A Life of Surprises in Jehovah’s Service
AS TOLD BY ERIC AND HAZEL BEVERIDGE
“I hereby sentence you to six months in prison.” With those words ringing in my ears, I was taken off to Strangeways Prison in Manchester, England. It was December 1950, and I was 19 years old. I had just faced one of the toughest tests of my young life—I had refused to be conscripted for military service.—2 Corinthians 10:3-5.
I WAS a full-time pioneer minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which should have meant exemption from military service, but British law did not accept our status. So I found myself alone in a prison cell. And I thought of my father. In an indirect way, I was in jail because of him.
You see, Dad, a prison officer, was a Yorkshireman of strong convictions and principles. Because of his experiences in the army and in the prison service, he had a deep antipathy to Catholicism. He first had contact with the Witnesses back in the early 1930’s when he went to the door to get rid of them—and came back with some of their books in his hands! Later he subscribed to the Consolation magazine (now Awake!). The Witnesses used to visit each year to encourage him to renew his subscription. When I was about 15, they engaged Dad in yet another discussion, and I joined in on the side of the Witnesses. That was when I started to study the Bible.
At the age of 17, I symbolized my dedication to Jehovah by being baptized in March 1949. Later that year I met John and Michael Charuk, recent graduates of the Gilead missionary school who were on their way to Nigeria. I was deeply impressed by their missionary spirit. Whether they were aware of it or not, they implanted that spirit in my heart.
While studying the Bible, I lost interest in pursuing a place at a university. Within a year of leaving home to work in the Customs and Excise office in London, I felt that I could not fulfill my dedication to God by continuing in the civil service. When I quit my office job, one veteran office colleague congratulated me for leaving “a soul-destroying job.”
Before this I faced another test—how to tell my father that I wanted to quit my secure job to become a full-time minister. One evening while at home on vacation, I dropped the bombshell. I waited for Dad’s verbal explosion. To my surprise he simply said: “You make your bed; you lie on it. But if you fail, don’t come running to me.” My diary entry for January 1, 1950, states: “Told Dad about pioneering. I was completely taken aback by his reasonably helpful attitude. I could not help but weep at his kindness.” I resigned from the civil service and accepted an assignment to be a full-time pioneer.
An Assignment With a “Cottage”
Then came my next test of devotion to God. I was offered a pioneer assignment, sharing a “cottage” in Lancashire with Lloyd Griffiths, a fellow Christian from Wales. Full of idealism and dreams of that cottage, I arrived in the drab, rain-soaked town of Bacup. I was soon brought down to earth when the cottage turned out to be a cellar! There were mice and cockroaches to keep us company at night. I was on the verge of turning around and going back home. Instead, in silent prayer I asked for strength to face this test. Suddenly, I felt a peace come over me, and I began to see the situation objectively. This was my assignment from Jehovah’s organization. I would trust in Jehovah for help. How grateful I am that I stuck it out, for quitting would have changed my life forever!—Isaiah 26:3, 4.
I preached in what was then the economically depressed Rossendale Valley for about nine months before I was hauled off to prison for refusing military service. After two weeks in Strangeways Prison, I was transferred to Lewes Prison on England’s south coast. Eventually we were five Witnesses in there together, and we were able to commemorate the Memorial of Christ’s death in a prison cell.
Dad came to see me once. That must have tested his pride—a well-known prison officer visiting his jailbird son! I will always be grateful for that gesture. Finally my day of release came in April of 1951.
On my release from Lewes, I took the train to Cardiff, Wales, where my father was then serving as principal officer at the prison. I was the eldest of four children—three boys and a girl. I had to find a part-time job so that I could pay my way and still be a pioneer. I went to work in a clothing store, but my main purpose in life was my Christian ministry. About this time our mother left us. That was a severe blow to Dad and to us children, aged from 8 to 19. Sadly, our parents were divorced.
He Who Finds a Good Wife . . .
There were several pioneers in the congregation. Among them was a sister who came down every day from the coal-mining Rhondda Valley for her work and preaching activity. Her name was Hazel Green—an excellent pioneer. Hazel had known the truth for more years than I had—her parents were attending meetings of the Bible Students (now known as Jehovah’s Witnesses) back in the 1920’s. But let her tell her own story.
“I did not take the Bible seriously until 1944 when I read the booklet Religion Reaps the Whirlwind. My mother induced me to go to a circuit assembly in Cardiff. With hardly any knowledge of the Bible, I found myself in the main shopping center with a placard around my neck announcing a public talk. I survived the experience in spite of being harassed by clergymen and others. I got baptized in 1946 and began to pioneer in December of that year. Then in 1951 a young pioneer turned up in Cardiff, fresh out of prison. It was Eric.
“We went out preaching together. We got on well. We had the same aims in life—to advance God’s Kingdom interests. So we got married in December 1952. Although we were both in the full-time pioneer service and had a limited income, we never lacked for any of the basics. Sometimes we received a gift from a Witness who happened to have ordered too much jam or soap in her groceries—and just when we needed them! Practical gestures like those were greatly appreciated. But greater surprises were in store for us.”
A Surprise That Changed Our Lives
In November 1954, Hazel and I received an unexpected surprise—an application from the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in London for me to be a traveling overseer, visiting a different congregation each week. We were convinced that it was a mistake, so we told no one in the congregation. However, I filled out the form and sent it back, and we held our breath. A few days later, the reply came: “Come to London for training”!
At the London office, I could not believe that I, at the age of 23, was there with such outstanding brothers who seemed like spiritual giants to me—Pryce Hughes, Emlyn Wynes, Ernie Beavor, Ernie Guiver, Bob Gough, Glynn Parr, Stan and Martin Woodburn, and many others, most of whom have since passed off the scene. They laid a solid foundation of zeal and integrity in Britain back in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
Circuit Work in England—Never Boring
Our start in the traveling work began in the snow-laden winter of 1954/55. We were assigned to East Anglia, a flat area of England exposed to the cold North Sea winds. There were only 31,000 Witnesses in Britain at that time. That first circuit was a tough learning experience for us; nor was it always easy for the brothers we visited. With my inexperience and Yorkshire frankness, I sometimes trod on toes. Over the years, I have had to learn that kindness is more important than efficiency and that people are more important than procedures. I am still trying, but not always with success, to follow Jesus’ example of refreshing others.—Matthew 11:28-30.
After 18 months in East Anglia, we were assigned to serve in a circuit in England’s northeast, Newcastle upon Tyne and Northumberland. I loved the warmhearted people of that scenic region. A great help to me was the visiting district overseer, Don Ward, from Seattle, Washington, U.S.A. He was a graduate of the 20th class of Gilead. As a speaker, I used to rattle off information at a tremendous pace. He taught me to slow down, to pause, and to teach.
Another Surprise That Changed Our Lives
In 1958 we received a letter that changed our lives. We were invited to attend Gilead School in South Lansing, New York, U.S.A. We sold our little 1935 Austin Seven car and bought our tickets to sail to New York. First we attended the international convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in New York City. From there we went to Peterborough, Ontario, for six months of pioneering before heading south to Gilead School.
The school instructors included Albert Schroeder, who is now a member of the Governing Body, as well as Maxwell Friend and Jack Redford, who have since died. Association among the 82 students from 14 lands was very upbuilding. We began to understand a little about one another’s cultures. Mingling with the foreign students who struggled with English gave us a taste of the problems we would face when learning another tongue. In five months we completed our training and were assigned to 27 countries. Then came graduation, and within days we were in New York City, waiting for our ship, the Queen Elizabeth, to take us back to Europe.
Our First Foreign Assignment
What assignment had we been given? Portugal! We arrived in Lisbon in November 1959. Now came the test of our adaptability to a new language and culture. In 1959 there were 643 Witnesses active in Portugal, in a population of nearly 9 million. But our preaching work was not legally recognized. Although we had Kingdom Halls, there were no exterior signs.
After being taught Portuguese by missionary Elsa Piccone, Hazel and I visited congregations and groups around Lisbon, Faro, Evora, and Beja. Then in 1961 things began to change. I was studying the Bible with a young man named João Gonçalves Mateus. He decided to take his stand as a neutral Christian on the issue of military service. Shortly after that, I was invited to police headquarters for questioning. Surprise! A few days later, we were notified that we had 30 days to leave the country! The same happened to fellow missionaries Eric and Christina Britten and Domenick and Elsa Piccone.
I appealed for a hearing, and we were allowed to see the chief of the secret police. He told us in no uncertain terms why we were being asked to leave and gave a name—João Gonçalves Mateus—my Bible student! He said that Portugal, unlike Britain, could not allow itself the luxury of conscientious objection. So we had to leave Portugal, and I lost track of João. Then, 26 years later, what a joy it was to see him with his wife and three daughters at the dedication of the new Portugal Bethel! Our ministry in Portugal had not been in vain!—1 Corinthians 3:6-9.
What was our next assignment? Surprise! Neighboring Spain. With tears in our eyes, in February 1962 we caught the train in Lisbon and headed for Madrid.
Adapting to Another Culture
In Spain we had to get used to a clandestine way of preaching and holding our meetings. When preaching, we usually never called at two adjacent homes. After witnessing at a door, we would go to another street, to another building. That made it difficult for the police—or the priests—to catch us. Remember, we were living under a Fascist, Catholic dictatorship, and our preaching work was prohibited. As foreigners, we took Spanish names as a protection against being identified. I became Pablo, and Hazel became Juana.
After a few months in Madrid, we were assigned to circuit work in Barcelona. We visited various congregations in the city, often spending two or three weeks in each one. The visits took that long because we had to visit each book study group as if it were a congregation, and that usually meant two groups weekly.
An Unexpected Challenge
In 1963 we were invited to take up the district work in Spain. To serve the nearly 3,000 active Witnesses, we had to cover the whole country, visiting the nine circuits that then existed. We held some of our most memorable clandestine circuit assemblies in the woods near Seville, on a farm near Gijon, and by rivers near Madrid, Barcelona, and Logroño.
As a precaution when preaching from house to house, I used to check the layout of nearby streets for an escape route just in case anything went wrong. Once while preaching in Madrid, another Witness and I were on an upper floor when we suddenly heard shouting and screaming down below. When we got downstairs, there was a group of teenage girls, members of a Catholic group called Hijas de María (Daughters of Mary). They were warning the neighbors about us. We could not reason with them, and I knew that we would have to leave at once or else the police would catch us. So we escaped—and fast!
Those were thrilling years to be in Spain. We were trying to encourage the fine brothers and sisters there, including the special pioneer ministers. They risked prison and often endured privations in order to preach the good news of God’s Kingdom and to establish and build up congregations.
During this period we also got some bad news. Hazel explains: “In 1964 my mother, a faithful Witness, died. It was a sad blow to lose her without even being able to say good-bye. That is one of the prices of missionary work that many others have also paid.”
Freedom at Last
After years of persecution, in July 1970 our work was finally legally recognized by the Franco government. Hazel and I were thrilled at the opening of Kingdom Halls, the first in Madrid and the second in Lesseps, Barcelona. They always had large signs, often illuminated. We wanted the people to know that we were legal and here to stay! At this point, 1972, there were nearly 17,000 Witnesses in Spain.
About this time, I got some very encouraging news from England. My father had visited us in Spain in 1969. He was so impressed by the way the Spanish Witnesses treated him that on his return to England, he started to study the Bible. Then in 1971, I was told that Dad had got baptized! It was a touching moment when we visited home and he, as my Christian brother, asked the blessing on our meal. I had waited over 20 years for that day to come. My brother Bob and his wife, Iris, had become Witnesses in 1958. Their son, Phillip, is now serving as a circuit overseer in Spain with his wife, Jean. It pleases us very much to see them serving in that wonderful country.
Our Most Recent Surprise
In February 1980, a member of the Governing Body visited Spain as a zone overseer. To my surprise he wanted to join me in the ministry. Little did I know that he was checking me out! Then in September we were invited to move to the world headquarters in Brooklyn, New York! We were flabbergasted. We accepted the invitation, even though leaving our Spanish brothers was heartrending. At that point, there were 48,000 Witnesses!
When we left, a brother gave me a pocket watch as a gift. On it he had inscribed two texts—“Lucas 16:10; Lucas 17:10.” He said that they were my theme texts. Luke 16:10 emphasizes that we should be faithful in small things, and Luke 17:10 says that we are “good-for-nothing slaves” and therefore have no reason to boast. I have always realized that whatever we do in Jehovah’s service is simply our duty as dedicated Christians.
A Health Surprise
In 1990, I began to have heart problems. Eventually, I had to have a stent introduced in order to open up a blocked artery. During this difficult period of physical weakness, Hazel has supported me in many ways, often carrying bags and suitcases that I was too weak to handle. Then in May 2000, I had a pacemaker implanted. What a difference that has made!
Over the last 50 years, Hazel and I have seen that Jehovah’s hand is not short and that his purposes are brought to fulfillment in his due time, not ours. (Isaiah 59:1; Habakkuk 2:3) We have had many joyful surprises in our lives and a few sad ones too, but through it all Jehovah has sustained us. Here at the world headquarters of Jehovah’s people, we are blessed every day by contact with members of the Governing Body. Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Are we really here?’ It is an undeserved kindness. (2 Corinthians 12:9) We trust that Jehovah will continue to protect us against Satan’s machinations and keep us so that we may enjoy the day of his righteous rulership over the earth.—Ephesians 6:11-18; Revelation 21:1-4.
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Strangeways Prison, Manchester, where I started my prison sentence
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With our Austin Seven in circuit work in England
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A clandestine assembly in Cercedilla, Madrid, Spain, in 1962
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At our witnessing table in Brooklyn