Life Story

Accepting Jehovah’s Invitations Brings Rewards

AS TOLD BY MARIA DO CÉU ZANARDI

“Jehovah knows what he is doing. If he has sent you the invitation, you should humbly accept it.” These words of my father, spoken some 45 years ago, helped me to accept the first invitation I received from Jehovah’s organization, to serve as a full-time minister. Today, I am still grateful for my father’s advice because accepting such invitations has brought me rich rewards.

IN 1928, Father subscribed to the Watchtower magazine and became interested in the Bible. Since he lived in central Portugal, his only contact with God’s congregation was the publications he received by mail and a Bible that had belonged to my grandparents. In 1949, when I was 13 years old, our family immigrated to Brazil, Mother’s home country, and settled in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.

Our new neighbors invited us to visit their church, and we went a few times. Father liked to quiz them about hellfire, the soul, and the future of the earth​—but they had no answers. “We will just have to wait for the true Bible students,” Father used to say.

One day, a blind man called at our home offering The Watchtower and Awake! Father asked him about the same things, and he gave sound Bible-based answers. The following week, another one of Jehovah’s Witnesses visited us. After answering more questions, she excused herself and said that she had to go to the “field.” When Father expressed surprise  that the Witnesses engaged in sports, she read Matthew 13:38 to him: “The field is the world.” Father asked: “May I go too?” “Of course,” came the reply. We were overjoyed to have found Bible truth again! Father was baptized at the next convention, and I was baptized soon thereafter, in November 1955.

Accepting My First Invitation

A year and a half later, I received from the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Rio de Janeiro a large brown envelope with an invitation for me to enter the full-time preaching work. Mother’s health was very poor at the time, so I asked my father for his advice. “Jehovah knows what he is doing,” was his firm reply. “If he has sent you the invitation, you should humbly accept it.” Spurred on by these words, I filled out the application form and entered the full-time service on July 1, 1957. My first assignment was Três Rios, a town in Rio de Janeiro State.

At first, the inhabitants of Três Rios were reluctant to listen to our message because we did not use a Catholic version of the Bible. Help came when we started a Bible study with Geraldo Ramalho, a practicing Catholic. With his help I was able to obtain a Bible with the local priest’s signature. From then on, whenever anyone raised an objection, I showed them the priest’s signature, and no more questions were asked. Geraldo was later baptized.

I was overjoyed when a circuit assembly was held right in the center of Três Rios in 1959. The police chief, who was studying the Bible at the time, even arranged to put up banners advertising the program throughout town. After working for three years in Três Rios, I was invited to a new assignment in Itu, about 70 miles [110 km] west of São Paulo.

Red, Blue, and Yellow Books

After some searching, my pioneer partner and I found comfortable lodgings in the center of town with Maria, a kindhearted widow. Maria treated us as her own daughters. Before long, though, the Roman Catholic bishop of Itu visited her and told her to send us away, but she stood her ground: “When my husband died, you did nothing to console me. These Jehovah’s Witnesses have helped me even though I am not a member of their religion.”

About that time, a woman informed us that the Catholic priests of Itu had forbidden their parishioners to accept copies of “the red book about the Devil.” They were referring to “Let God Be True,” the Biblical publication we had been offering people during the week. Since the red book had been “banned” by the priests, we prepared a presentation for the blue book (“New Heavens and a New Earth”). Later, when the clergy got wind of  this change, we moved on to the yellow book (What Has Religion Done for Mankind?), and so on. It was a good thing that we had a variety of books with covers of different colors!

After about a year in Itu, I received a telegram inviting me to work temporarily at Bethel, the branch home of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Rio de Janeiro, in preparation for the national assembly. I gladly accepted.

Further Privileges and Challenges

At Bethel, there was no shortage of work, and I was happy to help in any way possible. How enriching it was to attend the discussion of the daily text each morning and the family Watchtower Study on Monday evenings! The heartfelt prayers of Otto Estelmann and other experienced members of the Bethel family affected me deeply.

After the national assembly, I packed my bags to return to Itu, but to my surprise, the branch servant, Grant Miller, handed me a letter inviting me to become a permanent member of the Bethel family. My roommate was Sister Hosa Yazedjian, who still serves in Brazil Bethel. In those days the Bethel family was small​—only 28 of us—​and we were all close friends.

In 1964, João Zanardi, a young full-time minister, came to Bethel to receive training. He was then assigned as a circuit servant, or traveling overseer, nearby. We sometimes met when he came to Bethel to hand in his reports. The branch servant gave João permission to attend the family study on Monday evenings, so we were able to spend more time together. João and I were married in August 1965. I happily accepted the invitation to join my husband in the circuit work.

In those days the traveling work in the interior of Brazil was something of an adventure. I will never forget our visits to the group of publishers in Aranha, Minas Gerais State. We had to take a train and then walk the rest of the way​—loaded down with suitcases, typewriter, slide projector, service bags, and literature. How happy we were to find Lourival Chantal, an elderly brother, always waiting at the station to help us with our bags.

The meetings in Aranha were held in a rented house. We slept in a small room in the back. On one side, there was a log fire that we used for cooking and for heating water that the brothers brought us in buckets. A hole in the ground in the middle of a nearby bamboo plantation served as a toilet. At night we left a gaslight burning to ward off the barber beetles​—insects that can transmit Chagas’ disease. In the morning our nostrils were always black with smoke. Quite an interesting experience!

While serving in a circuit in Paraná State, we again received one of those large brown envelopes from the branch office. Yet another invitation from Jehovah’s organization​—this time to serve in Portugal! The letter advised us to consider the principle of Luke 14:28 and count the cost before accepting  this assignment because our Christian work was under ban there, and the Portuguese government had already arrested many brothers.

Would we go to a land where we would face such persecution? “If our Portuguese brothers can live there and serve Jehovah faithfully, why can’t we?” João said. Recalling my father’s words of encouragement, I agreed: “If Jehovah has sent us the invitation, we should accept it and trust in him.” Soon afterward, we were at Bethel in São Paulo, receiving further instructions and preparing our documents for the journey.

João Maria and Maria João

Our boat, the Eugênio C, set sail from the port of Santos, São Paulo State, on September 6, 1969. After nine days at sea, we arrived in Portugal. At first, we spent several months working with experienced brothers in the narrow streets of Alfama and Mouraria, in the old district of Lisbon. They trained us to be observant so that we would not be easily caught by the police.

Congregation meetings were held in the homes of Witnesses. When we noticed that the neighbors were becoming suspicious, the meetings were quickly moved to another location so that the house would not be raided or the brothers arrested. Picnics, as we called our assemblies, were held in Monsanto Park, on the outskirts of Lisbon, and at Costa da Caparica, a wooded area on the coast. We dressed casually for the occasion, and a group of vigilant attendants stood guard at strategic points. If anyone suspicious approached, we had time to improvise a game, set up a picnic, or start singing a folk song.

To make it harder for the security police to identify us, we avoided using our real names. The brothers knew us as João Maria and Maria João. Our names were not used in any correspondence or records. Instead, we were assigned numbers. I made a conscious decision not to memorize the addresses of the brothers. That way, if I was arrested, it would not be possible for me to betray them.

Despite the restrictions, João and I were determined to take advantage of every opportunity to give a witness, since we knew  that we might lose our freedom at any moment. We learned to rely on our heavenly Father, Jehovah. As our Protector, he used his angels in such a way that we felt we were “seeing the One who is invisible.”​—Hebrews 11:27.

On one occasion, preaching from house to house in Porto, we met a man who insisted on inviting us in. The sister I was working with accepted without hesitation, and I had no option but to accompany her. To my horror, I noticed that there was a photograph of someone in a military uniform in the hallway. What to do now? Our host had us sit down, and then he asked me: “Would you let your son serve in the army if he was called up?” It was a delicate situation. Calmly, but after praying silently, I replied: “I do not have any children, and I am sure that if I were to ask you such a hypothetical question, you would give me the same answer.” He fell silent. So I continued: “Now if you were to ask me what it feels like to lose a brother or a father, that I can answer because both my brother and my father are dead.” My eyes filled with tears as I spoke, and I noticed that he was nearly crying as well. He explained that his wife had died recently. He listened intently while I explained the resurrection hope. Then we politely said good-bye and departed safely, leaving the matter in Jehovah’s hands.

Despite the ban, sincere people were helped to gain a knowledge of the truth. It was in Porto that my husband started a study with Horácio, a businessman, who made rapid progress. Later his son Emílio, an excellent doctor, also took his stand for Jehovah and was baptized. Truly, nothing can stop Jehovah’s holy spirit.

“You Never Know What Jehovah Will Allow”

In 1973, João and I were invited to attend the “Divine Victory” International Assembly in Brussels, Belgium. Thousands of Spanish and Belgian brothers were present, as well as delegates from Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde, Madeira, and the Azores. In his concluding comments, Brother Knorr, from headquarters in New York, exhorted: “Keep on faithfully serving Jehovah. You never know what Jehovah will allow. Who knows, you may be attending your next international convention in Portugal!”

The following year the preaching work received legal recognition in Portugal. And true to Brother Knorr’s words, in 1978 we held our first international convention in Lisbon. What a privilege to go on a march through the streets of Lisbon, giving a witness  with placards, magazines, and invitations to the public talk! It was a dream come true.

We had grown to love our Portuguese brothers, many of whom had suffered imprisonment and beatings for maintaining their Christian neutrality. Our desire was to continue serving in Portugal. However, it was not to be. In 1982, João developed a serious heart problem, and the branch office suggested that we return to Brazil.

A Trying Time

The brothers at the Brazil branch office were very supportive and assigned us to serve in the Quiririm Congregation in Taubaté, São Paulo State. João’s health deteriorated rapidly, and soon he was housebound. Interested individuals came to our home to study the Bible, and there were meetings for field service every day, as well as the weekly group study. These provisions helped us to maintain our spirituality.

João continued to do what he could in Jehovah’s service right up till his death on October 1, 1985. I was sad and somewhat depressed, but I was determined to carry on in my assignment. Another setback came in April 1986 when burglars broke into my home and stole almost everything. For the first time in my life, I felt lonely and afraid. A couple lovingly invited me to stay with them for a while, for which I was most grateful.

The death of João and the burglary also affected my service to Jehovah. I no longer felt confident in the ministry. After writing to the branch office about the difficulty, I received an invitation to spend some time at Bethel to help me regain my emotional balance. How strengthening a time that was!

As soon as I felt a little better, I accepted an assignment to serve in Ipuã, a town in the state of São Paulo. The preaching work kept me busy, but there were times when I felt discouraged. At such times, I phoned the brothers in Quiririm, and a family came to visit me for a few days. Those visits were truly encouraging! During my first year in Ipuã, 38 different brothers and sisters made the long journey to see me.

In 1992, six years after the death of João, I received another invitation from Jehovah’s organization, this time to move to Franca, São Paulo State, where I still serve as a full-time minister. The territory here is very productive. In 1994, I started a Bible study with the mayor. At the time, he was campaigning for a seat in the Brazil congress, but despite his busy schedule, we studied every Monday afternoon. To avoid interruptions he would switch off his phone. How happy it made me to see him gradually withdraw from politics and, with the help of the truth, rebuild his marriage! He and his wife were baptized in 1998.

Looking back, I can say that my life as a full-time minister has been one of immense blessings and privileges. Accepting the invitations that Jehovah has extended to me through his organization has truly brought me rich rewards. And whatever invitations may come in the future, my willingness to accept them is as strong as ever.

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In 1957, when I entered the full-time service, and today

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With the Brazil Bethel family in 1963

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Our wedding in August 1965

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An assembly in Portugal while the work was under ban

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Street witnessing in Lisbon during the 1978 “Victorious Faith” International Convention