We Have Sought First the Kingdom
AS TOLD BY OLIVE SPRINGATE
Mother had just blown out the candle and had left the room after hearing our prayers. My younger brother immediately asked me: “Olive, how can God see and hear us through brick walls?”
“MOTHER says he can see through anything,” I replied, “even right into our hearts.” Mother was a God-fearing woman and an avid Bible reader, and she infused in us children a deep respect for God and for Bible principles.
Our parents were members of the Anglican Church in the small town of Chatham, Kent County, England. Although Mother was a regular churchgoer, she believed that being a Christian meant more than just warming a seat in church once a week. She was also sure that God must have just one true church.
Appreciation for Bible Truth
In 1918, when I was about five, Mother acquired the volumes entitled Studies in the Scriptures, written by Charles T. Russell, the first president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. A few years later, while living in a small place called Wigmore, Mother was contacted by one of the Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known. She accepted the Bible study aid The Harp of God, and from it she began finding answers to many of her Bible questions. Every week a pink card with printed questions on each chapter came in the mail. The card also showed where in the book the answers could be found.
In 1926 my parents, my sister Beryl, and I left the Anglican Church because we were disgusted with the church’s involvement in politics, as well as with many of its unreasonable teachings. A prominent teaching was that God would torment people for all eternity in a hell of fire. My mother, who was truly searching for Bible truth, was convinced that the Anglican Church was not the true one.
Shortly afterward, in answer to Mother’s earnest prayers, Mrs. Jackson, a Bible Student, visited us. For nearly two hours, she spoke with Mother and me, answering our questions from the Bible. We were delighted to learn, among other things, that our prayers should be directed to Jehovah God, the Father of Jesus Christ, and not to some mysterious Trinity. (Psalm 83:18; John 20:17) But to me the most unforgettable question that Mother asked was this one: “What does it mean to seek first the Kingdom?”—Matthew 6:33.
The Bible-based answer deeply affected our lives. From that very week, we started to attend meetings of the Bible Students and to share the things we learned with others. We were convinced that we had found the truth. A few months later, in 1927, Mother was baptized in symbol of her dedication to serve Jehovah, and in 1930, I too was baptized.
Getting Into the Pioneer Service
Our family attended the Gillingham Congregation, which was made up of about 25 persons. Several of them were full-time ministers, called pioneers, and all had the heavenly hope. (Philippians 3:14, 20) Their Christian zeal was contagious. While still a teenager, I pioneered for a short time in Belgium in the early 1930’s. This fired my desire for further Kingdom service. At that time we shared in distributing to every clergyman a copy of the booklet The Kingdom, the Hope of the World.
In time my father became very opposed to our Christian activity, and owing in part to this, I moved to London in 1932 to go to college. Later I taught school for four years and during that time associated with the Blackheath Congregation, one of only four in London at the time. It was then that we began hearing reports of the imprisonment and suffering of our Christian brothers and sisters in Hitler’s Germany because they refused to support Hitler’s war efforts.
In 1938, the very month I finished paying off a debt for books I had acquired, I left my job to fulfill my desire to become a pioneer. My sister Beryl started pioneering in London at the same time, but she lived in a different pioneer home. My first pioneer partner was Mildred Willett, who later married John Barr, now a member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Along with others in our group, we would cycle to the territory and stay out all day, often despite the rain.
War clouds were already hovering over Europe. Gas-mask drills were being held for citizens, and preparations were under way to evacuate children to the English countryside or to small towns in the event of war. I had only enough money saved to buy a pair of shoes, and there was no possibility of financial help from my parents. But had not Jesus said, ‘All these other things will be added if you seek first the kingdom’? (Matthew 6:33) I had complete faith that Jehovah would supply all of my needs, and he has done so abundantly all these years. During wartime I at times supplemented my small rations with vegetables picked up along the road after loaded trucks went by. And I often obtained food by trading Bible literature for fruits and vegetables.
My sister Sonia was born in 1928. She was only seven years old when she dedicated her life to Jehovah. Sonia says that even at that young age, pioneering had become her goal. In 1941, soon after symbolizing her dedication by water baptism, she realized that goal when she and Mother were assigned as pioneers to Caerphilly, South Wales.
Our Ministry During War Years
In September 1939, World War II began, and our Christian brothers and sisters in Britain were being imprisoned for the very reason their fellow believers in Nazi Germany were—their neutral stand regarding participation in war. The bombings of England began in mid-1940. Night after night, the blitzkrieg was earsplitting, but with Jehovah’s help we were able to get some sleep and be refreshed for the preaching work the next day.
At times we would go to our preaching territory only to find most of the houses in ruins. In November a bomb dropped just a few yards from the home in which a number of us were living, smashing the windows into a thousand pieces. The heavy front door came crashing down, and the chimney collapsed. After spending the rest of the night in an air-raid shelter, we separated and went to live in the homes of different Witnesses.
Shortly thereafter I received an assignment to Croydon, in Greater London. My pioneer partner was Ann Parkin, whose brother Ron Parkin later became the Branch Committee coordinator in Puerto Rico. Afterward I moved to Bridgend, South Wales, where I continued pioneering, living in a horse-drawn van for six months. From there we would cycle four miles [6 km] to the nearest large congregation, in Port Talbot.
By this time the public was becoming quite hostile toward us, calling us conchies (conscientious objectors). This made it difficult for us to find lodging, but Jehovah cared for us as promised.
Later, eight of us were assigned as special pioneers in Swansea, a port town in South Wales. As the war grew in intensity, so did prejudice against us. The words “rats” and “cowards” were painted on the wall of our pioneer home. This hostility was largely provoked by newspaper reports that condemned us for our neutral stand. Eventually, one by one, seven of us were sent to jail. I spent a month in Cardiff jail in 1942, and later my sister Beryl also spent time there. Although we had little materially and suffered ridicule and reproach, we were rich spiritually.
Meanwhile, Mother and Sonia were pioneering in Caerphilly and were having similar experiences. The very first Bible study that Sonia conducted was with a lady whom she arranged to visit on a Friday evening. Sonia was confident that Mother would accompany her, but Mother explained: “I have another appointment. You have made the arrangement, so you’ll just have to go alone.” Even though Sonia was only 13, she went by herself, and the lady made good spiritual progress and later became a dedicated Witness.
Postwar Activity—Then Gilead
When World War II ended in 1945, I was working in isolated territory in Whaley Bridge, Derbyshire. On the morning the cease-fire was announced, we visited and comforted the people who were by then completely fed up with warfare—its orphans, widows, and mutilated bodies.
Some months later, the Society asked for volunteers to preach in Ireland, the Emerald Isle. At the time there were only about 140 of Jehovah’s Witnesses on the island, so it was considered missionary territory. Within a few months, some 40 special pioneers were assigned there, and I was among them.
After working for a time in Coleraine and Cookstown in the north, I was assigned, along with three others, to Drogheda on the east coast. Though the Irish by nature are very warm and hospitable, religious prejudice was great. Thus, during one whole year, we were able to leave with the public only a few Bible study aids (actually only one book and some booklets).
During our stay in Drogheda, I was cycling from one farm to another when a young farm worker suddenly burst through the hedge onto the roadway. He looked up and down the road, then asked in a low voice: “Are you one of Jehovah’s Witnesses?” When I replied that I was, he continued: “Last night I had a terrible argument with my fiancée about you girls, and we broke up. She insisted that you are Communists, as the Catholic priests and newspapers say, but I argued that it couldn’t possibly be true, since you go openly from house to house.”
I gave him a booklet to read, which he hid in his pocket, and we arranged to meet and talk more after dark, since he said: “If I’m seen talking to you, I’ll lose my job.” That night two of us met him and answered his many questions. He seemed convinced that this was the truth, and he promised to come to our house another night to learn more. He never came, so we felt that he must have been recognized the first night by some cyclists who passed by and probably lost his job. We often wonder if he ever became a Witness.
After attending the district convention in Brighton on the south coast of England in 1949, several of us received invitations to the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead in New York State. A total of 26 from Britain attended the 15th class, which graduated on July 30, 1950, during the international convention at Yankee Stadium.
Our Ministry in Brazil
The following year I was assigned to São Paulo, Brazil, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. At the time it had just five congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but now there are nearly 600 of them! What a contrast it was to working in Ireland! Many of the homes in our territory in São Paulo were mansions, surrounded by high iron fences with artistic wrought-iron gates. We would summon the owner of the home or the maid by clapping our hands.
As the years went by, there were new assignments. I was privileged to help form new congregations in various places in the interior of the state of São Paulo, including one in Jundiaí in 1955 and another in Piracicaba in 1958. Later, in 1960, my sister Sonia became my missionary partner, and we were assigned to Pôrto Alegre, the capital of the state of Rio Grande do Sul. How, you may wonder, did she get to Brazil?
Sonia and Mother continued to pioneer together in England after World War II. But in the early 1950’s, Mother had cancer surgery that left her too weak to go from house to house, although she was able to conduct Bible studies and write letters. Sonia continued in the pioneer work, and at the same time she helped care for Mother. In 1959, Sonia had the privilege of attending the 33rd class of Gilead and was assigned to Brazil. Meanwhile, Beryl cared for Mother until her death in 1962. Beryl by then had married, and she and her family are faithfully serving Jehovah.
In Brazil, Sonia and I assisted several people to dedication and baptism. However, one of the problems that a number of Brazilians had was that of legalizing their marriage. Because of the difficulty in obtaining a divorce in Brazil, it was not uncommon for couples just to live together without the benefit of marriage. This was especially the case when one of the mates was separated from a former legal marriage mate.
One lady, named Eva, was in that situation when I contacted her. Her legal mate had disappeared, so in order to locate him, we had an announcement made over the radio. When her husband was found, I accompanied her to another city to get his signature to a document that would free her so that she could legalize the union with the unmarried man with whom she was living. In the hearing before the judge, he asked both Eva and me to explain why she wanted to straighten out her marital situation. The judge expressed surprise and also satisfaction when this was explained to him.
On another occasion, I went with one of my Bible students to arrange for a lawyer to handle her case. Again a good witness was given regarding marriage and God’s moral standards. In this instance the cost of the divorce was so high that both mates had to work to pay the fees. But to these new Bible students, it was worth the effort. Sonia and I had the privilege of being witnesses to their marriage, and thereafter, along with their three teenage children, we listened to a short Bible talk in their home.
A Rich, Rewarding Life
When Sonia and I dedicated our lives to Jehovah and became pioneers, we intended, if at all possible, that the full-time ministry would be our life’s career. We never gave much thought to what would happen in our later years or in the event of illness or financial difficulties. Yet, just as Jehovah promised, we have never been abandoned.—Hebrews 13:6.
Oh, yes, lack of money has sometimes been a problem. At one time, my partner and I ate parsley sandwiches for lunch for a whole year, but we have never starved, nor have we lacked the basic necessities.
As the years have gone by, our energies have diminished accordingly. During the mid-1980’s, both of us had serious operations that resulted in a severe trial for us, since our preaching activities were greatly curtailed. In January 1987, we were invited to be members of the headquarters staff of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brazil.
Our large family of over a thousand ministers is located some 90 miles [140 km] outside São Paulo in a beautiful complex of buildings, where we print Bible literature for Brazil and other parts of South America. Here we receive loving care from devoted servants of God. When I first came to Brazil in 1951, there were about 4,000 preachers of the Kingdom message, but now there are over 366,000! Our compassionate heavenly Father has indeed added to us ‘all other things’ because we have sought first his Kingdom.—Matthew 6:33.
[Picture on page 22]
Olive with Mildred Willett beside an information cart, 1939
[Picture on page 25]
Olive and Sonia Springate