Making Adjustments Has Been Rewarding
As told by James A. Thompson
When I was born in the southern United States in 1928, segregation of whites and blacks was the law. Breaking it could lead to imprisonment or worse.
AT THAT time in parts of the United States, white and black Jehovah’s Witnesses had to have separate congregations, circuits, and districts. In 1937 my father became company servant (now called coordinator of the body of elders) of the black congregation in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Henry Nichols was company servant of the white one.
I have pleasant memories of when I was a youth sitting on our back porch at night and listening to Father and Brother Nichols talk. While I did not understand everything they were talking about, I enjoyed being at Father’s side as the two discussed how best to carry on the preaching work under the existing circumstances.
Earlier, in 1930, tragedy hit our family. Mother, who was just 20 years old, died. Father was left to take care of my four-year-old sister, Doris, and me, only two years old. Although Father had only recently been baptized, he made good spiritual progress.
Examples That Shaped My Life
In 1933, Father met a wonderful Christian sister named Lillie Mae Gwendolyn Thomas, and they soon married. Both Father and Mother set a good example for Doris and me in loyally serving Jehovah.
Congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses were asked in 1938 to support a resolution that elders in local congregations be appointed from our headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, instead of being elected locally. When some in Chattanooga hesitated to accept the change, Father declared his unconditional support of the organizational adjustment. His example of loyalty—along with Mother’s wholehearted cooperation—has helped me to this day.
Baptism and Full-Time Ministry
In 1940 several in our congregation rented a bus and traveled to the convention held in Detroit, Michigan. A few in our bus group got baptized there. Some wondered why I did not, as I had been preaching since the age of five and was very active in the ministry.
When they asked me about it, I replied, “I don’t understand all that is involved in baptism.” Father overheard me and was surprised. From then on, he made extra effort to help me understand what baptism means and its importance. On a very cold day four months later, October 1, 1940, I was baptized in a pond outside of Chattanooga.
At age 14, I began pioneering during summer vacations from school. I preached in small towns in Tennessee and the neighboring state of Georgia. I would get up early, pack a lunch, and catch a 6:00 a.m. train or bus to the territory. I returned about 6:00 p.m. The food I packed was often gone long before lunchtime. Although I had money, I could not enter a local store to purchase any more food because I was black. One time, I entered a store to get an ice-cream cone and was asked to leave. A white woman kindly brought one out to me.
As I entered high school, the civil rights movement was picking up momentum in the South. Organizations such as the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) encouraged student activism. We were urged to become members. Several black schools, including mine, made it a goal to have 100-percent membership. I was pressured to “support our race,” as it was put. But I refused, explaining that God is impartial and does not favor one race over another. So I look to God to solve such injustices.—John 17:14; Acts 10:34, 35.
Shortly after finishing high school, I decided to move to New York City. On the way, however, I stopped in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to visit with friends whom I had met earlier at a convention. The congregation there was the first racially mixed one that I attended. During his visit, the traveling overseer took me aside and said that I was being assigned a part on the next meeting. That made it easier for me to decide to stay there.
Among the friends I made in Philadelphia was a young sister named Geraldine White—Gerri, as I came to call her. She knew the Bible well and was adept at communicating with householders in the door-to-door ministry. Especially important to me was that she shared my goal of becoming a pioneer. We were married on April 23, 1949.
Invited to Gilead
Our goal from the start was to attend Gilead School and serve as missionaries in a foreign country. We were happy to adjust our circumstances to qualify for Gilead. Shortly, we were asked to move to Lawnside, New Jersey; then to Chester, Pennsylvania; and finally to Atlantic City, New Jersey. While in Atlantic City, we qualified to apply for Gilead, having been married for two years. But our invitation was put on hold. What was the reason?
During the early part of the 1950’s, many young men were being drafted to serve in the military and fight in the conflict going on in Korea. The draft board in Philadelphia seemed prejudiced against Jehovah’s Witnesses because of our neutrality. Finally, I was informed by a judge that a background check on me by the FBI had substantiated my neutral stand. So on January 11, 1952, the Presidential Appeal Board granted me a 4-D classification as a minister.
In August of that year, Gerri and I received an invitation to attend the 20th class of Gilead, which started in September. During our studies, we anticipated receiving a foreign assignment. My sister, Doris, had graduated from the 13th class of Gilead and was serving in Brazil. How surprised Gerri and I were to receive an assignment to the circuit work—visiting black congregations in the southern state of Alabama! That disappointed us somewhat, for our hearts had been set on serving in a foreign land.
The first congregation we visited was in Huntsville. Upon arriving, we went to the home of a Christian sister with whom we were to stay. As we were unloading our things, we overheard her say on the telephone, “The children are here.” We were only 24 and looked even younger. The nickname The Children stuck as we served that circuit.
The South was often referred to as the Bible Belt because most people there held the Bible in high regard. So we frequently opened conversations with this three-point presentation:
(1) A brief comment on world conditions.
(2) The remedy the Bible provides.
(3) What the Bible says we must do.
Then we offered an appropriate Bible study aid. Because of the success of this approach, I was assigned a part at the 1953 New World Society Assembly in New York. There I demonstrated that three-point presentation.
Soon, in the summer of 1953, I was assigned to serve black circuits in the South as district overseer. Our territory covered the whole area from Virginia to Florida and as far west as Alabama and Tennessee. Yes, traveling overseers needed to be adaptable. For example, we often stayed in homes that had no indoor plumbing and bathed in a tin tub behind the kitchen stove. Happily, that was the warmest part of the house!
The Challenge of Racial Segregation
Serving in the South required forethought and ingenuity to get things done. Blacks were not allowed to use Laundromats. So Gerri would go there and explain that the clothes were for “Mrs. Thompson.” Many seemed to think that she was a servant and that “Mrs. Thompson” was the lady of the house. When district overseers were showing the film The New World Society in Action, I would telephone the shop and reserve a large screen for “Mr. Thompson.” Later, I went to the shop and picked it up. We were always polite and generally fulfilled our ministry without trouble.
There was another form of prejudice, a regional one, against those from the North. A local newspaper once reported that James A. Thompson, Jr., of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York would be speaking at an assembly. Some read this to mean that I was from New York, and our contract for the use of a school auditorium was canceled. So I went to the school board and explained that I had gone to school in Chattanooga. We were then granted permission for our circuit assembly.
Racial tension was heating up in the mid-1950’s, and sometimes there was violence. In 1954, some Witnesses took offense when no black speakers were on the program at a number of district assemblies. We encouraged our black brothers to be patient. The following summer, I was assigned as a speaker. Thereafter, more black brothers in the South were on the programs.
In time, racial violence in the South diminished, and congregations gradually began to integrate. This required reassigning publishers to different congregations as well as adjusting congregation territories and the responsibilities of brothers having oversight. Some, both blacks and whites, did not favor the new arrangement. The majority, however, were impartial, as is our heavenly Father. In fact, many were close friends regardless of color. Our family had experienced that in the 1930’s and 1940’s while I was growing up.
A New Assignment
In January 1969, Gerri and I received an invitation to go to Guyana, South America, and we happily accepted it. First we went to Brooklyn, New York, where I received training to take oversight of the preaching work in Guyana. We arrived there in July 1969. After 16 years in the traveling work, it was a big adjustment to be situated in one place. Gerri spent most of her days in the field ministry as a missionary, and I worked at the branch office.
My work involved everything from cutting the grass and handling literature needs for the 28 congregations to corresponding with headquarters in Brooklyn. I was working 14 to 15 hours each day. It was hard work for both of us, but we enjoyed our assignment. When we arrived, there were 950 publishers in Guyana; today there are over 2,500.
Although we enjoyed pleasant temperatures and exotic fruits and vegetables, our true joy was that humble people who yearned for Bible truth were learning about God’s Kingdom. Often Gerri would conduct 20 weekly Bible studies, and many with whom we studied progressed to baptism. Some, in time, became pioneers, congregation elders, and even went to Gilead to become missionaries themselves.
Challenges, Especially of Health
In 1983 my parents in the United States needed assistance. Doris, Gerri, and I had a family meeting. Doris, who had served for 35 years as a missionary in Brazil, chose to return and look after them. Why take two missionaries out of the field, she said, when one can do the job? Since the death of our parents, Doris has stayed in Chattanooga and serves as a special pioneer.
I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1995 and had to return to the United States. We settled in Goldsboro, North Carolina, because it was about halfway between my family in Tennessee and Gerri’s in Pennsylvania. My cancer is now in remission, and we serve in a Goldsboro congregation as infirm special pioneers.
As I look back over 65 years in the full-time ministry, I am truly grateful that Jehovah has blessed Gerri and me for making adjustments to serve him. How true are the words of David: “With someone loyal [Jehovah] will act in loyalty”!—2 Sam. 22:26.
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My father and Brother Nichols set a fine example for me
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With Gerri, ready for Gilead, 1952
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After attending Gilead, we were assigned to the traveling work in the South
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Traveling overseers and their wives preparing for an integrated district convention, 1966
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Missionary service in Guyana was a joy