Pursuing My Purpose in Life
As told by John R. Cooke
ONE day in August, 1927, while on holiday in France, I sat on the shore thinking about my home in Broadstairs, England. I was fourteen years old, and for the last six years had heard about the truth from my mother. On that day I made an important decision—that on getting home I would attend the meetings regularly and seriously investigate this “truth.” I carried out my intention and soon volunteered for house-to-house work. Methods then were primitive. On my first attempt, a cold, wintry day, I was given a few booklets and a street to work by myself, but I placed twelve booklets and went home happy and encouraged. I found out then that doing Jehovah’s service under difficulties brings a special joy. Little did I realize then how much I would need the strength that comes from the “joy of Jehovah.”—Neh. 8:10.
I soon had ambitions of entering the pioneer service, but as the idea horrified my father I postponed it. In May, 1931, came a real turning point for me—an international assembly in Paris. The joy of association with foreign brothers, the frequent appeals for pioneers, the remarks of so many I met—“a young chap like you should be a pioneer”—climaxed by an appeal for volunteers for Spain (and I was taking Spanish at school) forged in me a determination to enter the pioneer service as soon as possible. So in August, 1931, at the age of eighteen, I took up my lifetime career. My brother Eric joined me and we started in France. Before we left home Dad said: “After six months you will be wanting to come back and take up a decent job.” We nearly did. Mother died very suddenly and relatives made every effort to make us stay home; but the deep conviction that pioneer service was our true vocation kept us going.
In July, 1932, I went to Spain. The method then was to cover ground fast, and the literature went out well. It was a tough life with rough lodgings, much cycling over mountainous roads and five or six hours of solid “door-knocking” every day. By 1935 political upsets began and in some places Communists, mistaking us for fascists, gave us a rough reception! But my brother and I were experiencing the joys of finding the “other sheep.” We started a little group in Barbastro, and in Saragossa two young men came nightly to our room for study and later joined us in pioneer service. Unfortunately the Spanish Civil War soon broke out. My brother and I just escaped it. We returned to England for a vacation on July 12, 1936, and the fighting started on the 18th.
Our next assignment was Ireland (Eire), where we were to witness with a special leaflet. But it was too strong for the fanatical people and caused a tremendous stir. Priests accused us of being Communists (the opposite of what we had been accused of in Spain!), and twice Catholic Action gangs burned our literature and escorted us out of town. At the third place, within a matter of hours, I was arrested, rushed through court and put in Dublin gaol. It was quite a relief to be there after what we had been through! But I was out again after several days.
In 1937 I returned to France and was sent to Bordeaux. Home Bible studies were just beginning then, so when, in 1939, Brother Knecht, the Branch servant, paid a visit, my French partner and I were thrilled to gather twenty-five people for his talk. But war intervened again—World War II—and news came that the Society was banned. Immediately I dispersed our stock of literature, so when the police questioned me I could say I had none in my room. Then I lost my partner, poor Pierre Dijeau, who was imprisoned for refusing to fight, and died later. But his courageous stand strengthened us all. Came June, 1940—a tragic month for France. The nation just folded up before the Nazi advance. All English residents were advised to leave, but I was reluctant to go. However, Nazi tanks were approaching fast; it was unwise to stay. I cycled out the day before the Nazis came in. At Bayonne, farther south, there was such a crowd trying to get on the ship for England that I failed to get aboard. It was just as well, as that vessel was sunk. The rest of us were finally evacuated and landed safely at Plymouth. My first nine years of foreign service had ended.
After a few months in a pioneer home in Derby, where a tribunal granted me exemption from military service (they were impressed with my work in foreign fields; sticking it out paid dividends), I was assigned to Newcastle-on-Tyne as city servant, and there I gained experience in congregation organization. In December, 1942, a letter came from the Society that overwhelmed me—an appointment as servant to the brethren. I felt very unworthy but asked Jehovah to help me. Duties as convention servant came my way. I especially remember an assembly in London in 1944 when bomb explosions were hourly occurrences. So it was a great sight to see a London theater, empty for weeks, packed with calm, happy publishers and persons of good will. Another outstanding assembly I attended was in Holland, just after the Nazis had gone. The Dutch brothers were just emerging from their “underground” activity and their spirit was magnificent. Walking miles to meetings, breakfast on bread and water, or sleeping on straw was nothing to them. Theirs was the unspeakable joy of a theocratic organization just freed from fetters!
A few months later there was big excitement in London. Brothers Knorr and Henschel were making their first visit after the war, and I volunteered for Gilead. After a couple of months the invitation arrived. I shall never forget the thrill that gave me. So in June, 1946, I crossed to the United States and spent eighteen months there packed with privileges: several months in Bethel, the Cleveland convention, and then the eighth class of Gilead, where I passed the six most profitable months in my life. Words cannot describe that marvelous fellowship and training; one never forgets Gilead. Next came six months on a New Jersey circuit, where I found the brothers very kind; indeed, they paid for both my brother (also in the eighth class) and me to travel to the Los Angeles convention in 1947. Soon, later, my brother left for Africa, while my assignment was Portugal and Spain. Brothers Knorr and Henschel were going there too, so in December, 1947, I had the privilege of flying over with them. In Madrid we found there was only one seat available on the plane to Barcelona. Said Brother Knorr: “You’ll have to go alone, John!” Knowing of serious trouble in the Barcelona group, my heart sank. On arrival I found two completely separate groups—expecting the president and his secretary. It was the first of many difficult moments!
Yes, those first months were a real test, as is often the case. The brothers were disorganized, doing no real field service, and I had to restore harmony and get things started. To make things worse I fell seriously ill. The temptation to go home was strong, but I stayed on; and for my having put Kingdom interests first, material needs were added: all medical expenses were paid by the Barcelona brothers, who also nursed me night and day for two months—a real manifestation of brotherly love. And it was a thrill to find, after my illness, a united Barcelona congregation some forty in number. Working in Spain had changed much now that all meetings and activity were prohibited. For example, while on a visit to Barbastro the congregation servant and I went to see an isolated publisher in a mountain village. We were met by a priest and four armed guardia civil. One of them drew a revolver—“¡Manos arriba!” (“Hands up!”) The priest then disappeared, while we were taken to police headquarters and questioned until four o’clock next morning. They charged us with holding an illegal meeting, even though they had arrested us outside the village! However, after a couple of days in a rough jail we were released.
August, 1948, found me in Lisbon. My visa was for three weeks, but as the need was great I prayed that I might stay. And I did—for five years. The work is a little easier in Portugal than in Spain, and one is able to work more freely and hold small meetings. But the position was very uncertain and we often wondered what would happen next. However, good increases took place.
In 1951 two more missionaries came (ending my partnerless period of over three years) and we opened a small home. In July that year the Society’s vice-president paid us a visit and I had the real privilege of traveling with him through Spain before flying to the London Wembley Stadium assembly. A few months later, after a much-needed rest, I was back in Spain again visiting the congregations with Brothers Knorr and Henschel. During my absence dissension had broken out in the Lisbon congregation, so Brother Knorr held an investigation and the unruly elements were removed. I also received a rebuke; but “reproofs . . . are the way of life,” and it did me a lot of good. Progress in Lisbon was more rapid after that. The following year the same visitors came again and were pleased with the improvement made, and on this occasion I was appointed Branch servant for Portugal and Spain. The same year (1953) came a trip to New York, the privilege of attending the Branch servants’ meeting and then the marvelous New York assembly. Back in Lisbon I organized an “underground” assembly, giving the high lights from New York. Next day I left for Madrid but was refused entry at the frontier. Fortunately I was able to re-enter Portugal and carry on until my visa expired in May, 1954. I tried Spain again but was once more stopped at the frontier. My instructions then were to proceed to Bordeaux. It was my first visit there since June, 1940, so you can imagine my delight at being met by a couple with whom I had had studies fourteen years before! It was good to be in France again and note the progress made. I spent several happy months in Bordeaux and then left for my next assignment—Africa!—a special mission to the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique.
I landed in Luanda, capital of Angola, on January 24, 1955. My mission was a delicate one—to investigate an unusual group of one thousand Africans who had received a smattering of the truth from two of the Society’s booklets found years previously, and who had been deported from the Belgian Congo accused of being Mau Mau elements and were now dispersed throughout Angola under close supervision. I began inquiries cautiously. I was able to make friends with a high official and contact some of the group members. On a difficult assignment like this, one frequently turns to Jehovah in prayer. Rarely have I felt his guidance so close as in Angola. For example, I had to see some Africans situated in a penal colony in the south where entry was impossible without special permission. I not only got permission but a free round trip by plane as well. Can you imagine a Watchtower representative having expenses paid by a Catholic government to visit a few Africans? This group was the most advanced in the truth and they showed me an old exercise book, which was a translation into their own language of the two booklets that were found. Copies of these, written out by hand, were their only Kingdom textbooks for years; and yet here they were, in custody for their faith! I had many interesting experiences in Angola, but after five months my visa expired and I had to leave. However, the foundations for a New World society nucleus had been laid.
Next came ‘operation ‹Lourenco› Marques,’ the capital of Mozambique, to try to help a few hundred African publishers, some of whom had been harshly treated by the Catholics. Caution made me avoid African contacts and start with Europeans. I had suspicions that the police were watching me (they were), and I found it hard to start. But I asked Jehovah to strengthen me and had an interesting time. One call was on a young man who had heard the truth in Lisbon years before; he subscribed for The Watchtower in Portuguese and French and Awake! in Portuguese, all three for five years each, and made a generous donation as well! When I left he continued one or two of the studies I had started. I avoided trouble for five months, but was eventually called up for a grueling interview by the Secret Police and given forty-eight hours to quit. It was just as well since the climate did not suit me. I arrived at the South African Branch in a very weak state and was sent to a hospital. However, there was nothing seriously wrong, and a few weeks later I was out on European circuit work in the Transvaal.
What a change! How easy the work seemed after Catholic territory and ‘underground’ activity! The months rolled quickly by until April, 1957, and then I got three shocks all in one week—very pleasant ones! A very generous brother presented me with a little car; I was appointed as district servant; and I fell in love with a sweet little missionary girl of the sixteenth class of Gilead! We were married in December, 1957, and have had a wonderful time together in the district work. What an interesting and varied life! One week, a European assembly in the Town Hall; next week, meetings with the Africans in a little tin hut. Most of the time we are with the Africans, who much appreciate brotherly help from Europeans. Many of the native locations are rough places and unsafe after dark. At one assembly a defense squad had to be organized to keep the native gangsters at bay. But in spite of that and the language problem we thoroughly enjoy our ministry. Bechuanaland is in our district and there we often get unusual experiences—stuck in a river for three and a half hours with water flowing through the car, or interviewing hostile chiefs. The literature is banned there, but many officials appreciate our work, and the New World society is growing.
Thanks to the warm generosity of my wife’s parents, we both attended the New York Divine Will assembly of 1958 and noted the vigorous growth of the organization and the manifestation of the “fruits of the spirit.” What a joy to meet old friends and get a wider vision of Jehovah’s people—happy, united, expanding on every side and advancing victoriously.
“So, Dad, those six months you prophesied have grown to twenty-eight years! And I am so glad that your attitude toward the New World society is now more friendly.”
“And you fellow New World society citizens, I hope that these few experiences will help you to feel something of what I feel—that Jehovah is by far the best Master to serve. Why get involved with worldly concerns, where one serves in a dead-end street? I can look back on many happy privileges in twenty-eight years of pioneer service, but the future is infinitely more glorious! Take up the pioneer service and enjoy that cup of future blessings to the last drop!”