Faith in the face of death - David's story
This article was originally published in 2016. David Ollerton died less than a year later in March 2017, and we’re re-publishing the interview with particular thanks to David’s wife and family for their willingness to share his words with others during this time. Our hope and prayer is that David’s faith and experience will be helpful to others as we face uncertain times.
Faith in the face of death
David Ollerton is a man of contrasts: a man born in England but now living in Wales; an avid supporter of the English rugby team (but not of the football team!) yet one who has devoted much of his life to serving the people of Wales. And these days if he is not at home then you are likely to find him either lying on a bed at the Velindre Cancer Centre or walking some of the biggest mountains in the Brecon Beacons!
ASK went to...ask some questions.
Thanks for talking to us, let's get started, how did the connection with Wales start?
I was born and brought up in Lancashire and the connection with Wales began when I was working at the mountain centre in Tremadog in the 70s. Liz, who became my wife, was also working there and after a period outside Wales we returned to the Bridgend area where I worked in an English-medium church. I left the Bridgend area and moved back to England, but I soon realized that was a step in the wrong direction and wanted to come back. So in 1998 we moved back to Cardiff, and we’ve been there ever since!
It is clear from talking to you that you have a deep sense of Wales, one could almost describe your experience in the 1990s as nostalgia. Can you explain where that came from?
When I moved to Bridgend I had a concern for the church there, but to be honest I lived as an 'ex-pat'. I didn't associate with Welsh people and never considered Wales as a nation or the Welsh as a people different from any other. But when I moved away, I realized how wrong and insulting that really was. While visiting Wales and coming back for conferences and talking to people like Dr Tudur Jones (a professor at Bangor) I realized how special Wales was and that the country and its people had a special identity and value.
My interest and concern for Wales was growing and I realized that trying to get involved and help people without really understanding and recognizing them as people with a particular language, background and value was utterly arrogant. I decided to learn Welsh through the WLPAN course.
This opened a whole new world for me! I came to learn and experience more about Wales and the way people welcomed and accepted me was an eye opener. I found out that Wales wasn't just beautiful mountains but there were so many special communities, people and traditions here. The fact that I've stayed here for the last twenty years is testament to that.
So, apart from learning Welsh, what have you been doing for the last twenty years?
I returned to Cardiff to be a minister, but as part of my contract I insisted that I set aside one day a week to help churches throughout Wales more generally. I did this because I was concerned that large areas of Wales lack a strong Christian voice to share the good news about Jesus. This eventually led to the start of an organization called Waleswide - an organization that seeks to plant and strengthen churches and chapels throughout the country. Much of my time has therefore been spent leading the movement and travelling to every corner of Wales trying to help and encourage ministers and Christians. I've also spent quite a bit of time fighting cancer!
Talking to you I almost have the feeling that you've been fighting the disease for so long that you take it almost lightly, like something that is a normal part of life. Can you share a little about how you can deal with it so openly?
When the letter from the dermatologist arrived (in 2005) with the 'C word' on it, it came as a huge shock and a real bombshell to me and the family. I was reminded of how fragile life is, and my life personally. Although the doctors were able to deal with this initial cancer quite easily, I was forced to face big questions like why am I here and what do I do with the rest of my life if I don't have much time left? This first period was a time of applying my Christian faith - which had been the foundation of my life since I was a young man - to my life and death. This was so important and so helpful in view of what the future had in store.
So, the cancer came back?
About two years later I started to feel really ill and was rushed to hospital. The news wasn't good, they explained to me that I had lymphoma, which is blood cancer. The cancer had spread throughout my body and for some reason it had not been apparent while it was developing. The doctor did not expect me to live to see the end of the week. It was Tuesday and I was expected to be dead by Sunday.
That must have been dreadful
I remember that as a family we shed many tears, it was difficult to face and think about losing one other's company and missing all the experiences ahead. But I had a deep peace, I can say honestly that I wasn't scared, I had assurance and peace of mind in the situation.
You obviously survived the week - what happened?
Miraculously a professor who was a cancer specialist was visiting the hospital and he happened to look through the microscope at the slides of my blood. He identified the rare form of cancer and explained what treatment I needed. But the survival rate was only 5%. I faced a year of chemotherapy but step by step I came through it. Physically it was a difficult time of illness and weakness.
Three years later, I developed another cancer, this time in the bowel. This was the start of another year of more difficult treatment (because the cancer was different).
It's hard for someone to comprehend how horrible the treatment was, what effect did it all have on you?
Firstly, I have to say what amazing care I receive from the team at the Cancer Centre at the hospital. They are so careful and the care they give is outstanding, the treatment is also constantly developing and improving. In terms of the effect on me, the operation was difficult, and the chemo made me feel really sick. Some of the tablets are so toxic to the body (since they are trying to kill the cancer) that they cannot be touched because of the effect they may have on the skin. Once again, the treatment worked ... but then, last year, the cancer came back. I am currently on a two-week rotation which means I go into hospital on a Tuesday to start treatment. Within half an hour of starting to pump the chemicals into the body I feel like I'm wearing a big lead coat – I feel a huge heaviness and weakness coming over me. This gets worse over the next few days and I probably (by Sunday) am in bed on anti-emetic medicines. Then things slowly start to improve, and by the end of the following week I'm trying to go mountain walking! Then it all starts again.
What keeps you going through the treatment?
Firstly, I have refused to accept an invalid mentality. The nurses sometimes ask if I'm in some sort of 'denial'. I try to explain that I understand and accept what is happening to me but I want to challenge the situation and make the best of it. I look around and see people can't believe that such a thing has happened to them. I don't feel like that because I know God is in control. I try to keep working as much as possible (during the treatment for the two most serious cancers I've written two books) and I do things like hill walking - I don't want to give in to the illness.
Secondly, my relationship with God sustains me. I read the Bible and pray every morning and I thank God for every day he gives me. Let's be honest, everyone is going to die someday, but I have so much to be grateful to him for all that he has done throughout my life. I talk to God throughout the day and he gives me strength to face every situation - I know he is in control of everything. Reading the poems and hymns of William Williams, Pantycelyn also gives me confidence and help as they explain what Jesus has done to help me and what he continues to do.
So how are things at the moment?
The situation is now serious as the cancer has spread to the lungs and liver. The treatment has not yet had an impact on the cancer and I will soon find out if the new treatment I have started is having an effect. Looking at it humanly, I probably only have two to three years left on Earth. Even so, I pray to God to cure me, while I entrust everything to him, I want this period to be a springboard not a swansong.
Death is clearly a reality you face - how can you do this?
Dealing with death has in one sense been a big part of my life as a minister and I have helped many people face death by being there with them and their family during their final moments. But facing it yourself is different because it's personal and real.
I am not at all afraid to die because I know I will go to heaven to be with Jesus. I mentioned earlier the hymns of William Williams, and they help me so much with this:
His hymns often begin by talking about Jesus. Jesus is the one who has lived the perfect life and when he died on the cross he took the punishment I deserve. The Bible (and William Williams) describe it as Justification (or the price paid) - and this calms all the fear and guilt I feel. I will be able to go to Heaven because Jesus took the punishment I deserve. Heaven is not a mythological place in the clouds, but a real place where millions of people will be with Jesus without evil or pain or sickness.
So I’m not afraid of death, I know that doctors will make me as physically comfortable as possible by administering painkillers, and then I will be able to see Jesus. Heaven is coming.
We admire your faith, and please forgive me for speaking so plainly, but what grounds do you have for believing this? You could argue that it is all a psychological crutch
Jesus Christ is not a theory or good luck charm. When I was nineteen, I was a rather unpleasant boy. My language was dirty, I was a bit of a sadist (according to my schoolteacher), playing rugby really hard, stealing and a real pain at school. Then something deep down happened to me, I came to realize that I am accountable to God and this really worried me. I started to feel guilty because I knew that God had created me but that I had rebelled against him. That's when I had a real experience of Jesus: I realized he had died in order to take my punishment and I put my trust in him. The change was amazing and real, there's no dispute about it - the people in the village had even begun to bet on how long it would be before I returned to my old ways. But I didn't, because Jesus had worked in my life.
Over the years I can attest to the reality of Jesus’ companionship and I have seen him at work time after time in so many ways. This is why I can sleep at night and why I don't worry about dying - Jesus is real and I am experiencing that.