It was the first time I had preached alone. I was so nervous that my legs were shaking each time I went out. But what made it even more difficult was that most people did not want to listen to me. Some were very angry and said that they would beat me up. During that first month of pioneering, I placed only one booklet!
THAT happened in 1949. But my story begins many years before this. I was born in 1927 in north Drenthe, in the Netherlands. I was the fourth of seven children. My father, Hendrik, was a shoemaker and a gardener. Our house was on a dirt road in the country. Most of our neighbors were farmers, and I really enjoyed farm life. In 1947, I learned the truth from one of our neighbors. His name was Theunis Been. I did not like Theunis when I first met him. But after he became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I noticed he was a friendlier person. I was interested in knowing why he had changed. So when he talked to me about God’s promise of a paradise earth, I listened to him. I accepted the truth quickly, and we became good friends. *
I started preaching in May 1948 and was baptized one month later, on June 20 at a convention in Utrecht. I began pioneering on January 1, 1949 and was assigned to a small congregation in Borculo. I had to travel about 130 kilometers (80 miles) to get there, so I decided to ride my bicycle. I thought it would take me only six hours. But because of heavy rain and strong wind, it took 12 hours, even though I took the train part of the way! I arrived late in the evening at the home of a Witness family. This is where I lived while I pioneered in the area.
After the war, people owned very little. I had only one suit that was too big and one pair of pants that were too short. But Jehovah blessed me with many Bible studies even though preaching in Borculo was difficult. Later I was assigned to Amsterdam.
FROM THE COUNTRY TO THE CITY
I moved from living in the country to living in Amsterdam, the largest city in the Netherlands. People showed a lot of interest in the good news. During the first month, I placed more literature than I had in the nine months I was in my first assignment. I soon had more than eight Bible studies. After I became the congregation servant (now called the coordinator of the body of elders), I was asked to give my first public talk. But I did not feel qualified for this assignment. So I was very happy when I was asked to move to another congregation just before I had to give the talk. At that time, I did not know that during my life I would give more than 5,000 talks!
In May 1950, I was assigned to Haarlem. Then I was invited to begin circuit work. I could hardly sleep for three days. I told Robert Winkler, one of the brothers working at the branch office, that I did not feel qualified. But he said: “Just fill out the papers. You’ll learn.” So after a month of training, I started in the circuit work. While visiting a congregation, I met a happy young pioneer sister named Janny Taatgen. She loved Jehovah very much and worked very hard in the ministry. But before I continue my story, my wife, Janny, will explain how she became a pioneer and how we served together after we got married.
SERVING TOGETHER AS A MARRIED COUPLE
Janny: My mother became a Witness in 1945 when I was 11 years old. She quickly learned that she needed to study the Bible with her three children. But my father was opposed, so she studied with us when he was not at home.
The first meeting I attended was a convention in The Hague in 1950, and one week later I went to my first meeting at the Kingdom Hall in Assen, Drenthe. My father was so angry with me that he made me move out of the house. But before I left, my mother said, “You know where you can live.” I knew she meant that I could go live with the brothers and sisters in the congregation. At first, I moved in with a family who lived close to my home. But my father was still causing me problems, so I moved to a congregation 95 kilometers (60 miles) away. However, my father then told me I could move back home. Why? He had got in trouble with the authorities for making me move out of the house before I was an adult. Although he never accepted the truth, he eventually allowed me to attend all the meetings and to go in the ministry.
Not long after I returned home, my mother became very sick and I had to do all the cooking and cleaning. Although I had a lot of work, I continued to make progress in the truth. I was baptized in 1951 at the age of 17. One year later, when my mother was feeling better, I served as a vacation (auxiliary) pioneer for two months with three other sisters. We lived on a houseboat while we preached in the area. I later became a regular pioneer. One year later, a young circuit overseer visited our congregation. It was Markus. We wanted to serve Jehovah better and thought we could do this as a couple. So we got married in May 1955.
Markus: After our wedding, we were assigned as pioneers to the town of Veendam. We lived in a tiny room. Every night, we had to move our table and chairs so that we could pull our wall bed down. But even though our home was small, Janny made it comfortable.
After being in Veendam for six months, we were invited to the traveling work in Flanders, which is in the north of Belgium. The people there speak the same language as in the Netherlands, but they speak it with a different accent. So when we first arrived, it took some time to understand the people. In 1955, there were only about 4,000 publishers in the country. Now there are over 24,000 publishers!
Janny: To be in the traveling work, a person has to be willing to serve God and help others. We rode our bicycles to visit each congregation and stayed in the homes of the brothers and sisters. Because we did not have our own place to live, we stayed until Monday and traveled to the next congregation on Tuesday morning. There were difficulties, but we always thought of our service as a blessing from Jehovah.
Markus: Even though we did not know any of the brothers and sisters when we first moved to Belgium, they were very kind and hospitable. (Hebrews 13:2, footnote) We visited all the congregations that spoke Dutch, and we received many blessings. We were able to get to know almost all the brothers and sisters, and they became very precious to us. We have seen hundreds of children grow up and make progress in the truth. They dedicated themselves to Jehovah and put his service first in their lives. And to see many of them serve Jehovah in full-time service has made us very happy. (3 John 4) This encouragement has made it easy for us to continue in our service to Jehovah with all our heart.
A DIFFICULT SITUATION AND A REAL BLESSING
Markus: Ever since we got married, we wanted to go to Gilead. We studied English every day for at least an hour. But it was not easy to learn the language just from books. So we went to England for vacation, and we practiced English while we preached. In 1963, we received two letters from the world headquarters in Brooklyn. One letter was for me, and one was for Janny. My letter was an invitation to attend Gilead. This ten-month course would teach mainly the brothers how to organize the preaching work. The class had 100 students, and 82 were brothers.
Janny: In the letter that I received, I was asked to pray about whether I would be willing to stay in Belgium while Markus was at Gilead. I must admit that I was disappointed about this at first. I felt that all my hard work was not being blessed. But then I remembered that the purpose of Gilead was to help students to do the preaching work worldwide. So I agreed to stay in Belgium and special pioneer in Ghent with two other sisters, Anna and Maria Colpaert.
Markus: Before school started, I was invited to go to Brooklyn for five months to improve my English. While I was there, I worked in the Shipping and Service departments. I helped prepare literature shipments to Asia, Europe, and South America. This helped me to understand how large the international brotherhood was and to value it more. One person who had a big effect on me was Brother A. H. Macmillan. He had been a traveling overseer in the days of Brother Russell. Although Brother Macmillan was old and could not hear very well, he attended all the congregation meetings. This taught me that we should always value association with our Christian brothers and sisters.
Janny: We wrote each other letters every week. Markus and I missed each other very much! But he enjoyed everything he was learning at Gilead, and I was really enjoying my ministry. By the time Markus came home from the United States, I had 17 Bible studies. Although it was difficult to be separated for 15 months, we felt that Jehovah blessed us for doing what he wanted us to do. On the day Markus came back, the plane was delayed for many hours. When he finally arrived, we cried in each other’s arms. And we have always been together since that day!
THANKFUL FOR EVERY ASSIGNMENT
Markus: After I came back from Gilead in December 1964, we were assigned to Bethel. But this soon changed. Three months later, we were assigned to the district work in Flanders. When Aalzen and Els Wiegersma were sent as missionaries to Belgium, they were assigned to the district work and we returned to serve at Bethel. I worked in the Service Department. From 1968 to 1980, our assignment changed many times. We either served at Bethel or in the traveling work. Then from 1980 until 2005, I served again as a district overseer.
Although we had many changes, we never forgot our promise to Jehovah that we would serve him with all our heart. We really enjoyed every assignment that we received, and we were sure that the purpose of any change in our assignment was to help the preaching work.
Janny: I was very excited to go with Markus to Brooklyn in 1977 and to Patterson in 1997 when he received more training as a Branch Committee member.
JEHOVAH KNOWS OUR NEEDS
Markus: In 1982, Janny had surgery and it went well. Three years later, the congregation in Louvain offered to let us live in their Kingdom Hall apartment. For the first time in 30 years, we had our very own place to live. When we would leave to visit a congregation, I had to go up and down many steps to take our luggage down. So we were very thankful that in 2002, we were given an apartment on the ground floor. We were assigned as special pioneers in Lokeren when I was 78 years old. We are happy that we still serve as special pioneers and that we can still go out in the ministry every day.
“We strongly believe that it is not important where we serve or in what position we serve but whom we serve, our God Jehovah”
Janny: Altogether we have been in the full-time ministry for a total of 120 years! We have seen that if we are faithful to Jehovah, he will never leave us and he will take good care of us.
Markus: When we were young, we dedicated ourselves to Jehovah. We did not want great things for ourselves. We have always accepted any assignment given to us. We strongly believe that it is not important where we serve or in what position we serve but whom we serve, our God Jehovah.
^ par. 5 My father, my mother, an older sister, and two of my brothers also became Witnesses.