A Worthwhile Life Even Though Isolated
I WAS born in January 1927, in Málaga, Spain, the sixth child in a poor Catholic family of seven children. From 1936 to 1939, the Spanish Civil War devastated our country, and we dodged bombs and lived on rationed food. Yet, I was a happy child who loved to sing and be around people.
One thing, though, scared me—the prospect of burning in hellfire. To dampen that fear, I moved into a convent at age 12. There, for nearly three years, I cleaned the marble staircase, prayed, and cleaned again, but I still felt that something was missing. In 1941, I was glad to be able to leave.
After some years I befriended a singer who thought my voice could make money, and she encouraged me to take singing and piano lessons. When World War II ended in 1945, I went to Morocco, where I began performing in nightclubs in Casablanca and Tangier. That was an exciting life for a teenager. But after each show, I went to church to beg the Virgin Mary to forgive me, hoping that I might escape a fiery hell.
After working in nightclubs for nine years, I met an American named Jack Abernathy. He was at the time working in Morocco for an American construction company. We were married that year, and I stopped performing. Soon afterward we moved to Seville, Spain, where we lived until 1960. Then we moved to Lodi, California, U.S.A.—a move that led to another change in my life.
Learning About Jehovah
In 1961 two of Jehovah’s Witnesses visited our home and left the Watchtower and Awake! magazines. Later they offered to study the Bible with me, and I accepted the offer. Thus, I learned about the true God, Jehovah, who is our loving heavenly Father. (Psalm 83:18) What a relief also to learn that there is no burning hell but that we have the prospect instead of living forever in a paradise on earth!—Psalm 37:9-11, 29; Revelation 21:3, 4.
My sister Paquita, who lived near us, also began to study. Before, I smoked and liked to party. And what a temper I had! But I made changes, and on October 17, 1962, Paquita and I were baptized in Sacramento, California, thus symbolizing our dedication to serve Jehovah.
To Thailand by Way of Spain
Shortly thereafter, the construction company for which my husband worked transferred him to Thailand, and I joined him. En route, I visited Spain and was able to share my beliefs with other family members. My sister-in-law Pura responded and became a Witness.
In those days the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses was banned in Spain. Still, we attended a secret meeting in a small room, with one table and no chairs. All 20 of us stood. What a difference from our meetings in California! Seeing my own people risk their freedom in order to meet convinced me of the importance of Christian meetings, a timely lesson just before arriving in Bangkok, Thailand.
“If I ever catch you preaching, I’ll leave you,” Jack told me the day we arrived in Bangkok. The next day he left to manage a construction job in a rural area, so I was left all by myself in bustling Bangkok with a house servant with whom I couldn’t communicate. I kept busy by studying my Bible literature over and over again.
One day in September 1963, when returning home, I noticed a strange pair of shoes at my doorstep. A lady with curly blond hair was waiting for me. “What can I do for you?” I asked.
“I am representing the Watch Tower Society,” she said.
I jumped with excitement, hugging and kissing her. Eva Hiebert was a missionary from Canada. From that day on, Eva came regularly, making two or three bus transfers to reach me. I was afraid to ride the buses in which people were packed together like sardines in a can, but there was no other way I could travel. Eva said: “You’ll never serve Jehovah if you don’t go on those buses.” So we rehearsed how to catch the buses to go to meetings.
I was hesitant about preaching, since I didn’t know the language. I would hang on to Eva’s hand, her basket, and her dress. “You can’t serve Jehovah this way,” she said.
“But I don’t know the language,” I whined.
Eva gave me ten magazines and went off, leaving me in the middle of the market. Timidly, I approached a Chinese woman, showed her the magazines, and she accepted!
“Eva, I placed all ten magazines,” I later beamed. She said, “Jehovah likes people like you. Just continue.” I did, learning to exchange greetings in Thai and, in accord with local custom, sit on the floor. I also learned to find my way around. And my husband’s reaction? One day, when Jack, who had mellowed toward my beliefs, had visitors, he told them: “Tour with Pepita. She gets around because she preaches.”
On to Australia
Eva’s loving but firm training prepared me to stay active in Jehovah’s service during my husband’s next job assignment, in northwest Australia. We arrived in mid-1965, and I settled in a work camp in the middle of the desert where Jack’s company was laying railroad track. Food was flown in by plane, and the weather was hot—over 110 degrees Fahrenheit [43° C.]. There were 21 North American families in the camp, so I began approaching them with the Kingdom message. Later, as work progressed on the railroad track, we moved farther into the desert, where the isolation was even greater.
Earlier I had written the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia, and how pleased I was to receive a letter that said: “Warm love and greetings . . . Our thoughts and prayers will be with you in the future months”! During the years that I traveled with my husband on his work assignments to remote areas of the earth, I was encouraged by such letters from Jehovah’s organization. Reading them pulled me through bouts of loneliness and encouraged me to get out in the preaching work even though I was often isolated from other Witnesses.
The branch office in Australia arranged for a Witness couple to visit me for a week at the camp. In our ministry we contacted an interested woman who lived far away, so twice a week I walked through territory that was infested with snakes and lizards to visit her. As I walked, I would burst into a Kingdom song: “Take sides with Jehovah/ Make him your delight/ He’ll never forsake you/ Walk e’er in his light.” For 11 months we studied.
Then, after about a year’s stay in Melbourne, I moved with my husband to a camp near the mining town of Port Hedland, also in northwestern Australia. After five days, there were visitors. The branch had informed the Witnesses about my whereabouts. After they left, I continued the meetings on my own, conducting the Congregation Book Study, the Theocratic Ministry School, the Service Meeting, and the Watchtower Study. After singing a song and opening with prayer, I answered the questions and concluded with song and prayer. Counting attendance was never a problem—always one. Yet, this weekly meeting schedule sustained me during those many years I served Jehovah in isolation.
In 1969, after we had perspired for four years in Australia, my husband was assigned to serve as foreman on a road-construction project to a copper mine in the humid mountains of the island of Bougainville. One evening somebody knocked on the door. Jack opened it. “It is a Witness with his wife and four children,” he said. They lived along the coast. Once a week I visited them and attended the Watchtower Study held in the community school.
On another occasion three Witnesses from Papua New Guinea visited me. My husband proudly told his colleagues: “Wherever my wife goes, her Witness friends are waiting.”
In 1972 we arrived in the desert in Algeria, North Africa, where Jack’s company was building an irrigation system. This was to be a four-year project. I wrote to the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in France about the preaching work, and they wrote back: ‘Be cautious. Our work is banned there.’ The Society helped me to contact two inactive Witnesses, and we formed a study group.
Then, one of my neighbors in the work camp, Cecilia, became ill. I visited her every day in the hospital, brought her soup, and fixed her bed. When she came home, I continued to run errands for her, and I also shared with her the Kingdom hope. That led to a Bible study, and after eight months Cecilia said: “I want to be baptized.” But where and by whom?
We received a letter from the branch office in France that a Witness by the name of François was coming to Algeria for a short vacation. If we could get him to our desert village and back to the airport in time, he would perform the baptism. But he could stay no longer than 24 hours.
As soon as François arrived, he was whisked off by car and taken into the desert. That evening, at Cecilia’s home, he pulled a tiny piece of notepaper from his shirt pocket and gave a fine talk. In the early morning of May 18, 1974, he baptized Cecilia in my bathtub and took off again.
War broke out in Algeria at the end of 1975, and Jack and I had to leave abruptly. I visited my relatives in Spain. In 1976, I began packing for Jack’s next assignment—a work camp in the rain forest of Suriname, South America.
In South America
The camp in southwestern Suriname was surrounded by lush vegetation. Noisy parrots and curious monkeys looked down from the trees at the 15 newly arrived families, most of whom I knew from former jobs. Six months later, more worker families arrived, including Cecilia who had been baptized in Algeria—a partner!
As March 23, 1978, approached, we wondered how to celebrate the Memorial of Christ’s death. Lacking transportation to the capital, Paramaribo, we planned to observe it in my house. The camp manager permitted us to make photocopies of the last page of a Watchtower announcing the Memorial, and we distributed them from house to house in the camp. Twenty-one attended! Cecilia gave the talk, and I read the scriptures. That evening, though isolated, we felt united with Jehovah’s worldwide organization.
Meanwhile, the Suriname branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses sent support—a young missionary couple in an old Land-Rover. Before they arrived, I had begun to feel a bit useless in that camp, but the missionaries assured me: “Pepita, you’re here for a purpose.” At that time I was not convinced, but soon I understood.
One day during the missionaries’ visit, we explored a newly opened dirt road and were thrilled to find some Amerindian villages about 30 miles [50 km] from our camp. A few days of preaching among those friendly Arawak Indians resulted in scores of Bible studies. So when the missionaries left, Cecilia and I began visiting those villagers twice a week.
We got up at four o’clock in the morning, and by seven we began our first Bible study. About five in the afternoon, we were home again. For two years we conducted 30 studies each week. Before long the children in the village were calling me Auntie Bible! Many were eventually baptized, and years later 182 attended a circuit assembly in that village. Indeed, as my dear missionary friends had said, we were in the jungle for a purpose!
To Papua New Guinea
We left Suriname in 1980, and the following year we were sent to Papua New Guinea. After six pleasant months with the Witnesses in the capital, Port Moresby, a helicopter dropped me off at my next home—a camp high in the mountains where Jack’s company was developing a gold mine. There were no roads. People, equipment, and food arrived by air. This was the most isolated place I had ever lived in. Again I wondered, Where can I find people to talk to?
The people in our camp knew me from before, and no one wanted to listen. However, about that time, the company opened a grocery shop. Women from faraway places shopped there. Soon I became one of the shop’s most frequent customers. Did it work?
One day I began a conversation with a Papuan woman. She told me that she was a teacher. “Oh, I’m a teacher too,” I said.
“You are?” she asked.
“Yes, I teach the Bible.” She immediately accepted my offer to study the Bible with her. Later, more grocery shoppers agreed to do the same. That settlement near the gold mine yielded seven Bible studies—a spiritual gold mine indeed!
After we had spent three years on this Pacific island, a new job sent us to the Caribbean island of Grenada. But after a year and a half, my husband had to return to the United States for health reasons, so in 1986 we settled down in Boise, Idaho.
Working With a Congregation
After living all those years in isolation from my Christian brothers and sisters, I now had to learn to work along with others. However, the Christian elders and others have patiently helped me. Today, I enjoy attending meetings and conducting Bible studies in this part of the world.
At times, though, when I sit back in a quiet corner and again see myself running behind Eva in bustling Bangkok or blurting out the Kingdom song while walking on that desert road in Australia or preaching among those humble Amerindians in the rain forest of Suriname, I smile, and my eyes fill with tears of gratitude for the care I received during the many years I served Jehovah in isolation.—As told by Josefa ‘Pepita’ Abernathy.
[Picture on page 15]
Singing with my Spanish Bible students in Melbourne
[Pictures on page 16]
I assisted many in Papua New Guinea to come to know Jehovah
Teaching God’s Word in Suriname
[Picture on page 17]
I now serve with a congregation in Idaho