms to apply to OMF. He departed for Malaysia as a single man, but while there met Joy, the love of his life. They were married for 54 years until she passed away in 2015. In light of his 90th birthday (4 July 2017), John shared some memories with us about Joy, his life as a missionary and some lessons he has learned along the way.
Why did you choose to become a missionary?
I liked the concept of “Trust in God”, which is why I went to study in Australia in the first place. Being alone, not having to be concerned about family, meant I was open to new experiences. An American preacher challenged me to “obey, obey, obey”, so this was me obeying God.
Tell us a bit about your romance with Joy?
When I started my time in Malaysia, I said to myself “Lord, I’d love a wife”. After two months there I met Joy, who was of OMF heritage. I saw her at a prayer group… she was walking downstairs and fell over! I rushed over to help her up but another guy beat me to it. At that meeting I heard her pray and thought “I sure could listen to that praying a bit more”. She was in a different part of the country so we started writing letters back and forth. Our only chance to see each other was at the monthly OMF prayer meeting. She used to include poetry with her letters, so I tried writing some poetry back to her, to a great response from Joy. But during her time in Malaysia she got deep depression. Although the doctors in Singapore tried to help, she never really healed and had to go back to England. We wrote letters to each other the whole time; in fact I used my whole 10% remittance on stamps for letters to her. She said she found comfort in my letters, and described me as the Rock of Gibraltar, because I was so assured. But I was confident that she was God’s choice for me. The OMF Director in Singapore told me to forget about Joy as she would never get back to Malaysia – he said “there are plenty more fish in the sea” which I didn’t like one bit (to hear him comparing single ladies to fish)! But I take my hat off to him. 15 months later the same director wrote to me saying that when Joy came back to Malaysia she should marry me promptly. I’ve never been as nervous, the day that ship came in. I hadn’t seen her in two years; I was shaking like a leaf. 10 days after she arrived we were married.
Was there a cost to starting on the mission field as a single person?
There was a cost to Joy. She got to Malaysia, but the cost for her was struggling with depression. Her doctor said the seeds of depression were sown when she was without her parents at five years old, when Japan invaded China. She was at school, and an American bomber pilot offered to fly the school children away to safety in India. They were all able to get out safely, and ended up having a year in India, but she was separated from her parents. After the Japanese retreated, Joy was able to return to China. I think this experience and time of being apart from her parents contributed to her depression later in life. As an adult, working as a missionary in Malaysia, it was hard on her, spiritually, to hear God’s call, but to be suffering and unable to sleep. I saw her courage in how she handled the difficulty. She felt very called to be a missionary teacher, and that deep sense of call is what stopped her from throwing in the towel.
How did your faith impact your parents?
After furlough [now called Home Assignment], Joy and I returned to Malaysia. My father, a nominal Christian, organised a prayer meeting for us each month. Dad would write out a prayer in advance to pray. It was in the act of praying for us that God revived his faith. I have a letter from him during this time expressing how happy he was that I had found my right place.
I frequently talked to my mother about needing to know Christ personally…she would reply “oh you always say that”. I pursued her until she asked Christ into her life. She finally got herself a Bible and began reading it the day after we left to go back.
Do you remember any distinct highs or lows during your time with OMF?
One of my lows – a mistake I made – was that I went overseas as National Director for three months to visit missionaries. It was too long, and I wouldn’t do it again. My kids asked where I was all the time, especially because they had a lot of sporting events each week that they wanted me to attend. From then on I refused to go overseas between June and August, particularly while the kids’ sports were happening, so that I could watch and support them. Being an Anglican minister gave me so many opportunities; in hindsight, too many opportunities. I learned to turn many down.
Do you have any advice to someone considering serving overseas?
If it’s with OMF, I’d say you should learn how OMF works. When you’re new, you’re scared of asking questions, but don’t be. There’s great value in being a person full of questions. A leader has got to be willing to answer the many questions that come up, as it will make a person feel comfortable. Also, people must always work on their public speaking. The manner in which you stand is important. When you’re presenting to a church or group, don’t talk to your screen or slideshow – talk to the people. I think it is very important for missionaries to learn the art of public speaking. Churches will ask you to come back if you stick to the rules and time that they give you; they won’t invite you back if you rattle on.
Age hasn’t slowed you down: rumour has it that you’re an active member of your retirement village. Is there a story about “Fish Boy”?
A few people there call me that. Our village is near a big park, and I used to walk around it with Joy. One day, people there were buying fish from a lady, and I asked her if she could deliver it to the village. So she now delivers it to me, and I’ll pay for a large lot of fish, and villagers will come to me to collect their fish. I enjoy it, I see it as a time of fellowship and connection.
We are so grateful to John for sharing a few stories and memories with us. We wish him a happy 90th birthday, and pray that God continues to bless him and his family.
This article originally appeared in our August/September 2017 edition of Serving Asia magazine. If you would like to sign up for more great articles and testimonies, enter your details below: