A Rich, Rewarding Life in Jehovah’s Service
AS TOLD BY LEO KALLIO
It was the year 1914, and a beautiful late summer day was ending in our suburb of Turku, a city in Finland. Suddenly, the tranquillity was shattered by news of a great war that had broken out. Soon streets were filled with those pondering the meaning of events. The grave faces of adults made us children wonder what would happen. I was nine years old, and I recall that the peaceful play of children changed to games of war.
ALTHOUGH Finland stayed out of World War I (1914-18), the country was ravaged by civil war in 1918. Relatives and former friends took up weapons against one another because of differing political views. Our family of seven tasted this hatred. My father, who was blunt in expressing his opinions, was arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison. Later he was acquitted, but by then his health had been ruined.
Our family suffered from hunger and sickness during this terrible period. Three of my younger sisters died. My father’s brother, who lived in the city of Tampere, heard about our distress and invited my father and mother and us two remaining children to stay with him.
Years later, while still living in Tampere, I met a charming girl named Sylvi. She had a background similar to mine. Her father was killed in the civil war, and afterward a close friend of her family, Kaarlo (Kalle) Vesanto from the town of Pori, took her, her sister, and her mother into his home. He made arrangements for Sylvi’s mother to get a job and for the girls to go to school. In time Sylvi moved to Tampere to get work, and that is where we met.
An Evening That Changed My Life
In 1928, Sylvi became my fiancée, and one day we traveled to Pori to visit Kalle Vesanto and his family. No other event has so decisively affected my life. Kalle had been an owner and racer of trotting horses but had given up that business. He and his wife had become zealous publishers of the good news of God’s Kingdom. The 1990 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses describes how he hired men to paint the words “Millions Now Living Will Never Die” on an outside wall of his two-story house. The text was big enough to be easily read from swiftly passing trains.
That night Kalle and I talked into the wee hours of the morning. “Why? Why? Why?” I asked, and Kalle explained. I literally learned basic Bible truths overnight. I wrote down the scriptures that explained various teachings. Later, when I returned home, I got a notebook and wrote down all those scriptures word for word. Because I was yet unfamiliar with the Bible, I used this notebook to witness to those at the construction site where I worked. As I exposed the teachings of false religion, I often found myself repeating Kalle’s words: “You have really been deceived, guys!”
Kalle gave me the address of a cottage in Tampere where some 30 Bible Students were having their meetings. There I would crouch in a corner near the door next to Brother Andersson, the owner of the cottage. My attendance was rather irregular, but prayer proved helpful. When having serious trouble at work, I once prayed: “Please, God, if you help me to get over these difficulties, I promise to attend every meeting.” But things just got worse. Then I realized that I was setting conditions on Jehovah, so I changed my prayer to: “Whatever happens, I promise to attend every meeting.” At that my adversities subsided, and I became a regular meeting attender.—1 John 5:14.
Our Ministry in Early Years
In 1929, Sylvi and I married, and in 1934 both of us symbolized our dedication to Jehovah by water baptism. In those days our ministry involved taking a phonograph and records along to people’s homes and asking kindly if we might present a Bible lecture free of charge. People often readily invited us in, and after they listened to the recorded talk, they shared in a conversation and accepted some of our literature.
With the permission of the authorities, we played these same Bible lectures through amplifiers in the parks. And in the suburbs we would attach the loudspeaker to a roof or the top of a chimney. At other times we played them on the lakefront where townspeople gathered in large crowds. We simply took the amplifiers in a boat and rowed slowly along the shore. On Sundays we set off on a rural campaign by bus, equipped with our precious amplifiers and lots of literature.
A Change Testing Our Faith
In 1938, I entered the full-time ministry as a pioneer, but I also continued to work as a bricklayer. The following spring I received an invitation from the Society’s branch office to become a traveling minister, now called circuit overseer. The decision to accept was not an easy one because I enjoyed working with our congregation in Tampere. Besides, we owned our own home; we had a six-year-old son, Arto, who would soon start school; and Sylvi enjoyed her work as a shop assistant. Yet, after consulting together, I accepted this further privilege of Kingdom service.—Matthew 6:33.
Then another difficult period began. War broke out on November 30, 1939, when Soviet troops marched into Finland. The war, called the Winter War, lasted until March 1940, when Finland had to agree to a peace treaty. It seemed as if even nature went to war, for that was by far the coldest winter I can recall. I traveled by bicycle from one congregation to another as the thermometer sank to more than 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit [-30° C.]!
In 1940 the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses was banned in Finland. Thereafter many young Finnish Witnesses were put in prison and forced to languish there under inhuman conditions. Thankfully, I was able to serve the congregations throughout the second world war, from 1939 to 1945. This often required that I be away from Sylvi and Arto for months at a time. Moreover, there was the constant threat of being arrested for carrying on an illegal work.
I must have been a peculiar sight, riding a bicycle loaded down with a suitcase, a bag of literature, and a phonograph and records. One reason I carried the phonograph records was to prove, in case of an arrest, that I was not a reconnaissance parachutist spying for the Russians. You see, I could argue that if I had been a parachutist, the records would have been broken during the jump.
Nevertheless, once while visiting a neighborhood that had been warned about a spy, a family of Witnesses mistook me for one. I knocked on their door on a dark winter night, and they were too afraid to open. So I spent that night in a barn, buried in the hay to try to keep warm. The next morning the mistaken identity was cleared up, and I must say, during the rest of my visit, the members of the household showed me extra-special hospitality!
During the war years, only Brother Johannes Koskinen and I served the congregations in middle and northern Finland. Each of us had huge areas to care for, some 400 miles [600 km] long. We had so many congregations to visit that we were able to stay for only two or three days with each congregation. Trains were rarely on schedule, and buses were few and so crowded that it was a wonder we reached our destinations.
Once, early in the Winter War, I went to the branch office in Helsinki and picked up four heavy cartons of banned literature to take with me by train to deliver to congregations. While at the Riihimäki railway station, an air-raid alarm sounded. Soldiers in the train put on their snowsuits, and passengers were told to leave the train immediately and head for an empty field opposite the station.
I asked the soldiers to carry my cartons, telling them of their importance. Four of them each picked up a carton, and we ran some 200 yards over the snow-covered field. We threw ourselves on the ground, and somebody cried to me: “Hey, civilian, don’t make the slightest move! If the bombers see any movement, they will fire on us.” I was curious enough to turn my face carefully to look at the sky, where I counted 28 planes!
Suddenly the ground shook from exploding bombs. Although the station was spared, the train on which we arrived was hit. What a grotesque sight the wrecked train and twisted rails made! The next morning I was able to continue my journey with the cartons, and the soldiers set off on another train. One of them became a Witness after the war, and he told me that the soldiers had talked afterward about the strange civilian with his cartons.
Some time later Brother Koskinen, traveling to serve the small congregation in Rovaniemi in northern Finland, was arrested before getting off the train. He was taken to jail, where he was badly mistreated. When it came time for me to serve that same congregation, I made arrangements to get off the train at the small station of Koivu. There Sister Helmi Pallari arranged for me to continue the rest of the way in a milk wagon. My visit to the Rovaniemi Congregation was a success. However, upon leaving I ran into trouble.
On our way to the railway station, my companion and I came upon two military personnel who were checking the papers of all passersby. “Do not look at them. Keep your eyes straight ahead,” I said. We walked between them as if they never existed. Then they began chasing after us. Finally, at the railway station, I was able to avoid them in the crowd and jump on a moving train. There was no lack of excitement in the traveling work in those days!
Once I was arrested and taken to the draft board. The intention was to send me to the war front. But the phone rang, and the army officer who was about to interview me answered. I could hear the voice on the other end shout: “Why on earth do you keep sending these sick, useless men? All we can do is send them back. We need men fit for work!” Thankfully, I had on me a medical certificate that told of a health problem I had. When I presented this, I was allowed to go and so continued uninterrupted my work among the congregations!
Helping at a Trial
The war hysteria continued to rage, and my friend Ahti Laeste was arrested. His wife called me. When I went to their home, I found among his papers a document from the local police giving Ahti permission to present recorded speeches in public parks of the city. We arrived at court with the document. After they finished reading the indictment, I handed the document to Brother Laeste. The judge had a soldier bring in a phonograph and several of the recorded Bible presentations for the court to listen to. After listening to each presentation, the judge said that he could not see anything improper in what was said.
Then Ahti, his wife, and I were sent out in the corridor to await the decision of the court. There we stood in suspense. Finally we heard a voice say: “The accused, please enter the courtroom.” Brother Laeste was acquitted! Our hearts were truly full of gratitude to Jehovah as we went on with our work, Brother and Sister Laeste with theirs in the local congregation, and I with mine in the traveling work.
The War Ends —Our Service Continues
The ban on our preaching work was removed when the war ended, and the brothers were released from prison. During my many years of service, I have been deeply impressed by the role that Christian sisters have played in the Kingdom work and in supporting their husbands. Especially have I been grateful for Sylvi’s sacrifices and support. As a result, I was able to continue in the traveling work for 33 years uninterrupted and afterward to serve as a special pioneer.
Both Sylvi and I encouraged Arto to begin pioneering when he finished school, to learn English, and to attend the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead in the United States. He graduated from Gilead in 1953. Afterward he married Eeva, and together they have shared in various forms of full-time service, including the circuit work, Bethel service, and special pioneering. In 1988 they moved to Tampere, our city of residence, to help care for Sylvi and me while they continue serving as special pioneers.
Sylvi and I have enjoyed a rich and blessed life with lots of memories to encourage us, although our strength now is greatly diminished. It is most rewarding to think of the growth that we have seen. When I started visiting congregations in 1939, there were 865 Kingdom publishers in Finland, but now there are over 18,000!
Little did I realize when I began the full-time ministry back in 1938 that 55 years later I would still be enjoying a share in it. In spite of advancing years, we go on in Jehovah’s power, looking forward to our promised reward. We trust in the psalmist’s words: “Jehovah is good; his loving-kindness is to time indefinite, and his faithfulness to generation after generation.”—Psalm 100:5.
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Leo and Sylvi Kallio symbolized their dedication to Jehovah in 1934
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A recent photograph of Leo and Sylvi as they approach 60 years of dedicated service