Life Story

Richly Blessed for Maintaining the Missionary Spirit

AS TOLD BY TOM COOKE

The sound of gunfire suddenly shattered the afternoon tranquillity. Bullets ripped through the trees in our garden. What was going on? Before long we learned that there had been a coup and that Uganda was now under the rule of General Idi Amin. It was 1971.

WHY had my wife, Ann, and I moved from the relative peace of England to this volatile part of Africa? I think I am a little adventurous by nature, but it was primarily my parents’ example of zealous Kingdom service that fostered the missionary spirit in me.

I remember the hot August day in 1946 when my parents first met Jehovah’s Witnesses. They stood at the front door and talked to the two visitors for what seemed like hours. These visitors, Fraser Bradbury and Mamie Shreve, came back many times, and during the months that followed, life for our family changed dramatically.

My Parents’ Courageous Example

My parents were involved in many community activities. For example, shortly before they started studying the Bible, posters of Winston Churchill festooned our house. During the postwar national elections, our home was used as the local Conservative Party Committee center. Our family also had prominent religious and social connections. Although I was only nine at the time, I  sensed the shock among our relatives when they realized that we were becoming Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The whole-souled and fearless example of the Witnesses with whom we associated motivated my parents to become active in the preaching work. Soon my father was giving open-air talks through an amplifier in the main shopping area of Spondon, our home village, while we children stood in strategic locations holding up The Watchtower and Awake! I have to admit that when children with whom I went to school approached me, I wished the earth would swallow me up.

My parents’ example encouraged my older sister, Daphne, to start pioneering. In 1955, she attended the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead and was assigned as a missionary to Japan. * However, my younger sister, Zoe, stopped serving Jehovah.

Meanwhile, I completed my schooling by studying illustration and graphic arts. In those days, a burning issue among my fellow students was conscripted national service. When I told them that I was a conscientious objector, they took it as a joke. This issue gave me a chance to have many Bible discussions with some of the students. Soon, I was sentenced to 12 months in prison for refusing military service. One of the students at the art college who showed an interest in the Bible’s message later became my wife. But I will let Ann tell you how she learned the truth.

Ann’s Introduction to the Truth

“My family was not religious, and I was not baptized into any religion. But I was curious about the subject of religion and went to whichever church my friends attended. My interest in the Bible was aroused when I listened in on the animated discussions Tom and another Witness had with other students at the college. When Tom and the other Witness were sent to prison for refusing military service, I was shocked.

“I continued to correspond with Tom while he was in prison, and my interest in the Bible deepened. When I moved to London to further my secular studies, I agreed to have a Bible study with Muriel Albrecht. Muriel had served as a missionary in Estonia, and both she and her mother were a great source of encouragement to me. Within a few weeks, I was attending meetings and standing outside Victoria Station offering The Watchtower and Awake!

“I attended the Southwark Congregation in south London. It was made up of spiritual brothers and sisters of diverse nationalities, many of whom had very little materially. Although I was a stranger, they treated me as one of their own. It was the love in that congregation that really convinced me that this was the truth, and I was baptized in 1960.”

Same Goals​—Different Circumstances

Ann and I were married later in 1960, and we had the goal of entering missionary service. But our circumstances changed when we learned that we were going to have a baby. After our daughter Sara was born, Ann  and I still had the desire to serve in a country where the need for Kingdom publishers was greater. I applied for employment in a number of countries, and eventually, in May 1966, a letter arrived from the Ministry of Education in Uganda confirming that I had a position. By this time, though, Ann was pregnant with our second child. Some doubted the wisdom of our even considering the move. We consulted our doctor, who said: “If you are going, you must fly before your wife is seven months pregnant.” So we immediately headed for Uganda. Consequently, our parents did not see our second daughter, Rachel, until she was two years old. Now that we are grandparents ourselves, we fully appreciate the self-sacrificing spirit of our dear parents.

Arriving in Uganda in 1966 was both exhilarating and daunting. Stepping off the plane, we were immediately impressed by the colors. They were so bright. Our first home was near the small town of Iganga, which was 30 miles [50 km] from Jinja, a town located at the source of the Nile River. The closest Witnesses to our home were an isolated group at Jinja. Missionaries Gilbert and Joan Walters and Stephen and Barbara Hardy cared for the group. I applied for a job transfer to Jinja so that we could better assist this group. Shortly after Rachel was born, we moved to Jinja. There we had the joy of serving with the small group of faithful Witnesses as it grew to become the second congregation in Uganda.

Serving as a Family in a Foreign Field

Ann and I feel that we could not have chosen a better environment for bringing up our family. We had the pleasure of working alongside missionaries from different countries and of assisting the fledgling congregation to grow. We loved the company of our Ugandan brothers and sisters, who often visited our home. Stanley and Esinala Makumba were especially encouraging to us.

But the brothers were not our only visitors, since we were surrounded by an amazing variety of wildlife. Hippopotamuses would come out of the Nile River at night and walk right up to our house. I have vivid memories of the time we had an 18-foot [6 m] python in the garden. Sometimes, we sought out wildlife by taking trips into game parks, where lions and other wild animals roamed freely.

In the ministry, we presented a rare sight for the local people, who had never before seen a baby carriage. As we went from house to house, we usually had an entourage of little children. People peered at us respectfully  and then touched the white baby. Witnessing was a delight because the people were so courteous. We thought everyone was going to come into the truth, as it was so easy to start Bible studies. However, many found it difficult to break with unscriptural traditions. A good number, though, adopted the Bible’s high moral standards, and the congregation grew in number. Our first circuit assembly in Jinja in 1968 was a milestone. The baptism in the Nile River of some of those with whom we had studied the Bible is a cherished memory. But our peace was soon to be shattered.

The Ban​—A Test of Faith and Ingenuity

In 1971, General Idi Amin seized power. There was wild confusion in Jinja, and it was while we were enjoying a cup of tea in our garden that the scene described at the outset took place. During the next two years, the large Asian community was expelled. Most foreigners chose to leave, and schools and medical facilities suffered severely. Then came the stark announcement that Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned. Out of concern for our safety, the Education Department moved us into the capital city, Kampala. This move was beneficial in two ways. We were not well-known in Kampala and therefore had greater freedom of movement. There was also much work to do in the congregation and in the field ministry.

Brian and Marion Wallace and their two children were in a position similar to ours, and they also decided to stay in Uganda. We very much appreciated their company as we served together in the Kampala Congregation during this difficult time. The accounts we had read about our brothers serving under ban in other countries now became of special encouragement to us. We met in small groups, and once a month, we held larger gatherings in the Entebbe Botanical Gardens, disguising the occasions as a party. Our girls thought this was a great idea.

We had to be very cautious about the way we engaged in the preaching work. White people visiting Ugandan homes would have been far too conspicuous. So shops, apartments, and some campuses became our territory. One method I used in shops was to ask for a commodity that I knew was no longer  available, like sugar or rice. If the shopkeeper manifested sorrow over what was happening in the country, I introduced the Kingdom message. This approach worked well. Occasionally, I left the shop not only with a return visit but also with a small supply of a rare commodity.

Meanwhile, violence was erupting all around us. Because of further deterioration in the relationship between Uganda and Britain, the authorities did not renew my contract. So in 1974, after eight years in Uganda, it was our turn to wave a sad good-bye to our brothers. Yet, our missionary spirit did not fade.

On to New Guinea

In January 1975, we seized an opportunity to work in Papua New Guinea. So began eight years of enjoyable service in this region of the Pacific. Our life with the brothers and in the ministry was rich and rewarding.

Our family remembers our stay in Papua New Guinea as the time of dramas​—Bible dramas, that is. Every year, we were involved in preparing dramas for the district convention, and what fun we had! We enjoyed the company of many spiritually-minded families, and these were a positive influence on our girls. Our eldest daughter, Sara, married a special pioneer, Ray Smith, and together they served as special pioneers close to the border of Irian Jaya (now Papua, an Indonesian province). Their home was a grass hut in the local village, and Sara says the time she spent in that assignment was excellent training for her.

Adapting to Changing Circumstances

By this time my parents needed additional care. Rather than have us return to England, my parents agreed to come to live with us, and we all moved to Australia in 1983. They also spent some time with my sister Daphne, who was still in Japan. After my parents died, Ann and I decided to enter the regular pioneer service, and this led to a privilege that I found quite daunting.

We had just started pioneering when we were invited to serve in the circuit work. Since childhood, I had viewed the circuit overseer’s visit as a special event. Now I was a circuit overseer. It proved to be the most challenging assignment we had enjoyed up to that point in our lives, but time and again Jehovah helped us in ways we had not experienced before.

During Brother Theodore Jaracz’ zone visit to Australia in 1990, we asked him if he thought we were too old to serve in the full-time work overseas. He said: “What about the Solomon Islands?” So finally, when Ann and I were both in our 50’s, we headed for what was to become our first official missionary assignment.

Serving in the “Happy Isles”

The Solomon Islands are known as the Happy Isles, and our service here over the past decade has indeed been a happy time.  Ann and I were introduced to the gentle kindness of the brothers and sisters in the Solomon Islands as I served as a district overseer. The hospitality shown to us touched our hearts, and everyone was so tolerant of my efforts to explain things in what I thought was acceptable Solomon Islands Pidgin​—a language with what must be one of the smallest vocabularies in the world.

Soon after our arrival in the Solomon Islands, opposers tried to interfere with the use of our Assembly Hall. The Anglican church brought a charge against Jehovah’s Witnesses, claiming that our new Assembly Hall in Honiara encroached on their land. The government upheld their claim, so we appealed the decision to the High Court. The outcome of the appeal would determine if we had to dismantle our new 1,200-seat Assembly Hall.

The case was in court for a whole week. A smug confidence exuded from the opposing counsel as the case against us was presented. Then, with increasing devastation, our lawyer, Brother Warren Cathcart from New Zealand, exposed and nullified each part of the opposition’s case. By Friday, news of the court drama had spread afar, and the court was packed with church dignitaries, government officers, and our Christian brothers. I remember the error on the official court schedule notice. It read: “Solomon Islands Government and the Church of Melanesia v. Jehovah.” We won.

However, the comparative tranquillity of the Happy Isles was not to last. Again, Ann and I found ourselves amid the turmoil and violence of a military coup. Ethnic rivalry led to civil war. On June 5, 2000, the government was toppled and the capital came under the control of armed militants. For some weeks our Assembly Hall became a center for displaced persons. The authorities were amazed that our Christian brothers from opposing ethnic groups were living as one peaceful family under the Assembly Hall roof. What a fine witness this proved to be!

Even the militants respected the neutrality of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This enabled us to persuade one of the commanders to allow a truck with literature and other supplies to be driven to a small group of brothers cut off behind the opposing army’s lines. When we found the families who had been separated from us for some months, I don’t think there was a dry eye among us.

Much to Be Thankful For

Reflecting on our life in Jehovah’s service, we have so much to be thankful for. As parents, we have had the blessing of seeing both our daughters and their husbands, Ray and John, continue to serve Jehovah faithfully. They have been a real support to us in our missionary assignment.

For the past 12 years, Ann and I have had the privilege of serving at the Solomon Islands branch office, and during that time, we have seen the number of Kingdom proclaimers in the Solomon Islands double, reaching over 1,800. Recently, I received the additional privilege of attending the School for Branch Committee Members in Patterson, New York. Truly, we have enjoyed a rich life with many blessings for maintaining the missionary spirit.

[Footnote]

^ par. 10 See the article “We Did Not Procrastinate” in The Watchtower, January 15, 1977.

[Picture on page 23]

On our wedding day, 1960

[Picture on page 24]

In Uganda, Stanley and Esinala Makumba were a source of encouragement to our family

[Picture on page 24]

Sara walking into a neighbor’s hut

[Picture on page 25]

I drew pictures to help me teach Solomon Islanders

[Picture on page 25]

Meeting with an isolated congregation in the Solomon Islands

[Picture on page 26]

Our family today