Concord resident Delton Dees, 70, has been known for the past 40 years as a sought-after speaker, missionary and well-known evangelist.
Dees, who lives with his wife, Sandy, on Governors Pointe Court and is a member of First Baptist Church in Concord, spends over 100 days a year in remote areas of Africa. He has suffered malaria, dysentery, food poisoning, infections, pneumonia and has been robbed and almost killed more than once.
It was not always like this. He was an atheist for more than 30 years. He felt anything relating to religion or God was a joke.
Dees, who grew up in St. Louis, Mo., said he had been an atheist as far back as he can remember. "It was very hard to believe in God because of my upbringing."
Dees was born into a dysfunctional home, became a ward of the state and was raised in orphanages. "I didn't know how to talk to people," he said. "When you are abandoned, it does something to your mind, so I wondered if I was even supposed to be born into this world."
He repeated first grade four times.
"I had been switched from orphanage to orphanage, so by the time I was in seventh grade, I was 16 and had to drop out of school because the foster family who had me would be no longer getting any money for my care," said Dees.
He then went to live in an abandoned car and got a job working at a restaurant so he could eat. He was soon arrested for vagrancy and put in jail. He was then put in reform school for a year with what he says "are the toughest kids you will ever meet in your life. Sometimes that is how atheists are born," he said.
Early on, Dees turned to the local church for help, but felt he was ignored and swore he would never go back. He went on to work in the aircraft industry, where he could also go to school, and took up flying. "My dream was to go to work with a major airline. My other dream was to be a hit man for the syndicate out of Chicago," he said. "But I knew something was broken and missing from my life."
In 1970, some friends dared him to go to a local Baptist church during a revival meeting and cause a little bit of trouble.
"I was drunk and mad and wanted to punch that preacher out. I thought church was a bunch of phonies and hypocrites, and I was going to show them. Instead, I was saved. All of the sudden I was in another direction. I left the airline industry and ended up at Missouri Baptist College."
"During this time," said Dees. "I had asked the Lord every night, 'If you show yourself, I will follow you to the ends of the earth.'"
The time came; Dees said he felt he was being called to follow that promise.
"That was my call into evangelism," he said.
"I started out in really small churches, and I told myself I would give it a shot and starve the first few years. It has been 40 years and I have not starved yet," he said.
Dees had been part of the 12 largest churches in the Southern Baptist Convention when he received an invitation to go to Africa by someone who planned on setting up a college outside of Nairobi.
"The man was hoping to get 250 students at a rate of $5 each; however, when he realized that the monthly income there was only $12, he pulled out of the project and I ended up stuck there."
Dees was then contacted by another evangelist near Uganda who requested he come to Kaitaile, a small village 12 hours outside of Nairobi. The town had a rough reputation and an 80 percent unemployment rate.
"The first year I was there, I was thrown to the ground and had machetes at my throat and a few over my head," said Dees. "I told God if he got me out of there, I was never coming back. I couldn't understand it. I came to share good news of the word of God and they wanted to kill me."
After he arrived home hurt and confused, he came upon a book by David Livingstone, which he said changed his life. Livingstone was a pioneer medical missionary with the London Missionary Society and explorer in Africa. The book was based on his travels in the mid-1800s.
Livingstone spent 40 years walking more than 35,000 miles to help build roads and villages in Africa, doctoring the people and preaching along the way.
"I felt if he could do it, so could I," said Dees.
This commitment to Africa dictated the course for the rest of his life, Dees said.
"We go to some of the most dangerous villages in the world, and some of the most remote areas," he said.
He has since gone back to Kaitaile, the village where it almost ended for Dees, and now he says it is a place of hope. An orphanage with a capacity of 200 has been built. "There are doctors there along with pastors and cooks, and word is spreading," said Dees.
"This is something the Lord has laid on my heart. I told my wife, if I died over there, I want to be buried next to the orphanage.""