Saved out of All My Distresses
As told by Jean-Claude François
Because of my Bible-trained conscience, I languished for seven years in over a dozen prisons. Despite the suffering I endured, I consider myself blessed. Let me explain.
I WAS born in Algiers, Algeria, on January 9, 1937. France then ruled Algeria, and my father was an officer in the French army. His work took him to Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria for months at a time, leaving him little time for his five children.
I loved school and received good grades. But I puzzled over such questions as, Why do we die, and how can there be evil if God is all-powerful and good? I received no satisfactory answers. I also yearned to know how life came about. Darwin’s theory of evolution seemed to be the only valid explanation, so in time I became an atheist.
Answers at Last!
In 1954 a friend named Georges, who had become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, gave me the booklet Evolution Versus the New World. * I devoured it. Besides exposing the failings of evolution theory, the booklet revealed that the fossil record confirms the Genesis account, which says that God created every living thing “according to its kind.” (Genesis 1:12, 25) But the question of evil lingered in my mind.
Georges was a pioneer, or full-time minister, and devoted much of his time to teaching people the Bible, a book I had never read. Could he answer my questions? I went to his small apartment, where he lived with other pioneers, and received Scriptural answers to many of my questions. Thereafter, I began a systematic and very pleasurable study of the Bible. Since then, I have never tired of digging into God’s Word in pursuit of its faith-strengthening treasures.—Proverbs 2:1-5.
I also began to attend Christian meetings, which were held in the basement of a restaurant in the heart of Algiers. The Witnesses warmly welcomed me, and in time I started attending regularly. When an announcement was made about a meeting to be held on a certain street, I decided to go. When I arrived, I learned that the Witnesses were gathered for the house-to-house preaching work. (Acts 20:20) Nevertheless, I stayed, and that is how I was introduced to the public ministry.
The third time I went out witnessing, I spoke to householders by myself. At one door I was unable to find a Bible text that I had quoted. “Young man,” said the householder, “teach others when you are capable of doing so.” Then he closed the door. Frustrated, I sat down on a bench and searched for that elusive text. When I found it a few minutes later, I returned and showed it to the man.
I was baptized in symbol of my dedication to God on March 4, 1956. Six months later I had a big decision to make. Should I serve as a regular pioneer, or should I accept a post as a schoolteacher in the Algerian interior and spend less time in the ministry? I chose to pioneer.
My father became enraged because of my decision and put a knife to my throat, ordering me to return home every evening. He also said that I could no longer expect to be fed, even though I had fully intended to pay all my expenses. Hence, I would leave home in the morning hungry, eat a meal with the pioneers at lunchtime, and have a sandwich in the evening before returning home.
Avoiding Bombs and Dodging Bullets
At the time, Algeria was in the throes of a war for independence from France, and Algiers was racked by bombings and fierce reprisals. One particular month saw over 100 explosions. Bombs were placed in buses, bars, and stadiums. The ministry was a challenge. People were afraid to open their doors, and there were frequent curfews, identity checks, and searches.
On Sunday, September 30, 1956, while several other pioneers and I were tidying up our meeting place, a bomb exploded in the restaurant above, killing and maiming dozens. Thankfully, none of us below were hurt. In December a sister and I were preaching on a busy street when a car sped by, spraying bullets into the crowd from its open windows. We dashed into a doorway, where I pushed the sister to the ground and then dropped down myself. Bullets ricocheted overhead. After that, all of us were much more careful when witnessing.
I Refused to Bear Arms
On March 1, 1957, I was called up for military service. Since my Christian conscience would not allow me to take up arms, I prayed for the strength to deal with the authorities. I also asked that I avoid a confrontation with my father. Much to my relief, I was told to report to the city of Lille, France, far from home.
Six days later I arrived at the Citadel of Lille, a fortress dating from the time of 17th-century King Louis XIV. Using the Bible, I explained my neutral position to the army officials, who then threw me into prison. One morning, guards dragged me from my cell, searched me, and found a small Bible. Then they made me lie face down in the snow, threw my Bible onto the snow beside me, pressed a rifle butt against the back of my head, and held me there for some 30 minutes. Afterward, to my delight, the guards let me keep the Bible, and it sits on my bookshelf to this day. However, the abuse I suffered on that day gave me stomach cramps for years.
A few days later, the commander read to me from a letter he received from my father. “He must be made to give in. Break him if you must,” it said. Because I would not compromise, the officer threw me into a dark cell, where I slept on a board and covered myself with a small blanket. With no toilet, I relieved myself in a corner of the cell. I could not wash, brush my teeth, or clean my food dish. Two weeks later, I was sent to the Fresnes prison in Paris.
Over the next six years, I received four sentences and spent time in 14 prisons. During one winter, I was held at Fontevrault, a 12th-century abbey in the Loire Valley, which was used as a prison. My possessions were confiscated when I arrived. Because I persisted in asking for my Bible, the guards threw me into solitary confinement for a month. There, my other enemy, the cold, returned with a vengeance, and I began to cough up blood.
I was then transferred to a more humane prison—the Château de Turquant, near Saumur, where prisoners performed domestic duties for retired magistrates. Among the inmates was Ahmed Ben Bella, the future president of the Algerian republic. For several months I witnessed to him. “You are a native of Algiers,” he once told me, “and you are here because you refused to take up arms against the Algerians.” He respected me for my stand.
Strengthened Through Further Trials
My health deteriorated, and I was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to a sanatorium in the south of France, where I was bedridden for months. My doctor advised surgery to remove the affected lung, and I agreed to the operation, provided that I ‘abstain from blood.’ (Acts 15:29) Angry, the doctor refused to operate. I was now in my sixth year of incarceration.
I had to leave the sanatorium in midwinter, my only clothes being those I had on. But just as Jehovah sent Onesiphorus to help the apostle Paul, He now sent a helper to me—Brother Adolphe Garatoni, who took me in and proved to be “a strengthening aid” to me. (Colossians 4:11; 2 Timothy 1:16-18) With his help and that of a doctor in the south of France, my health steadily improved.
During this time, I had some large expenses and needed funds to cover them. I was not sure how I would cope. Then one day a stranger called. “I am a lawyer,” she said. “The president of Algeria, Mr. Ben Bella, sent me to give you this.” She handed me an envelope with more than enough money to cover my expenses. I thanked Jehovah, the “Hearer of prayer,” with all my heart.—Psalm 65:2.
Wonderful Privileges and a Beautiful Partner
Now freed from prison, I again took up the full-time ministry. In the congregation of Melun, near Paris, I met a 35-year-old widow, Andrée Morel. Her first husband, also a Witness, had died in an auto accident. We were married on September 26, 1964. On August 1, 1965, we received an assignment as special pioneer ministers. Although Andrée did not have good health, she enjoyed full-time service for 28 years!
In 1967, I was appointed as a circuit overseer, a traveling minister who visits and encourages congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses. We served in southern France from Bordeaux to Monaco, and for one year, in Paris. Because of our health, the traveling work was not easy, but with Jehovah’s help, we served the brothers for 20 years, until 1986, when we again became special pioneers.
My Life Today
I am now nearly 70 years of age and have learned time and again that Jehovah always gives his servants the strength to endure trials. Of course, some of that strength comes from studying his inspired Word, which I try to read from cover to cover every year.—Isaiah 40:28-31; Romans 15:4; 2 Timothy 3:16.
Andrée and I are encouraged when we see people respond to the good news and dedicate their life to Jehovah. Indeed, over the years, we have seen 70 of our Bible students do just that, bringing us immeasurable and lasting joy. In reflecting on our lives, I feel that the psalmist spoke for each of us when he wrote: “This afflicted one called, and Jehovah himself heard. And out of all his distresses He saved him.”—Psalm 34:6.
^ par. 7 Published by Jehovah’s Witnesses but now out of print.
[Picture on page 21]
In prison at the Château de Turquant, near Saumur
[Pictures on page 23]
With my wife in 1967, and today