Eleven Years to Find True Treasure
BEIRUT, Lebanon. This city is familiar to most people through news headlines as a place torn by civil war. But for me it is home. And at about the time that my own countrymen flared with hate and my home erupted in war, I replaced my hate with a peace more valuable than any treasure on earth. Let me tell how this came about.
I was the youngest of seven children, born in Beirut to Arab parents in 1949. As a child I wanted very much to be close to God. But no one in my family was very religious, even though they claimed to be Christians. Seldom, if ever, did any of them go to church. So I would go alone.
While kneeling in prayer in front of the pictures of Jesus or the virgin Mary, I would often shed tears. I prayed to know the truth. Anytime I passed a church I would make the sign of the cross. I wanted to please God, and as I grew older I felt that being a priest would be the best way to do this.
In 1962, when I was 13, my mother accompanied me to apply to become a priest. Inside the main administration building of the Greek Orthodox Church in Beirut, we climbed the stairs to the office of the patriarch. When I told him I wanted to be a priest, he only asked: “Do you have a good voice?” “Yes,” I answered. And when he saw that I did, he said: “We accept you.” How happy I was! I felt as though I had gained a treasure—to serve God as a priest!
A True Treasure?
As we were leaving, a woman who worked there at the church headquarters said something that disturbed me. “Don’t become a priest,” she urged. “Your sins will be greater.” What did she mean? I didn’t understand. But during the next three years of my training for the priesthood, I recalled her words often, with understanding. Why? Because of what I observed.
The priests in Lebanon were involved in politics, supporting one party and opposing another. I knew a priest who carried a revolver concealed under his robes. It seemed wrong to me that priests should be so ready to participate in fighting and war. I wondered, ‘Would Christ or his apostles do that?’
Also, the priests were greedy for money. I saw them fight over the collection money, cursing one another. “I want this,” they’d say. And I saw them with their girl friends. Every time a certain priest said Mass, his girl friend would come. Many knew that what they were doing was sinful. Well, when I saw his girl friend come and push an old woman away to get a better position next to the priest, I began to hate the priest. Still, I thought the church was right, only the priests were bad.
After three years I stopped preparing to be a priest, yet I continued to be very active in the church, attending regularly and singing in the choir. My goals had changed. Now sports, in particular basketball, became my chief interest. In addition, during school vacations I worked in my older brother’s factory, learning his trade. Being 20 years older than me, he was like my father—our father had died.
Encounter With the Witnesses
The church group that I belonged to was strongly anti-Jewish. And we were also taught to hate Jehovah’s Witnesses. We were told they were Zionists, that they were against Christ. Oh, they used Christ’s name, but that, I thought, was only a front. If you just mentioned the word “Jehovah,” I’d get angry, ready to fight. We organized young people to follow the Witnesses to the houses to harass and attack them with sticks and stones.
Well, one day after basketball practice I was visiting my sister, and for the first time I met the Witnesses personally when they called at her house. Arabs have the custom to be hospitable to people when they come into their home, so I was. When they raised questions I couldn’t answer, I said, “Come next week and I will bring the priest.”
The following week we met. I could see that the priest didn’t know the Bible—he couldn’t defend himself. When the Witnesses showed that we shouldn’t call any spiritual leader “father,” he simply said, ‘It’s OK, don’t call me father.’ (Matthew 23:9) Even though he didn’t know the Bible, still he was my priest. And so I told the Witnesses: “Don’t ever come back. I’ll break your legs if you do.” And I meant it.
Achieving Athletic Fame
Meanwhile, I had grown to well over six feet (1.8 m), quite tall for an Arab. And basketball became my whole life; for years I practiced five hours daily. I determined to be the best and by 1971 became known throughout the country for my ability. That year I was selected for the national team that represented Lebanon in international competition in Saudi Arabia.
The following year I received greater recognition, being appointed the captain of a school team made up of the best players in all Lebanon. I played guard and was the team’s playmaker. We went to Iraq for a tournament of all Arab countries and almost won. We were the runner-up to Iraq. In 1973 I was again selected as a member of Lebanon’s best team.
I had achieved my goal to be one of the best in basketball, at least in Lebanon. People recognized me. I was famous. Girls flocked around me. But these things did not bring me the real happiness that I thought they would. The treasure was not genuine.
Meeting the Witnesses Again
Early in 1973 my good friend, a fellow star basketball player, began to study the Bible with the Witnesses. When I learned of it, I immediately went to him and said: “Sami, these people are no good. Don’t get mixed up with them.” And in my anger I cursed Jehovah’s name.
“No! no! Joseph, don’t say that,” he cautioned. “Talk with the Witnesses.”
“All right,” I said, “but if I can show you that they don’t have the truth of the Bible, will you stop studying with them?”
“OK. But if it turns out that they have the truth,” he shot back, “will you become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses?”
There were five of us who were good friends. I informed the other three, and together we went to our priest. “Please come with us to talk with the Witnesses,” we asked. But he wouldn’t come. So my friends said: “If the priest doesn’t go, we won’t go either.” But I had promised Sami, and I couldn’t go back on my word.
At the agreed time about a dozen Witnesses met at Sami’s house. They were very friendly, but I didn’t want to be friendly. “Let’s get on with the discussion,” I demanded. So the Witness taking the lead invited me to begin. “El, the god of the Syrians, is the true God,” I said, “Jehovah is the God of Israel, and he is a murderer.”
The Witness did not argue but simply asked: “Do you believe the whole Bible?”
“Yes,” I answered.
So he asked me to open to Psalm 83:18. When I did, I just sat there. It was as if someone hit me with his fist. I had never seen the name “Jehovah” in the Bible. It said: ‘The one whose name is Jehovah is the Most High God over all the earth.’ And I had often cursed that name!
The Witness asked me to open to another scripture (God’s name, Jehovah, appears about 20 times in the Arabic Bible). But I said, “No, if I don’t believe this verse I don’t believe all the Bible. One verse is enough.”
“OK, I want to discuss more,” I offered. “But I have something to tell you. If you are really the disciples of Jesus Christ—the real disciples—I will become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. But if not, if you are Zionists, I will kill all of you.”
“Fine,” was the reply. “If you find that we are Zionists, kill us.”
From that day I began to read the Bible, something I’d never done before. In three months I had read it through, and I had also studied the book The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life with the Witnesses. The knowledge of God and his Kingdom became something precious to me. As Jesus said: “The kingdom of the heavens is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid; and for the joy he has he goes and sells what things he has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44) I wanted to learn about it—about how I could become one of its earthly subjects. But I did not find it easy to put this ahead of everything else.
Selling All for the Treasure
I was divided. I still loved basketball. And many girl friends would call and want my company. Going out and ‘having a good time’ had a tremendous pull on me. My family even encouraged this immoral life-style, since all of them strongly opposed my association with the Witnesses. Giving up everything for the treasure seemed too much; I discontinued my Bible study.
At about this time my brother had some large gambling debts, and I left the university to work full time to help him save his factory. The Witnesses would continue to call on me to try to build my appreciation—but without success. After about six months I asked myself: ‘Joseph, where are you going? You know the Witnesses have the truth.’
But I needed to make changes. Could I make them? To show my determination, first of all I threw away my cigarettes. Then I went to the phone and called Fadi, the Witness who had studied with me. “My blood is upon your head,” I told him. “You must study with me.”
“Do you mean it? Come and we’ll start again tonight,” he replied. That was in December 1973.
Right away I began to go to congregation meetings, taking a different girl friend with me each time. But when a girl would want to have relations, I would explain: “No, I don’t do that anymore.” Since none of them accepted the truth, I eventually cut off all such association.
My basketball coach was furious. He had spent years developing me as a player, and we had the best team in Lebanon. Now I suddenly quit, just like that. I’d made up my mind to seize the real treasure. On August 24, 1974, I was baptized, thus symbolizing my dedication to serve Jehovah God.
The following year I married Kathy, a regular pioneer (that is, a full-time minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses). Then, in 1976, I was appointed an elder in the Christian congregation. At about the same time I bought my own factory where we did metal plating, the same kind of factory my brother had. My only employees were five Witnesses. I would close the factory at 4 p.m. and share in the ministry with my wife until 11 p.m. We conducted 20 Bible studies a month. But I felt torn between the two activities.
So in February 1978 I sold the factory and began in the special-pioneer work. What a blessing! For the following month a bomb blew up the factory. It would have been practically worthless if I had not sold it when I did!
A Treasure Worth Any Sacrifice
Serving our loving Father, Jehovah, and his Kingdom interests has brought me true contentment and satisfaction, despite the dangers of serving God in this war-torn country. Why, in the first year of the civil war that began in 1975 some 15,000 to 20,000 were killed, and since then tens of thousands more have died! Since Lebanon has a population of only about three million, that would be comparable to the United States losing many millions of citizens in such a war! Often we are exposed to bullets and bombs as we carry on our ministry.
In 1980 I was assigned as a circuit overseer in Beirut, visiting the congregations in the city to strengthen them spiritually. During two and a half years in this work we didn’t miss visiting a congregation, even though at times more than a thousand shells and bombs a minute fell like rain. Due to the especially heavy fighting in the neighborhood of one congregation, the advisability of visiting it was questioned. Some wondered: ‘Will anyone come to a meeting under such conditions?’ We were advised to go. The congregation has 45 Kingdom publishers, and 45 were at the meeting despite the heavy fighting!
Often meetings are held with the bombs exploding outside. Going in the ministry, we duck the bullets and hide just as the soldiers do. But we continue preaching, believing that to die while directly involved in God’s service would be the finest way to die. One time we arranged to go out in the ministry, but the shelling was so heavy that for three hours ten of us were trapped in a small corridor, waiting for a break in the bombardment. We sang Kingdom songs and discussed Bible questions.
On another occasion I was working from house to house with a nine-year-old boy, his first time in the service. We called on a man involved in the fighting. He held a gun to my head and said he was going to kill me. I prayed to Jehovah for help. Then I told him: “If you kill me, my family, who are not Jehovah’s Witnesses, may hunt you down and kill you.” He let us go, and we continued from house to house. The young boy showed true Christian courage.
Often we experience Jehovah’s protection. For example, a house that we used as a congregation meeting place was taken over by one of the fighters. Some may have wondered: ‘Why did Jehovah permit this?’ Well, on the following Monday, when a congregation meeting would have been in progress, terrific fighting broke out on that street. It came right to the house where our meeting would have been. The building was riddled with bullets, which would almost surely have killed many Witnesses. The house was taken over by fighters of another party, and later I was able to negotiate with them to have the house returned, to be used as a meeting place once more!
After serving as a circuit overseer for more than two years in the war-torn city of Beirut, in March of 1983 I was called to the New York headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses for some special training. The months that Kathy and I spent there were truly a highlight of our life. As we now return home to Lebanon, we are more determined than ever to show by our service that to us God’s Kingdom is more precious than all else, a real treasure.—Contributed.
[Blurb on page 15]
We organized young people to harass and attack the Witnesses