A Prisoner’s Prayer Is Answered
As Told by Isaac V. Espeleta
IN 1945, when the American forces already had invaded the Philippines, 11 companions and I were arrested by the Japanese. We were put in small, galvanized-metal cells not much bigger than dog kennels. By day, they were unbearably hot, and at night, they were freezing cold.
All my companions died under the subsequent interrogations. Although being intensively questioned for 45 days and severely tortured three times, I did not confess to the crimes I was accused of. I had noticed that if anyone confessed under torture, he was immediately shot or bayoneted to death. Hence, I took my chance with the torture.
Right there, in that tiny cell, I prayed to Jehovah God and promised that, if I should survive, I would search for him and spend the rest of my life serving him. But before I say more about my search for Jehovah, let me explain why I was imprisoned and what caused me to make that promise to Jehovah.
EARLY LIFE AND INFLUENCES
Ours was a Catholic family living in the little town of Biñan, about 30 kilometers (19 mi.) south of Manila. The strong influence in my younger life was my paternal grandfather. He was disenchanted with the Catholic Church and had become interested in the Bible. He introduced me to the fine habit of reading the Scriptures, and for that I will always be grateful to him.
On getting older, I became an avid reader. When the second world war struck the Philippines, the supply of English reading materials dried up. Then, one day, I came across a copy of the book Riches, printed by the Watch Tower Society. Something to read at last! It contained very stimulating information.
Particularly striking to me was the fact that God had a personal name, Jehovah. I checked this in the Bible my grandfather had given me. Yes, there it was. God’s name really was Jehovah. (Ex. 6:3; Ps. 83:18) Due to the war, however, I could not immediately follow up on my newfound knowledge.
I had got married some years earlier, in 1936. By the time of the war I had three small children to support. As part of my secular work, I would travel to southern Luzon to buy wood for lumber and firewood. There, hiding in the forests, were men who actively opposed the Japanese occupation. They recruited me to distribute literature for them, and for the duration of the war I was a courier for the underground.
In 1945, the Japanese came to suspect my underground activities and arrested me. Fortunately, we had previously disposed of the subversive literature. But during the hours I was alone in that tiny cell, my mind kept returning to the God I had read about—Jehovah.
As it happened, the Japanese had no real proof of my guilt. They released me, and I immediately joined the pro-American resistance. But I suffered further at the hands of the Americans when they suspected me of being a Japanese spy! However, the Japanese occupation of the Philippines ended, and with it my nationalistic enthusiasm. Yet, I did not forget the promise I had made to God. Immediately, I started my search for Jehovah.
FINDING JEHOVAH’S PEOPLE
With a childhood friend, Pablo Quiohilag, I visited different churches, but none of them seemed to have the right message. Then, one day I heard someone preaching about Jehovah. I invited him into my compound in Biñan and told him to preach there as long as he desired.
In 1947, one of us heard someone else preaching about Jehovah. This time it was a Canadian missionary, Vic White, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He came to speak to our group and I was chosen to translate for him. We discovered that the individual who had been preaching in my compound was no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but had been disfellowshiped before the war. This information provoked a crisis in our little group.
About this time we heard of the first circuit assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses to be held in Manila after the war. I attended and was introduced by Vic White to the branch overseer, Earl K. Stewart. Afterward, at the branch office, he explained what we would have to do to become Jehovah’s Witnesses. This, of course, included a Christian’s responsibility to share in the house-to-house preaching activity. After my return to Biñan, our whole group parted company with the disfellowshiped person and decided to begin associating with Jehovah’s Witnesses.
GETTING ORGANIZED AS TRUE CHRISTIANS
Biñan Congregation was then born. But there were many questions to be answered. For example, most of our group, which numbered about 15 at the time, had been baptized by the disfellowshiped person who had been preaching to us. We now wondered: “Should we be rebaptized?” Some thought not, since the Bible speaks of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” (Eph. 4:5) We had been baptized once, so why do it again? But I reasoned that surely the “one baptism” should be in association with the “one faith.” Since we had now found the true faith, we should be rebaptized in association with those holding to it. And that is what we did.
We then had to face the matter of house-to-house preaching. How were we to go about it? None of us knew. So Pablo Quiohilag and I went from door to door together. Before each house, we would toss a coin. The loser had to do the preaching! I am not sure just what we said, but surely Jehovah guided our inexperienced efforts to praise him in public.
Finally, two experienced brothers from Bethel, Salvador Liwag and Vic Amores, were sent to help us. They showed us how to witness and how to conduct meetings. I started to attend the service meeting of the Santa Ana Congregation in Manila on Thursdays, so as to present the same program more effectively to our little group on Fridays.
KEEPING BUSY IN JEHOVAH’S SERVICE
Recently, when we were traveling to a district assembly, my wife suddenly said: “How did we do it?”
“Do what?” I asked her.
“Remember how this whole area from Sucat, Muntinlupa, in Rizal to Cabuyao in Laguna [about 40 kilometers (25 mi.)] used to be our territory?”
In those early years we had no car. We would walk for whole days to find interested persons. Sometimes we carried a kerosene lamp for use in conducting the Watchtower study and holding the public meeting after dark.
“I could not do it now,” my wife said.
That is probably true, since she now is suffering from osteoarthritis. But when we had our youth and strength, we used them in Jehovah’s service. In those early years I rose at 4 a.m. six days a week in order to get to work in Manila before 8 a.m. At night I usually went straight from work to my Bible studies. This sometimes involved walking 16 kilometers (10 mi.) to the house of an interested person and 16 kilometers home again. During the rainy season, I often got home soaking wet at 1 a.m., only to get up again three hours later to go to work.
At that time, too, I had the privilege of translating the Watchtower magazine into our local dialect, Tagalog. As my wife asked, “How did we do it?” It could have been possible only with Jehovah’s help. (Phil. 4:13) But it is a blessing to have ‘plenty to do in the Lord’s work.’—1 Cor. 15:58.
PUTTING JEHOVAH FIRST
Sometimes, putting Jehovah first in our lives involved making sacrifices, but we never lost out because of this. After the war our house in Biñan was practically a hovel. So we saved some money for a nicer house, eventually accumulating 500 pesos (about $250, U.S., in those days). But then the need for a suitable Kingdom Hall was discussed. It seemed that I was the only one with resources. So I said to Brother Jose Nava: “Go and ask my wife for the 500 pesos.” She handed the money to him without complaint and we built a nice little Kingdom Hall with it.
Soon thereafter, Jehovah made it possible for us to build our house anyway, and we lived there comfortably until 1954, when it was so damaged by termites that it required renovation. No sooner had plans been made to do this than it became obvious that the old Kingdom Hall was just too small for our expanding congregation. Once again, my wife uncomplainingly handed over all the money we had saved, and we donated it toward the new hall, then built along the main highway. Again, however, Jehovah quickly made it possible for us to rebuild our house. We did not lose out by putting him first.—Matt. 6:33.
Some years later, when I was deeply involved in building yet a third Kingdom Hall, my wife said to me: “You know, you have one of the most expensive hobbies I ever heard of.”
“What is that?” I asked.
“Building Kingdom Halls,” she said, smiling.
RAISING OUR CHILDREN
By the time our last son came along in 1956, we had four boys and six girls. When they were young, we always discussed the day’s Bible text with them. We saw the need, too, of having a regular family study. Also, we would have outings for the whole family in the field service. We did our best to raise our children in “the discipline and mental-regulating of Jehovah.”—Eph. 6:4.
We had some hard problems along the way. But there were blessings—many of them! At different times all our children pioneered, serving as full-time Kingdom proclaimers. My eldest daughter served with the staff at Bethel for some years before marrying and raising a family. Our first three girls were among the first special pioneers in the Philippines, and one has been serving faithfully for many years as a missionary in Thailand. All but one of our children are firm in the faith.
My second-eldest daughter received her first special pioneer assignment when she was 17 years old. After leaving home to take it up, she wrote us a letter that I still cannot recall without having tears come to my eyes. She said that when she was younger she thought I was the cruelest of fathers. Now she realized that if it had not been for our firm discipline as parents, she never would have enjoyed the wonderful privilege of special pioneer service (which later led to her foreign missionary assignment). Hence, as Christian parents, we should not deprive our children of discipline. (Prov. 22:6) They need it, and in later years they will appreciate it.
ENJOYING PRIVILEGES OF SERVICE
I have enjoyed many privileges in association with Jehovah’s people. For instance, I was privileged to organize the first assembly cafeterias in the Philippines. For many years, I had the fine privilege of translating The Watchtower into my own dialect. Meanwhile, we have watched that little group of 15 persons grow into 11 large, thriving congregations.
Another privilege took me into the National Penitentiary near my home. From time to time, prisoners write to the Watch Tower Society, seeking spiritual help. Often these letters are referred to me, and since 1947 I have been conducting regular Bible studies with interested inmates. Thus, over the years, about 50 persons have taken their stand for Jehovah and have been baptized while still in prison. At one district assembly, I met up with 23 of them. After their release, some of them became pioneers, as well as traveling overseers, and many are now serving as elders.
One individual I never expected to meet in prison was the disfellowshiped person who first started preaching to me about Jehovah. This man had been arrested on the charge of collaborating with the Japanese. (Later, he was pardoned and released.) While in prison, he humbly came to the meetings I was conducting. Many years later, in 1975, I was part of a judicial committee that considered his request for reinstatement. Thus, after almost 40 years in a disfellowshiped state, once again he was able to associate freely with God’s people.
During all these years, my wife truly has been a great help—a loyal supporter in God’s service. Now we both can look back on more than three decades of serving Jehovah. Having sought and found him, I am fulfilling that promise made years ago in the Japanese prison camp. How thankful I am to have found Jehovah God during the productive years of my life and to have been able to spend these in his service!