From Despair to Joy
As told by Estefan Kalajian
TIMES were hard for us in Beirut, Lebanon, during the second world war. Our family of seven lived in a small room with a tiny kitchen and bath. I was the oldest boy, having both an older sister and a younger one, as well as two younger brothers. Our parents and grandparents were Armenians who had fled from Turkey.
Father worked hard as a tailor to support us. Rather than sending me to work, as many parents did with their children, I was sent to school. But after completing only two years, I developed rheumatoid arthritis. My legs no longer could support my weight.
My uncle, then living in Haifa, Israel, heard of my condition and asked that I be sent to him for treatment. Within a month I was back in good health, the climate in Haifa evidently contributing to my quick improvement. But a couple of years later the illness struck again, affecting particularly my neck and spinal column. I returned to Haifa and once more found relief.
However, the illness kept returning with greater severity. Our dear father, who was our only means of support, died in 1951. I was 16 years old and remained with my mother and older sister. The younger children were put in an orphanage. Soon afterward I became ill again. My mother and sister did all they could to find a cure for me, spending over half their combined wages on my care.
In 1952 I entered the last hospital I was to walk into. They tried all kinds of treatment on me, even experimenting with new types of medicine, but all to no avail. After I spent 26 days in that hospital, the doctors said that my legs and back were permanently paralyzed. In fact, they told my mother that I had only a few months to live—that was over 28 years ago!
INTO DEEP DESPAIR
I returned home to wait to die. Although my friends, relatives and neighbors knew of my condition, only a few came to visit me. Everyone, it seemed, had written me off as worthless. Particularly did friends of my own age desert me.
On the other hand, some older people did come to “comfort” me. They told me that God really loved me and so was testing my faith. This only made me feel worse. My answer to them was: “I wish God didn’t love me! If he hated me I might still be healthy and walking around.”
A year passed, and I did not die. At first I was able to be propped up in a chair, with my legs extended out stiffly in front of me. I could use my arms and move my head slightly. But in time, as the illness gained a stronger hold, I gradually lost the use of my arms and hands and no longer could move my head from side to side. For the last 18 years I have been confined to bed.
Life was unbearable. I decided to commit suicide, and kept a straight razor hidden near my bed for that purpose. But I was never able to work up the courage to use it. The years passed slowly, and dismally.
THE BEGINNING OF HOPE
In November 1960 two women visited me and spoke about the Bible. Shortly afterward I returned to the hospital for six months of treatment. In April 1961 one of the women visited again with a different companion. I then realized that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. My curiosity was aroused. I wanted to learn their views on various religions.
When growing up I had been exposed to all kinds of religion. My parents were Armenian Orthodox, I had lived for 10 years among Maronite Catholics and had spent summer vacations with Protestants. I had even taken a Seventh-day Adventist correspondence course, receiving a diploma from them. Despite this background, however, I did not know God’s name or how to worship him.
I asked the Witnesses to visit me again. They did and a Bible study was started with me in the booklet “This Good News of the Kingdom.” After only three or four studies I had learned that God’s name is Jehovah and that we are living in the last days of this wicked system of things. I also learned about Jehovah’s new order and the prospect of living forever in perfect health! That really caught my attention and I began to study in earnest.
The Witnesses told me to expect persecution, perhaps from my own household. We were all living together again in that one room. However, I decided that if my family were to turn against me, I would rather live in a sanatorium than give up the Bible truths that had become so precious to me. The door to a happy future had opened and I wasn’t going to let anyone close it.
My joy and appreciation for Jehovah and his people were deepened when I was once again confined to a hospital for another six months, this time 25 miles (40 km) outside Beirut. Would my newfound friends desert me? Never! A Witness and his wife regularly made the trip to study with me.
On returning home from the hospital, more and more Witnesses, on learning of my condition, would stop by and visit me, not only the Armenian-speaking ones, but the Lebanese as well. Each had a truly comforting word. On September 8, 1962, the brothers transported me to a nearby beach, and I was baptized in the sea to symbolize my dedication to Jehovah God.
JOYS IN CHRISTIAN SERVICE
Since I was unable to attend congregation meetings, the Witnesses would tell me what had been discussed. But I wanted to share more fully. I asked my brother to buy me a tape recorder and he did. After that I was able to “attend” all the meetings and even give talks in the Theocratic School by means of tape recordings.
But how could I have a share in the preaching activity? Being totally confined to bed by this time, my own household was logical “territory.” Instead of persecuting me, one after the other accepted the Bible truths I presented—first, my younger sister, then my youngest brother, next my mother and, finally, my married sister. Only my other brother is not a Witness, although his wife is. And she, in turn, has helped several of her relatives to become Witnesses, including her brother who is now a Christian elder! So my first territory proved fruitful, bringing me tremendous joy.
Another territory was found among the few non-Witnesses who still visited me. But I felt that there must be a way to give an even broader witness. So I obtained a telephone directory, and from it got the names and addresses of Armenian-speaking people to whom I could present the Kingdom message by letter. I also sent letters to business and factory addresses that I felt it would be difficult for the other Witnesses to reach in their preaching. I was encouraged to share in the full-time preaching activity, or pioneer work, as it is called. Since then I have been able to engage in auxiliary pioneering, on the average, three times a year.
BLESSINGS DESPITE OPPOSITION
Local Armenian newspapers smeared me and my family, lyingly saying that I was the leader of the Armenian Witnesses and that we were holding secret revolutionary meetings. Also, my uncle, who lived next door to us, opposed us vehemently. So we decided to leave our rent-free one-room home and rent a larger apartment in another area. Although the new apartment was expensive and worked somewhat of a financial hardship, it turned out to be a blessing for all of us.
Now, not only do we have more comfortable living quarters, but we have the regular congregation meetings in our home. And I can share more fully in theocratic activities, caring for my responsibilities as a Christian elder. I give public talks, serve as Theocratic School overseer, conduct one of the congregation book studies, and this year I am the presiding overseer. So opposition has led only to happiness and blessings.
As my notoriety spread throughout the Armenian community, many clergymen of various religions came to visit me to “set me straight.” Their attitudes and actions only served to draw me closer to Jehovah’s people. While I would calmly answer their challenging questions, they would lose their temper and shout, expressing themselves almost to the point of blasphemy. I couldn’t help but contrast them with the humble Witnesses who had brought the Bible truths to me.
NEWFOUND JOY APPARENT TO OTHERS
My joy serves as a witness to others, including doctors who have treated me through the years. In 1967 I entered the hospital again for 12 days of treatment, this time for a new, unrelated malady. My doctor was very friendly and noticed that I was always happy and optimistic despite my disability. He told me of another patient of his, a 21-year-old man with a spinal injury due to an automobile accident. Although receiving the best of care and being catered to by wealthy parents, he was so mentally disturbed and demanding that even his parents were disgusted with him. He drove the nurses and attendants to distraction.
“But you never complain,” the doctor said. “The nurses tell me that you never ring your bell for service and that you ask for assistance only if they happen to come into your room. Even your facial expression is so different from his.” I proceeded to tell the doctor the reason for the difference and expressed hope of living forever in a paradise earth.
One day in August 1975 a Witness brought a visitor to see me. As usual, I spoke to him about the Kingdom and how it will solve all our problems. After a time he said: “I was told I was coming to visit a sick man. I was supposed to cheer him up. But you have cheered me up!” Little did I know that he was the publisher and editor of a local magazine. That same week he wrote a lengthy article on faith and included my experience.
WAR DOES NOT ROB ME OF JOY
During the Lebanese civil war, which began in 1975, we faced new problems. Our apartment is on the next to the top floor of a high building. The local militia took over the army barracks near our apartment building, and so we were in an area of heavy bombardment. Many shells landed on the roof of our building, but none penetrated through to our ceiling.
During the heavy Syrian shelling in the autumn of 1978 all our neighbors fled to safer places. We stayed where we were, my family refusing to leave me since I could not be moved. We all felt Jehovah’s protection during those terrifying few days. Even my little nephew kept walking around the house quoting our yeartext: ‘“I am with you,” says Jehovah, “to deliver you.”’ (Jer. 1:19) He seemed to be reassuring himself—he certainly reassured us older ones.
It truly seemed to be a miracle that not one of us was hurt. Three big shells landed on the roof right over my bed, reverberations from the explosions breaking hundreds of windows in the area. Rockets capable of penetrating several concrete walls landed on the roof but glanced off so that little damage was done. The loving concern of my family and the closeness of Jehovah were a source of joy even in those dark days.
FRUITS OF PERSEVERANCE
During my 18 years as a Witness, I have been able to assist 16 persons to become dedicated servants of Jehovah. And there are several with whom I am now studying who look forward to baptism. Of those already baptized, four are serving as ministerial servants in the congregation. Four are university students or graduates.
One of my former Bible studies is a journalist, author and former university professor who has worked for years for the Ministry of Information. There she is in constant contact with the governmental officials, including the prime minister. Her appreciation of the truth was so deep that she once canceled a meeting she had with the prime minister and several literary personalities to accommodate a sudden change in my schedule of Bible studies. She and one of my Bible students, who first spoke to her about God’s kingdom, were baptized on the same day.
I usually conduct about seven Bible studies a month besides taking care of my other theocratic activities. All of this proves so stimulating that I do not feel sick. Spiritually I am cured, and I know that I will soon be physically healed too. I have full confidence in Jehovah’s promise through his prophet that one day I “will climb up just as a stag does.”—Isa. 35:6.
To all depressed persons I recommend heeding Jesus’ words: “Come to me, all you who are toiling and loaded down, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon you and become my disciples, for I am mild-tempered and lowly in heart, and you will find refreshment for your souls.” (Matt. 11:28, 29) For me, these words have proved true, and my deepest despair has turned to pure joy.
“Always rejoice in the Lord. Once more I will say, Rejoice!”—Phil. 4:4.