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“I Wanted to Work for Jehovah”

“I Wanted to Work for Jehovah”

WE WAVED goodbye to a small group of people we had visited near the village of Granbori, located deep in the rain forest of Suriname. Then we set off in a dugout boat along the Tapanahoni River. Later, as we passed through river rapids, the propeller of the outboard motor hit a rock. Immediately, the nose of the boat plunged into the river, and we went underwater. My heart raced. Although I had been traveling in riverboats for years as a circuit overseer, I did not know how to swim!

Before I relate what happened next, let me tell you how I got started in full-time service.

I was born in 1942 on the beautiful Caribbean island of Curaçao. My father was originally from Suriname, but he moved to the island for work. A couple of years before I was born, he was among the first of Jehovah’s Witnesses to get baptized in Curaçao. a He studied the Bible with us children every week, even though we would not always make it easy for him. When I was 14 years old, my father moved our family to Suriname to look after his aging mother.


In Suriname, I started associating with young ones in the congregation who were actively serving Jehovah. They were a few years older than I was and served as regular pioneers. When they would talk about the experiences they had in the field ministry, their faces would radiate with happiness. After congregation meetings, my friends and I also had conversations about Bible topics​—at times, while sitting outside under the starry heavens. These friends helped me to realize what I wanted in life; I wanted to work for Jehovah. So I got baptized when I was 16 years old. Later, at age 18, I started regular pioneering.


While pioneering in Paramaribo

I learned many lessons as a pioneer, and these have helped me throughout my career in full-time service. For example, one of the first lessons I learned was the importance of training others. When I started pioneering, a missionary named Willem van Seijl took me under his wing. b He taught me a lot about how to handle theocratic assignments. At the time, I had no idea that I needed the training so badly. The following year I was appointed as a special pioneer and thereafter started taking the lead in isolated groups located deep in the rain forest of Suriname. How I appreciate the timely training the brothers gave me! Since then, I have sought to follow their example by taking the time to train others.

A second lesson I learned was the advantage of living a simple but well-planned life. At the beginning of each month, my special pioneer partner and I would plan out our material needs for the upcoming weeks. Then one of us would make the long journey to the capital and purchase what we needed. We had to spend our monthly reimbursement carefully and ration our supplies so that they would last the whole month. If we ran out of something while in the rain forest, few people, if any, could help us. I believe that having learned at a young age to live simply but to be well-organized helped me keep focused on Jehovah’s work throughout my life.

A third lesson I learned was the benefit of teaching people in their native language. I grew up speaking Dutch, English, Papiamento, and Sranantongo (also known as Sranan), the common language of Suriname. But in the rain forest, I saw that people responded better to the good news when we preached in their native tongue. I found it difficult to speak some of these languages, such as Saramaccan, which uses high and low tones. However, the effort was worth it. Over the years, I have been able to teach the truth to many more people because I could speak their native language.

Of course, I had my share of embarrassing experiences. For example, on one occasion I meant to ask a Saramaccan-speaking Bible student how she was feeling, since she had been having abdominal pains. But what I really asked her was if she was pregnant! Needless to say, she did not appreciate my inquiry. Despite mishaps like this, I always exerted myself to speak the native language of the people in my assignments.


In 1970, I was appointed as a circuit overseer. That year I presented the slide program “Visiting the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses” to many isolated groups in the rain forest. To reach them, a crew of brothers and I would navigate the rivers of the rain forest in a long, slender wooden boat. Our riverboat was loaded down with a generator, a portable gasoline tank, petrol lamps, and slide projection equipment. On reaching our destination, we would transport all that equipment inland to where we would hold the slide program. What I remember most about those trips, though, is how much people in isolated areas loved those programs. I was so happy to help others learn about Jehovah and the earthly part of his organization. The spiritual rewards far outweighed any physical sacrifices I made while doing Jehovah’s work.


Ethel and I were married in September 1971

Although I could see how singleness was an advantage in my service, I still felt the need for a lifelong partner. So I started praying specifically to find a wife who would joyfully endure the rigors of full-time service in the rain forest. About a year later, I started courting Ethel, a special pioneer who had a self-sacrificing spirit. From a young age, Ethel deeply admired the apostle Paul and wanted to give of herself in the Christian ministry as he had. We married in September 1971 and started serving in the circuit work as a couple.

Ethel had been raised without many material comforts, so she adjusted well to the traveling work in the rain forest. For example, when preparing to visit congregations deep in the forest, we packed light. We washed clothes and bathed in rivers. We also got used to eating whatever our hosts served us​—iguanas, piranhas, or anything else they may have hunted in the forest or caught in the rivers. When there were no plates, we ate off banana leaves. When there were no utensils, we ate with our fingers. Ethel and I feel that making sacrifices together while working for Jehovah has drawn us into a tightly woven threefold cord. (Eccl. 4:12) We would not trade those experiences for anything!

It was on a return trip from an isolated area in the forest that we had the experience I related at the outset. As the boat entered the rapids, it briefly went underwater but quickly popped to the surface. Thankfully, we were wearing life jackets and did not fall out of the boat. But our boat was filled with water. We emptied the contents of our food pots into the river and then used those pots to bail out the boat.

Since we had lost our food, we started fishing as we continued down the river. But we were not catching anything. So we prayed to Jehovah and asked him to give us our food for that day. Right after we prayed, one of the brothers threw out a fishing line and caught a fish large enough for the five of us to eat that night and be satisfied.


After five years in the traveling work together, Ethel and I received an unexpected blessing​—we were going to be parents. I was happy to hear the news, although I was not sure what the future would hold. Ethel and I strongly desired to stay in full-time service if at all possible. In 1976 our son Ethniël was born. Our second son, Giovanni, came along two and a half years later.

Attending a baptism in the Tapanahoni River near Godo Holo in Eastern Suriname​—1983

Because of the needs in Suriname at the time, the branch office arranged for me to continue serving as a circuit overseer while we raised our children. When our sons were young, I was assigned to oversee circuits with fewer congregations. Normally, that allowed me to serve a couple of weeks each month as a traveling overseer and spend the rest of the month as a pioneer in the congregation where we were assigned. Ethel and our boys would accompany me when I served congregations near our home. However, I traveled alone when I served congregations and assemblies in the rain forest.

In the circuit work, I often traveled by boat to visit isolated congregations

I had to organize my affairs carefully to fulfill all my responsibilities. I made sure that we held our family study every week. When I was away visiting congregations in the forest, Ethel would conduct the family study with our boys at home. As often as possible, though, we did things together as a family. Ethel and I also regularly shared in wholesome recreation with our boys​—be it games or simple outings. I would often stay up very late at night, preparing for theocratic assignments. And Ethel, being the capable wife described at Proverbs 31:15, would get up before dawn to make sure that we could read the daily text as a family and have breakfast together before our sons went to school. How grateful I am to have such a self-sacrificing wife who has always helped me fulfill my Scriptural responsibilities!

As parents, we worked hard to help our boys love Jehovah and the Christian ministry. We wanted our sons to choose full-time service as their careers, not because it was what we wanted them to do, but because it was their choice. We always emphasized to them the joys of full-time service. Without ignoring the difficulties, we highlighted how Jehovah helped and blessed us as a family. We also made sure that our sons were surrounded by fellow Witnesses, who put Jehovah first in their lives.

Jehovah provided for all our needs as we raised a family. Of course, I always tried to do my part. My experience in the rain forest as a single special pioneer taught me to plan ahead for our material needs. But at times, even our best efforts could not meet the demands of the circumstances. On those occasions, I believe that Jehovah stepped in to help us. For example, during the late 1980’s and the early 1990’s, there was an uprising in Suriname. In those years, it was at times hard to obtain even basic items. Even so, Jehovah provided for us.​—Matt. 6:32.


From left to right: With my wife, Ethel

Our older son, Ethniël, with his wife, Natalie

Our son Giovanni with his wife, Christal

Throughout our life, Jehovah has always cared for us and has given us deep happiness and satisfaction. Our children have been a great blessing to us, and raising them to serve Jehovah has been a privilege. We are delighted that they also chose to make full-time service their career in life. Ethniël and Giovanni both have graduated from theocratic schools and are now serving at the branch office in Suriname along with their wives.

Ethel and I are much older now, but we are still busy working for Jehovah as special pioneers. In fact, we are so busy that I have yet to find the time to learn how to swim! But I have no regrets. Looking back, I honestly feel that deciding at a young age to make full-time service my life’s work was one of the best decisions I could ever have made.

b Willem van Seijl’s life story, “Reality Has Exceeded My Expectations,” is published in the October 8, 1999, issue of Awake!