“Never Forget the Door-to-Door Ministry”
As told by Jacob Neufeld
“No matter what happens, never forget the door-to-door ministry.” With those words ringing in my ears, I walked three miles to the nearest village. When I arrived, I could not find the courage to go to the first house. After some struggle, I went into the woods and prayed very hard to God for the courage to preach. Finally, I was able to return to the first door and give my presentation.
WHAT brought me to that village in the desert of Paraguay where I was trying to preach all by myself? Let me go back to the beginning. I was born in November 1923 in the Ukrainian village of Kronstalʹ, in a German Mennonite colony. In the late 1700’s, Mennonites had emigrated from Germany to Ukraine and were granted considerable privileges, including freedom of worship (but not to proselytize), self-government, and exemption from military service.
When the Communist Party came to power, all such privileges were taken away. In the late 1920’s, large Mennonite farms were turned into collectives. People were starved into submission, and any resistance was dealt with brutally. During the 1930’s, many men were taken away by the KGB (Soviet State Security Committee), usually at night, until finally in many villages there were very few men left. That was how in 1938, at the age of 14, I lost my father and never saw or heard from him again. Two years later, my older brother was also taken away.
By 1941, Hitler’s troops occupied Ukraine. For us, this was liberation from the Communist regime. However, eight Jewish families living in our village suddenly disappeared. All these experiences left many questions in my mind. Why did these things happen?
Honesty Saves My Life
In 1943 the German troops retreated, taking with them most of the German families—including what was left of mine—to support the war effort. By this time, I had already been drafted and assigned to the German SS (Schutzstaffel, Hitler’s elite guard) in Romania. A minor incident at this time had a major impact on my life.
The captain of my unit wanted to test my honesty. He told me to take his uniform to the dry cleaner. Inside one of the pockets, he had put some money, which I found. When I returned it, he said that he had left nothing in the uniform. I insisted that it had come from his pocket. Shortly afterward, I was made his assistant and put in charge of handling paperwork, posting the guards, and looking after the money for our unit.
One night, the Russian army captured the whole unit except me; I had been left behind to finish some work for the captain. To the best of my knowledge, I was the only one who was not caught, and that was because I had been honest and had received that special assignment. Otherwise, I too would have been captured.
Thus, in 1944, I suddenly found myself on leave until further notice. I returned home to visit my mother. While waiting for an assignment, I became a mason’s apprentice, and that training proved to be valuable later on. In April 1945 the American troops rolled into our town near Magdeburg. One month later the war officially ended. We were alive. Our future seemed bright.
One day in June, we heard an announcement by the town crier, “The American troops left last night, and the Russian troops will be arriving at 11:00 a.m. today.” Our hearts sank as we realized that we were again trapped in a Communist zone. Immediately, my cousin and I began planning our escape. By midsummer, we had crossed into the American zone. Then, in November, with considerable difficulty and at great risk, we reentered the Russian sector and secretly brought our families across the border.
“Listen Very Carefully, and Compare”
We settled in what was then West Germany. In time, I developed a love for the Bible. On Sundays, I would go into the woods to read the Bible, but what I read seemed so foreign, so far in the past. I was also attending catechism classes in preparation for baptism as a Mennonite. I was shocked when I found in the catechism book the statement: “The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God,” followed by the question: “Are there three Gods?” The answer was printed below: “No, these three are one.” I asked the minister how that could be possible. His response was, “Young man, one should not think too deeply on these matters; some have lost their minds as a result of delving too deeply.” Right then, I decided not to get baptized.
Some days later, I heard a stranger talking to my cousin. Curiosity moved me to join the conversation, and I asked a few questions. I did not know it at the time, but this stranger was Erich Nikolaizig, a survivor of the Wewelsburg concentration camp. He asked me if I wanted to understand the Bible. When I said yes, he assured me that everything he would teach me would be proved from my own copy of the Bible.
After just a few visits, Erich invited me to a convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which I believe was one of the first to be organized after the war. I was very impressed and wrote down every scripture that was read or mentioned by the speakers. Soon I came to realize that learning what the Bible teaches brings certain responsibilities, and I decided to stop my study. I also found it difficult to understand that there could be only one true religion. When Erich saw that I was determined to go back to my old church, he gave me this advice, “Listen very carefully, and compare.”
I needed only two visits to my ministers to realize that they did not know what they were talking about and that they absolutely did not have the truth. I wrote to a number of clergymen and asked them Bible questions. One replied, “You have no right to search around in the Scriptures because you are not born again.”
A young woman whom I was courting forced me to make a difficult choice. She was a member of a born-again sect of the Mennonites. Bowing to pressure from her family, who hated Jehovah’s Witnesses, she informed me that if I did not forget about this new religion, she could no longer see me. By now, the truth was clear enough to me that I knew that there was only one correct choice—I stopped seeing her.
Soon Erich came back to visit. He said that a baptism was scheduled for the next week and asked if I would like to be baptized. I had reached the conclusion that Jehovah’s Witnesses taught the truth, and I wanted to serve Jehovah God. So I accepted his invitation and was baptized in a bathtub in May 1948.
Shortly after my baptism, my family decided to immigrate to Paraguay, South America, and Mother begged me to go. I was reluctant because I needed further Bible study and training. On a visit to the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Wiesbaden, I met August Peters. He reminded me of my responsibility to care for my family. He also gave me this admonition: “No matter what happens, never forget the door-to-door ministry. If you do, you’ll be just like the members of any other religion of Christendom.” To this day, I recognize the importance of that advice and the need to preach “from house to house,” or from door to door.—Acts 20:20, 21.
A “False Prophet” in Paraguay
Shortly after that meeting with August Peters, I boarded a ship for South America with my family. We ended up in the Gran Chaco region of Paraguay, again in a Mennonite colony. Two weeks after our arrival, I made that difficult journey to the neighboring village to preach all by myself. Word spread very quickly that there was a “false prophet” among the new arrivals.
It was now that my training as a mason, or bricklayer, proved invaluable. Each family of immigrants needed a home, and these were constructed of adobe bricks with a thatched roof. For the next six months, I was much in demand and had many opportunities to preach informally. People were polite, but as soon as their four walls were up, they were glad to get rid of me.
Meanwhile, transport ships brought more Mennonite refugees from Germany. Among them was a young woman, Katerina Schellenberg, who had had brief contact with the Witnesses and had recognized the ring of truth almost immediately. Although not yet baptized, she had identified herself as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses while on board the ship. Because of that, she was denied permission to continue on to the German colony. Left by herself in Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, she found work as a maid, learned Spanish, located the Witnesses, and was baptized. In October 1950, that courageous young woman became my wife. She has proved to be a marvelous support and help to me in all that we have gone through over the years.
In a short while, I had saved up enough money to buy a buggy and two horses, and I used these in the preaching work, always remembering Brother Peters’ counsel. By then, my sister, who had also become a Witness, joined us. Together, we often got up at 4:00 a.m., traveled for four hours, preached for two or three hours, and then returned home.
I had read in our literature that public talks were held, so I arranged for one. I had never been to a congregation meeting in Germany, so I just guessed at how it should be done and spoke about God’s Kingdom. Eight people attended that meeting, and this proved to be too much for the ministers of the Mennonite Church. They organized a campaign to gather up every piece of Bible literature that we had placed with the people, instructing them never to say a greeting to us.
Next, I was summoned to the administrative headquarters of the colony and questioned for several hours by the administrator and two visiting ministers from Canada. Finally, one of them said, “Young man, you can believe whatever you want, but you will have to promise that you will not speak to anyone about your beliefs.” That was a promise I could not make. So they told me to leave the colony because they did not want a “false prophet” among the “faithful brethren.” When I refused, they offered to pay the transportation costs for the whole family. I stood my ground and refused to leave.
That summer in 1953, I went to a convention in Asunción. There I spoke to Nathan Knorr, from the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York. He suggested that I move to the capital and work with the small group of missionaries assigned there, especially since the results of our preaching in the Mennonite colony had been so limited.
Putting the Kingdom First
There were only about 35 Witnesses in all of Paraguay at that time. I talked to my wife, and though she was not thrilled about moving to a big city, she was willing to start over again. In 1954, Katerina and I—just the two of us and in our spare time—built a brick home. We never missed any meetings, and we always spoke to people about the Bible on the weekends.
One of my privileges was to accompany the circuit overseer, a traveling minister, to serve as his interpreter when he visited some of the German-speaking colonies in Paraguay. Since I knew little Spanish, the first time I interpreted a talk from Spanish to German was probably the most difficult assignment I have ever received.
Because of my wife’s health, we immigrated to Canada in 1957. Then, in 1963, we moved to the United States. No matter where we have been, we have always tried to put Kingdom interests first in our life. (Matthew 6:33) I am so thankful to Jehovah God that he allowed me to learn the truth from his Word, the Bible, while I was still a young man. The spiritual training that I received has helped me in so many ways throughout my life!
It has been a grand privilege to help others learn from the Bible the wonderful truths that have brought me so much comfort. My greatest joy is that all my children and grandchildren have benefited since infancy from Bible training. All of them are following the advice of Brother Peters, who told me long ago, “No matter what happens, never forget the door-to-door ministry.”
[Blurb on page 22]
My greatest joy is to see that all my children and grandchildren have benefited since infancy from Bible training
[Pictures on page 20, 21]
Katerina and me, shortly before our wedding in 1950
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With our first child at our home in Paraguay, 1952
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With my extended family today
Photo by Keith Trammel © 2000
[Picture Credit Line on page 19]
Photo by Keith Trammel © 2000