‘I OUGHT to be a pioneer. But can pioneering really be that exciting?’ I wondered. I loved my job in Germany, where I managed food exports to exotic places in Africa, such as Dar es Salaam, Elisabethville, and Asmara. Little did I know that one day I would serve Jehovah full-time in those and many other places throughout Africa!
When I finally overcame my doubts and started pioneering, a door opened to a life that surpassed all my expectations. (Eph. 3:20) But you may wonder how that happened. Let me start from the beginning.
I was born in Berlin, Germany, just a few months after World War II broke out in 1939. As the war neared its end in 1945, Berlin came under heavy aerial bombing. During one bombing raid, our street was hit, and my family and I escaped to an air-raid shelter. For our safety, we later fled to Erfurt, my mother’s birthplace.
Mother searched eagerly for the truth. She read the works of philosophers and examined various religions but was not satisfied. About 1948, two of Jehovah’s Witnesses called at our home. My mother invited them in and raised one question after another. Less than an hour later, she told my younger sister and me, “I have found the truth!” Soon after that, my mother, my sister, and I were attending meetings in Erfurt.
In 1950 we moved back to Berlin, where we associated with the Berlin-Kreuzberg Congregation. After another move within Berlin, we attended the Berlin-Tempelhof Congregation. In time, Mother got baptized, but I hesitated. Why?
OVERCOMING MY SHYNESS AND RELUCTANCE
I made little progress because I was very shy. Although I went in the ministry, for two years I never spoke up to give a witness. Things changed when I spent time with brothers and sisters who had proved their courage and devotion to Jehovah. Some had endured Nazi concentration camps or East German prisons. Others had risked their freedom, smuggling literature into East Germany. Their example deeply impressed me. I reasoned that if they had risked their lives and freedom for Jehovah and their brothers, then I at least should work on being less timid.
I started to overcome my shyness when I participated in a special preaching campaign in 1955. In a letter, published in the Informant, * Brother Nathan Knorr announced that the campaign was one of the biggest the organization had ever arranged. He said that if all publishers took part, “we should have the most wonderful month of witnessing ever experienced on this earth.” How true that was! Not long after, I dedicated myself to Jehovah, and in 1956, I got baptized along with my father and my sister. But soon I faced another important decision.
For years, I knew that pioneering would eventually be the right career to pursue, but I kept postponing it. First, I decided to do an apprenticeship in the wholesale and import-export trade in Berlin. After that, I wanted to work for a while in my profession to gain experience and expertise. Therefore, in 1961, I accepted a job in Hamburg, Germany’s biggest port city. The more I got into my job, the more I wanted to postpone entering full-time service. What would I do?
I am grateful that Jehovah used loving brothers to help me establish spiritual priorities. Several of my friends had started pioneering and set a fine example for me. In addition, Brother Erich Mundt, a concentration camp survivor, encouraged me to trust in Jehovah. He said that in the concentration camp, brothers who relied on themselves later became weak. But those who trusted fully in Jehovah remained faithful and became pillars in the congregation.
Also, Brother Martin Poetzinger, who later served on the Governing Body, kept encouraging the brothers, saying, “Courage is the best asset you can have!” After meditating on these words, I finally quit my secular job and began pioneering in June 1963. That was the best decision I could ever have made! After two months, even before I started looking for a new job, I was invited to serve as a special pioneer. A few years later, Jehovah surpassed all my expectations. I was invited to the 44th class of Gilead School.
LEARNING A VALUABLE LESSON AT GILEAD
“Do not give up quickly in your assignment” was one of the most profound lessons I learned, especially from Brothers Nathan Knorr and Lyman Swingle. They urged us to make our assignment a success. Brother Knorr said: “What will you focus on? The dirt, the bugs, the poverty? Or will you notice the trees, the flowers, and the happy faces? Learn to love the people!” One day, when Brother Swingle explained why some brothers quickly gave up, he struggled with his emotions as tears welled up in his eyes. He had to interrupt his talk to regain his composure. I was deeply touched and was determined to disappoint neither Christ nor his faithful brothers.—Matt. 25:40.
When we received our assignments, some Bethelites curiously asked a group of us where we would be going. They commented positively on each assignment until I said: “Congo (Kinshasa).” They paused and only said: “Oh, Congo! May Jehovah be with you!” In those days, Congo (Kinshasa) was big news with war, mercenaries, and assassinations. But I kept in mind the lessons I had learned. Shortly after our graduation in September 1967, Heinrich Dehnbostel, Claude Lindsay, and I set off for Congo’s capital, Kinshasa.
AN EXCELLENT TRAINING GROUND FOR MISSIONARIES
After we arrived in Kinshasa, we studied French for three months. Then we flew to Lubumbashi, formerly Elisabethville, near the border of Zambia in the far south of Congo. We moved into a missionary home in the center of the city.
Since much of Lubumbashi was untouched territory, we were thrilled to be the first ones to share the truth with many of the residents. Before long, we had more Bible studies than we could conduct. We also witnessed to officials who worked for the government or the civil police. Many showed great respect for God’s Word and our preaching work. The people mainly spoke Swahili, so Claude Lindsay and I also learned that language. Soon afterward, we were assigned to a Swahili-speaking congregation.
Although we enjoyed many wonderful experiences, we also faced challenges. We often had to put up with drunken gun-wielding soldiers or troublesome policemen, who made false accusations. Once a whole group of armed policemen stormed into our congregation meeting at the missionary home and took us to the central police station, where they kept us sitting on the ground until about ten o’clock in the evening before they released us.
In 1969, I was assigned to the traveling work. In that circuit, I got a taste of the African bush, with long walks through tall grass on muddy trails. In one village, a hen with her chicks roosted under my bed at night. I will never forget how she gave an enthusiastic start to the day with a loud wake-up call before daybreak. I have fond memories of talking with the brothers about Bible truths while sitting around a campfire in the evenings.
One of the greatest challenges was dealing with false brothers, who supported the Kitawala movement. * Some of them had infiltrated congregations and held positions of responsibility. Many of these ‘hidden rocks’ were exposed by genuine brothers and sisters. (Jude 12) Eventually, Jehovah cleansed the congregations and laid the foundation for phenomenal growth.
In 1971, I was assigned to the branch office in Kinshasa, where I cared for various work assignments, such as correspondence, literature orders, and service matters. At Bethel, I learned to organize the work in a huge country that had a limited infrastructure. Occasionally, our airmail took months to reach congregations. The mail would be unloaded from an airplane onto boats that afterward got stuck for weeks in a thick carpet of water hyacinths. Nevertheless, the work got done despite these and other challenges.
I was amazed to see how the brothers set up large conventions with only limited funds. They carved platforms out of termite hills, used long elephant grass as walls and, in rolled form, as cushions for seating. They turned bamboo into framework for buildings and reed mats into roofs or tables. And they sliced up tree bark to use in place of nails. I could not help but admire these resilient and ingenious brothers and sisters. They became very dear to my heart. How I missed them when I had to leave for a new assignment!
SERVING IN KENYA
In 1974, I was transferred to the branch office in Nairobi, Kenya. We had much to do, as the Kenya branch supported the preaching work in ten nearby countries, some of which had banned our work. I was repeatedly assigned to visit these countries, especially Ethiopia, where our brothers were persecuted and faced severe trials. Many of them were brutally mistreated or put into prisons; some were even killed. But they endured faithfully because they had a good relationship with Jehovah and one another.
In 1980, my life took a delightful turn when I married Gail Matheson, who is originally from Canada. Gail and I were in the same class of Gilead. We had kept in touch by letter. Gail was serving in her missionary assignment in Bolivia. After 12 years, we met again in New York. Soon thereafter, we got married in Kenya. I am very grateful to Gail for her truly spiritual outlook and exemplary contentment. She continues to be my precious support and loving companion.
In 1986, Gail and I were assigned to the traveling work while I at the same time served on the Branch Committee. The traveling work included serving in many of the countries under the Kenya branch.
I fondly remember making preparations for a convention in Asmara (in Eritrea) in 1992 when our work was not under ban in that region. Sadly, we could find only an unattractive barn that looked even worse on the inside than it did on the outside. On convention day, I was amazed at how the brothers transformed the interior into a place worthy for worshipping Jehovah. Many families brought decorative cloth and skillfully covered anything unsightly. We enjoyed a happy and thrilling convention with 1,279 in attendance.
The traveling work was quite a change for us as accommodations varied greatly. Once we stayed in a luxurious guest wing in a seaside villa; another time, we were in a metal shack in a workers’ camp, with restrooms over 300 feet (100 m) away. But regardless of where we served, the memories we cherish most are of the busy days in service with zealous pioneers and publishers. When we received our next assignment, we had to leave behind many dear friends whom we would miss very much.
REAPING BLESSINGS IN ETHIOPIA
During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, our work was legally established in several countries under the Kenya branch. As a result, separate branch and country offices were set up. In 1993, we were assigned to serve at the office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where after decades of underground activity, the work was now legally recognized.
Jehovah has blessed the work in Ethiopia. Many brothers and sisters took up the pioneer ministry. Over 20 percent of all publishers have served as regular pioneers each year since 2012. In addition, theocratic schools have provided needed training, and over 120 Kingdom Halls have been built. In 2004 the Bethel family moved into a new facility, and an Assembly Hall on the same property has also proved to be a blessing.
Over the years, Gail and I have cherished close bonds of friendship with our brothers and sisters in Ethiopia. Their warmth and kindness are truly endearing. We have recently been struggling with health issues, which made it necessary for us to be reassigned to the Central Europe branch. There, we are lovingly taken care of, but we deeply miss our dear friends in Ethiopia.
JEHOVAH MADE IT GROW
We have experienced how Jehovah has made his work grow. (1 Cor. 3:6, 9) For example, when I first witnessed to Rwandan miners in the Congo’s Copperbelt, no publishers were reporting in Rwanda. Now there are over 30,000 brothers and sisters in that country. In 1967, Congo (Kinshasa) had about 6,000 publishers. Now there are some 230,000, and more than a million people attended the Memorial in 2018. In all the countries that were once cared for by the Kenya branch, the number of publishers has increased to more than 100,000.
Over 50 years ago, Jehovah used various brothers to help me take up the full-time ministry. Although I still struggle with shyness, I have learned to trust fully in Jehovah. What I have experienced in Africa has helped me to cultivate patience and contentment. Gail and I admire the dear brothers and sisters who show outstanding hospitality, resilience, and trust in Jehovah. I feel deep gratitude for his undeserved kindness. Jehovah’s blessings have indeed surpassed anything I could ever have hoped for.—Ps. 37:4.
^ par. 11 Later called Our Kingdom Ministry and now replaced by Our Christian Life and Ministry—Meeting Workbook.
^ par. 23 “Kitawala” is derived from a Swahili term that means “to dominate, direct, or govern.” The goal of this movement was political—to establish independence from Belgium. Kitawala groups acquired, studied, and circulated publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses and twisted Bible teachings to support their political views, superstitious customs, and immoral way of life.