Perseverance Brings Joy
AS TOLD BY MÁRIO ROCHA DE SOUZA
“It is unlikely that Mr. Rocha will survive an operation.” Despite this gloomy forecast by a doctor, today some 20 years later, I am still alive, serving as a full-time preacher of Jehovah’s Witnesses. What has helped me to persevere all these years?
MY CHILDHOOD was spent on a farm near Santo Estêvão, a village in the state of Bahia, northeastern Brazil. When I was seven, I began to help Father with farmwork. Each day after school, he assigned me a task. In time, whenever Father went on business to Salvador, the state capital, he left me in charge of the farm.
We had no electricity, running water, or conveniences common today, yet we were happy. I would fly a kite or play with the wooden toy cars my friends and I made. I also played the clarinet in religious processions. I served as a choirboy at the local church, and it was there that I saw a book called História Sagrada (Sacred History), which aroused my curiosity in the Bible.
In 1932, when I was 20, the northeast of Brazil was hit by a severe, prolonged drought. Our cattle died and the crops failed, so I moved to Salvador, where I found work as a tram driver. Later, I rented a house and brought my family to live with me. In 1944, Father died, leaving me to care for Mother and my eight sisters and three brothers.
From Tram Driver to Evangelizer
One of the first things I did when I arrived in Salvador was to buy a Bible. After attending the Baptist church for some years, I struck up a friendship with Durval, a fellow tram driver. Durval and I often had long discussions about the Bible. One day he gave me a booklet entitled Where Are the Dead? * Although I believed that man has an immortal soul, I was curious enough to check the Bible texts quoted in the booklet. To my surprise, the Bible confirmed that the soul that sins will die.—Ezekiel 18:4.
Noting my interest, Durval asked Antônio Andrade, a full-time minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses, to visit me at home. After his third visit, Antônio invited me to accompany him in sharing Bible teachings with others. After he spoke at the first two doors, he said, “Now it is your turn.” I was petrified, but to my joy, one family listened attentively and accepted the two books I offered. To this day, I experience a similar rush of joy when I meet somebody who is interested in Bible truth.
On April 19, 1943, the anniversary of Christ’s death that year, I was baptized in the Atlantic Ocean off Salvador. Because of the lack of experienced Christian men, I was appointed to assist the group of Witnesses who met in Brother Andrade’s home on one of the narrow streets that connects the upper and lower section of the city of Salvador.
Our Christian activity was unpopular during the years of World War II (1939-45). Some officials suspected that we were North American spies because most of our publications came from the United States. As a result, arrests and interrogations were common. When a Witness did not return from the field ministry, we concluded that he had been detained, and we would go to the police station to seek his release.
In August 1943, Adolphe Messmer, a German Witness, arrived in Salvador to help organize our first assembly. After permission was obtained from the authorities to hold the assembly, advertisements for the public talk “Freedom in the New World” were placed in local papers, and posters were displayed in shop windows and on the sides of the trams. But on the second day of the assembly, a policeman informed us that our license to meet had been canceled. The archbishop of Salvador had pressured the chief of police to stop our assembly. The following April, however, we were finally granted permission to hold the advertised public talk.
A Goal to Pursue
In 1946, I received an invitation to attend the Glad Nations Theocratic Assembly in the city of São Paulo. The captain of a cargo vessel in Salvador allowed a group of us to travel on his ship if we would sleep on deck. Despite encountering a storm during which we all suffered from seasickness, after four days at sea we docked safely at Rio de Janeiro. Witnesses in Rio welcomed us into their homes to rest for a couple of days before we continued our trip by train. A small crowd bearing banners with the message “Welcome Jehovah’s Witnesses” greeted us when our train arrived in São Paulo.
Shortly after returning to Salvador, I spoke to Harry Black, a missionary from the United States, about my desire to become a pioneer, as full-time ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses are called. Harry reminded me that I had family responsibilities to care for and advised me to be patient. Finally, by June 1952, my brothers and sisters had become financially independent, and I was assigned to serve as a pioneer in a small congregation in Ilhéus, 130 miles [210 km] down the coast from Salvador.
A Generous Provision
The following year, I was assigned to Jequié, a large town in the interior where there were no Witnesses. The first person I visited was the local priest. He explained that the town belonged to him and forbade me to preach there. He warned parishioners about the arrival of a “false prophet” and posted spies around town to monitor my activities. Nevertheless, that day I placed over 90 pieces of Bible literature and started four Bible studies. Two years later, Jequié had its own Kingdom Hall, with 36 Witnesses! Today, there are eight congregations and about 700 Witnesses in Jequié.
During my first months in Jequié, I lived in a small rented room on the outskirts of town. Then I met Miguel Vaz de Oliveira, the owner of Hotel Sudoeste, one of the best hotels in Jequié. Miguel accepted a Bible study and insisted that I move into a room at his hotel. Miguel and his wife later became Witnesses.
Another fond memory of my days in Jequié involves Luiz Cotrim, a high-school teacher with whom I studied the Bible. Luiz offered to help me improve my knowledge of Portuguese and math. I had barely completed elementary school, so I readily accepted his invitation. Those lessons after Luiz’ Bible study every week helped to prepare me for the additional privileges I soon received from Jehovah’s organization.
Facing a New Challenge
In 1956, I received a letter inviting me to our branch office, then in Rio de Janeiro, to receive training to be a circuit overseer, as traveling ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses are called. The training course, which eight others also attended, lasted just over a month. As it drew to a close, I was assigned to São Paulo, which caused me to have reservations. I asked myself: ‘What am I, a black man, going to do there among all those Italians? Will they accept me?’ *
At the first congregation I visited in the district of Santo Amaro, I was encouraged to see that the Kingdom Hall was filled with fellow Witnesses and interested people. What convinced me that my fears were unfounded was that all 97 in the congregation shared in the ministry with me that weekend. ‘They really are my brothers,’ I thought to myself. It was the warmth of those dear brothers and sisters that gave me the courage to persevere in the traveling ministry.
Donkeys, Horses, and Anteaters
One of the greatest challenges that traveling overseers faced in the early days were the long journeys to reach congregations and smaller groups of Witnesses in rural areas. In those places, public transportation was precarious or nonexistent, and most of the roads were narrow dirt tracks.
Some circuits solved this problem by purchasing a donkey or a horse for the circuit overseer to use. Many a Monday, I saddled up, strapped down my belongings, and rode up to 12 hours to the next congregation. At Santa Fé do Sul, the Witnesses owned a donkey called Dourado (Goldie) that could find its way to the study groups in the rural area. Dourado would stop at farm gates and wait patiently for me to open them. After the visit, Dourado and I would continue on to the next group.
The lack of a reliable means of communication also made the circuit work challenging. For example, in order to visit a small group of Witnesses who met on a farm in Mato Grosso State, I had to cross the Araguaia River by boat and ride about 15 miles [25 km] through the forest. On one occasion, I wrote to inform this group of my visit, but the letter evidently went astray, for nobody was waiting for me when I crossed the river. It was late in the afternoon, so I asked the owner of a small bar to look after my luggage, and I set off on foot with just my briefcase.
Soon night fell. As I was stumbling along in the darkness, an anteater snorted. I had heard that an anteater can rise up and kill a man with its powerful forearms. So whenever anything made a noise in the undergrowth, I cautiously stepped forward holding my briefcase in front of me as a protection. After walking for hours, I reached a small stream. Unfortunately, in the darkness I did not notice that there was a barbed-wire fence on the opposite bank. I managed to clear the stream in one bound, only to land on the fence, cutting myself!
I finally arrived at the farm and was greeted by the noise of barking dogs. It was common then for sheep rustlers to attack at night, so as the door opened, I hurriedly identified myself. I must have been a sorry sight in my torn, blood-stained clothes, but the brothers were happy to see me.
Despite the hardships, those were happy days. I enjoyed the long journeys on horseback and on foot, at times resting in the shade of the trees, listening to the birds sing, and watching the foxes cross my path on those deserted roads. Another source of joy was the knowledge that my visits really helped people. Many wrote to me to express their gratitude. Others thanked me personally when we met at assemblies. What pleasure it gave me to see people overcome personal problems and make spiritual progress!
A Helper, at Last
During those years in the traveling work, I was often on my own, and that taught me to rely on Jehovah as “my crag and my stronghold.” (Psalm 18:2) Additionally, I appreciated that being single allowed me to give my undivided attention to Kingdom interests.
In 1978, however, I met a pioneer sister named Júlia Takahashi. She had given up a secure job as a nurse in a large hospital in São Paulo in order to serve where the need for Kingdom publishers was greater. The Christian elders who knew her spoke highly of her spiritual qualities and abilities as a pioneer. As you can imagine, my decision to marry after so many years came as a surprise to some. One good friend could not believe it, and he promised me a 600-pound [270 kg] bull if I really did get married. We barbecued that bull at our wedding reception on July 1, 1978.
Persevering Despite Poor Health
Júlia joined me in the traveling work, and together we visited congregations in the south and southeast of Brazil for the next eight years. That is when I developed heart problems. Twice I passed out while speaking to householders in the preaching work. In view of my limitations, we accepted an assignment as special pioneers in Birigüi, São Paulo State.
At this point, the Witnesses in Birigüi offered to take me by car to consult a doctor in Goiânia, some 300 miles [500 km] away. Once my condition had stabilized, I had an operation to implant a pacemaker. That was some 20 years ago. Despite undergoing two additional heart operations, I am still active in the disciple-making work. Like so many other loyal Christian wives, Júlia has been a constant source of strength and encouragement.
While health problems have limited my activity and on occasion cause me discouragement, I am still able to pioneer. I remind myself that Jehovah never promised us that life in this old system would be a bed of roses. If the apostle Paul and other faithful Christians of old had to persevere, why should things be any different for us?—Acts 14:22.
Recently, I came across the first Bible that I obtained in the 1930’s. On the inside cover, I had written 350—the number of Kingdom proclaimers in Brazil when I began to attend Christian meetings in 1943. It seems unbelievable that there are now well over 600,000 Witnesses in Brazil. What a privilege it has been to have had a small part in this growth! Jehovah has certainly rewarded me for persevering. Like the psalmist, I can say: “Jehovah has done a great thing in what he has done with us. We have become joyful.”—Psalm 126:3.
^ par. 9 Published by Jehovah’s Witnesses but now out of print.
^ par. 23 Almost 1,000,000 Italian immigrants settled in São Paulo between 1870 and 1920.
[Picture on page 9]
Witnesses advertising the public talk at the first assembly in the city of Salvador, 1943
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Witnesses arriving at São Paulo for the Glad Nations Assembly, 1946
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In the traveling work during the late 1950’s
[Picture on page 12]
With my wife, Júlia