“Here I Am! Send Me”
AS TOLD BY WILFRED JOHN
Armed Burmese military guards charged us from both sides of the river. With bayonets fixed and rifles leveled, they splashed waist deep through the water and surrounded us under the highway bridge.
MY PARTNER and I were terrified. What was it all about? Although we did not understand the language, we soon got the message—we were under arrest. With only towels wrapped around our waists, we were unceremoniously escorted to a nearby police station and interrogated by an English-speaking officer.
It was 1941, during the second world war, and we were suspected of being saboteurs. After we explained our Christian preaching work to the officer’s satisfaction, he told us that we were fortunate to have come out of the confrontation alive. Most suspects, he said, were shot, no questions asked. We thanked Jehovah and took the officer’s advice not to hang around bridges in the future.
How did I get into such a situation in Burma (now Myanmar)? Let me explain and provide some background about myself.
A Choice Made Early in Life
I was born in Wales in 1917 and at six years of age moved with my parents and younger brother to New Zealand, where I grew up on my father’s dairy farm. One day he brought home a bundle of old books that he had bought in a secondhand shop. Included were two volumes of Studies in the Scriptures, published by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. These became my mother’s treasured possessions, and like Timothy’s mother, Eunice, she inculcated in me a desire to spend my youth in serving Jehovah’s Kingdom interests.—2 Timothy 1:5.
In 1937 two choices confronted me: to take over my father’s dairy farm or to say to Jehovah as did God’s prophet Isaiah, “Here I am! Send me.” (Isaiah 6:8) I was young, healthy, and unencumbered. I had tasted farm life and enjoyed it. On the other hand, I had no experience as a full-time minister, or pioneer. What would it be—working on the farm or serving as a pioneer?
Speakers from the Australia branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses were a source of encouragement. They visited our area in New Zealand and urged me to use my precious prime of life in serving God. (Ecclesiastes 12:1) I discussed the matter with my parents, and they agreed with the wisdom of putting God’s will foremost. I also pondered the words of Jesus Christ in his Sermon on the Mount: “Keep on, then, seeking first the kingdom and [God’s] righteousness, and all these other things will be added to you.”—Matthew 6:33.
My choice was made! Since there was then no branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses in New Zealand, I was invited to serve at the Australia branch in Sydney. Thus, in 1937, I boarded a ship for Australia to become a full-time minister of Jehovah God.
‘What assignment will I receive?’ I wondered. Yet, what did it matter anyway? I had said, in effect, to Jehovah, ‘Here I am. Use me wherever you will.’ For two years I assisted in making phonographs that were used in those days by Jehovah’s Witnesses to play recorded Bible talks to householders. However, my principal training at the branch was for literature-depot work.
On to Singapore
In 1939, I received an assignment to the Far East—to serve at the Society’s depot in Singapore. The depot served as a hub for receiving and shipping literature from Australia, Britain, and the United States to many countries in Asia.
Singapore was a multilingual city where Oriental and European cultures mingled. The Malay language was the common means of communication, and in order to preach from door to door, we foreigners had to learn it. In many languages, we had what were called testimony cards. These had a brief presentation of the Kingdom message printed on them.
To begin with I memorized the Malay testimony card and then gradually increased my vocabulary in that language. But we also carried Bible literature in many other languages. For the Indian population, for example, we had publications in Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, and Urdu. To meet people of so many language groups was a new experience for me.
Well do I remember the frightening announcement in September 1939, the declaration of war in Europe. We wondered, ‘Will it escalate and involve the Far East?’ It seemed to me to be the prelude to Armageddon—right on time I figured! I felt satisfied that I was making full and proper use of my youth.
Along with my work at the depot, I had a full share in congregation meetings and the field ministry. Bible studies were conducted, and some individuals responded and submitted to water baptism. They were taken to a nearby beach and immersed in the warm waters of Singapore harbor. We even decided to hold an assembly, quietly circulating invitations among interested ones. To our joy, about 25 came to what we then believed would be our last assembly before Armageddon.
Communication between the Society’s branches was severely restricted by the war. Our Singapore depot, for example, received a brief notice that three German pioneers were due to reach Singapore sometime on an unnamed ship en route to an unidentified assignment. A few weeks later they arrived and spent an exciting ten hours with us. Although language was a problem, we were able to understand that their assigned destination was Shanghai.
My Assignment in Shanghai
A year later I also received an assignment to serve in Shanghai. I had no street address, only a post office box number. After being thoroughly cross-examined at the post office, I was able to establish my identity sufficiently to be given the Society’s residential address. However, the Chinese occupant informed me that the branch had moved, and there was no forwarding address.
‘What do I do now?’ I wondered. I silently offered a prayer for guidance. Looking up, I caught sight of three men, slightly taller than the general flow of people and somewhat different in appearance. They certainly looked like the three Germans who stopped in Singapore for those fleeting few hours. Quickly, I stepped out into their pathway.
“Excuse me, please,” I stammered excitedly. They stopped and stared apprehensively at me with searching eyes. “Singapore. Jehovah’s Witnesses. Remember me?” I asked.
After a few moments, they replied: “Ja! Ja! Ja!” Spontaneously we hugged, and tears of joy ran down my face. Out of millions of people, how was it that those three men should happen to pass that spot at that particular time? I simply said, “Thank you, Jehovah.” Three Chinese families, the three Germans, and I were the only Witnesses then in Shanghai.
Hong Kong and Then Burma
After serving in Shanghai for a few months, I was assigned to Hong Kong. When my prospective pioneer partner from Australia failed to arrive, I found myself on my own, the only Witness in the colony. Again, I had to remind myself that I had said to Jehovah, “Here I am! Send me.”
My activity was directed mainly to English-speaking Chinese people, yet I found difficulty in getting past the gates of the residences, since the servants stationed there spoke only Chinese. So I learned a little Chinese in two of the most used dialects. It worked! I would approach the servant guards, present my business card, speak my little Chinese piece, and then usually be ushered in.
Once when visiting a school, I followed this procedure in an effort to speak with the headmaster. A junior teacher met me in the foyer. I followed her through a couple of classrooms, acknowledged the children’s respectful gestures, and prepared to be introduced to the headmaster. The teacher knocked, opened the door, stood back, and signaled me forward. To my indignant surprise, she had courteously taken me to the toilet! It seemed that my Chinese had been misunderstood and that, as the headmaster later told me, I had been mistaken for a plumbing and sewage inspector.
After four months of activity, I was informed by the Hong Kong police that a ban had been placed on our preaching work and that I would either have to quit or be deported. I chose deportation as the door to continued preaching was still open elsewhere. While in Hong Kong, I had placed 462 books and had helped two others to share in the ministry.
From Hong Kong, I was assigned to Burma. There I pioneered and assisted in depot work in Rangoon (now Yangon). One of the most interesting experiences was that of preaching in the towns and villages strung out along the main route from Rangoon to Mandalay and beyond to the Chinese border town of Lashio. My pioneer partner and I concentrated on the English-speaking community, obtaining several hundred subscriptions to Consolation (now the Awake! magazine). Incidentally, this main road from Rangoon to Mandalay was to become known as the Burma Road, the route along which the American war supplies were sent into China.
Trudging through ankle-deep dust often made us feel in need of a good wash. This led to the incident related at the outset, that of being arrested while bathing in a river under a bridge. Soon afterward military operations and illness forced us to return to Rangoon. I was able to remain in Burma until 1943, when the stepped-up operations of the war forced me to return to Australia.
Back in Australia
In the meantime, the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses had been banned in Australia. However, the ban was soon lifted, and in time I was again invited to work at the branch office. Later, in 1947, I married Betty Moss, who had been working at the Society’s branch in Australia. Betty’s father and mother were pioneers, and they encouraged both her and her brother Bill to make pioneering their careers. Betty started pioneering the day she left school, at age 14. I figured we should do well together, as she too, in effect, had said to Jehovah, “Here I am! Send me.”
After we had been married for a year, I was invited into the circuit work, visiting congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Working in Australia’s outback was a real challenge. Flash floods frequently presented travel problems, particularly on slippery clay roads. Summer temperatures soared to 110 degrees Fahrenheit [43° C.] in the shade. Living in canvas tents, we found the scorching summers to be almost unbearably hot and the winters to be bitterly cold.
It was a joy to serve as district overseer when there were only two districts in Australia. Donald MacLean served one district, and I the other. Then we would swap districts. It is a thrill to read about the congregations that now exist where we once served. The seeds of Bible truth surely have sprouted and produced!
Back to Where It All Started
In 1961, I had the privilege of attending the first class of the Gilead missionary school after its move to Brooklyn, New York. I had received previous invitations to the school but could not accept for health reasons. At the conclusion of the ten-month course, I was invited to accept New Zealand as my assignment.
So since January 1962, Betty and I have been here in New Zealand, one of the lands down under. It is often referred to as one of the pearls of the Pacific. Theocratically, it has been a joy to serve both in the circuit and in the district work. For the past 14 years, since April 1979, we have been working at the New Zealand branch office.
Betty and I are now both in our mid-70’s, and between us we have 116 years of nonstop full-time Kingdom service. Betty started pioneering in January 1933, and I in April 1937. Many have been our joys as we have watched our spiritual children and grandchildren do what we did when we were young, namely, heed the counsel of Ecclesiastes 12:1: “Remember, now, your Grand Creator in the days of your young manhood.”
What a privilege it has been to spend virtually our entire lives preaching the good news of God’s Kingdom and making disciples, as our Lord Jesus Christ commanded! (Matthew 24:14; 28:19, 20) We are so happy that we responded to God’s invitation as did the prophet Isaiah long ago, “Here I am! Send me.”