I Wanted to Be Like Jephthah’s Daughter

As told by Joanna Soans

When I was still a teenager, I developed a strong desire to be like Jephthah’s daughter. Let me explain what I had in mind and how I eventually became much like her.

IN 1956, I attended my first assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, and that changed my life. I was deeply moved by a talk I heard there about Jephthah’s daughter.

As you may have read in the Bible, Jephthah’s daughter, when apparently only a teenager, agreed not to marry. This made it possible for her father to fulfill a vow he had made. So she served as a single woman at Jehovah’s house, or tabernacle, for the rest of her life.​—Judges 11:28-40.

Oh, how I wanted to be like her! But I faced a big problem​—remaining unmarried was contrary to our culture in India at the time.

My Family Background

I was the fifth of six children born to Benjamin and Marcelina Soans in Udipi, a city on the west coast of India. Our mother tongue is Tulu, a language spoken by about two million people. However, like most people in Udipi, our education was in the Kannada language.

Marriage and childbearing have always dominated life in this area. Growing up, I do not ever recall learning the Tulu expressions for “singleness,” “loneliness,” or “homesickness.” It was as if these conditions did not exist. Our family, for example, shared a home with my grandparents, uncles, aunts, and a dozen cousins!

Traditionally, we had been part of a matrilineal system, in which children were considered part of the mother’s family. Lineage was traced through her, and daughters received the larger share of the inheritance. In some Tulu communities, a girl continued to live with her mother after marriage, and her husband would join her.

Since our family had become nominal Christians, some things were different. Each evening, my grandfather led the family in worship, praying and reading aloud from the Bible in the Tulu language. Whenever he opened his tattered copy of the Bible to read to us, it was as if he were opening a box of jewels. It was exciting! Psalm 23:1 intrigued me: “Jehovah is my Shepherd. I shall lack nothing.” I wondered, ‘Who is this Jehovah, and why is he called a shepherd?’

The “Scales” Fell From My Eyes

As a result of economic hardships following World War II, we moved to Bombay, over 550 miles (900 km) away. There, in 1945, two of Jehovah’s Witnesses visited my father and gave him a Bible booklet. Father drank in its message the way parched soil drinks in the rain, and he began to share its message with other Kannada-speaking people. By the  early 1950’s, a small study group had grown into the first Kannada-language congregation in Bombay.

Father and Mother taught us children to be keen Bible students and good teachers. Each day, they found opportunities to pray and study with us. (Deuteronomy 6:6, 7; 2 Timothy 3:14-16) One day while I was reading the Bible, scales, as it were, fell from my eyes. I learned that Jehovah is likened to a shepherd because he guides, feeds, and protects his worshippers.​—Psalm 23:1-6; 83:18.

Jehovah Has Held My Hand

I was baptized shortly after the memorable Bombay convention in 1956. Six months later, I followed the example of my older brother Prabhakar and became a full-time evangelizer. Although I was eager to share Bible truths with others, my mouth went dry as soon as I tried to speak about what I believed. I stuttered, and my voice trembled. ‘I can do this work only with Jehovah’s help!’ I cried to myself.

Help from Jehovah came in the form of missionaries Homer and Ruth McKay from Canada, who had attended the missionary school of Jehovah’s Witnesses in New York, U.S.A., in 1947. They held my hand, so to speak, as I clumsily took my first steps when I began in the ministry. Ruth regularly practiced door-to-door presentations with me. She knew exactly how to calm my nerves. Holding my trembling hands, she would say: “Don’t worry, dear. Let us try the next house.” Her reassuring tone gave me heart.

One day, I was informed that Elizabeth Chakranarayan, an older, experienced Bible teacher, would be my partner in the ministry. My initial reaction was: ‘How will I manage to live with this sister? She is so much older than I am!’ But she turned out to be exactly the partner I needed.

“We Are Never Really Alone”

Our first assignment was to the historic city of Aurangabad, nearly 250 miles (400 km) east of Bombay. It quickly dawned on us that we were the only two Witnesses in a city of nearly a million people. Besides, I had to learn Marathi, the predominant language spoken in the city.

At times, waves of loneliness came over me, and I would sob like a motherless child. But Elizabeth’s motherly tone encouraged me. “We may feel lonely at times, but we are never really alone,” she would say. “Though you are far away from your friends and family, Jehovah is always with you. Make him your friend, and your loneliness will soon fly away.” I treasure her advice to this day.

When funds for transportation were low, we walked up to 12 miles (20 km) daily through dust and mud, heat and cold. In the summer, temperatures often reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40°C). During the monsoon season, parts of the territory remained muddy for months. Yet, we often found that the cultural views of the people were more challenging than the weather.

Women did not communicate with men in public unless they were related, and women rarely taught men. So we faced ridicule and abuse. During the first six months, just the two of us met for the weekly Bible meetings.  In time, interested people joined us. Soon a small group was to form. Some even joined us in the ministry.

“Keep Sharpening Your Skills”

After about two and a half years, we were reassigned to Bombay. While Elizabeth continued in the preaching work, I was asked to help my father, who was then the only translator of our Bible literature into the Kannada language. He welcomed my help, since he had many responsibilities in the congregation.

In 1966, my parents decided to return to Udipi, our former home. As he left Bombay, Father said: “Keep sharpening your skills, my girl. Translate simply and clearly. Avoid overconfidence, and remain humble. Rely on Jehovah.” This was his final advice to me, for he passed away soon after returning to Udipi. I have endeavored to do just that in my translation work even today.

“Don’t You Want to Be Settled?”

Traditionally, Indian parents arrange for their children to get married while their sons and daughters are quite young, and they encourage them to raise a family. So I was often asked: “Don’t you want to be settled? Who will look after you in your old age? Won’t you feel lonely?”

At times I felt emotionally suffocated by such repeated comments. Although I hid my feelings in public, I poured out my heart to Jehovah as soon as I was alone. I was comforted in knowing that he did not view me as lacking because I was single. To renew my resolve to serve him without distraction, I thought of Jephthah’s daughter as well as Jesus​—both of whom remained single and were absorbed in doing the will of God.​—John 4:34.

A Gift From Jehovah

Elizabeth and I remained close friends for almost 50 years. She died in 2005, at the age of 98. Unable to read the Bible in later years because of failing eyesight, she spent much of each day in intimate, extended prayers to God. I thought at times that she was discussing a scripture with someone in her room, only to find that she was talking to Jehovah. He was a real Person to her, and she lived as if she were in his very presence. I have learned that this is the key to remaining steadfast in serving God, as Jephthah’s daughter did. I am so thankful to Jehovah for providing an older, mature sister to mentor me during my younger days and through all my struggles.​—Ecclesiastes 4:9, 10.

What blessings I have enjoyed serving Jehovah as Jephthah’s daughter did! Remaining single and following Bible counsel have enabled me to live a rich, rewarding life, while maintaining “constant attendance upon the Lord without distraction.”​—1 Corinthians 7:35.

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My father giving a public talk in Bombay in the 1950’s

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With Elizabeth shortly before her death

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Advertising a Bible discourse in Bombay in 1960

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With fellow workers in our translation office