Our Five Decades of Integrity-keeping
As told by Ramón Serrano
“RAMÓN, did you know that the Bible says we do not have an immortal soul, and that hellfire does not exist?”
That startling statement by an illiterate domestic helper, Francisca Arbeca, stopped me in my tracks. It was a turning point in the life of my younger brother, Francisco (Paco), and in mine. I was 15 at the time, in 1932.
Our mother, a pious woman, used to send us to a nearby Baptist school here in Barcelona, Spain. There, Señor Rosendo, the teacher and pastor, instilled in us the classic Protestant teachings of the immortality of the soul and hellfire torment. Our domestic helper, Francisca, on the other hand, was associating with the local group of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Soon my mother started to take us to the meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, held in a private home. At one of these, I was deeply impressed by the explanation that Christ “through his death . . . [will] bring to nothing the one having the means to cause death, that is, the Devil.” (Heb. 2:14) If the Devil is going to be brought to nothing, I reasoned, then how can hellfire torment be eternal? When I later raised this question with Señor Rosendo, he became angry because he had no answer.
Convinced that we had Bible truths that others could benefit from knowing, Paco and I, with the help of another Witness, started preaching the “good news of the kingdom” from house to house. (Matt. 24:14) I was only 17 and Paco just 13. While the older brother covered the adjoining city of Badalona, we concentrated our efforts in Barcelona, and in Tarrasa, a city some 31 kilometers (19 mi.) distant. That represented a territory of some 750,000 inhabitants between the two of us! However, we did not feel abashed. We knew it was the Lord’s work and we got on with it.
About that same time we started to use the phonograph with records of Brother Rutherford’s Bible talks translated into Spanish. Sometimes the motor would run down before the recording ended. I can still remember Paco feverishly winding up the machine, half way through the groaning record, to keep it going. How things have changed in this electronic age!
TESTS OF INTEGRITY DURING THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR
Beginning in 1930, the political situation in Spain became very unsettled. The king fled into exile in 1931 and the country was declared a republic. But the population was divided over the issue and political hatred smoldered beneath the surface. In July 1936, the terrible civil war broke out and, being in Catalonia, we found ourselves in the republican, anticlerical side of the country. In spite of the hostilities, though, we kept up our house-to-house preaching activity.
One day, while witnessing in Horta, on the outskirts of Barcelona, we were picked up by a Communist militiaman and taken to the local headquarters for interrogation. At that time I was 18 years of age and my brother 14. We were harangued by a local official, who confiscated our literature and warned us not to waste our time preaching. I was told I should be at the front fighting with the comrades. This was our first real taste of the effects of the civil war. Being young, we were shaken by this experience, but we knew that we had to go on preaching the “good news.”
At that time—in the year 1936—we did not have as clear a view of Christian neutrality as we do today. (John 15:19) This subject was not clarified in the Spanish Watchtower until March 1940. All I knew was that as a Christian I could not kill.—Ex. 20:13.
In 1937, at 19 years of age, I was called for military service with the republican army. At first, to avoid participation in this fratricidal conflict, I went into hiding. After some eight months I was traced and tried by the Espionage and High Treason Court. Such was the wartime atmosphere that my parents were convinced I was going to be executed. As it was, I was sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment. After some months in prison, however, I was released and sent to the front in the province of Lerida. Things were building up there for a big battle.
My first assignment was in an office, which meant that I did not have to use a weapon. That situation soon changed when our company was ordered to the battlefront, near a little town called Serós, on the river Segre. Now, like the rest of the troops, I found myself under fire. On one occasion while sheltering from the bullets in a shallow depression in the ground, there was, at each side of me, a sergeant shouting at me to grab a rifle and start shooting. I ignored the order. A few minutes later they were both dead where they lay.
Finally, our company retreated and, after some three weeks on the move, I was captured by Italian troops of the Littorio Brigade, who were fighting with Franco’s national army. As a prisoner I had some respite from the pressure to participate in the war. It was now the beginning of 1939 and I was assigned to a concentration camp in Deusto, Vizcaya, in the north of Spain. But my problems did not end there. At mealtimes we all had to stand and sing Fascist hymns and give the raised-arm Fascist salute. I just remained seated at the back and discreetly kept on eating. Fortunately, I am rather short in stature and so I went unnoticed. Later, I was transferred to work in a disciplinary battalion. There I was ordered to give the Fascist salute along with the others. On conscientious grounds, I refused to participate in what I considered to be an idolatrous act. The other prisoners thought I was crazy. With Spain embroiled in a civil war, my attitude was tantamount to suicide.
I was called out in front of everybody and ordered to give the Fascist salute. I refused. An officer struck me and tried to raise my arm forcibly, but he failed. A heavy sack of sand was then tied to my back and I was made to run in circles while my legs were whipped with a belt. Finally, I fainted and collapsed and was taken away to solitary confinement. To strengthen my spirits, I began to scrawl Bible texts on the cell wall. Two officers came in and tried to persuade me to salute. My adamant refusal to do such a “simple” thing mystified them, especially since I was due to be released shortly. Eventually, I was taken before a group of officers and army doctors, who decided to send me off to the hospital to have my sanity checked. A few weeks later I was set free and, with the end of the war, was sent home, in April 1939. Those harrowing experiences were now past, and to the best of my ability I had kept my integrity.
Spain’s civil war ended on April 1, 1939, but the open wounds it had caused continued to fester with hatred for years thereafter. Fear of reprisals, vengeance and anonymous denouncement reigned everywhere. An atmosphere of dread prevailed, accentuated by the ravages of war and the shortage of food.
In this setting I returned to Barcelona to find that the meetings of Jehovah’s people had ‘folded up’ and their preaching work had ceased. Without delay, Paco and I collaborated with others in getting the meetings reestablished at Paquita Arbeca’s home. (Heb. 10:24, 25) We held these on Sundays, basing our studies on the Bible, old copies of The Watchtower and books such as Government, Deliverance and Riches. Our preaching activity was confined to informal contacts.
Due to the outbreak of warfare in 1936, our link had been broken with the Watch Tower Society in Brooklyn, New York. Although the war had ended, we could not communicate with the Society. Why not? Because there was censorship of mail and people were obligated to write patriotic slogans on the envelopes. So it seemed best for us to avoid writing letters.
In 1946 the Spanish press included a news dispatch about the Glad Nations Theocratic Assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses held in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.A. That rekindled our hopes. By then the slogans on mail were no longer required. Anxiously, we wrote to the Society to ask for more information. What joy when, some weeks later, we received a letter and a package of magazines! At long last, fresh Bible truth was trickling into our parched field.
MARRIAGE IN A CATHOLIC DICTATORSHIP
The year 1946 was a happy one for Paco and me for another reason. I was nearly 29 years of age and Paco was 25 and we were both courting Catalan girls, Carmen and María, who were also studying the Bible and attending the meetings. My brother and I were very conscious of the need to marry “only in the Lord,” and so we had exercised patience. (1 Cor. 7:39) All four of us wanted to get married on the same day. There was just one problem. The only marriage ceremony really available in those days was the Catholic one. The question was, how could we avoid the Catholic rite? We eventually found a priest who, for a consideration, was willing to allow a simple ceremony in his church, without religious trappings. Just to cover himself, on the day of the wedding he stayed away and left the matter in the hands of the sacristan. Thus, in October 1946, I married María Royo and Paco married Carmen Parera.
GILEAD MISSIONARY SHOWS US HOW TO PREACH
In December 1947, John Cooke, who had received missionary training at Gilead School, arrived in Barcelona. Truthfully, before his arrival, our meetings were more like acrimonious debates. But he showed us how a Christian gathering should be conducted, and those who did not appreciate it soon left.—1 Cor. 14:33.
Then came the real challenge. Brother Cooke told us we had to start preaching from house to house if Spain was ever to get covered with the “good news.” “You must be out of your mind, Brother Cooke!” we told him. “You cannot preach that way here in Franco’s Spain. Maybe in London or New York, but not here!” When he saw that we were unwilling to give way, what did he do? He went out on his own and showed us that it could be done. That shamed us into action. If he, a foreigner, with his heavy accent, was willing to witness to our people, so were we. He taught us how to preach discreetly, not visiting all the apartments in a building but, rather, zigzagging around the territory so that we would not be caught by the police.
Many people all over Barcelona responded to our message, and soon our group became a congregation. As time went by, we were able to form several congregations in the city. With such good expansion, Paco and I decided that we could now ‘spread our wings’ and move out into the nearby cities of Hospitalet and Prat de Llobregat and other coastal towns, to give the witnessing work more impetus there. As we look back now, it is really gratifying to see that there are 52 large congregations in the city of Barcelona, 9 in Hospitalet and several more in towns strung along the coast, where we have been able to serve as elders. Of course, we do not take the credit for this increase but are happy to have had a part in it.—1 Cor. 3:5-9.
June 10, 1951, was a “historic” date for our family. That day, in a small reservoir in Brother Brunet’s garden, five of us were baptized—Carmen, María, Paco and myself, as well as our mother. Circumstances had made us wait many years for that joyful occasion.
During the difficult years of the 1950’s, María and I had three outstanding blessings—the birth of our three children, David, Francisco (Paquito) and Isabel. This brought upon us the enormous responsibility of training them in the ‘way they should go,’ knowing that, in all probability, when older, they would not turn away from it.—Prov. 22:6.
In 1955, and coinciding with a visit by Brother F. W. Franz, arrangements were made to hold a secret assembly in the woods on the Tibidabo Mountain, overlooking Barcelona. Our assemblies were usually held picnic-style, in case the police should come upon us. In this case, the “picnic” became enlarged with an attendance of over 500. Another inconvenient factor was that the police had raided a brother’s home the week before and had confiscated a copy of the Informant supplement that had announced the arrangements for this assembly. María and I were present at the “picnic” with our two small sons, David and Paquito.
The program got under way and everything seemed normal until we suddenly saw four men running up the hill, one holding a pistol. They ordered us not to move. Yes, you are right, it was the police in plain clothes. Really thinking they had pulled off a coup, they herded all of us—men, women and children—into waiting trucks and took us to police headquarters for identification and interrogation. Imagine the disgust of some of them when they realized they had rounded up inoffensive families that had met together to study the Bible, rather than a clandestine political group. Although nothing came of it all, this experience served to strengthen our integrity and helped us to appreciate Jehovah’s protection.—Ps. 34:7.
By 1963 our children, David, Paquito and Isabel, were 13, 11 and 9 years old respectively and progressing well in the truth. It was a joy to us to see them participating in the field service and enjoying with us the Bible study meetings we attended in private homes.
Then one day in March of that year Paquito came home from school complaining of severe pains in the head. Within three hours he had died of meningitis.
We were so deeply affected by this terrible loss that I do not know how we managed to make arrangements for the funeral, for even in this we had to contend with the Catholic Church. Obviously, we wanted a civil funeral, and for that we had to obtain clearance from the local parish priest. With a document proving we were Jehovah’s Witnesses that hurdle was overcome.
More than a thousand brothers, friends and business associates turned up at the house. Imagine the stir that this caused in the neighborhood. The traffic was blocked and people on the street were asking who was the important person that had died. That very important person was our dear son, Paquito. Only the knowledge of the resurrection hope sustained us through that most difficult period. (John 5:28, 29; 11:23-25) As loving parents, María and I yearn for that day when we shall see our boy again and be able to continue his education, but in the new system of things that God has promised for this earth.—2 Pet. 3:13; Isa. 25:8, 9.
Two weeks after the funeral, I was called to police headquarters and interrogated for two hours. Their agents had been spying on the funeral crowd and it was evident that the massive attendance of Witnesses provoked their reaction. Their questions were an attempt to get information about brothers directing the work in Spain at that time. I was aware of their tactics and determined not to say anything that could implicate anyone else. Straightforwardly, I told them that I was not a Judas. Although they threatened me with a heavy fine, they had no proved accusation against me, and their bluff failed.
In 1967 the Spanish government approved the Religious Liberty Law, which guaranteed greater freedom to the non-Catholic religions. We asked ourselves whether the Witnesses would benefit from this law and be given legal recognition. That our stand on preaching from house to house and on Christian neutrality was an obstacle for the political and ecclesiastical authorities seemed evident when our inscription in the official register of non-Catholic religions was delayed until July 1970.
Paco and I had waited for more than 30 long years for that day. We could now practice our religion under law, without fear. Imagine how delighted we were to attend the inauguration of the first Kingdom Hall in Barcelona, in February 1971. Our hearts swelled with joy that day as we joined our voices in singing Kingdom songs, something that Jehovah’s Witnesses had not been able to do in Spain for many years.
INTEGRITY AND ITS MANY BLESSINGS
In looking back over nearly five decades in Jehovah’s service, I have to admit that his loving-kindness and blessing have accompanied us as we have tried to walk in the path of integrity. (Ps. 26:1-3) He has blessed María and me with loyal children who have continued in the pathways of truth. To this day, we are a happy, united family with a strong bond of affection. Our son, David, was sent to prison in 1972 because of his stand as a Christian neutral. It was his first separation from the family and it was a heartrending experience for all of us. But we understood the reason and it strengthened us to see him keep his Christian integrity during three years of imprisonment. When he was released in 1976, he had the further privilege of serving in Bethel, the Watch Tower Society’s facilities here in Barcelona. He later married a dedicated Christian woman who also served there with him for a while. Recently, we had the happy blessing of becoming the grandparents of their first child, Jonathan.
In 1976 our daughter, Isabel, started witnessing as a pioneer (a full-time Kingdom proclaimer). Now she is accompanying her husband in the circuit work, visiting congregations here in Catalonia.
Jehovah has sustained us through many difficult trials over the years. And truthfully, we are very ordinary people, with the frailties common to all mankind. Nevertheless, our experiences as a family have taught us patiently to lean on Jehovah and wait for the outworking of his will. We are determined to continue carrying out David’s resolution expressed at Psalm 26:11, 12: “As for me, in my integrity I shall walk. O redeem me and show me favor. My own foot will certainly stand on a level place; among the congregated throngs I shall bless Jehovah.”
[Picture on page 25]
Francisco (left), and Ramón Serrano