A Life of Blessings in Jehovah’s Service
As told by Athan Doulis
MY LIFE, from the human point of view, had its start in a poor environment, with equally poor prospects for a satisfying future. Born in a small mountain village of Northern Epirus, Albania, I never knew my father, for he died three months before my birth. Mother, as far as I can remember, was a godly woman, devoted to what she had learned; she died when I was no more than eight years of age. My only sister married, and my only brother and I myself were expatriated to Istanbul.
I was taken in hand by an uncle who brought me up according to his Greek Orthodox faith. He was a frequenter of the Patriarchate and of many churches in Istanbul, and took me with him, supposing, it seems, that this would substitute for a formal education. But I felt wronged at not being able to acquire education like all the other young people. Fortunately, I found some old school books discarded by my cousin, and undertook a course in self-education.
In 1923 I went as a refugee to Salonika, and then, two years later, repaired to Albania to meet my brother. On arrival at the old home, I did not find my brother, for he was working some 200 kilometers away. But I did find The Watch Tower, the Bible, seven volumes of Studies in the Scriptures, as well as other pamphlets on Bible topics. Some of the titles, such as “Hell” and “Our Lord’s Return,” caught my eye and I began to read. My sister-in-law tried to discourage me, saying: “You will become like your brother, who became stupid by these and does not go to church or observe feast days.” I paid no attention. I knew my brother was a literate man. When I did finally meet him, I found that he was a changed man, with quite a changed view in life.
At first it was all so new and difficult for me. Never before had I read the Bible; in fact, I hardly knew what a Bible was, despite my long connection with the Greek Orthodox religion. But even in that remote mountain district there were some Bible Students, as Jehovah’s witnesses were then called. They had been to America and brought back with them a familiarity with the Bible and a love for it. Their meek and patient spirit impressed me.
I recall how in those early days I doubted my worthiness and the possibility of ever attaining the status of a true Christian. I felt as though I were of a lower caste of character than my brother. However, he assured me that nobody is ever born with high principles—rather, these are acquired and cultivated. Little did I know at the time that I was to rejoice in many Christian privileges that I never dreamed I would enjoy.
In 1925 there were three organized congregations in Albania, as well as isolated Bible Students and interested persons here and there throughout the land. Their love among themselves was so much in contrast with the strife, egotism and competition of the people around them! I was attracted to their meetings and found real pleasure in their association.
I left Albania in 1926, not without great difficulty, for I was a refugee from Turkey and had no passport. I landed on Corfu island, Greece. I was overjoyed to find here some thirty Bible Students. Here I first tasted the joy of preaching God’s kingdom to others, for at this time I was aided to get started in the house-to-house ministry. The work at that time consisted of placing literature with those we could interest in our message. Making return visits and conducting home Bible studies were not yet instituted as vital features of our Christian work. In Corfu, by the way, there was the relic of some “saint,” and the clergy were exploiting it to the full.
One day, as I worked from store to store offering Bible literature, a fanatic rushed at me brandishing a butcher’s knife and shouting the name of the local patron saint. Jehovah protected me from this demon-possessed person through a man nearby who intervened. Another day, in one of the outlying villages, opposition was raised against my partner and me. Happily for us there was a division of opinion, the president of the community for us and the priest against us. The latter gathered a mob to stone us. We got on our way safely, though some of the thrown stones struck my companion in the back and struck me around the feet.
The Greek Orthodox metropolitan of Corfu finally succeeded, three months later, in having me deported to Albania, with the intention of causing me much hardship and imprisonment. But his vengeful scheme did not work out. When the ship I was on reached the Albanian port of Santi Quaranta, a Bible Student who was secretary to the town’s mayor came to meet me. He saw to it that I was not imprisoned, and even telephoned a colonel-governor of Argyrokastron city, through whose good offices I was furnished with a passport. So, four days later I was back in Corfu and again proclaiming God’s message to the inhabitants.
DIVINE GUIDANCE APPRECIATED
Soon I left for Athens, where I took up residence. Imagine my joy to learn later that the colonel-governor who had acted in my behalf had submitted to baptism as a Christian witness of Jehovah, and that a great witness was thereby given among the Mohammedan element of Albania.
Athens, of course, had a much larger congregation, and I literally basked in the warmth of their association and meetings. All the while I was advancing in knowledge and appreciation of God’s purposes and the history of the people he was using for his name. Meanwhile Jehovah had revealed to his people that the time of his temple judgment was here, and “lightnings and voices and thunders” proceeded from his heavenly temple, causing a purifying of his “sanctuary” class on earth. (Rev. 11:16-19) An “evil slave” class was eliminated from the ranks of the faithful Witnesses. (Matt. 24:48-51) Loyal men helped me to keep close to the organization of God’s people.
At that time we newer ones were looking to and finding sweet communion with the older Witnesses, just as Ruth with Naomi. (Ruth 1:16, 17) On Sundays, after meetings, we would keep company with them, seeking explanations from the Bible and learning about the developments of the organization of God’s servants on earth. We learned about early visits to Greece by C. T. Russell and J. F. Rutherford, and other outstanding events.
In those days, too, we were hearing about the marvelous series of international assemblies commencing with that at Cedar Point, Ohio, in 1922. In fact, we were having our miniature follow-up assemblies right up to the year 1931. At one of these, in 1926, I reached another milestone in my life—I symbolized my dedication to God by water baptism. By now I was actively engaging in house-to-house preaching about two hours a day and attending meetings.
Despite persecutions, confiscations of literature, court trials and imprisonments, the Witnesses were increasing in number and congregations were multiplying. With the many privileges and joys of Kingdom service came also trials and temptations. I recall how, at the hotel where I was employed, I was exposed to the same kind of temptation that Joseph experienced in the household of his master, Potiphar. (Gen. 39:7-12) Looking back, I can rejoice that I had already been strengthened by Christian moral values to withstand such a test.
ENJOYING BLESSED PRIVILEGES
In 1930 I was invited to come and serve with the Bethel family of the Watch Tower Society’s branch in Athens. The Bethel at that time, unlike the beautiful Bethel we now have, was sheltered in a building located at the corner of Kumanudi and Lombardou Streets. The family was composed of Brother Athan Karanassios and his family, Brother Karkanes and Brother Triantaphyllopulos. The preaching work in Greece, Albania, Cyprus and Turkey was all directed from Athens.
Another blessed surprise for me came in 1934. From the Brooklyn headquarters of the Society came directions for promoting the Kingdom work in Cyprus and Turkey. Two others were assigned to go to Cyprus, while I was assigned to Turkey. Though I felt at the time quite unqualified for the mission, I remembered Jehovah’s words: “Not by a military force, nor by power, but by my spirit.”—Zech. 4:6.
So there I was in Istanbul, living and preaching among a population of many nationalities, speaking various languages, and practicing different customs. We had to carry literature in many languages; often apartment houses were inaccessible; people, instead of opening the door to us, would let down a basket from an upper window on which we would place our literature and a card explaining what it was all about. We had to be cautious of the Moslem element, since we always ran the risk of arrest. Despite obstacles, however, we could rejoice at the appearance of newcomers at our Bible-study meetings. Jehovah was truly prospering us.
A MODERN EBED-MELECH
Hardly had seven months passed when I was arrested and subjected to four days of police interrogation, on the complaint of a Jewish community. The police were kind enough, but meantime our supply of literature was confiscated, and we had to make do with a small supply that had been stored elsewhere. In 1935 I was again arrested, this time while quietly enjoying my noonday meal. I was confined in a secret jail cell, one used for prisoners who were to be deported without any legal formalities. Even here I had the opportunity to preach to five other prisoners from various nations.
Two days later we were taken out into a small yard, where I sat enjoying the sunshine. The chief jailer approached and asked why I had been confined. I explained that it was because I was preaching about God’s kingdom. He went off astonished, but was soon back and asking if I needed anything. In the evening he came and brought me a blanket from his own home as well as some food. “Eat,” he said, “because you are a man of God.” He continued to extend kindness to me and disclosed that with the other prisoners I was to be stealthily deported to Persia within a few days.
Now came the evidence of Jehovah’s watch-care. He asked if there was anything he could do for me. I asked him to notify my friends. He consented, even though it could mean his job and his freedom if he were discovered. When my friends learned where I was, they appealed to the prefect of the city in my behalf, so that, instead of being deported penniless to Persia, I was deported to Greece under better circumstances. Jehovah had truly raised up a modern Ebed-melech to rescue me at the critical time.—Jer. 38:7-13.
After a brief visit to Albania once more, I was back at the Athens branch of the Society. Religious enemies of God’s truth took advantage of the dictatorial regime to hinder our work in every way. In 1939, they managed to close the branch office altogether, seized our printing equipment and imprisoned many of the Witnesses. Arrests, court hearings, jail and exile failed to dampen the zeal of our Christian brothers. The work went on.
BLESSINGS IN THE CRUCIBLE
World War II came and subjected Greece to bombardments and foreign occupation, followed by civil disturbances. The structure of the Witness organization remained intact. All over the land we met in small groups and maintained spiritual health while promoting the witness work in any way we could. Printing equipment, made to be operated electrically, was even run by hand in order to turn out small pieces of literature needed in our ministry. A bright and joyous feature of those dark times was the multiplying evidence that the “great crowd,” mentioned in Revelation 7, verse 9, were now appearing before our very eyes. How grateful we were to Jehovah for this wonderful encouragement—a real blessing!
As a special representative of the Society I had the opportunity to share with dear fellow Witnesses in all parts of the land as they endured hardships on behalf of Christ. Gangs under clergy leadership, purporting to seek for enemies of the state, were arresting peaceful Christian witnesses, elderly men and women, beating them and demanding that they disown their faith. Some were thrown into pits after savage beatings; others were hung head down; still others were killed with machine guns in front of their own children; their homes were demolished, their vines uprooted. Scores were exiled to barren islets without proper legal hearing. The persecutions of Nero and the Catholic Inquisition had been revived. Still, Jehovah’s faithful worshipers in Greece kept integrity.
From 1947 onward I was privileged to serve as a circuit servant. Reorganization did much to bring joy and encouragement to those who had faithfully endured. I can recall how the contact with those who had endured the heat of persecution became a grand source of inspiration and strength to me. I can find no words to thank Jehovah adequately for the privilege of having fought alongside such loyal ones under trying conditions.
Often I had to have a dependable guide take me to one group after another of faithful Witnesses, for we had to travel by night and over circuitous routes, avoiding the main roads. I can recall how wild and lonely were some of the areas through which we groped our way in the darkness, and then how the picture changed when we would reach some remote place and there see The Watchtower and other Bible-study helps! The refreshing waters of God’s Word of truth were penetrating everywhere.
In a town in northwestern Greece one person, formerly a criminal, a homicide, became interested in reading The Watchtower and Awake!, and soon his life was completely transformed. When he then learned of a young woman criminal, with whom he had been at enmity, coming to appreciate the Bible’s message while in prison, he exclaimed: “I must call her ‘sister’ and she must call me ‘brother.’” Our God truly is a God of love and peace.
From 1947 to 1961, as far as I can recall, I came through forty-three serious incidents while striving to reach and serve the circuit of small groups under my supervision. Arrests, jailings, court trials and imprisonments were common experiences for me. To make things even more difficult, my name was published in the newspapers, with threats and intolerant comments by the clergy and their dupes. But never was I abandoned to despair. Jehovah always provided the blessings of consolation and encouragement when most needed.
Back again in Turkey in 1956. If 1934 I had enjoyed pioneer privileges there, and now I was being allowed to tie those past blessings in with new ones. Istanbul now had a sizable group of Witnesses. It was thrilling to see the work forge ahead in this virgin field.
Meantime, conditions for our ministry in Greece changed for the better. Since 1961 I have been serving as circuit servant in Piraeus and Athens. Despite two surgical operations, one in 1954 and the other in 1963, I still feel strong, and can see in my own experience fulfillment of the promise at Isaiah 40:28-31. Some of the outstanding blessings I shall never forget: attending grand international conventions at London in 1951, at New York in 1953, at cities around Europe in 1955, and at that mammoth assembly in New York city in 1958! And what a privilege to convey the blessings of those gatherings to humble Witnesses back in Turkey and Greece.
I am now fifty-eight years of age and my hair has grown white. Young people sometimes call me “old man.” But I thank my Creator for the continuing gift of bodily strength, and urge all young people to study the Bible and get to know the loving Creator rather than have their lives wasted on vanities. (Eccl. 12:1) He can and will bless their faithful course even as he has blessed mine.