A Life I Would Not Want to Change
MANY people regret the way they have lived their lives. They may say: ‘If only I could start life over again, how many things I would do differently!’ But in reflecting on my life, although not an easy one, it has been a life that I would not want to change.
I was raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses by my parents and had God’s laws embedded in my heart from infancy. (2 Timothy 3:15) I cannot remember a time when I was not going to meetings and conventions of Jehovah’s Witnesses. And as a young girl, I also went with older Witnesses to call on people to help them learn about the Bible’s hope of eternal life on a paradise earth under the rule of God’s Kingdom. (Matthew 24:14) I can still remember at the age of five offering to others the booklet entitled The Kingdom, the Hope of the World.
My parents first heard the truth about God’s Kingdom in 1917. Although churchgoers, they recognized the ring of truth in a lecture given in Bridgeton, New Jersey, U.S.A., by a traveling representative of the Watchtower Society. My grandfather listened to the same lecture, and he too was convinced that what he heard was the truth. Then, when I was 14, at a convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Detroit, Michigan, I was baptized to symbolize that I had dedicated my life to Jehovah.
In those years our weekly meetings for Bible study were held in our living room. Eventually a store was purchased and converted into a Kingdom Hall. Back then there were few Kingdom Halls. But today, worldwide, tens of thousands of such halls accommodate over 70,000 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Beginning the Full-Time Ministry
My mother began her career as a full-time minister in 1939 and continued until her death at the age of 85. My brother, Dick, and I began our careers of full-time service on April 1, 1941, when World War II raged in Europe and antagonism against Jehovah’s Witnesses was widespread because of our neutral position regarding politics.
Three of the young Witness men in our congregation were sentenced to five years in prison because of their neutrality. How encouraging it is to see two of those men still serving as elders in the congregation! My brother later served at Brooklyn Bethel, the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses, in New York, and is still serving as an elder in our hometown of Millville, New Jersey.
Those war years were very difficult in the United States, as elsewhere, for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Mob action was common. Children were expelled from school. (See the July 22, 1993, Awake! on the life of Lillian Gobitas Klose.) Thousands of our spiritual brothers went to prison, so we women had to perform various congregation duties. That’s why, at an early age, I was the literature servant. With Jehovah’s help we survived the difficult war years, and when the brothers came back from prison, things moved forward.
It was at this time that Lyman Swingle from Bethel visited our congregation. He encouraged me to come to Brooklyn and help in the relief efforts being made in behalf of our fellow Witnesses in Europe following World War II. So it was that in March 1948, I went to Brooklyn.
Happy Years in a New Congregation
I was assigned to my new congregation, Brooklyn Center. It was the very first congregation formed in New York City and adjacent areas before World War I, although under a different name. At that time, it was located in the Brooklyn Heights area. But when I came to Brooklyn Center in 1948, it was at 5th Avenue and 8th Street in Brooklyn. For nearly 30 years, that rented location served as our meeting place, until a new hall was purchased a short distance away.
I will never forget my first day in the preaching work in Brooklyn—on Henry Street. It was quite a change from witnessing in a small town. But soon I met a young woman who accepted Bible literature and agreed to a home Bible study. In time she became a dedicated servant of Jehovah, as did two of her children. Her son, Arthur Iannone, is currently serving at Brooklyn Bethel with his wife, Linda, along with their son and daughter-in-law.
The congregation’s territory where we preached was large and fruitful. With Jehovah’s help, I was able to see many of my Bible students learn the truth and get baptized. To this day some are serving as full-time ministers in this country. Others are missionaries in distant lands. Some became elders in congregations. And many have served in other capacities as faithful proclaimers of the good news of God’s Kingdom.
The growth was amazing. Where originally there was just one congregation for New York City and the surrounding area, now there are nearly 400 in New York City alone. What fond memories I have of participating in some of this expansion!
French-Speaking Interest Blossoms
In the 1960’s, we began to find many French-speaking people in the congregation’s territory who had moved from Haiti. Most spoke limited English or none at all. Here was a challenge. How could we help them learn more about the Bible? I did not speak French, but with an English copy of a basic Bible textbook in one hand and the French translation of that book in the other, I was able to conduct Bible studies.
However, there were no meetings in French to help these people grow spiritually. That’s why any Witness missionary who visited Brooklyn and could speak French was immediately asked to help. One of the first to come to our aid was Nicolas Brisart, who is the coordinator of the Branch Committee in Guadeloupe. He gave our first public talk in French at the home of Sister Bertha Luisdon, who is still faithfully serving Jehovah. Twenty-seven persons were in attendance.
Still, at that time, aside from Spanish, there were no foreign-language congregations in New York City. So the idea of establishing an official French-speaking congregation was hard even to imagine. In fact, a traveling overseer made things look even more bleak when he informed us that the policy at that time was to encourage people living in this country to learn English.
Brother Fred W. Franz, who later became president of the Watch Tower Society, was a source of encouragement. He said: “If it is Jehovah’s will, Mary, there will be a French Congregation.” Also encouraging was Brother Harry Peloyan, the presiding overseer of Brooklyn Center Congregation. He said that on evenings when the Kingdom Hall was not in use, we could have an unofficial Congregation Book Study and public talks whenever a visitor came who could speak French.
By this time we had a number of baptized brothers from Haiti who had moved here, but there was still no one experienced enough to take the organizational lead in the French language. Then, Brother Timothy Galfas, who was schooled in Paris and was now a member of the Brooklyn Bethel family, learned of our situation. Every Saturday after working at Bethel, he would come out, and we would search for Haitian brothers and sisters who were living here but who did not know where to associate.
Soon we had about 40 persons associating with us. We asked our circuit overseer to write the Society to give us approval for an official Congregation Book Study in French. How pleased we were when this was granted! Later we also got permission to have regular public talks and a weekly Watchtower Study.
The First French Congregation
On December 1, 1967, we received approval to establish a French-speaking congregation, the first in the United States. It would share the Kingdom Hall with the Brooklyn Center and Prospect congregations. We were thrilled! We knew that all would make greater spiritual advancement in the language they understood. Much appreciated during all those years of our growing pains was the support of such brothers as Harry Peloyan, George Haddad, and Carlos Quiles, who formed the Brooklyn Center service committee.
We grew quickly. Soon new French congregations were formed in Manhattan, Queens, and Nyack, New York. Helping in this expansion were Jeff Keltz and Tom Cecil of Brooklyn Bethel. Brother Keltz served as our circuit overseer, and Brother Cecil has served on our District Convention Committee. Others helped, such as missionaries who for health reasons had to return to the United States from countries where French was the language. How valuable their assistance proved to be! Among them is Stanley Boggus, who serves as a presiding overseer and substitute circuit overseer.
What a joyful time it has been to see that small French group at 5th Avenue and 8th Street grow to dozens of congregations and two circuits! In fact, we had our first circuit assembly in French in April 1970. Brother Nathan H. Knorr, then president of the Watch Tower Society, addressed us on Friday night and wished us well. That summer we also had our first district convention, under the bleachers at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, New Jersey. It was hot and dusty, but the more than 200 in attendance were very happy to hear the entire program, including the drama, in French.
It was also a thrill when, in 1986, we were allowed to use the Jersey City Assembly Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses for our district convention. At a French convention there last year, 4,506 attended, with 101 baptized. At the same time, another French convention was held in Florida.
Another part of my life that has been so pleasant is sharing an apartment in Brooklyn with other sisters who were in full-time service. The first two (Rose Lewis Peloyan and Madelyn Murdock Wildman) went to Bethel. Later two more (Lila Rogers Molohan and Margaret Stelmah) also became members of the Bethel family. Two others (Barbara Repasky Forbes and Virginia Burris Beltramelli) went to the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead and are still serving in Guatemala and Uruguay respectively.
We sisters always took time to discuss a Scripture text to start our day, then we went to our secular work and in the ministry. We returned at night tired and hungry but happy! We had many upbuilding experiences to share! For example, on one occasion I studied with a young woman, Elisa Beumont Farina, who insisted that her study be held at 10:00 p.m. She made rapid progress. The first time I took her in the ministry, she said: “Don’t think I’m going to do this all the time!” But she became a full-time minister and later attended Gilead school, serving many years in Ecuador. She is still serving full-time, in Trenton, New Jersey.
Some of my roommates have raised children who also appreciate and serve Jehovah. Last year the daughter (Jodi Robertson Sakima) of one of my former roommates (Virginia Hendee Robertson) got married and currently serves with her husband at Brooklyn Bethel.
Of the roommates I have had, who number more than 20, I am happy to say that all of them remained faithful to Jehovah, and a goodly number of them still continue in full-time service.
Enjoying Our Global Family
It has also been a source of joy for me to become acquainted with many Witnesses from other lands. For instance, since we lived near the Society’s headquarters, we had the privilege of associating with students attending the Gilead missionary school, then located at Brooklyn Bethel.
Two students, Guenter Buschbeck, currently serving at the branch in Austria, and Willi Konstanty, serving at the branch in Germany, were assigned to the Brooklyn Center Congregation while attending Gilead. What a source of encouragement they were! They had such a positive influence on my roommates that they too were soon thinking of Gilead service.
A number of times, I’ve had the privilege of expanding my friendships with our global family by traveling overseas. I have attended international conventions and have again seen, in their assignments, many of the Gilead graduates I had known before.
A Full Life
In reflecting on my life, I can say that it has been wonderful—a happy life full of blessings. While I have had many of the usual problems that come with this system of things, nothing has ever caused me to regret my past or to give up the precious privilege of full-time service.
At an early age, my mother instilled in me the words of Psalm 126:5, 6: “Those sowing seed with tears will reap even with a joyful cry. The one that without fail goes forth, even weeping, carrying along a bagful of seed, will without fail come in with a joyful cry, carrying along his sheaves.” That scripture still serves as a guide for me. No matter what the problems were, Jehovah helped me to find a way to overcome them and maintain that joy.
My life is one that I surely would not want to change. I have no regrets in giving some 53 years to Jehovah in the full-time ministry. I look forward to continuing to serve him throughout eternity in his new world.—As told by Mary Kendall.
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