Pursuing My Purpose in Life
As told by Robert W. Kirk
BACK in the fall of 1938, while working in a factory, to a friend I said: “Don’t you ever go to church?” He, being in the truth, gave me a short witness, inviting me to his home. There I first learned the truth. My mother also accepted the truth, and about three years later we gave up our lovely apartment and sold the furniture so I could become a pioneer. After we bought a house trailer I joined the pioneer ranks. How happy I was to be a pioneer! To my friends I used to proudly announce: “I’m a pioneer now!” Soon I resolved that I would put forth every endeavor to remain a pioneer, because, even though I had given up a good job and steady income, it was worth it! Now I really had begun to pursue my purpose in living. My joy at being able to serve Jehovah full time was wonderful!
In 1944, at a convention in Pittsburgh, I heard it announced that anyone having certain qualifications and wishing to go to Gilead School should see Brother Knorr. Then I filled in the preliminary application. Imagine my surprise when I received a complete application form and later an invitation for the next class! The invitation said that I may not return home; so I sold my car and other things that I thought would be unsuitable to take to a foreign country. Admittedly this was not easy, parting with many things that I had prized; and also realizing that shortly I would have to leave behind, too, family and friends. But Matthew 19:29 came to my mind. It helped me make the right decision: “And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.”
Much can be said about Gilead life: The wonderful fellowship, not only among fellow students, but also with the instructors and other brothers on Kingdom Farm; above all, the privilege of taking in daily and being instructed in the “strong meat” of God’s Word for several months! They changed me quite a bit, knocked off some rough edges, and polished me up, thus making me fit for missionary service.
After graduating in July, 1945, I was sent to southern Illinois as a “servant to the brethren,” to serve both white and colored congregations. This branch of the work also was very joyful and stimulating. However, it was not all easygoing. It was difficult witnessing there, as a result of persecution and mob action that had begun some years before. Once while I alone was doing street work in a small town an elderly man said to me: “I’m coming back in ten minutes and if you are still here, you’ll wish you weren’t.” I stood my ground. He came back as promised, accompanied by a big man who looked as if he was cut out to be a boxer. They grabbed me and marched me around to the police station. In a short time a mob formed and it seemed everyone was crying for blood. The police saw there was trouble ahead; so they took me inside the station and out the back door. As I drove away the mob followed me and escorted me right out of town. I went to the next town and went from house to house for an hour, placing twelve bound books. Never before had I done so well in so short a time. Again, near Lawrenceville, Illinois, a clergyman and the chief of police formed a mob of children to stone a group of us who were working from house to house. After such experiences you feel much stronger inside, much more sure that this is the truth.
At East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1946, while serving the colored congregation, I received a letter from Brooklyn asking if I would accept an assignment in Burma. Burma? Several questions ran through my mind: Where exactly is Burma? What are the people like? Are there any publishers there? And other questions. Of course, I knew I would accept the assignment no matter what the answers were to these questions. I was sent to Brooklyn Bethel for two months’ further training; then ten days at home. I boarded the train in Cleveland in December (1946) and, after a few days, continued westward from San Francisco. As I saw America’s shore grow dimmer and dimmer, mixed emotions were mine. Naturally there was a feeling of sadness, but at the same time I was happy that at last I was on my way to the Far East where missionaries were so badly needed, there being not yet one Gileadite in that part of the world.
On the ship there were not many listening ears, as it happened to be loaded with false shepherds—about 800 of them—belonging to many different religious organizations, all headed for various parts of the Orient. So I had plenty of time to think. Recalling some things I had heard about Burma, I tried then, on the vast Pacific, to get used to the idea of living in a hut, sitting on a mat and having to use sign language till I could pick up Burmese. But I was in for a surprise. I was soon to realize that in Burma the modern goes side by side with the primitive; also, that in Burma there are not only Burmese but a variety of people of all colors and languages with different standards of living, culture, religion and habits, especially in the larger towns. I was met by publishers dressed in Western clothes, speaking English fluently. I was driven in a jeep over paved streets, not to a hut as I had expected, but to a large wooden house that was to be my future home. The brothers (then only eighteen of them in the whole country) gave me a warm welcome and I was happy to be with them.
However, although things were much more advanced than I had expected, they still were very far behind what I had left in the United States of America. Burma had been hard hit by the second world war. There was only a small supply of electricity, government concerns having priority. Few homes had electric light. At night most streets were dark. Thieves abounded; it was unsafe to be out after darkness began. Transportation was limited to a few old army trucks converted into buses. A rickety old bus was used by us for the ride out to Kingdom Hall. The oil lamps of the bus we then took out and pumped up to get ready for the meeting. Today, 1955, things are, of course, much better than in those early years after the Japanese pulled out of Burma.
As the country’s only pioneer, every morning I went out alone in service, except on week ends when the congregation publishers joined me. Sometimes I momentarily thought how pleasant it would be to go home again, but instantly the amount of work to be done and the joys of service chased away such thoughts as I newly faced forward to continue pursuing my purpose in life. Three cartons of literature I had brought from the United States, as the brothers in Burma had not yet received the latest publications. In three weeks my literature was gone. The people were very friendly, inviting me in at almost every home, many offering tea and other refreshment. At quite a few homes I could use English, but was amazed at the variety of people one met when going from door to door. Apart from the Burmese and other indigenous peoples of Burma, like the Karens, there were so many foreigners—Chinese, Tamilians, Telegus, Bengalis, and many, many other Indian races. A few sentences in Burmese I learned for use at homes of the non-English speaking. Most of those I visited were Buddhists, Hindus, etc., who did not even believe in the Bible; so in many homes proving the Bible true had to be my first step.
It was some time before I really began to settle down. Many strange sights and customs I had to get used to—including such normal (for Burma) human practices as people bathing at a water tap at the roadside; others openly changing their sarongs, right out in broad daylight, or squatting on their haunches at the bus station while waiting for the bus to come; the big water buffalo and oxen pulling huge logs. Also, at first I wondered what those red marks were along all the streets and sidewalks. They looked like blood, and I just could not figure it out. Later I learned that this was caused by a red fluid the people spit out as they chew beetle and nut. Even now, after eight years, I am continually amused as I see persons carrying things on their heads, such as a bunch of bananas or an umbrella.
But as I steadfastly pursued my purpose in life, the satisfaction derived from helping new ones in service and watching a congregation grow more than makes up for any newnesses or inconveniences that a ‘new boy’ has to put up with even in Burma. The love one feels for the “other sheep” and the knowledge that they need your help to grow to maturity definitely help you toward settling down sooner than anything else. In 1948, for example, a letter came to us from a group of people in a village 125 miles away. For eight years they had been trying to contact Jehovah’s people. One of them, having obtained a bound book, became convinced he had found the truth. He witnessed to others in the village. Several left the Catholic church, formed a little congregation on their own and were meeting regularly for Bible study. To that distant village a brother and I went and there found twelve publishers waiting to be baptized and organized theocratically. They were surprised and glad to learn of the vastness of Jehovah’s organization and of such places as Bethel and Gilead. Meeting them and helping them out in field service was a wonderful experience.
A Tamil man, with whom I began a study a few years ago, also was formerly a Catholic. He had left that church, even before he contacted Jehovah’s people, merely by reading through a copy of the Greek Scriptures in his own language. Hungry for the truth, he eagerly absorbed everything that was explained to him at the studies. Although he has a large family to take care of, he is now one of our most zealous publishers, putting in forty to sixty hours a month and conducting about seven Bible studies. What a joy it has been to see him progress in the truth!
The New World Society Assembly at Yankee Stadium I was privileged to attend in 1953, and then to visit my home. Even though that convention was such a wonderful one, and it was so good again to see the folks at home, I can assure you that my thoughts were here in Burma with this small group of publishers that I have learned to love so much. After a few days in America I was ready, in fact, longing, to get back to my assignment. I feel there is so much work here to do and so few workers to do it.
While all missionaries here are loaded down with responsibilities, we do take time occasionally to sit down and review some of our past experiences. It gives one a wonderful sense of proportion to compare his life before becoming a missionary and after becoming one. There are only four of us here, but all agree that we would not want to return home permanently. Speaking for myself, I can say that leaving what I called home and going into a foreign assignment about which I knew very little has given me much greater strength in Jehovah. The work has been more satisfying. I have been able to give much more than I would have been able to give in my home territory. Now when I see a Burmese publisher stand at a door giving a three- to eight-minute sermon with the Bible in his hand—a person who only a short time ago was attending a church—it makes me appreciate the undeserved kindness of Jehovah and the privilege I have of sharing in His work here in Burma. I consider it a favor from Jehovah to be here! I am happy to be here, happy to be now on active duty here as branch servant. Yes, while pursuing my purpose in life the hardships are greater, there are many more obstacles, but, when these are overcome, they definitely add to spiritual strength, for Jehovah’s use and honor.