I Found Satisfaction in Serving God
AS TOLD BY JOSHUA THONGOANA
Back in 1942, I was very confused. I was studying literature published by the Seventh-Day Adventists and literature published by the Watch Tower Society. Like the Israelites of old, I was “limping upon two different opinions.”—1 Kings 18:21.
THE Seventh-Day Adventists were sending me printed lectures called “Voice of Prophecy.” I enjoyed answering their questions, and they promised to give me a beautiful certificate if I passed all my tests. But I noticed that both the “Voice of Prophecy” and the publications of the Watch Tower Society were mailed from the South African city of Cape Town. I wondered: ‘Do these organizations know each other? Do their teachings agree? If not, who is right?’
To settle the matter, I sent similar letters to each organization. For example, I wrote to the Watch Tower Society: “Do you know the people associated with the ‘Voice of Prophecy,’ and if you do, what do you say about their teachings?” In time, I received answers from both groups. The letter from the Watch Tower Society said that they knew of the “Voice of Prophecy” but explained that its teachings, such as the Trinity and Christ’s return to earth in the flesh, are unscriptural. Their letter included scriptures to disprove these doctrines.—John 14:19, 28.
The answer from the “Voice of Prophecy” simply said that they knew “the Watch Tower people,” but did not agree with their teachings. No reasons were given. So I decided in favor of the Watch Tower Society, which is a legal agency used by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Today, after 50 years of association with the Witnesses, how happy I am that I made that right decision!
I was born in 1912 in a rural area called Makanye, east of the South African town of Pietersburg. Makanye was then under the religious control of the Anglican Church, so I became a member of that church. When I was ten, our family moved to a locality dominated by the Lutheran Berlin Mission Church, and my parents joined that church. I soon qualified to attend the Communion service and to take a morsel of bread and a sip of wine, but it did not satisfy my spiritual needs.
After finishing eight years of schooling, I was sent by my father to the Kilnerton Training Institution, and in 1935, I received a Third Year Teacher’s Certificate. One of the teachers I worked with was a young woman, Caroline. We got married, and later Caroline gave birth to a baby girl whom we named Damaris. A few years later, I became the head teacher at Sehlale School in the rural village of Mamatsha. Since the school was run by the Dutch Reformed Church, we joined that church, attending its services regularly. We did this because it was the fashionable thing to do, but it did not bring me satisfaction.
A Turning Point
One Sunday in 1942, we were practicing hymns at the church when a young white man appeared at the door with three books published by the Watch Tower Society—Creation, Vindication, and Preparation. I thought the books would look nice on my library shelf, so I accepted them for three shillings. Later I learned that the man, Tienie Bezuidenhout, was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the only one in the area. On Tienie’s next visit, he brought a phonograph and played some lectures by Judge Rutherford. I thoroughly enjoyed the one known as “Snare and Racket,” but Caroline and my sister Priscilla, who was living with us, did not. On Tienie’s third visit, he gave me the phonograph so that I could play the records for friends.
One day I scanned through the pages of the book Creation and came across the chapter “Where are the Dead?” I started reading in hopes of learning about the joys experienced by departed souls in heaven. But contrary to my expectations, the book stated that the dead are in their graves and do not know anything. Verses from the Bible, such as Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10, were quoted in support. Another chapter was entitled “Awakening the Dead,” and John 5:28, 29 was cited as proof that the dead are unconscious and are awaiting a resurrection. This made sense. It was satisfying.
It was at that time, in 1942, that I severed my relationship with the “Voice of Prophecy” and began telling others about the things I was learning from the publications of the Watch Tower Society. One of the first to respond was a friend, Judah Letsoalo, who had been one of my classmates at Kilnerton Training Institution.
Judah and I cycled 32 miles [51 km] to attend an assembly of African Witnesses in Pietersburg. Afterward, friends from Pietersburg often came all the way to Mamatsha to help me present the Kingdom message to my neighbors. Eventually, at another assembly in Pietersburg, in December 1944, I was baptized in symbol of my dedication to Jehovah.
My Family and Others Respond
Caroline, Priscilla, and my daughter Damaris, continued going to the Dutch Reformed Church. Then calamity struck. Caroline gave birth to our second child—a seemingly healthy baby boy we named Samuel. But suddenly he became ill and died. Caroline’s church friends offered no comfort, saying God wanted our son to be with him in heaven. In distress, Caroline kept asking: “Why would God take our son away?”
When word of our calamity reached the Witnesses in Pietersburg, they came over and gave us genuine comfort based on God’s Word. Caroline later said: “What the Bible said about the cause of death, about the condition of the dead, and about the hope of a resurrection made sense, and I was greatly comforted. I wanted to be in the new world and receive my son back from the grave.”
Caroline stopped going to church, and in 1946 she, Priscilla, and Judah were baptized. Soon after his baptism, Judah left to open up the preaching work in a rural area called Mamahlola, and he remained faithful until his death in 1991.
When Judah left, I was the only male remaining to care for our congregation, which was named Boyne. Then Gracely Mahlatji moved into our territory, and eventually he married Priscilla. Each week, Gracely and I would take turns giving public talks in Sepedi, the local African language. To make Bible literature available for the people, the Society asked me to translate literature into Sepedi. It brought me great satisfaction to see people benefit from this literature.
To boost our public meeting campaign, we bought a transcription machine with a large loudspeaker in order to play Bible lectures throughout our territory. We borrowed a cart drawn by donkeys to carry this heavy equipment from place to place. As a result, our neighbors nicknamed us “People of the Donkey Church.”
Meanwhile our small congregation continued to grow. Eventually, my two older sisters and their husbands became Witnesses and all remained faithful until their death. Also, many from the Boyne congregation (now called Mphogodiba) took up the full-time evangelizing work, and a number are still in that service. Now, there are two congregations in this vast area of scattered rural villages, and a total of over 70 publishers are active in the preaching work.
A New Career
In 1949, I stopped teaching school and became a regular pioneer minister. My first assignment was to call on black farm laborers who lived on white-owned farms around Vaalwater in the Transvaal. Some farm owners advocated the recently adopted policy of apartheid and were determined that blacks should acknowledge their supposed inferiority to whites and should serve their white masters. So when I preached to black laborers, some whites mistook me for a preacher of insubordination. Some even accused me of being a Communist and threatened to shoot me.
I reported the situation to the Watch Tower Society’s branch office, and I was soon transferred to another assignment in a rural area called Duiwelskloof. About this time my wife also quit her teaching job and joined me in the pioneer service. One afternoon in 1950, we returned from field service to find a large envelope from the Society. To our surprise it contained an invitation for me to receive training as a traveling overseer. For three years we visited congregations in South Africa, and then in 1953 we were assigned to Lesotho, a landlocked country in the heart of South Africa.
Ministry in Lesotho and Botswana
When we began serving in Lesotho, there were many rumors that strangers were often the target of ritual murder. Both my wife and I were concerned, but the love of our Sotho brothers and their hospitality soon helped us forget such fears.
To serve congregations in Lesotho’s Maluti Mountains, I used to take an airplane, leaving my wife in the lowlands where she continued in the pioneer service until my return. The friends kindly escorted me from one congregation to another to help me avoid getting lost in the mountains.
Once I was told that to reach the next congregation, we would have to cross the Orange River on horseback. I was assured that my horse was gentle but was cautioned that when the water becomes too strong, horses often try to get rid of their loads. I was worried because I was neither a good rider nor a good swimmer. Soon we were in the river, and the water came as high as the saddles. I was so frightened that I let go of the reins and held on to the horse’s mane. What a relief when we arrived safely on the opposite bank!
That night I could hardly sleep because my body was so sore from riding the horse. But it was worth all the discomfort because the friends showed great appreciation for the visit. When I started the circuit work in Lesotho, there was a peak of 113 publishers. Today, that figure has grown to 1,649.
In 1956 our preaching assignment was changed to the Bechuanaland Protectorate, now called Botswana. Botswana is a much larger country, and much longer distances needed to be covered to reach all the publishers. We traveled either by train or in an open truck. There were no seats, so we had to sit on the floor with our luggage. We often arrived at our destination very dusty and tired. Our Christian brothers always welcomed us, and their happy faces refreshed us.
At the time, the Society’s publications were under ban in Botswana, so our house-to-house preaching was done cautiously, without using the Society’s literature. Once we were caught working near the village of Maphashalala and were arrested. In our defense we read from the Bible, referring to our commission as recorded at Matthew 28:19, 20. Although some of the counselors were impressed, the chief ordered that the local Witnesses be flogged. Then, to our surprise, the clergyman pleaded with the chief to be lenient and pardon us. The chief complied, and we were released.
In spite of the persecution and the ban on our literature, the Kingdom work continued to progress. When I arrived in Botswana, there was a peak of 154 publishers. Three years later when the ban was lifted, that figure had grown to 192. Today, there are 777 Witnesses of Jehovah preaching in that land.
Teaching and Translating
In time, I was used as an instructor in the Kingdom Ministry School for Christian elders. Later I enjoyed the privilege of being an instructor in the Pioneer Service School. My wife and I also served periodically in the South Africa branch. On such occasions I helped with translating, and Caroline worked in the kitchen.
One day in 1969, the branch overseer, Frans Muller, approached me and said: “Brother Thongoana, I would like to see you and your wife in my office.” There he explained that we had been among those selected as delegates to the 1969 “Peace on Earth” Convention in London. We enjoyed the loving hospitality of our brothers in England and Scotland, and it greatly increased our appreciation for the worldwide brotherhood.
For the past four decades, Caroline has been a loyal companion in our career as full-time evangelizers. We have shared many joys and some sorrows together. Though we lost two of our children in death, our daughter, Damaris, grew up to be a fine Witness and also shared in translation work at the South Africa branch.
Our health no longer allows us to share in the traveling work, so for the past few years, we have been special pioneers in a congregation in Seshego, an African township near Pietersburg. I serve as presiding overseer. The Bible states that “rejoicing to satisfaction is with [Jehovah’s] face,” and I have indeed found joy and satisfaction serving God in southern Africa.—Psalm 16:11.
[Picture on page 26]
Witnessing in Seshego township, South Africa