A Rich Life in Jehovah’s Service
AS TOLD BY RUSSELL KURZEN
I came into the world on September 22, 1907, seven years before the remarkable era that began with the outbreak of the first world war. Our family was rich in the most important way. After you hear a few details of our history, I think you will agree.
AS A little girl, Grandmother Kurzen was already looking for the truth about God. Before she became a teenager, she visited several different churches in her picturesque hometown of Spiez, Switzerland. In 1887, some years after she was married, the Kurzen family joined the wave of immigrants reaching the shores of the United States.
The family settled in Ohio, where, about the year 1900, Grandmother located the treasure for which she had been searching. It was found within the pages of Charles Taze Russell’s book The Time Is at Hand, in the German language. She quickly discerned that what she read there contained the light of Bible truth. Though Grandmother could barely read English, she subscribed to the English Watchtower magazine. Thus she learned further Bible truths and, at the same time, the English language. Grandfather never took the same interest in spiritual matters that his wife did.
Of Grandmother Kurzen’s 11 children, 2 of her sons, John and Adolph, appreciated the spiritual treasure she had found. John was my father, and he was baptized in 1904 at the St. Louis, Missouri, convention of the Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known. Since most Bible Students were of modest means, the convention was scheduled at the same time as the World’s Fair in St. Louis so that they could take advantage of special train fares. Later, in 1907, my uncle Adolph was baptized at a convention in Niagara Falls, New York. My father and my uncle zealously preached what they had learned from the Bible, and both eventually became full-time ministers (now called pioneers).
Hence, by the time I came along in 1907, my family was already wealthy, spiritually speaking. (Proverbs 10:22) I was just a baby in 1908 when my parents, John and Ida, took me to the “On to Victory” convention at Put-in-Bay, Ohio. There Joseph F. Rutherford, then a traveling minister, was the convention chairman. A few weeks earlier, he had been to Dalton, Ohio, where he visited our home and gave talks to the local Bible Students.
Of course, I do not personally remember those events, but I do remember the convention in Mountain Lake Park, Maryland, in 1911. There my younger sister, Esther, and I met Charles Taze Russell, who had oversight of the worldwide preaching activities of the Bible Students.
On June 28, 1914, the day the world was plunged into war by the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, I attended with my family a peaceful convention in Columbus, Ohio. Since those early years, I’ve had the privilege of being at many conventions of Jehovah’s people. Some were gatherings of only a hundred or so. Others were massive gatherings in some of the world’s largest stadiums.
Our Home in a Strategic Place
From about 1908 to 1918, our home in Dalton—located midway between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Cleveland, Ohio—accommodated the meetings of a small congregation of Bible Students. Our home became a sort of hospitality center for many traveling speakers. They tied up their horses and buggies behind our barn and related exciting experiences and other spiritual gems to those assembled. What encouraging times those were!
Father was a schoolteacher, but his heart was in the greatest teaching work of all, the Christian ministry. He made sure to teach his family about Jehovah, and every evening we prayed together as a family. In the spring of 1919, Father sold our horse and buggy, and for $175 he bought a 1914 Ford so that he could reach more people in the preaching work. In 1919 and 1922, that car carried our family to the noteworthy conventions of the Bible Students in Cedar Point, Ohio.
Our whole family—Mom; Dad; Esther; my younger brother, John; and I—all shared in the public preaching activity. I remember well the first time a householder asked me a Bible question. I was about seven years old. “Little boy, what is Armageddon?” the man asked. With a little help from my father, I was able to give him the Bible’s answer.
Entering the Full-Time Ministry
In 1931 our family attended the Columbus, Ohio, convention, where we were thrilled to share in adopting the new name, Jehovah’s Witnesses. John was so excited that he decided that he and I should enter the pioneer work. * We did, and so did Mother, Father, and Esther. What a treasure we had—a family united in the joyful work of preaching the good news of God’s Kingdom! I never tire of thanking Jehovah for this blessing. As happy as we were, though, more joys awaited us.
In February of 1934, I began serving at the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses (called Bethel) in Brooklyn, New York. John joined me there a few weeks later. We roomed together until he married his dear wife, Jessie, in 1953.
After John and I went to Bethel, our parents accepted pioneer assignments in various parts of the country and Esther and her husband, George Read, accompanied them. Our parents continued pioneering until they finished their earthly course in 1963. Esther and her husband raised a fine family, and I am blessed with a number of nieces and nephews, whom I dearly love.
Work and Association at Bethel
John put his technical skills to work at Bethel and collaborated with other Bethelites on such projects as producing portable phonographs. Thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses used these in their house-to-house ministry. John also helped design and build machines for wrapping and labeling magazines that were mailed to individual subscribers.
I started my Bethel service in the book bindery. Working in the factory at that time were other young men who are still serving faithfully at Bethel. These include Carey Barber and Robert Hatzfeld. Among other such ones whom I remember fondly, but who have since died, are Nathan Knorr, Karl Klein, Lyman Swingle, Klaus Jensen, Grant Suiter, George Gangas, Orin Hibbard, John Sioras, Robert Payne, Charles Fekel, Benno Burczyk, and John Perry. They stayed on the job year after year, never complaining or expecting a “promotion.” Still, for a number of these loyal, spirit-anointed Christians, greater responsibilities came as the organization grew. Some even served on the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Working with these self-sacrificing brothers taught me an important lesson. In secular jobs workers are paid a monetary salary for their labor. That is their reward. Serving at Bethel yields rich spiritual blessings, and only spiritual men and women appreciate such rewards.—1 Corinthians 2:6-16.
Nathan Knorr, who came to Bethel as a teenager in 1923, was the factory overseer in the 1930’s. He walked through the factory every day and greeted each of the workers. Those of us who were new at Bethel appreciated such personal interest. In 1936 we received a new printing press from Germany, and some of the young brothers had a hard time putting it together. So Brother Knorr put on a pair of overalls and worked with them for over a month till they got it running.
Brother Knorr was such a hard worker that most of us could not keep up with him. But he also knew how to enjoy recreation. Even after he had received oversight of the worldwide preaching activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses in January 1942, he sometimes played baseball with members of the Bethel family and students of the Gilead missionary school at the campus near South Lansing, New York.
In April 1950, the Bethel family moved into the newly constructed ten-story section of our residence building located at 124 Columbia Heights, Brooklyn, New York. The new dining room allowed all of us to be seated together for our meals. During the some three years of construction of this residence, we were not able to have our morning worship program. What a happy time it was when that program could be resumed! Brother Knorr assigned me to sit with him at the chairman’s table so that I could help him remember the names of newer members of our family. For 50 years I sat in the same seat for morning worship and breakfast. Then, on August 4, 2000, that dining room was closed, and I was assigned to one of the renovated dining rooms in the former Towers Hotel.
For a while in the 1950’s, I worked in the factory on a Linotype machine, preparing slugs of type that were assembled into pages as part of the process of making printing plates. That job was not one of my favorites, but William Peterson, who had charge of the machines, was so nice to me that I enjoyed my time there anyway. Then, in 1960, volunteers were needed to paint the newly constructed residence at 107 Columbia Heights. I was delighted to offer my services to help prepare these new facilities for our growing Bethel family.
Not long after the painting of the 107 Columbia Heights building was completed, I was pleasantly surprised to be assigned the job of welcoming visitors to Bethel. The last 40 years that I served as a receptionist were as wonderful as any I’ve spent at Bethel. Whether it was visitors or new members of the Bethel family who came through the doors, it was thrilling to reflect on the results of our collective efforts to work for Kingdom increase.
Keen Students of the Bible
Our Bethel family is spiritually prosperous because its members love the Bible. When I first came to Bethel, I asked Emma Hamilton, who worked as a proofreader, how many times she had read the Bible. “Thirty-five times,” she replied, “and then I lost count.” Anton Koerber, another stalwart Christian who served at Bethel about the same time, used to say: “Never have a Bible more than an arm’s reach away.”
Following Brother Russell’s death in 1916, Joseph F. Rutherford took on the organizational responsibilities that Russell had shouldered. Rutherford was a powerful, accomplished public speaker, who as a lawyer argued cases on behalf of Jehovah’s Witnesses before the Supreme Court of the United States. After Rutherford’s death in 1942, Brother Knorr took his place and worked very hard to develop his skill in public speaking. Since I lived in a room near his, I often heard him practicing his talks over and over again. In time, through such diligent efforts, he became a fine public speaker.
In February 1942, Brother Knorr helped institute a program to assist all of us brothers at Bethel to improve our teaching and speaking ability. The school focused on Bible research and public speaking. In the beginning, each of us was assigned to give short talks about Bible characters. My first talk was about the man Moses. In 1943 a similar school was begun in the congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and it has continued to this day. The emphasis at Bethel is still on acquiring Bible knowledge and developing effective teaching methods.
In February 1943 the first class of the Gilead missionary school began. Now, the 111th class of Gilead has just graduated! In its more than 58 years of operation, the school has provided training for over 7,000 persons to serve as missionaries throughout the world. Significantly, in 1943 when the school began, there were just over 100,000 of Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide. Now, there are more than 6,000,000 who share in preaching the good news of God’s Kingdom!
Appreciating My Spiritual Heritage
Just prior to the establishment of Gilead, three of us from Bethel were assigned to visit congregations throughout the United States. We stayed for a day, a few days, or even a week in an effort to strengthen these congregations spiritually. We were called servants to the brethren, a designation later changed to circuit servant, or circuit overseer. Soon after Gilead School opened, however, I was asked to return to teach some courses. I served as a regular instructor for classes 2 through 5, and I also substituted for one of the regular instructors and taught the 14th class. Being able to review with the students the remarkable early events in the modern-day history of Jehovah’s organization—many of which I could relate from personal experience—made me appreciate more fully my rich spiritual heritage.
Another privilege I have enjoyed through the years is that of attending international conventions of Jehovah’s people. In 1963, I traveled around the world along with over 500 other delegates to the “Everlasting Good News” conventions. Other history-making conventions I attended were the ones held in Warsaw, Poland, in 1989; Berlin, Germany, in 1990; and Moscow, Russia, in 1993. At each convention, I had the opportunity to meet some of our dear brothers and sisters who endured decades of persecution under the Nazi regime, the Communist regime, or both. What faith-strengthening experiences those were!
My life in Jehovah’s service has indeed been rich! The supply of spiritual blessings never ends. And, unlike material riches, the more we share these precious things, the more our wealth increases. I occasionally hear some say that they wish that they had not been raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses. They say that they feel they would have appreciated Bible truths more if they had first experienced life outside God’s organization.
It always disturbs me when I hear young ones say such things because they are really saying that it is best not to be brought up with a knowledge of Jehovah’s ways. Yet, think of all the bad habits and corrupt thinking that people have to unlearn when they find Bible truth later in life. I have always been deeply grateful that my parents raised their three children in the way of righteousness. John remained a faithful servant of Jehovah until his death in July 1980, and Esther to this day remains a faithful Witness.
I look back with deep fondness on the many fine friendships I’ve enjoyed with faithful Christian brothers and sisters. I have now had over 67 wonderful years at Bethel. Though I never married, I have many spiritual sons and daughters, as well as spiritual grandchildren. And I rejoice to think of all the dear new members of our worldwide spiritual family I’ve yet to meet, each one precious. How true are the words: “The blessing of Jehovah—that is what makes rich”!—Proverbs 10:22.
^ par. 16 I was baptized on March 8, 1932. So I was actually baptized after it was decided that I should pioneer.
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From left to right: my father with my brother, John, on his lap, Esther, me, and my mother
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Teaching a Gilead class in 1945
Above right: Gilead School instructors Eduardo Keller, Fred Franz, me, and Albert Schroeder
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Reflecting on my rich life in Jehovah’s service