Jehovah’s Way Is the Best Way of Living
AS TOLD BY ERKKI KANKAANPÄÄ
FROM the time I was a child, my goal was to serve in the Finland branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Bethel as it is called. So when a traveling overseer asked me in the summer of 1941, “What plans do you have for the future?” I replied: “I’ve always wanted to go to Bethel.”
“You’d better give up those dreams; you will never be invited,” he said. At first I was deeply disappointed, but then I decided simply to leave the matter in Jehovah’s hands. A few months later, I received an invitation to serve at Bethel.
I was a shy, 17-year-old country lad when I rang the doorbell at the branch office in Helsinki on a very cold, clear November day in 1941. Soon I was being welcomed by Kaarlo Harteva, the branch overseer. At that time the branch had the oversight of 1,135 Witnesses in Finland.
A Christian Heritage
In 1914 my father had obtained a copy of the Watch Tower publication The Divine Plan of the Ages. However, the first world war broke out soon afterward, and he didn’t get around to reading it.
Finland’s struggle for national independence created problems. Two powerful groups—the Whites and the Reds—were formed. The Whites represented the capitalists and the middle class, whereas the Reds represented the workers. My father tried to be neutral, staying completely away from both groups. Yet, both of them listed him as suspicious.
As it turned out, Dad was twice condemned to death, first by the Whites and then by the Reds. Once when a man was murdered and the murderer could not be apprehended, ten young men, including my father, were sentenced to death. One of my father’s teachers, who was a member of the jury, recommended an exemption for him, and it was granted. The other nine youths were executed.
On another occasion Dad was again granted exemption from a death sentence. After that he decided to go underground, literally! He and his brother made a dugout, where they lived till the war was over. To keep them alive, their younger brother provided them with food and drink.
After the war ended in 1918, Dad married and built a home near that dugout. I later became well acquainted with it, since it served as a playground for me. Father told me that he had done a lot of praying while hiding there below ground. He promised God that if he ever learned how to serve Him, he would do it.
Shortly after getting married, Dad decided to take something along to read on a business trip. In the attic, he found The Divine Plan of the Ages that he had bought years before. He opened it to the chapter “The Day of Jehovah” and read it. He kept saying to himself: ‘This is the truth, this is the truth.’ Coming down from the attic, he told my mother: “I have found the true religion.”
Almost immediately Dad started preaching to others about the things he was learning, first speaking to his relatives and neighbors. Then he started giving public talks. Soon others in the area joined with him. After coming in contact with the Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then called, Dad was baptized in 1923. When we children came along—there were eventually four of us—Dad did not neglect to teach us. In fact, after a congregation was formed, we were required to attend every meeting.
My early recollection is of an assembly arranged in our home congregation in 1929, when I was five years old. Many people gathered from nearby congregations, and a representative from the branch office was also present. In those days it was a custom, at least in Finland, to bless children at assemblies. So the brother from Bethel blessed the children, just as Jesus did during his ministry. I have never forgotten that.—Mark 10:16.
Another early remembrance is the adoption of the name Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1931. My father, aware of the significance of the occasion, solemnly read to the congregation the announcement regarding our new name.
From about as far back as I can remember, I would join my father in the preaching work. To begin with, I would just listen to him, but eventually I was doing the work by myself. In 1935, when a traveling overseer visited us, I went to all our neighbors and invited them to attend the meeting. I also offered them booklets, and some people accepted these.
School and an Important Decision
We four children were the only ones in school with Witness parents, and we were often mocked because of not joining other youths in unchristian behavior. Although schoolmates tried to entice me to smoke, I never did. We were also mockingly called Russellites (Russell was the Watch Tower Society’s first president) or Hartevalites (Harteva then being Finland’s branch overseer). I am happy to say that some youths who once mocked us eventually became Witnesses.
My teacher encouraged me to further my education, and at one time I considered becoming an engineer. But then there was a convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Pori in the spring of 1939, which proved to be a turning point in my life. Both my younger brother, Tuomo, and I dedicated ourselves to Jehovah and symbolized this by water baptism at that convention, on May 28, 1939. Then, during early September, World War II broke out.
Circumstances in Europe changed dramatically. The situation between Finland and the Soviet Union became critical. My father emphasized that Armageddon was getting closer and encouraged us to pioneer. Therefore, in December 1940, my brother and I began pioneering in northern Finland.
Pioneering and Bethel Service
While pioneering, we lived most of the time with Yrjö Kallio. He was a brother who, about 30 years before, had become a Bible Student in Pennsylvania in the United States. Yrjö was extremely warmhearted, and he did his utmost to provide pleasant surroundings for us. His fleshly brother, Kyösti Kallio, served as president of Finland from 1937 to 1940. Yrjö told us that he had given his brother a thorough witness, explaining to him that God’s Kingdom is the only hope for good government and for lasting, worldwide peace.
As time went by, my desire to become a member of the Bethel family grew. Happily, despite the traveling overseer’s warning against getting my hopes up, my application to serve at Bethel was accepted. My first job there was that of errand boy. Soon, however, I had the privilege of working in the factory. There I worked in many departments, including our small pressroom and Shipping Department.
In 1942, at the age of 18, I was called up for military service. Since I refused to be inducted, I was subjected to long sessions of interrogation, on two occasions with a gun pointed at me. At other times physical violence was applied. Also, during the period of interrogation, I was kept in an unheated prison cell where it was bone-chilling cold.
Finally, in January 1943, the time came for me and other Witnesses to be sentenced. The army officer that had interrogated us demanded that our imprisonment be no less than ten years. The army chaplain wanted an even severer sentence, demanding in a letter ‘the death sentence or sending these traitors into Russia as reconnaissance parachutists [almost certain death], which would serve them right.’
A mock trial was arranged. I was called before the court and given the death sentence. However, this turned out to be another effort at intimidation, since later that day I was called before the court again and sentenced to three and a half years in a penitentiary. I appealed the sentence, and it was reduced to two years.
In prison, food was scarce, and there were malicious threats from other prisoners. Twice I was attacked by homosexuals, but fortunately I was able to escape. One of them threatened to kill me if I would not consent to his demands. But as I did in all my trials, I called on Jehovah, and he helped me. Actually, the prisoner’s threat was no trivial thing, for he had killed before. After his release, the man committed another murder and was returned to prison.
No doubt it is because Jehovah’s Witnesses are known to be trustworthy that I was soon made a trusty. My job was to issue food rations to other prisoners, and I was allowed to walk freely about the prison premises. Therefore, not only did I have enough food for myself but I was also able to see to it that my Christian brothers were well cared for. One brother even put on several pounds [kg] while in prison, a very rare thing considering the shortage of food!
I was released from prison in September 1944, the same day as Brother Harteva was released. My release meant a return to Bethel service. I thought to myself, ‘Working hard 16 hours a day at Bethel is to be highly preferred to life in prison.’ I have never shunned work since!
Various Service Privileges
Later in 1944, I met Margit, a pretty young pioneer, who responded to my interest in her, and we were married on February 9, 1946. During our first year as a married couple, I served at Bethel while Margit worked in Helsinki as a pioneer. Then in January 1947 we were assigned to the circuit work.
In the traveling work, we often stayed with families and shared one room with them. We knew that they provided us the best they had to offer, and we never complained. The circuits were small in those days, and some congregations had no baptized Witnesses at all!
In 1948 we were invited to return to Bethel service. Two years later Wallace Endres came to Finland from the United States, and he was soon afterward appointed as the branch overseer. He warmly encouraged us to continue studying English, which we did. Thus, we were invited to attend the 19th missionary class of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead, which began in South Lansing, New York, in February 1952.
After graduation we were assigned back to Finland. However, before we left the United States, I was trained in working with the printing presses at the international headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York.
Upon returning to Finland, we were assigned to the traveling work, but then in 1955 we were invited back to the Finland branch. That year I became the factory overseer, and two years later, in 1957, I was appointed branch overseer. Since 1976, I have served as the coordinator of the Finland Branch Committee.
Happily, both my father and mother remained faithful to Jehovah until their death. In time, over a hundred of Father’s relatives became Witnesses. And to this day, my brother and sisters and their families are all serving Jehovah, one of my sisters being a pioneer.
A Rich, Rewarding Life
The years have consisted of work and more work, but the work, because it is God’s work, has been rich and rewarding indeed. (1 Corinthians 3:6-9) My life has by no means been all smooth sailing and pleasantness. There have been troubles and hardships as well. Very early in life, I realized that you have to learn to discipline yourself. You cannot always do exactly as you wish. I was often corrected, and gradually I learned the right way of living.
For example, the trials and shortages suffered during the war taught me to live without luxuries. I learned to discern whether a thing was really necessary or not. I still have the habit of asking myself whether I need this or that. And then if I realize that it is not so important after all, I do not buy it.
The guidance provided by Jehovah through his organization has been obvious. I have had the joy of seeing the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses grow during my years in the Finland branch from 1,135 to over 18,000! Truly, I can see that my work has been blessed, but I know that it has been blessed because the work is Jehovah’s, not ours. (1 Corinthians 3:6, 7) Early in life I chose Jehovah’s way, and it has truly proved to be the best way of living.
[Picture on page 23]
Erkki Kankaanpää today, with his wife Margit