Reality Has Exceeded My Expectations
AS TOLD BY WILLEM VAN SEIJL
It was 1942, and our country was in the midst of World War II. I was one of five young men in hiding from the Nazis in Groningen, in the Netherlands. Sitting in a small room, we began talking about our chances of surviving.
IT WAS obvious that our chances of survival were not very good. As it turned out, three of our group died violently. In fact, I am the only one who has reached old age. This is but one instance of reality exceeding my expectations.
At the time of the incident mentioned above, I was only 19, and I knew little about the Bible or religion. In fact, Father was against all religion. Mother’s search for a religion had led her to accept spiritism. As for me, I had no hope. I felt that if I were killed in a bombing raid or in some other way, God would have no reason to remember me. I had not even tried to learn about him.
Shortly after that conversation with the four youths, I was captured by the Nazis and taken to a work camp in Germany, near Emmerich. Our work included cleaning up rubble and repairing damage following Allied bombings. At the end of 1943, I escaped, and although the war was still raging, I made my way back to the Netherlands.
Somehow I obtained a little booklet filled with questions and Bible texts. It was used in connection with the study of the book Salvation, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Reading the questions and looking up the scriptures, I became intensely interested in the fulfillment of Bible prophecy.
I spoke with my fiancée, Gré, about what I was reading, but she had little interest at first. Mother, on the other hand, became absorbed in the booklet. “This is the truth that I have been looking for all my life!” she exclaimed. I also spoke with friends, and some wanted to know more. One, in fact, became a Witness, and through letters and visits, we kept in touch with each other regularly until his death in 1996.
In the meantime, Gré began to study the Bible, and in February 1945, both of us were baptized. The war ended a few months later. After we were married, we wanted to become pioneers, as full-time ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses are called. But we faced obstacles—sickness and financial problems. Also, opportunities arose for us to earn much more money. Would we work for a measure of financial security first and then start pioneering, or would we start immediately?
Our Ministry in the Netherlands
Our decision was to get right into the pioneer work, which we did on September 1, 1945. That very day, on my way home late at night, I entered a restaurant to get something to drink. I gave the waiter what I thought was a one gulden note and told him: “Keep the change.” When I returned home, I discovered that I had given him a 100 gulden note! That left us with exactly one gulden to begin pioneering!
When I began to give public Bible talks in 1946, I had only a leather jacket. A friend, who was about my size, served as chairman. He would introduce my talk and immediately come backstage and give me his jacket. Then I would give the talk. We reversed the process at the conclusion of the talk!
In March 1949, Gré and I received an invitation to share in the circuit work, visiting congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses to strengthen them spiritually. Fritz Hartstang, who had been a faithful minister prior to and during the war, trained me for the circuit work. He gave me good advice: “Wim, follow the instructions you receive through Jehovah’s organization even if at first you don’t think they are best. You will never regret it.” He was right.
In 1951, Nathan H. Knorr, then president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, visited the Netherlands. At that time, Gré and I applied for missionary training in the United States. Soon afterward, we received an invitation to attend the 21st class of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead. When we started pioneering in 1945, there were about 2,000 Witnesses in the Netherlands, but by 1953, there were over 7,000, a reality far surpassing our expectations!
Ministry in Our New Home
We were assigned to Dutch New Guinea, now a province of Indonesia, but when we were not granted admission, our assignment was changed to Suriname, a tropical country in South America. We arrived in December 1955. Suriname then had only about a hundred Witnesses, but they were extremely helpful. We soon felt at home.
True, we had to adapt to many different circumstances, and sometimes doing so was hard. For example, Gré had been afraid of everything with legs and wings. In the Netherlands, when she found a small spider in our bedroom, she wouldn’t go to sleep until I got rid of it. But Suriname has spiders ten times as big, and some are poisonous! Our missionary home also had cockroaches, rats, ants, mosquitoes, and grasshoppers. Even snakes visited us. Gré has become so used to such creatures that the fight to get rid of them is now just a routine part of her life.
After more than 43 years, we know the country better than many who were born here. We have come to appreciate its rivers, rain forest, and swamps near the coast. We are also familiar with the bountiful animal life—porcupines, sloths, jaguars and, yes, even the many kinds of snakes, often beautifully colored. But especially have we come to appreciate the wide diversity of the people here. The ancestors of some were from Africa as well as India, Indonesia, China, and other countries. And some are Amerindians, descendants of the original inhabitants.
In our Christian ministry, we meet people of all these backgrounds as we call on them in their homes. Also, at our Kingdom Halls, we enjoy the same wonderful variety in our Christian brothers and sisters. There has been growth from a single run-down Kingdom Hall in 1953 to more than 30 attractive Kingdom Halls, a beautiful Assembly Hall, and a very fine branch facility, which was dedicated in February 1995.
Lessons I Have Learned
Deep in the interior of Suriname, there are several congregations of so-called Bush Negroes, descendants of African slaves who escaped from the plantations and fled as far up the rivers as they could. I have repeatedly been amazed by their feats—for example, how they use the river for transportation and make the rain forest their home. They fell trees, build boats, and maneuver these through waterfalls and rapids. They find food by hunting and fishing, cook without any modern facilities, and do many other things that we would find very difficult.
Over the years, we have also come to know the other peoples who live here in Suriname, their customs, their ways of thinking, and their ways of living. I remember visiting an Amerindian village back in the 1950’s. In the middle of the night, I arrived at a deserted camp in the rain forest, where my Indian guide and I were to start a boat trip. He made the fire, cooked the food, tied the hammocks. It was a normal thing for him to do everything for me because he knew that I didn’t know how.
When I fell out of my hammock in the middle of the night, he didn’t laugh. Instead, he brushed off my clothes and tied the hammock again. When we traveled on a narrow river, it was so dark that I couldn’t even see my hands in front of me, but my guide managed to steer the boat around the many curves and obstacles. When I asked him how he did it, he said: “You are looking the wrong way. Look up and note the contrast between the treetops and the sky. It will show you the curve in the river. Look down and watch for ripples. They will help you to tell if there are rocks or other obstacles ahead. And listen. Sounds also tell what lies ahead.”
Traveling in dugout canoes, traversing rapids, and bypassing waterfalls can be dangerous and tiring. But at the end of the journey, when we meet our Christian brothers and sisters waiting to welcome us with warm hospitality, we feel refreshed. There is always food for guests, perhaps a bowl of soup. Missionary life has often been trying and difficult but never a disappointment.
What Has Helped Us to Continue
We have not been blessed with exceptional health. Nor have we had much encouragement from family members, since my mother is our only Witness relative. Yet, help and encouragement from dear friends has never failed to meet our needs, assisting us to continue in our assignment. Mother was especially encouraging.
After we were in our assignment for about six years, Mother became very sick. Friends wanted us to return to see her for the last time, but Mom wrote: “Please, stay in your assignment. Remember me as I was before I became sick. I hope to see you in the resurrection.” She was a woman with strong faith.
It was not until 1966 that we were able to return to the Netherlands for a vacation. We enjoyed very much seeing old friends, but we felt that Suriname was now our home. We thus see the wisdom of the organization’s counsel that missionaries not return to their homeland on vacation until serving at least three years in their assignment.
Another thing that has helped us to enjoy our assignment is maintaining a sense of humor—being able to laugh at things, including ourselves. Jehovah even put humor in some of the natural creation. When you look at the antics of chimpanzees and otters, and especially the young of many animals, it brings a smile to your face. Also, it is important to look at the positive side of things and not take ourselves too seriously—something we have learned through the years.
Our rewarding work in the ministry has especially helped us to continue in our assignment. Gré started a Bible study in Paramaribo with nine men in a home for the elderly. All were over 80. Each had been either a balatableeder (rubber-tree tapper) or a gold digger. Each came to love what he learned, was baptized, and shared faithfully in the preaching work until his death.
An old preacher by the name of Rivers, from the New Church of Swedenborg, listened in on the study and made sarcastic remarks. But each week he would move a little closer, and his ridicule began to lessen. Finally he sat down with the others and participated. He was 92 years old and could hardly see or hear, but he could quote scriptures as if he were reading them. Eventually he began sharing with us in the ministry and would preach to everybody who would listen. Just before he died, he sent a message asking us to come. When we arrived he was already dead, but under his pillow we found his report of the time he had spent in the ministry that month.
In 1970, after more than 25 years in the full-time preaching work, I was appointed to oversee the Suriname branch office. I found sitting behind a desk difficult and envied Gré, who was still going out in the field ministry each day. Now Gré also works in the branch, and we both have meaningful work to do here as we grow older.
Indeed, when I compare the fewer than 160,000 active Kingdom proclaimers in the world back in 1945 with the some 6,000,000 today, I see that reality has far exceeded my expectations. And in Suriname the number sharing in the ministry has increased by more than 19 times since we arrived in 1955—from approximately 100 then to more than 1,900 today!
I am confident that we will see far grander developments in the outworking of Jehovah’s purposes in the future if we simply remain faithful to our God. And that is what we intend to do.
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In 1955, when we came to Suriname
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Using canoes in our ministry
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With my wife