How Priceless Your Friendship, O God!
As told by Daniel Sydlik
LIFE for me began on a farm near Belleville, Michigan, in February 1919. A midwife assisted at my birth, since my immigrant mother considered a doctor unnecessary. “Why go to hospital? I not sick,” she would say in her broken English to anyone asking where the child would be born.
Times on the farm were hard. In search of a better life our family moved to Detroit. Not long after that, Dad became ill and died when I was about three. He had been actively associated with the International Bible Students, known today as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Mother was now left with six children and debts to pay. She had opposed Dad’s religion bitterly, but after his death she turned to the Bible to find out why it had so fascinated him. A number of years later she also became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
After Dad died, Mother worked as a waitress at night and cared for the family during the day. This continued until she remarried several years later. My stepfather argued successfully that the best place to rear children was in the open countryside and not in some overcrowded concrete jungle.
A farm of 55 acres (22 ha) was purchased near Caro, Michigan. When we arrived in the spring of 1927, the orchards were ablaze with blossoms. The air was sweet with the fragrance of wild flowers, and trees were in bloom. There were swimming holes, trees to climb, and animals to play with. Life here was wonderful! Nothing like the city. However, country life was difficult for Mother. It was pioneering at its roughest—no running water, no inside plumbing, no electricity.
Winters were long and severe. We children slept in the attic, where snow would often sift through the shingled roof and literally cover the beds. In the morning it would be sheer torture to put on ice-cold pants that at times were frozen stiff. The barn chores had to be done before breakfast. Then came the hike through the woods to the school, which had but one classroom where eight grades were taught by one teacher.
Mother had genuine love for God and that greatly influenced us children. She would say in Polish: “God has given us a beautiful day.” We kids would go outside to find out what she was talking about—only to find it raining. To Mother everything that happened was in some way because of God. When a new calf was born or when the chickens laid their eggs or when the snow fell, it had something to do with God as far as she was concerned. God was responsible for these good things in some way.
Mother was a believer in prayer. Prayer was a must for us at mealtimes. “Dogs wag their tails when you feed them. Are we less appreciative than dogs?” she would say. She also wanted us to say our prayers before we went to bed. Since none of us knew the Lord’s Prayer in English, she would have us kneel and recite the words in Polish after her.—Matthew 6:9-13.
Those were the days long before television. After sunset, there was little to do but go to bed. Mother encouraged us to read. She read her Bible by a kerosene lamp. And we youngsters would read publications obtained from traveling ministers of the International Bible Students, such as The Harp of God, Creation, and Reconciliation. Thus a friendship with God began to be cultivated.
In the early 1930’s some Bible Students from Saginaw, Michigan, visited and encouraged us to preach to others. But since there was no organized Bible study group or congregation nearby, our preaching efforts were negligible. Our spiritual growth for the most part lay dormant.
Because of the depression of the 1930’s, it was necessary for me to leave home and find work in Detroit. The farm was heavily mortgaged, and it was my desire to bring us out from under that burden. Detroit, however, was then a city of breadlines. Thousands of men stood in lines, sometimes all night, huddled over wood and charcoal fires, trying their best to keep warm until the employment offices opened their doors. I was fortunate to get a job in an auto factory.
It was not until the latter part of that decade, when I was in Long Beach, California, that my spiritual interest was rekindled in a productive way. An invitation to a public talk was handed to me. That Sunday I attended my first meeting at a Kingdom Hall. There I met Olive and William (Bill) Perkins, wholesome people with a priceless relationship with Jehovah God.
Sister Perkins was a remarkable teacher of God’s Word, using her Bible as skillfully as a surgeon uses his knife. She would lay her big King James Version Bible on her left arm, lick the thumb of her right hand, and flip the pages from verse to verse. The people were fascinated by her skill and by what they were learning from the Bible. She was instrumental in bringing many people to an understanding of God’s purpose. Working with her in the ministry was an inspiration. It encouraged me to take up the full-time pioneer ministry in September 1941.
Sister Wilcox was another one who helped me. She was a tall, dignified, white-haired woman in her 70’s who wore her hair swept up neatly on her head, climaxing in a bun. Her costume was always topped with a lovely wide-brimmed hat. In her neatly tailored, ankle-length dress she looked special, like someone who had just stepped out of the 1880’s. Together we preached in the business districts of Long Beach.
Managers were instantly impressed at the sight of Sister Wilcox. And with a certain anxious enthusiasm they would invite her into their offices. I would tag along. “What is it?” they would ask with a sense of respect. “May I help you?”
Without hesitation Sister Wilcox, with the perfect English of a professor at her command, would reply: “I am here to tell you about the old whore of Revelation who is riding the beast.” (Revelation 17:1-5) Managers would wince and adjust themselves in their seats, wondering what was coming next. She would paint them a vivid picture of the end of this system of things. The reaction was almost always decisive. They wanted whatever she had. Daily we would place literally cartons of literature. My job was to play the phonograph whenever she asked for it to be played, and to be as fearless and as courageous as possible when she was speaking.
An envelope from the Watchtower Society always charged me with excitement. It was such an envelope, received in 1942, that contained an assignment to serve as a special pioneer in San Pedro, California. There Bill and Mildred Taylor opened their home to me. It took great self-discipline to work alone in the field ministry day after day. But it drew me close to Jehovah, so that I really felt his friendship. Then the Society sent Georgia and Archie Boyd, along with their son and daughter, Donald and Susan, to help work the territory. The Boyds lived in an 18-foot (5.5-m) trailer with all their supplies and belongings.
Another envelope from the Society arrived for us! Chills ran up and down our spines as we read of our new assignment—Richmond, California, just to the north of San Francisco. Despite the improbability that our old car and trailer would ever make it, we packed and started out. We looked like gypsies on the move, repairing the engine and patching tires on the way. When we finally arrived in Richmond, the rain was falling in sheets.
World War II was by now in full swing. The Kaiser shipyards were in mass production building “Liberty Ships,” as they were called. Our job was to preach to the people who had flocked here to work. From early in the morning to late at night, we talked about the Kingdom, often returning home hoarse from speaking so much. Many Bible studies were started. These shipyard workers were generous and hospitable people who supplied our every need. The territory actually supported us without our having to take up secular part-time jobs.
Young men were being drafted into the armed forces. My fleshly brothers, who were not Witnesses, had volunteered and were serving in the paratroops and the engineering corps. I applied for exemption as a minister conscientiously opposed to war. The Draft Board refused to recognize my ministerial status. I was arrested, tried, and on July 17, 1944, sentenced to three years of hard labor at the McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary in Washington State. In prison I learned that Jehovah’s friendship lasts forever.—Psalm 138:8, The Bible in Living English.
For a month I was kept in the county jail in Los Angeles, awaiting transfer to McNeil Island. First impressions of prison life are hard to forget, how inmates shouted obscenities at the guards and at us as we were brought in. Or how the guards ordered: “Watch the gates!” The rumbling sound of the electric gates rolling shut resembled sounds of thunder in the distance. As the gates closed one by one, the sound would draw ever closer until one’s own gate would quiver and roll shut with a clashing clang! There was that trapped feeling and a wave of fear. I quickly prayed to God to help me, and almost instantly a warm peaceful glow swept over me, an experience I will never forget.
On August 16, along with a group of other prisoners, I was handcuffed and chained. Then, under the watchful eye of an armed police force, we were escorted through the noon crowd of Los Angeles onto a bus and then transferred to a prison train for McNeil Island. Those prison chains filled me with joy, for they linked me to the company of Christ’s apostles who were also chained for keeping their integrity.—Acts 12:6, 7; 21:33; Ephesians 6:20.
While I was being booked into McNeil prison, an official behind a desk asked me: “Are you a J.W.?” That caught me by surprise, for it was the first time I had heard the term “J.W.” But it soon dawned on me what he was talking about, so I said, “Yes!”
“Step over there,” he said. I was surprised to hear him ask the man directly behind me the same question: “Are you a J.W.?” The man quickly replied, “Yes!”
“You big liar!” the officer said, laughing. “You don’t even know what a J.W. is.” I learned later that the man was a hardened criminal with a prison record as long as his arm. “J.W.” stood, of course, for “Jehovah’s Witness,” and that he was not.
It was late, and a guard ushered me through the dark to my bunk. It was hard to believe that I was in a federal prison hundreds of miles away from home or from anyone I knew. Just then I saw someone coming toward me in the dark. “Shhh!” he said as he sat next to me on the bunk. “I’m a brother. The grapevine had it that a Witness would be coming.” He introduced himself and offered words of encouragement, telling me about the group Watchtower study that was permitted within the prison on Sunday afternoons. It was against the rules to be out of one’s bunk once the lights were out, so he stayed only briefly. But in those few moments, I felt the precious friendship of Jehovah manifesting itself through his dedicated servant.
Highlights of my prison stay were the periodic visits of A. H. Macmillan from the Society’s headquarters in Brooklyn. He was a “Barnabas,” an encourager, if ever there was one. When he came we were allowed to have the mess hall, and all of us Witnesses and many other prisoners would crowd in to hear him. He was a fantastic speaker, and even prison officials enjoyed listening to him.
We organized the cellblocks and dormitories into preaching territory. Systematically we preached the Kingdom good news in these areas as we had in a city block before we were imprisoned. The reception was mixed and difficult to predict. But there were hearing ears. Bank robbers and others, including prison guards, turned to Jehovah and were baptized. I still rejoice when I recall such experiences.
Moves That Shaped My Life
Early in 1946, with the war ended, I was released from prison. Awaiting me was another envelope from the Society! My next special-pioneer assignment would be Hollywood, California! The city of make-believe. Talk about challenges! There were times when it would have been easier to sell refrigerators to Eskimos than to get these people to study the Bible. Yet, slowly but surely, “sheep” of the Lord were found.
While attending the “Glad Nations” international convention in Cleveland, Ohio, in August 1946, Milton Henschel, secretary to Nathan Knorr, the then president of the Watchtower Society, stopped me and asked: “When are you coming to Bethel, Dan?” I told him I was happy pioneering. “But we need you at Bethel,” he said. After a few more words, I ran out of excuses. I loved California and dreaded the thought of living in New York. But I remember saying to myself, ‘Dan, if Jehovah wants you in Brooklyn, then Brooklyn it is.’ So on August 20, 1946, I began my service at Bethel, the Brooklyn headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
For years I worked in the Brooklyn factory bindery doing a variety of physically demanding jobs. Eventually I was sent to the Subscription Department, which offered a new direction. Then came mental challenges, such as writing radio scripts and broadcasting for the Society’s radio station WBBR. I also worked in the Writing Department for 20 years, trying to meet its high standards. In the meantime, there were appointments to the Pennsylvania and New York corporations of the Watchtower Society, recording sessions for dramas, speaking assignments at district and international conventions, and a host of other privileges of service too numerous to mention.
Then in November 1974, another envelope arrived. This one contained an unbelievable, unthinkable assignment. I was invited to serve as a member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I felt totally inadequate and humbly grateful. Some ten years have gone by since that appointment, and the feelings are still the same.
The passing years have been enriched by human relationships with dedicated and devout men who loved Jehovah more than life itself—men such as Judge Rutherford, whom I had the privilege to meet in his home in San Diego, California. It was also my privilege to work side by side with other such men, including Hugo Riemer, Nathan Knorr, Klaus Jensen, John Perry, Bert Cumming, and a host of others who were spiritual giants, “big trees of righteousness.”—Isaiah 61:3.
And to be privileged to see Jehovah’s organization grow from a mere handful of 50,000 Kingdom publishers earth wide to nearly three million is no small honor. It is thrilling to have witnessed the growth of the publishing from just a few printing facilities to dozens of factories supported by 95 branches declaring the good news in 203 lands of the earth. The changes and adaptations in technology and computerization have been nothing short of awesome. Witnessing all of this, one cannot help but repeat the words of Matthew 21:42: “From Jehovah this has come to be, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”
It has been a rich and rewarding life, to say the very least. Somewhere along the way time was found to get married to a lovely girl from Hebburn, England. Marina, my wife, is a God-sent support. How true the words of Proverbs 19:14: “The inheritance from fathers is a house and wealth, but a discreet wife is from Jehovah.”
Throughout life’s experiences, like an encircling shelter, there has been the ever-sustaining power of God’s friendship. Meditating on Jehovah’s Word, reflecting on its meaning, and searching for insight and understanding have filled my waking hours with spiritual riches and contentment. Even at this very moment, sheer joy overwhelms me when I read the psalmist’s words: “Happy the nation that has Jehovah for its God, the people that he chose as his estate! Our souls are waiting for Jehovah; he is our help and our shield; for our hearts are glad in him because we have confidence in his hallowed name. Let your friendship be over us, Jehovah, as we rest our expectations on you.”—Psalm 33:12, 20-22, By.
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Olive Perkins was an inspiration to me
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The Boyd family helped work the territory in San Pedro, California
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At the 1946 “Glad Nations” convention with fellow Witnesses recently released from McNeil Island prison
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A Sunday morning broadcast over WBBR