Life Story

Pressing On in Jehovah’s Way Is Our Strength and Joy

AS TOLD BY LUIGGI D. VALENTINO

“This is the way. Walk in it,” Jehovah admonishes. (Isaiah 30:21) Following this counsel has been my goal ever since my baptism 60 years ago. This goal was set early on by the example of my parents, immigrants from Italy, who settled in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.A., in 1921. There they raised three children​—my older brother, Mike, my younger sister, Lydia, and me.

MY PARENTS looked into different religions but eventually gave up in disappointment. Then one day in 1932, Dad was listening to a radio program in Italian. It was a broadcast by Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Dad liked what he heard. He wrote for more information, and an Italian Witness from Jehovah’s Witnesses’ headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, looked us up. After a lively discussion that lasted till daybreak, my parents were convinced that they had found the true religion.

Dad and Mom began attending Christian meetings and opened their home to traveling overseers. Although I was just a boy, these men let me accompany them in the preaching work and started me thinking about serving Jehovah full-time. One such visitor was Carey  W. Barber, now a member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Before long, in February 1941, I was baptized at the age of 14, and in 1944, I began serving as a pioneer in Cleveland. Mike and Lydia also embarked on the way of Bible truth. Mike served Jehovah till his death, and Lydia accompanied her husband, Harold Weidner, for 28 years in the traveling ministry. Today, they serve as special full-time ministers.

Prison Deepens My Resolve to Press On

In early 1945, I ended up in Ohio’s Chillicothe Federal Prison because my Bible-trained conscience moved me to act in harmony with Isaiah 2:4, which speaks of beating swords into plowshares. At one time, the prison authorities allowed the Witness prisoners to have only a limited amount of Bible literature published by Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, Witnesses from a nearby congregation helped out. At times, they dropped a few publications in the fields near the prison. The next morning, as the prisoners were taken to their work locations, they searched for those publications and then managed to get them into the prison. By the time I arrived at the prison, we were allowed to have more literature. Even so, I learned more than ever to value the spiritual food that Jehovah provides​—a lesson I still remember every time I receive a new issue of The Watchtower or Awake!

Although we were allowed to hold congregation meetings in prison, non-Witnesses were not allowed to be present. Still, some prison officials and inmates attended secretly, and a few even accepted the truth. (Acts 16:30-34) Visits by Brother A. H. Macmillan were an outstanding source of comfort. He always assured us that the time we spent in prison was not in vain because it trained us for future assignments. That dear older brother touched my heart and deepened my resolve to walk in Jehovah’s way.

I Gain a Companion

World War II ended, the prison gates opened, and I resumed pioneering, the full-time ministry. But in 1947 my father died. To support the family, I took up secular work and also became qualified to give medical massages​—a skill that would help me out during a difficult period that my wife and I faced some 30 years later. But I am getting ahead of myself. First, let me tell you about my wife.

One afternoon in 1949 while I was in the Kingdom Hall, the phone rang. I picked it up and heard a sweet voice say: “My name is Christine Genchur. I’m one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I moved to Cleveland to find a job, and I want to associate with a congregation.” Our Kingdom Hall was far from the area where she was living, but I liked the sound of her voice, so I gave her directions to our hall and encouraged her to come that Sunday​—the day I was to deliver the public talk. On Sunday, I was the first person in the Kingdom Hall, yet no unfamiliar sister showed up. Throughout the talk, I kept glancing at the entrance, but no one came in. The next day I called her, and she said that she was not yet familiar with the bus system. So I volunteered to meet her to explain things better.

I learned that her parents, immigrants from Czechoslovakia, had begun associating with the Bible Students after reading the booklet Where Are the Dead? Her parents were baptized in 1935. In 1938, Christine’s dad became the company servant (now called presiding overseer) of the congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Clymer, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., and in 1947, Christine was baptized at the age of 16. It did not take me long to fall in love with this beautiful, spiritually-minded sister. We were married on June 24, 1950, and since then Christine has been my faithful partner, ever willing to put God’s Kingdom interests first. I am grateful to Jehovah that this capable  companion agreed to join her life to mine.​—Proverbs 31:10.

A Big Surprise

On November 1, 1951, we started pioneering together. Two years later, at a convention in Toledo, Ohio, Brothers Hugo Riemer and Albert Schroeder spoke to a group of pioneers interested in missionary service. We were among them. We were encouraged to continue pioneering in Cleveland, but the very next month, we received a big surprise​—an invitation to attend the 23rd class of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead, starting in February 1954!

As we were driving to Gilead School, then in South Lansing, New York, Christine was so nervous that she kept telling me, “Go slower!” I said, “Christine, if we drive any slower, we’ll be parked.” After arriving at the campus, though, we soon felt more at ease. Brother Nathan Knorr welcomed the group of students and showed us around. He also explained how we could conserve water and electricity, stressing that thriftiness is a virtue when caring for Kingdom interests. That advice stuck in our minds. We still live by it.

Flying Down to Rio

Soon we graduated, and on December 10, 1954, we climbed aboard a plane in wintry New York City, excited about the prospect of flying down to our new assignment in sunny Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Peter and Billie Carrbello, fellow missionaries, traveled with us. The flight was to take 24 hours, with stopovers in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Belém in northern Brazil. However, because of engine problems, it was 36 hours before we saw Rio de Janeiro below us. But what a magnificent sight! The city lights glistened like fiery diamonds on a velvet carpet, and the moon’s silvery light shimmered on the waters of Guanabara Bay.

Several members of the Bethel family were waiting for us at the airport. After giving us a warm welcome, they drove us to the branch office, and about three o’clock in the morning, we rolled into bed. A few hours later, the wake-up bell reminded us that our first day as missionaries had begun!

An Early Lesson

We soon learned an important lesson. We had spent an evening at the home of a Witness family. When we wanted to walk back to the branch, the host objected, “No, you can’t leave; it’s raining,” and he tried to insist we stay overnight. “Where we come from it rains too,” I said, shrugging off his words with a laugh. And off we went.

Because of the mountains around Rio, rainwater quickly gathers and runs down into the city, often causing floods. Soon we were wading through the knee-deep water. Near the branch, the streets had turned into raging rivers with water up to our chest. We were soaked when we finally reached Bethel. The next day, Christine felt miserable and came down with typhoid fever, which left her weak for a long time. Needless to say, as new missionaries, we should have heeded the advice of experienced local Witnesses.

First Steps in the Missionary and Traveling Work

After this bumpy start, we eagerly began our field ministry. We read a presentation in Portuguese to  anyone we met, and we seemed to make about equal progress. One householder would say to Christine, “I understand you, but I can’t understand him,” pointing to me. Another householder would tell me, “I understand you but not her.” Even so, we were thrilled to obtain over 100 Watchtower subscriptions during those first few weeks. In fact, several of our Bible students were baptized during our first year in Brazil, giving us a taste of how fruitful this missionary assignment would prove to be.

In the mid-1950’s, many congregations in Brazil did not have regular visits by circuit overseers because of a shortage of qualified brothers. So although I was still learning the language and had not yet given a public talk in Portuguese, I was assigned to circuit work in the state of São Paulo in 1956.

Since the first congregation we visited had not received a circuit overseer’s visit for two years, everyone had high expectations for the public talk. To prepare that talk, I cut out paragraphs from Watchtower articles in Portuguese and pasted the clippings on sheets of paper. That Sunday, the Kingdom Hall was packed. People were even sitting on the stage, all awaiting the big event. The talk, or rather the reading, began. Once in a while I looked up, and to my amazement no one was moving, not even the children. All were staring wide-eyed at me. I thought: ‘My, Valentino, how your Portuguese has improved! These people are paying attention.’ Years later, when I visited that congregation again, a brother who had been present at that first visit said: “Do you remember that public talk you gave? We didn’t understand one word of it.” I confessed that I had not understood much of that talk either.

That first year in circuit work, I often read Zechariah 4:6. The words, ‘Not by power but by my spirit,’ reminded me that Jehovah’s spirit was the only reason the Kingdom work progressed. And progress it did, despite our obvious limitations.

Challenges and Blessings Along the Way

Circuit work meant traversing the country while lugging a typewriter, cartons of literature, suitcases, and briefcases. Christine wisely numbered our luggage so as not to overlook an item when scurrying from one bus to the next. It was not unusual to travel by bus for 15 hours over dirt roads to reach our next destination. At times, it was nerve-racking, especially when two buses going in opposite directions crossed a rickety bridge at the same time, passing so close that there was hardly room for a piece of tissue paper between them. We also traveled by train, by ship, and on horseback.

In 1961 we began serving in the district work, traveling from circuit to circuit instead of from congregation to congregation. Several evenings a week, we showed films produced by Jehovah’s organization​—each time at a different location. Often we had to act fast to outwit the local clergy, who tried to prevent these showings. In one town, the priest bullied an owner of a hall into canceling the contract he had made with us. After days of searching, we found another place, but we told no one and continued inviting everyone to the original location. Before the program started, Christine went to that hall and quietly directed those who wanted to see the film to the new location. That evening, 150 people saw the film, which had the fitting title The New World Society in Action.

Although the traveling work in isolated areas was taxing at times, the humble brothers who lived there were so appreciative of our visits and so hospitable in sharing their modest homes with us that we always thanked Jehovah that we could be with them. Befriending them resulted in heartwarming blessings for us. (Proverbs 19:17; Haggai 2:7) How sad we were, therefore, that after we had served for over 21 years in Brazil, our missionary days came to an end!

 During a Crisis, Jehovah Showed Us the Way

In 1975, Christine underwent surgery. We resumed the traveling work, but Christine’s health worsened. It seemed best to return to the United States so that she could receive medical care. In April 1976, we arrived in Long Beach, California, and stayed with my mother. After having lived abroad for two decades, we were at a loss as to how we could handle this situation. I began to give massages, and the earnings from that work kept us going. The state of California provided Christine a place in a hospital, but there she felt weaker every day because the doctors refused to treat her without giving her blood. Desperate, we beseeched Jehovah for guidance.

One afternoon when I was out in field service, I noticed a doctor’s office, and on the spur of the moment, I decided to step inside. Although the doctor was about to go home, he let me into his office, and we talked for two hours. Then he said: “I appreciate your work as missionaries, and I will treat your wife without cost and without a blood transfusion.” I could not believe my ears.

This kind doctor, who turned out to be a respected specialist, transferred Christine to a hospital where he worked, and under his able care, her condition soon improved. How grateful we were that Jehovah had shown us the way during that difficult time!

New Assignments

As Christine regained strength, we served as pioneers and had the joy of helping several people in Long Beach to become worshipers of Jehovah. In 1982 we were asked to do circuit work in the United States. We thanked Jehovah every day for using us again in the traveling work​—a type of ministry we loved. We served in California and then in New England, where the circuit included some Portuguese-speaking congregations. Later it also included Bermuda.

After four refreshing years, we received another assignment. We were invited to serve as special pioneers wherever we wanted. Although we were sad to leave the traveling work, we were determined to press on with our new assignment. But where? In the traveling work, I had noticed that the Portuguese congregation in New Bedford, Massachusetts, needed help​—so we headed for New Bedford.

When we arrived, the congregation gave us a huge welcome party. How that made us feel wanted! It moved us to tears. A young couple with two infants kindly took us into their home until we found our own apartment. Jehovah truly blessed this special pioneer assignment beyond our expectations. Since 1986 we have helped some 40 different persons in this town to become Witnesses. They are our spiritual family. In addition, I have had the joy of observing five local brothers grow into caring shepherds of the flock. It has been like serving in a fruitful missionary assignment.

As we look back, we rejoice that we have served Jehovah from youth on and made the truth our way of life. Granted, age and infirmities affect us now, but pressing on in Jehovah’s way is still our strength and joy.

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Newly arrived in Rio de Janeiro

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Our spiritual family in New Bedford, Massachusetts