Courageous Decisions Yield Blessings in Suriname
AT ONE time, Suriname was “one of the richest Caribbean states,” noted the international news magazine South. Income from bauxite, shrimps, rice, bananas, and plywood, supplemented by development aid, provided the 400,000 inhabitants of this former Dutch colony more prosperity than most of their neighbors.
During the 1980’s, however, the economy slumped. Abundance turned into shortage, and long food lines became a familiar sight. In 1986 the outbreak of guerrilla warfare forced some ten thousand inhabitants to flee from eastern Suriname to neighboring French Guiana, there to start life anew in refugee camps. Meanwhile, large parts of the jungle—home of about 50,000 Bush Negroes and Amerindians—came under guerrilla control, making normal travel into the interior dangerous. These changes, commented South magazine, left the country crippled.
Did those conditions also cripple the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses? On the contrary, they have stepped up their work. For instance, the number of Witnesses has risen from 920 in 1980 to over 1,400 today. In April 1989 there were 338 auxiliary pioneers—nearly 25 percent of the Witnesses then. Such blessings, however, came only as a result of the courage, integrity, and love that the Witnesses demonstrated under trial. Here are some recent examples of how courageous decisions brought rich blessings in Suriname.
A Decision That Saved His Life
Lumey Hoever, a husky police officer in his late 30’s and one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, decided that he would quit his job despite the bad economy. Why? Lumey explains:
“Ever since I read a Watchtower article alerting us to the dangers connected with carrying firearms, I knew I would have to give up this work.a I hesitated, though, because I have a wife and children to care for. However, the longer I postponed my decision, the more my conscience bothered me. ‘If Jehovah’s organization urges me to consider seriously the appropriateness of this line of work, there must be a good reason,’ I reminded myself. So in January 1986, I made up my mind.”
But the police chief did not want to let him go, even promising to assign him to Tamanredjo, a much sought-after station close to the capital. But Lumey was determined. He wrote to the minister of police, explained his religious beliefs, and asked for a dismissal. In April 1986 the reply came: ‘Request granted!’
Soon Lumey found a job at the Forestry Department. The pay was not as good, but he had more time to accompany his family to meetings at the Kingdom Hall. Ten months passed. One day, after working all day on the family farm, Lumey and his brother were on their way home. He relates:
“Approaching the farmhouse, I noticed two men in shabby clothes, with scarves tied around their heads. ‘Kon dja (Come here),’ they called in Surinamese. As I walked toward them, a third man with a carbine dangling from a shoulder strap appeared. Only then did it dawn on me: guerrillas!
“They looked me up and down. Then one of the men with the scarf shouted: ‘I know this fellow. He is a policeman!’ Their faces tensed up. For a few seconds, we stared at one another. I held my breath. Then I heard a low sound. Click, clack—the third man cocked his rifle. Slowly, he aimed it at my breast, ready to execute me. ‘Don’t shoot! You’re making a mistake. I’m no longer a policeman,’ I blurted.
“Then I saw a dozen more armed guerrillas behind the house. One of them—a muscular man wearing a loincloth, two cartridge belts crisscrossed over his bare chest, and holding an automatic weapon in his hand—stepped forward. ‘You say you’re no longer a policeman. Why not?’ he demanded. I quickly identified myself as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. ‘Witnesses do not bear arms,’ I explained, ‘so I quit my job as a policeman and now work at the Forestry Department. We are neutral in all politics,’ I added.
“Upon hearing that I was a Witness, his facial expression relaxed a bit. ‘Will he believe me?’ I wondered. Then my younger brother arrived. The man in the loincloth, evidently the commander, began questioning him. After my brother confirmed my statement, the commander seemed satisfied. ‘Saka yu gon! (Lower your gun)’ he ordered the other guerrilla. I felt relieved. ‘Thank you, Jehovah, for protecting me!’ I prayed.”
A few days later, Lumey had another shock. Unknown gunmen had executed three police officers at the Tamanredjo police station, the very one where the chief had offered to assign him! “If I had ignored the advice from that Watchtower article, I would be a dead man now,” says Lumey. Then he adds gratefully: “Jehovah truly protects his servants.”
Love Moved Him to Rescue His Brothers
When fighting broke out between government troops and the guerrillas in the bauxite-mining town of Moengo in October 1986, Frans Salaoema, a Bush Negro in his 40’s, had to decide what to do. Finally, he, his pregnant wife, and his seven sons, along with others from the town, escaped over jungle trails and across the wide Maroni River to safety in French Guiana.
Still, Frans worried. He did not find any Witnesses from his congregation among the refugees. ‘Where are they? Shall I go back to find them?’ he wondered. But that would be risky. The guerrillas were mostly Bush Negroes. ‘If government soldiers spot me sneaking through the jungle, I’m finished,’ he thought. Nevertheless, he decided to return to find his Christian brothers. He told several of the Witnesses in French Guiana: “Next week, cross the river to pick me up.”
One week later they went across, but Frans was not there. They waited till the next day. Still no Frans. “Let’s stay one more night,” they decided. Then Frans and a group of Witnesses showed up. What had happened?
“After finding the brothers,” Frans related, “we crossed through the thick of fighting, slipped into the jungle, and headed for the border.” But why the delay? Frans pointed to three cartons he had brought along. He had gone to the capital to collect a supply of Bible literature for the refugee Witnesses. The waiting brothers were delighted. That same day, Frans, the rescued Witnesses, and the three cartons crossed the border safely.
Later Frans made another trip to help more Witnesses. Eventually, 37 Witnesses crossed the border and settled in refugee camps. Frans was placed in a former leper colony in French Guiana, where the refugees are not supposed to do anything more than sway in their hammocks and ward off mosquitoes.
Frans and his family, however, were not idle. Shortly after arriving in the camp, Frans (by now also the father of a daughter) got busy preaching the Kingdom good news to the unfortunate residents. For his good influence, he was even given permission to travel by motorbike to preach in the other camps. The result? Today he conducts 14 Bible studies with fellow refugees. Three of them are already baptized!
He Did Not Compromise
“I’ll be back in two weeks with new supplies,” declared Victor Wens, a 58-year-old special pioneer. He was leaving his wife and some Bible students in a jungle village in central Suriname. That was in June 1987, as he headed for the capital.
When Victor’s wife and the others waved good-bye, their bags of rice were about empty. The guerrilla war had cut off all supplies. Soon there would be hunger. They realized, though, that Victor’s canoe journey was risky. He could be caught in cross fire or be mistaken for a guerrilla. ‘Will he return safely?’ they wondered as the sound of the canoe’s engine faded away.
Two weeks later, Victor’s wife scanned the river—but no sign of Victor. More weeks went by. Food ran out, and she fell ill. “Please, Jehovah, guard my husband,” she prayed. “May he come back!” Three months passed. Still no Victor. What had gone wrong?
“After reaching the capital,” relates Victor later, “I got permission to buy a six-months’ supply of food and gasoline. Then I asked for a permit to travel home. The official in charge said: ‘You can go, but find out where the guerrillas are hiding, and return to inform us.’ My heart sank. ‘I cannot do this,’ I said, ‘Jehovah does not want us to take sides in politics. We Witnesses are neutral.’ He replied: ‘In that case, you don’t go home.’
“Every week I went back to ask for permission, but the answer remained the same. Meanwhile, I heard that my wife was ill. I wished to go home and care for her. Yet, I did not want to compromise. I felt helpless.
“When I went back yet again, to my surprise they said I could go. They explained that they had given permission to some Pentecostal pastors from my area to travel back, and I could go with them. Delighted, I began making preparations until I learned from a friend that these clergymen had agreed to be spies. As I did not want to give the impression that Jehovah’s Witnesses were part and parcel to that arrangement, I canceled the trip. Again I was stuck.”
Finally it dawned on the officials that Victor was not about to give up his convictions. The next time he approached them, they granted permission.
At last, in October 1987, the little group of Witnesses heard the outboard and saw a heavily laden canoe appear. “I felt sad when I saw my wife,” Victor relates. “She looked so skinny. Yet, she too was happy that I did not compromise.”
“Victor’s courageous decision has been a blessing for us,” comments a traveling minister working in the interior. “Officials and guerrillas have learned that Jehovah’s Witnesses are neutral. Now they respect our view, and our work is thriving.”
Married on Wednesday, Baptized on Saturday
“Don’t be fools,” pressured the relatives. “Don’t get married!” The six men of the Aucaner Bush Negro tribe, in the country’s southeastern corner, understood their relatives’ feelings. After all, tribal custom dictates that a man not marry, thus he can leave the woman whenever he pleases. However, having learned from their Bible study Jehovah’s view on fornication, these men had adjusted their thinking, withstood the community’s pressure, and courageously decided to get properly married.
Still, there were obstacles. War conditions had closed the Registry Office in the interior, and travel to the capital was virtually impossible. The six future brides also desired to wear real bridal gowns on their wedding day. This reflected a local interest in such apparel, even though such dress is not really necessary for Christians.b ‘Where are we to find wedding gowns in a rain forest?’ wondered the men. Nonetheless, courageous decisions made in line with Bible principles brought blessings. On Wednesday, September 16, 1987, six brides in gorgeous gowns and six grooms in smart suits were married. How was that possible?
“In September, we arranged a district convention in St. Laurent, French Guiana, and asked the Witnesses living in the interior to attend,” explains Daniël van Marl, one of the traveling ministers who performed the weddings. “That convention provided the opportunity to get married.”
Cecyl Pinas, a Branch Committee member caring for the work in the interior explains: “I visited the Bethel family in the Netherlands earlier that year and mentioned those upcoming weddings. After I mentioned that we use one gown over and over, always adjusting it to fit the next bride, four Bethel sisters spontaneously gave me their wedding dresses as gifts for their ‘sisters’ in Suriname. I was very touched. Later, at an assembly in the Netherlands, more gowns were donated.”
On the morning of the wedding day, some alterations still had to be made. “We quickly widened the waist of some dresses and adjusted the length of others, but we finished just in time,” says Margreet van de Reep.
With the marriages performed, five of the newlyweds were ready for another step. On Saturday that same week, they were baptized in the Maroni River. They were eager to return as married couples to their jungle villages to do their share in the preaching work. Did Jehovah bless their decision?
“Those couples showed the community that we Witnesses practice what we preach,” says Nel Pinas, who started the preaching work in that same area in 1967. “Their decision to marry in order to become true Christians has aroused interest in faraway villages. Witnesses there are now steering their canoes into rivers where we never preached before, finding more people who are willing to learn about Jehovah.”
Indeed, the courageous decisions of Lumey, Frans, Victor, and many others have brought rich blessings for them and their fellow Christians in Suriname and elsewhere. Experiences like these prove time and again the truth of the Bible proverb: “Trust in Jehovah with all your heart and do not lean upon your own understanding. In all your ways take notice of him, and he himself will make your paths straight.”—Proverbs 3:5, 6.
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Two views of a fine Kingdom Hall in a remote part of the country
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Typical dugout boat in Suriname