At the age of 104, Donald Fletcher has no plans to slow down. The son of Presbyterian medical missionaries, the Rev. Dr. Fletcher has managed to reinvent himself since he came into the world in 1919. He has lived a life that has taken him to the mission field, to higher education, to the church and his community.
“I grew up in Korea as part of a medical missionary family, along with my brother and sister,” he said. “My brother followed our dad into medical mission, while I was drawn naturally to spoken and written language.”
A graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, Fletcher was ordained in 1943 and began serving on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Board of Foreign Missions in Chile and the Caribbean, as well as at headquarters in the Division of Continuing Education. Along the way, he met and married his wife, Martha.
“Martha and I were married for 72 years before her total eclipse by the shadow of Alzheimer’s disease in 2014. Together, we lived through adventures and challenges in the North Chilean desert, while we started our family of six children,” Fletcher said. “Martha had a remarkable career as a church musician, teacher, choral director. It was a wonderful lifelong partnership.”
Fletcher says his career fell into two parts: the one spent largely in Latin America in mission and administration and the other in the U.S., in teaching and writing. Fletcher spent many years teaching at the college and university levels, which included stints at the University of Texas, as well serving as United Bible Chair with Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he served as head of humanities. Fletcher concluded his teaching career teaching English at Cherry Hill High School East in New Jersey.
“The central motive has always been to share what gifts have been given to me,” he said. “After retiring at the age of 80, I have focused on the use of abilities I consider as a trust, to be well invested. I’ve been blessed with excellent health and a clear mind, and with full freedom to use these in constructive service.”
Although technically retired, the then-80-year-old Fletcher devoted his time in pastor supply work for the Southern New Jersey Presbytery and served Rossmoor Community Church for six years while Martha served as organist and choir director. It was during this time that Fletcher took up writing books, short stories and poems. In all, he has published nine books and countless short stories.
“Basically, as a student of the English language and literature, I am a writer. I promised myself that when I retired, I would write. The Gospel of Luke had always appealed to me, so my first book was a reflection, based on New Testament scholarship, but obviously imaginative, about how this otherwise unknown early Christian scholar came to compose his Jesus narrative. I titled it 'I, Lucas, Wrote the Book,'” he said. “From there, my other books unfolded — mostly of personal reflection and philosophy. As a writer, however, I consider myself to be, primarily, a poet. Lately, I’ve written quite a few short stories, and even ‘published’ some of them on the internet.”
The Presbytery for Southern New Jersey recently honored Fletcher on the 80th anniversary of his ordination at The Presbyterian Church at Woodbury in Woodbury, New Jersey. With presbytery leaders and family in attendance, he delivered a sermon and took part in communion during the presbytery meeting.
“I first met Don in the early 2000s but really got to know he and Martha when I became the exec in 2008. Part of my position is pastor to pastors and every visit with him, I felt his pastoral care, also,” said the Rev. Dr. Deborah “Debby” G. Brincivalli, executive presbyter in the Presbytery for Southern New Jersey. “He was a loving and devoted husband, is a dad, grandfather, friend, artist, poet, theologian, philosopher, cat lover and renaissance man in so many ways. He is a pastor, colleague, mentor and friend to so many — including me.”
Brincivalli says the presbytery was in “awe, rapt with attention” during his sermon.
“We realized we were invited into a moment in word and sacrament we were gifted to experience,” she said. “We offered a shower of cards and when presented with the certificates, he was smiling. When he pronounced the benediction, it was a blessing upon us all and there were many tears in our eyes.”
Brincivalli says Covid nearly killed him because he felt like he was living in a prison cell. The family could not visit, and he had his meals delivered to the door. But Fletcher kept writing and working throughout the pandemic.
“What has kept me going is that the ideas have kept coming. Hence, ‘to step away from work’ isn’t considered because that is not work,” he said. “I write as I am moved to write — not as it is dictated to me, but as the desire wells up within, and the words well up, as a consequence. This, for me, is of God, along with all the helpful and useful experiences, and I am grateful.”
While he plans to keep going as long as the Lord allows, Fletcher has advice for those who are just now coming into ministry.
“Stay open and attentive to God’s Spirit,” he said. “Each of us has his/her unique qualifications, as well as experiences, given us by God, who, having begun our life as it is, will carry it through — if we remember to stay in tune. It is we — and only we — who can botch the job.”