‘Happy Are All Those Keeping in Expectation of Jehovah’
AS TOLD BY DOMENICK PICCONE
My parents emigrated from Italy to the United States during the early 1920’s and eventually settled in South Philadelphia, then known as Little Italy. By 1927 they were associating with the Bible Students, who later became known as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
I WAS born in 1929 and was thus exposed to Bible truth from infancy. I can recall that Witnesses would meet in our house before going out to preach in staunchly Roman Catholic towns in the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania, where the brothers were arrested many times. I was baptized in 1941 at the convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in St. Louis, Missouri. Then things started to go wrong.
I began to associate with the wrong kind of youths in the neighborhood and started to smoke and gamble on street corners. Fortunately, my parents saw that they were losing control of me and decided to move to another area of the city. I was not pleased, since I lost all my street friends. However, today I look back and feel very grateful to my father. He made a real financial sacrifice to pull me out of those surroundings. Whereas previously he could walk to work, now he had to take a long subway ride. But this move got me back into a theocratic environment.
The Missionary Seed Is Sown
Almost every year, we traveled over to South Lansing, New York, to attend the graduations of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead. Seeing those missionaries sent off all around the world sowed the desire for missionary service in my heart. Therefore, after graduating from high school, I enrolled as a regular pioneer minister, starting May 1947.
Another young pioneer in our congregation was Elsa Schwarz, and she was very zealous in the preaching work. Her parents had always encouraged her to be a missionary, so you can likely guess the result. We were married in 1951. While serving together as pioneers in Pennsylvania, we applied to attend the Gilead missionary school. In 1953 we were invited to the 23rd class of Gilead. After five months of intensive study and preparation in Gilead, we graduated at a convention in Toronto, Canada, and received our assignment—Spain!
Problems in Spain
While preparing to leave for our missionary assignment in 1955, Elsa and I were full of questions. Spain! What would it be like? The nation was under the rule of the Catholic dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco, and the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses was under ban. How would we manage under such conditions?
We had been advised by the brothers at the Society’s headquarters in Brooklyn that Frederick Franz, then vice president of the Watch Tower Society, and Alvaro Berecochea, a missionary from Argentina, had been arrested, along with many other brothers. A secret assembly had been organized in the woods near Barcelona. However, the police had learned of this secret gathering and had arrested most of those present.*
We had been told that perhaps no one would be able to meet us when we arrived in Barcelona. Our instructions were: “Look for a hotel, then advise the Society in New York of the address.” We kept in mind the words of Isaiah: “Happy are all those keeping in expectation of [Jehovah]. And your own ears will hear a word behind you saying: ‘This is the way. Walk in it, you people.’” (Isaiah 30:18, 21) We would just have to keep in expectation of Jehovah and follow the direction of his organization.
We said good-bye to our parents and friends who came to New York to bid us farewell, and soon our ship, the Saturnia, was sailing down the Hudson River heading for the Atlantic. That was the last time that I saw my father. Two years later, while I was abroad, he died after a prolonged illness.
Eventually we reached our assignment, the port city of Barcelona. It was a dreary, rainy day, but as we were going through customs, we saw the “sunshine” of beaming faces. Alvaro Berecochea, along with some Spanish brothers, was there to meet us. We were really happy to know that our brothers had been freed.
Now we had to learn Spanish. In those days missionaries had to learn languages the hard way—without textbooks or teachers. There were no language courses then. We had to meet the required quota of hours in the preaching work and at the same time learn the language—on the job, as it were.
Preaching Under a Catholic Dictatorship
Jehovah’s organization was then in its infancy in Spain. In 1955 there was a peak of 366 publishers in a land of some 28 million people. There were only ten congregations in the entire country. Would it remain that way for long? Once my wife and I got started preaching from house to house, we found that Spain was like a paradise for those spreading the good news. Yes, the people were hungry for the truth.
But how was the preaching work done, since it was under ban? Usually we did not visit every house on a street, nor all the apartments in a building. Barcelona is made up of many five- and six-story apartment buildings, and we were instructed to start from the top and work our way down. Perhaps we would call at just one apartment on each floor or even skip several floors. This method made it more difficult for the police to catch us if a fanatical householder turned us in.
Congregation meetings were held in private homes, congregations being made up of from three to four book study groups. This enabled the congregation servant to visit each of these book studies once a month. The book study conductor was responsible for conducting all the meetings, held on two different nights of the week for small groups of from 10 to 20 people.
We had to learn a new way of life. At that time there were no missionary-home arrangements in Spain. Whenever possible, we lived with the brothers in their homes. Learning to cook on a charcoal burner was a real experience for Elsa! Eventually we were able to buy a small one-burner kerosene stove, which was a real improvement.
Persecution and Expulsions
After a while we got word that a wave of persecution was starting in Andalusia, where a special pioneer had been arrested. Unfortunately, he was carrying a booklet that contained the names and addresses of brothers in all parts of the country. We continued to receive reports that our brothers were being arrested in one city after another. The raids were getting closer and closer to Barcelona. Finally, persecution hit Barcelona.
A few months earlier, the police had taken me to their headquarters for questioning. After several hours I was released, and I thought that was the end of the matter. Then the American Embassy contacted me and suggested that to avoid the embarrassment of being deported, I should leave the country of my own accord. Shortly after, the police advised us that we had ten days to leave. Since we had no time to write to the Watch Tower Society, what should we do? Circumstances seemed to indicate that we should head for the nearest missionary field outside Spain—Portugal, to the west.
Another Assignment, Another Language
Once we arrived in Lisbon, Portugal, in July 1957, we were assigned as missionaries to Porto, a city well to the north of Lisbon. It was considered the second capital of the country and was in a region famous for its port wines. A thriving congregation held its meetings in the basement of a downtown building. The preaching work was banned in Portugal too, as the country was under the dictatorship of Salazar. Yet, the circumstances were completely different from those in Spain. The meetings were held in the homes of the brothers, and groups of from 40 to 60 attended. There were no indications that the homes were meeting places of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Even though I spoke no Portuguese, I was appointed congregation servant. Once again, we learned a new language the hard way.
About a year later, we were assigned to Lisbon. Here, for the first time, we had a place of our own, an apartment overlooking the city of Lisbon. We were assigned to care for a circuit—the entire Republic of Portugal. When we arrived in Portugal, there were only 305 publishers and five congregations.
Time of Trouble Begins
On some of the maps showing Portugal and its colonies, there was the saying: “The sun never sets on Portuguese territory.” This was the case, since Portugal had colonies in many parts of the world, two of the largest being Mozambique and Angola in Africa. In 1961 it seemed that there were problems brewing in these colonies, and Portugal saw the need to increase its military forces.
Now, what would the young brothers do when they were recruited for military service? Some were able to get exemption due to ill health, but most took a firm stand for Christian neutrality. Soon a strong wave of persecution started. The branch received reports that special pioneers were being arrested and severely beaten by the secret police, the infamous P.I.D.E. (Polícia Internacional e Defesa do Estado). Some of us missionaries were called to police headquarters for questioning. Then, three couples were given 30 days to leave the country. All of us appealed.
One by one the missionary couples were called to police headquarters for an interview with the director of the P.I.D.E. First, the branch servant, Eric Britten, and his wife, Christina, were questioned. Then, Eric Beveridge and his wife, Hazel, and finally Elsa and I were interrogated. The police chief falsely accused us of being used by the Communists to undermine the Western world with our teaching on neutrality. Our appeals were in vain.
How sad it was to leave behind 1,200 brothers and sisters who were going through hard times because of the harsh rule of an unreasonable dictator! While the Beveridges went to Spain and the Brittens back to England, what was to be our next assignment? Muslim Morocco!
Preaching in Islamic Morocco
Once again, we were keeping in expectation of Jehovah. A new assignment, new customs, and new languages! Arabic, French, and Spanish were the official languages of the Kingdom of Morocco, where there were 234 Witnesses in eight congregations. The official religion of the land was Islam, and proselytizing among Muslims was illegal. So we could preach only to the mainly European non-Muslim population.
Once missionaries started to arrive in the late ’50’s, increases were seen. But the Moroccan government began to put pressure on the European population, and there was a great exodus of foreigners, including many brothers.
As our non-Muslim population shrank, we found ourselves obliged to find tactful ways of talking to the Muslims, and this led to complaints to the police. As complaints became more frequent in Tangier and other cities, we were finally told that we had only 30 days to leave the country. In May 1969, Elsa and I were expelled from yet another assignment.
A Short-Term Assignment?
We were told to return to Brooklyn, and I was invited to attend a meeting for branch servants held that summer. While there, I was informed that our new assignment would be El Salvador, Central America, and that I was to serve there as branch servant. I learned that this would most likely last for about five years, the maximum that missionaries were allowed to remain in the country, since our work was not legally recognized there.
El Salvador—what an assignment! There were 1,290 publishers, including 114 pioneers reporting on average each month. The people were God-fearing, Bible-loving, and hospitable. At virtually every door, they would invite us in to talk to them. In a short time, we had as many Bible studies as we could handle.
As we observed the increase and the great need there, we felt sad that we would have to leave this assignment after just five years. So it was decided that we should try to have the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses legalized. We submitted the paperwork to the government in December 1971, and on April 26, 1972, we were delighted to read in the government paper, Diario Oficial, that our petition had been accepted. The missionaries would no longer have to leave after five years but could obtain permanent residency in the country.
Tests and Blessings
Over the years in our various assignments, we have made many good friends and seen fruitage in our ministry. Elsa had a fine experience in San Salvador with a schoolteacher and her soldier husband. One of the schoolteacher’s friends also became interested in the truth. At first the husband did not manifest interest in the Bible; nevertheless, we visited him while he was in the hospital, and he was friendly. Eventually he studied the Bible, gave up his military career, and started to preach along with us.
In the meantime, a lady turned up at the Kingdom Hall and asked Elsa if she was studying with the former soldier. It turned out that she had been his mistress! She was also studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses. At the district convention, the former military man, his wife, her friend, and the former mistress were all baptized!
Expansion in El Salvador
Because of the great increase, many Kingdom Halls have been built, and the country now has more than 18,000 active Witnesses. This progress, however, has not been without its tests and trials. For ten years, the brothers have had to do Jehovah’s will in the midst of a civil war. But they have kept their neutrality and remained loyal to Jehovah’s Kingdom.
Between the two of us, Elsa and I have been in full-time service for 85 years. We have found that when we keep in expectation of Jehovah and listen ‘to the word from behind saying, “This is the way. Walk in it, you people,”’ we are never disappointed. We have indeed enjoyed a satisfying and rewarding life as Jehovah’s full-time servants.
For full details, see the 1978 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, pages 177-9.
[Picture on page 24]
Assembly in a forest in Spain, 1956
[Picture on page 25]
We used to preach to non-Muslims in Morocco
[Picture on page 26]
Branch in El Salvador, our present assignment