Serving Jehovah in Favorable and in Troublesome Season
As told by Hal Bentley
PREPARATIONS had been made for a circuit assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses in a small village of Nyasaland (now Malawi). The circuit and district overseers were making their final inspection of the grass and bamboo platform and of the grass huts for sleeping accommodations. Suddenly, they were surrounded by a mob that had been hiding in the bush nearby. The mob set fire to the huts and the platform and forced the two brothers toward the houses where they were staying.
The district overseer’s wife, Joyce Bentley, came running to see what was happening. She too was hustled back. The leader of the mob shouted that the mzungu (white man) must leave at once. The mob would not permit us to take our belongings and forced us into our Land-Rover. They crowded around the vehicle—men, women, and children—screaming “Pitani mzungu” (Go, white man) and “Kwacha” (Freedom). We expected them to overturn the Land-Rover, so we silently prayed to Jehovah. But the crowd thinned, and we were off to the nearest police post, at Mzimba, some 30 miles [50 km] away.
Later we returned, accompanied by a lone police officer. Owing to trouble in other places, he was the only one who could be spared. On arriving at the spot where we had been mobbed, we found the Malawi Congress Party flag hoisted outside and the letters M.C.P. scratched in the mud wall. However, after the policeman had spoken to the local people, they allowed us to load our belongings into the Land-Rover.
We also found the circuit overseer, Rightwell Moses, as well as his wife. She had run into the bush during the mob action. But Rightwell had almost been drowned in a nearby river. The mob had also taken all the food for the assembly. They then made the brothers march in one direction and the sisters and the children in the opposite direction for several miles until the mob tired and left them.
This incident was one of many that culminated in the banning of the work in Malawi, which led to severe persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses, including killings, vicious beatings, rape of women, and imprisonment.
Why Were We in Malawi?
On June 28, 1916, I was born in the city of Leeds, in Yorkshire, England, the youngest of a family of five children. We were not a religious family and did not attend church.
By 1939, when World War II broke out, both my parents had died. In June 1940, when I was just 24, I was in uniform, and for the next five years, I served in various mechanized units. During those years, as I sat in machine-gun posts on the northeast coast of England and looked up at the starry sky, I often had occasion to think about God and to wonder why the Maker of this awesome beauty would allow such violence, bloodshed, and suffering among mankind. It was not until I was discharged from the army that I found the answer to the many questions that had long puzzled me.
One cold winter evening of that year, someone knocked at my door. On opening it I found an elderly gentleman who began talking about the Bible. This led to a Bible study and soon to my baptism in April 1946. In 1949 I quit my job and became a pioneer minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Then I served at the London Bethel for over three years, and in 1953 I was invited to attend the 23rd class of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead in South Lansing, New York, to be trained as a missionary. In due course, I took up a missionary assignment in what was then Nyasaland. Later I was sent out in the district work. For five years I traveled the length and breadth of that beautiful country as a young single man. I grew to love the people, who were so happy and hospitable even though most had few material things apart from their maize plots, a few chickens, and goats or pigs. Some were fine fishermen. I shared their humble mud-and-pole dwellings and walked with them in the preaching work from village to village. I also enjoyed their association at their open-air assemblies, when they would sit with their families paying rapt attention to the speakers, even though rain was sometimes pouring down!
When I stayed in a village, everyone, young and old, would come and individually greet me, saying: “Moni, muli bwanji?” (Hello, how are you?) Even when I walked from village to village, the people would stop hoeing their fields and call out a greeting.
Each congregation that I visited along with the circuit overseer would build a house specially for me. Sometimes it would be a sturdy one made of poles with a thatched roof, which I appreciated very much. But I discovered that it takes some time before a newly thatched roof becomes waterproof!
The brothers once built me a house made entirely of thick elephant grass. It was three-sided, with my Land-Rover as the fourth side. This was in the Shire River valley, where it is hot the year round, and the mosquitoes work in shifts, so to speak, giving one no rest day or night! Without mosquito net and repellent, it was almost impossible to keep going.
A Life Partner Joins Me
In 1960 I was joined by a wife, Joyce Shaw, who had been serving as a missionary in Ecuador. Yes, after enjoying the gift of singleness for some years, I was blessed with another gift—marriage—which I still deeply appreciate after 30 years. Joyce and I have been blessed with many thrilling experiences together.
On one occasion, using poles and grass, the brothers constructed a bridge across a stream. This was done so that I could cross to a village where they wanted me to show the Society’s film “The New World Society in Action.” But the trailer of the Land-Rover got jammed by a pole on the bridge. Undaunted, the brothers unhooked the trailer, allowing me to drive off the bridge, then maneuvered the trailer across. We had a successful film-showing.
Sometimes rivers were too wide to be bridged. The brothers would then remove everything from the Land-Rover—portable generator, projector, films, bed—and wade across the river, while I was transported on the sturdy shoulders of one of the brothers. Two sisters would carry Joyce across. Some rivers were too deep. These we crossed on a makeshift ferry made up of a strong plank platform on eight to ten large drums. Two ferrymen would then pull us across by rope.
The Malawi brothers were extremely helpful and kind and treated us with deep respect. At one place the local people had threatened to burn down the house where we were staying, so the brothers stayed up all night to ensure our safety. Even before the ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses was imposed in 1967, there were dangerous situations, including the one described at the beginning of this story. Many of the Malawi brothers and sisters would have given their lives for us.
On one occasion I worked from house to house with a brother who had a huge lump on his forehead. He had been horribly beaten up a few days before. At one house he calmly gave a fine witness to the householder. After leaving, the brother said: “That was the man who gave me this terrible beating!” I recalled Paul’s words: “Return evil for evil to no one . . . Keep conquering the evil with the good.”—Romans 12:17-21.
Expanding Our Service
While still in Malawi, Joyce and I made frequent visits to nearby Mozambique. Her knowledge of Spanish, acquired while serving in Ecuador, was helpful, since the Portuguese people could understand her. In time we were both able to converse in Portuguese. We continued to visit Mozambique from our next assignment, Zimbabwe. The Catholic Church was bitterly opposed to the preaching work and stirred up trouble. But during the next ten years, we often experienced Jehovah’s loving care and protection as we searched there for sheeplike ones.
During one of our visits to Mozambique, we visited an interested lady north of the port of Beira. Her sister in Portugal had written to her and recounted some of the wonderful things she had learned by studying with Jehovah’s Witnesses. The lady had checked these in her Bible and had even started telling her neighbors about them. Yet, the only address we had was the name of the garage where her husband worked.
As we approached the workshop entrance, a man inquired if he could help us. We asked to see the lady’s husband. He pointed to a mechanic working on a car and left us abruptly. We introduced ourselves to the mechanic and said we would like to visit his wife. He was very nervous. While escorting us to his home, he explained that the man we had first spoken to was on his way to report our arrival to the local chief of the P.I.D.E. (secret police). We had walked into a trap! He also explained that his wife, because of her preaching activity, had been under police surveillance for some time and that they had intercepted the letter telling her we were coming to visit her. They had taken her Bible, but she had wisely hidden another Bible away! They had also brought the Catholic bishop to try to persuade her to stop talking about Jehovah and the Kingdom!
When we met the interested lady, she was overcome with emotion and threw her arms around Joyce. She pleaded with her husband to allow us to stay with them, but he refused and returned to work. We made the most of the short visit, giving her encouragement from the Bible and commending her for taking such a firm stand. To avoid causing further problems for her, we then left but promised to return later when the situation had improved. As we left the house and also filled our gas tank at the garage, we noticed we were being watched, but we were not arrested. We then went on to Beira and visited the small congregation there before returning to Zimbabwe. Some months later we did return and were able to enjoy a meal with the interested lady along with her husband and daughter. Eventually she was baptized during a visit to Portugal and became a zealous Kingdom publisher.
Farther north we frequently made visits to places such as Quelimane, Nampula, and Nacala, a small port. At Nacala we often visited the Soares family. Mr. Soares had first heard of the truth in Portugal. But when he immigrated to Mozambique, the brothers in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo), capital of Mozambique, studied with him and his family. They deeply appreciated that we were prepared to travel hundreds of miles to visit an isolated family. They made good progress. Later they moved to South Africa, where the daughter, Manuela, is serving at Bethel as a Portuguese translator.
We visited the congregation at Lourenço Marques many times. This entailed a trip of over 700 miles [1,100 km] from Blantyre over rough roads. Twice we had serious vehicle problems and had to be towed to Salisbury (now Harare). Still, it was a great joy to see the small group in Lourenço Marques grow to a fine congregation in spite of their working under ban. Small circuit assemblies were held regularly. But they had to be conducted in the bush as if the brothers were just a large group enjoying a picnic. On several occasions an assembly was arranged across the border at Nelspruit in South Africa. This helped the Maputo brothers to appreciate Jehovah’s organization and grow spiritually.
The Beira Congregation also became strong. Because of political upheavals in Mozambique, brothers from that country are now scattered in Portugal, South Africa, Canada, Brazil, the United States, and other places. All credit goes to Jehovah, who ‘made the seed grow.’ (1 Corinthians 3:6, 7) Yes, for ten years we had the privilege of assisting the brothers in Mozambique under the Portuguese regime. Looking back, we marvel at the way Jehovah opened the door for us to do this.
On one occasion, while visiting Nampula in the north, we were arrested by a member of the P.I.D.E. All our literature, including Bibles, was taken, and we were told we would never be allowed back into Mozambique. In spite of that, with Jehovah’s help we were able to make many more trips into the country. Every time we reached the border, we used to ask his help and guidance so that we could accomplish his will and give the badly needed encouragement and training to our brothers in that land.
In 1979 we were transferred to Botswana. It has a large land area, about half the size of South Africa. Since a huge area is desert, the Kalahari, there are fewer than one million inhabitants. Here we have had such privileges as helping to build a Kingdom Hall and missionary home in Gaborone, the capital. Another privilege has been to help Portuguese-speaking refugees from Angola and study the Bible with them.
We were also able to help a couple of youngsters from Zimbabwe. It appears that in this neighboring country, Jehovah’s Witnesses, by special arrangement, were allowed to teach Scripture in some schools. This aroused interest in these young folks. When they later moved to Botswana, we contacted them, and they asked for a Bible study. Their parents, however, were opposed, so they had to come to the missionary home to study. They made fine progress and became baptized Witnesses.
As I look back on 41 years of full-time service in eight countries, I feel deeply grateful to Jehovah for the many blessings enjoyed. It has not been easy, but it has been a great joy for Joyce and me to help many to take a firm stand for the Kingdom and to see the fine progress in spite of many problems and tough opposition. It has indeed been a case of ‘preaching the word, and being at it urgently in favorable season and in troublesome season.’ Yes, full-time service is a rich experience and a great privilege that we heartily recommend to those who can adjust their lives to enjoy it.—2 Timothy 4:2.
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When the rivers were too deep, two ferrymen would pull us across by rope