Strengthened to Face Trials Ahead
AS TOLD BY EDWARD MICHALEC
The sheriff of Wharton, Texas, U.S.A., was furious. Taking me off to jail for the fourth time, he yelled: “Why don’t you comply with orders?”
“I have a perfect right to do this,” I replied impulsively. This enraged the sheriff even more, and he started beating me with a blackjack. Other officers joined in, hitting me with their pistol butts.
THAT occurred nearly 60 years ago. Looking back, I can see that Jehovah God used such situations to train me to meet the challenge of being one of the only two of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Bolivia, a South American country the size of France. My experience may help you see how Jehovah can make you strong when you face various trials.
Back in 1936, while working in a radio repair shop in Boling, Texas, I heard a broadcast of a talk by Joseph F. Rutherford, then president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. His talk told about the blessings that God’s Kingdom will bring to obedient mankind. It really appealed to me. (Matthew 6:9, 10; Revelation 21:3, 4) I later found some books by Rutherford in our personal library and began reading them.
My stepmother became alarmed at my interest in what she called “all those old religious books.” She hid them and threatened to burn them. When I wrote to the Watch Tower Society for subscriptions to The Watchtower and The Golden Age, an earlier name for Awake!, the Society asked William Harper, of the recently formed Wharton Congregation, to visit me. Soon, my stepmother, my brother, my younger half brother, and I were all studying the Bible with Brother Harper. Before long, all of us symbolized our dedication to Jehovah by water baptism.
In 1938, Shield Toutjian, a traveling representative of the Society, visited our home in Boling and gave a Bible talk. Our living room was packed out—people were even standing in the doorways to adjoining rooms. Brother Toutjian spoke about the prophet Jeremiah’s endurance in preaching to the people in his day despite their opposition. (Jeremiah 1:19; 6:10; 15:15, 20; 20:8) By such talks, Jehovah was strengthening us for trials that we would face.
A Decision and Its Consequences
I soon realized that I needed to make a decision. Earlier, I had studied business and had sought to achieve prominence in the business world. I had a radio sales and repair business and worked for a telephone company, installing telephone lines. But now I began to appreciate that true success in life involves pleasing our Creator, Jehovah God. So I closed my business and fixed up a house-car. By January 1, 1939, I had joined a group of pioneers, full-time ministers, near Three Rivers, in Karnes County, Texas.
In September 1939, World War II erupted in Europe. Opposers took advantage of the situation to slander Jehovah’s Witnesses. They claimed that we were fifth columnists, or spies for the Axis Powers. Many believed such false charges and started to cause us trouble. During the early 1940’s, I was put in jail nine or ten times, including the time mentioned earlier when the sheriff and his deputies gave me a severe beating. I required medical attention after that.
Incidentally, this same sheriff later offered to refrain from prosecuting a man on an illegal gambling charge in exchange for a favor—the man, a burly oil-field worker, was to beat me up. As a result, one day when I was offering magazines on the street, the man attacked me with a chain! Some deputies appeared, but instead of arresting him, they locked me up! Later, my assailant told me the reason for his unprovoked attack and apologized.
Lessons Learned From Trials
Meeting such trials actually strengthened my faith in God. For one thing, I don’t remember feeling pain while I was being beaten, but I do remember the calm and peace that I felt afterward. (Acts 5:40-42) Thus, I learned to do as the apostle Paul exhorted: “Exult while in tribulations, since we know that tribulation produces endurance.” (Romans 5:3) Afterward, when I recalled the beatings I received, it made me determined with Jehovah’s help never to allow any of Satan’s agents to silence me.
Moreover, I learned another valuable lesson. My tactless remark, “I have a perfect right to do this,” had provoked the sheriff. Later, he confronted me again, this time furious because the Witnesses do not become involved in war. (Isaiah 2:4) Trying to provoke me, he asked: “If you were called to serve your country, would you go?”
Having by now learned the lesson of tact, I replied: “If I was sure that it was Jehovah’s will, I certainly would.” That answer defused his anger, and nothing further happened.
Training for My Life’s Work
A highlight of my life was attending the third class of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead, in 1944. This school offers a five-month course of training for missionary work. Before attending this school, I had a phobia of speaking before an audience. But regularly having to deliver talks before about a hundred students, often outside in an open-air theater, really helped me. Our public-speaking instructor, Maxwell Friend, would interrupt and shout: “Brother Michalec, I can’t hear you!” I thus came to realize that I actually had quite a powerful voice.
After Nathan H. Knorr, then president of the school, announced that my missionary assignment was Bolivia, I remember his admonishing me: “You will find many humble people there. Be loving, patient, and considerate with them.” Because World War II was still in progress, we had to wait for a while before leaving for our assignments. Finally, on October 25, 1945, Harold Morris—a classmate—and I arrived at El Alto Airport, just outside of La Paz, Bolivia’s capital city. We thus became the only two Witnesses in the third-largest country in South America.
A bus took us down from the airport, 13,450 feet [4,100 m] above sea level, to the capital city, La Paz, which sprawls over the floor and sides of a great canyon. It was a challenge to adjust to living at an altitude of well over two miles [3 km] above sea level.
Small, Turbulent Beginnings
We started immediately to visit people from house to house. They were kind and patient with us as we struggled with our limited Spanish. Soon we were each conducting from 18 to 20 weekly home Bible studies. Six months later, on April 16, 1946, a small, happy group met with us for the annual celebration of Christ’s death. A short time afterward, four more graduates of Gilead arrived, including Elizabeth Hollins, who later became my wife.
Brother Morris and I soon began visiting other cities, including Cochabamba and Oruro, then the second- and third-largest cities in Bolivia. When I reported to Brother Knorr about the interest we found and the Bible literature we placed, he suggested that we visit these cities every three months or so to help those who manifested interest. Many of these friendly, hospitable people later became Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Since World War II had ended only the year before, Bolivia was experiencing political upheaval. Political rivalries and fear of Nazi resurgence in South America led to explosive street demonstrations and assassinations. During the summer of 1946, the president of the country was killed, and his body was hung on a lamppost facing the presidential palace. At times, the violence made it impossible for people even to leave their houses.
As Elizabeth was going through the main plaza on a bus one day, she saw three young men hung up on poles. In horror, she let out a little cry. A fellow passenger said: “If you don’t like what you see, turn your head.” Such events impressed on us the need to rely heavily upon Jehovah.
Amid the turbulence, however, Bible truth was taking root in humble hearts. In September 1946, a branch office was established in La Paz, and I was appointed branch overseer. A rented apartment that housed the office also served as a missionary home. A few months later, when the first congregation in Bolivia was formed, this same apartment served as our meeting place.
In 1946 we also started having public talks. The hall of the Municipal Library in downtown La Paz was obtained for the first one. A friendly Yugoslav man who was studying with us put a paid notice in the local newspaper to advertise the talk. The hall was quite full. Since I was still struggling with my Spanish, I was very nervous about giving that talk. But with Jehovah’s help the meeting was a success. As it turned out, that was the first of a series of four talks we had in the hall.
In 1947 we received six more Gilead missionaries, and an additional four in 1948. The homes that we were able to rent had few modern conveniences or comforts. Besides keeping up our busy missionary schedule, we early missionaries eventually had to take on part-time work to make money to replace our worn-out clothes. Getting from city to city was also a challenge. Often, I traveled over cold mountain passes on the back of an open truck. But Jehovah continued to give us strengthening encouragement through his organization.
In March 1949, Brother Knorr and his secretary, Milton Henschel, came from New York and visited our three missionary homes, in La Paz, Cochabamba, and Oruro. How encouraging it was to hear about the grand increases in many lands and of the new Bethel Home and printing facilities being constructed at the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn! Brother Knorr suggested that we have our home and Kingdom Hall in a more central location in La Paz. He also told us that still more missionaries were to be sent.
Later in 1949, we had our first circuit assembly, in the city of Oruro. It was encouraging to many of our new Christian brothers and sisters to meet one another for the first time. By then, Bolivia had reached a peak of 48 Kingdom proclaimers and had three congregations.
My Faithful Companion
As a result of sharing years of missionary service together, Elizabeth and I came to know and love each other. Finally, in 1953, we were married. She had begun in the pioneer ministry in January 1939, as I had. Those early years of pioneering were difficult for her as well. Because of her courageous preaching activity, she too had been taken to jail, being marched through the streets like a common criminal.
Elizabeth admits being afraid when she took part in information marches and carried the placards that read: “Religion Is a Snare and a Racket.” But she did what Jehovah’s organization instructed us to do at that time. As she said, she did it for Jehovah. Those experiences strengthened her for the trials that she endured during those early years in Bolivia.
For a couple of years after our marriage, we spent much of our time in the traveling work. We visited not only the four congregations in Bolivia but all the isolated groups of interested ones as well as every town that had a population of more than 4,000. Our purpose was to locate and cultivate any interest in Bible truth among the people living in those places. It was thrilling to see that by the mid-1960’s, congregations existed in nearly all of the small towns that we had visited some ten years earlier.
In the meantime, I was having health problems that were aggravated by the high altitude of La Paz. So in 1957 another brother took on the responsibility of branch oversight, and Elizabeth and I were assigned to the missionary home in Cochabamba, a city in a valley at a lower altitude. At our first meeting, a few missionaries were present but not a single native Bolivian. By the time we left Cochabamba 15 years later, in 1972, there were two congregations. Now there are 35 congregations in the Cochabamba valley, with over 2,600 Kingdom proclaimers!
In 1972 we were moved to Santa Cruz in the tropical lowlands. We still live here in a couple of rooms over a Kingdom Hall. When we arrived, Santa Cruz also had two congregations, but now there are over 45, with more than 3,600 publishers sharing in the Christian ministry.
How delighted we are that we remained in our missionary assignment these more than 50 years to see the gathering of some 12,300 of Jehovah’s people in this land! We truly have delighted to be of service to these dear ones.
A Happy Life of Serving Others
Before I left for my missionary assignment, the Watch Tower Society’s legal adviser, Hayden C. Covington, a fellow Texan, said: “Ed, in Texas we had a lot of legroom to move around in. But in a missionary home, you will be cramped up with others. It will mean making changes.” He was right. Living in close quarters with others is a challenge, but only one of the many that a Christian missionary faces.
So if you should consider moving away from home to serve Jehovah in another area, remember that the life of a true follower of Christ is that of serving others. (Matthew 20:28) A missionary, therefore, should brace his mind to accept a life of self-denial. Some may imagine that they will receive prominence. Perhaps they will—when they say good-bye to friends and relatives at home. But that vanishes when one arrives in the small town or poor city neighborhood that will be his or her assignment. What is my advice?
When you encounter difficulties, such as health problems, feelings of isolation from your family, or perhaps difficulties in getting along with your Christian brothers in an assignment, accept all of this as part of your training. If you do, you will in time be rewarded, as the apostle Peter wrote: “After you have suffered a little while, the God of all undeserved kindness . . . will himself finish your training, he will make you firm, he will make you strong.”—1 Peter 5:10.
Edward Michalec died July 7, 1996, as this article was being finalized for publication.
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In Bolivia in 1947
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Public-speaking classes were often held outside, as shown in this later picture of the amphitheater at Gilead
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With my wife