We Were Given a Pearl of Very High Value
AS TOLD BY RICHARD GUNTHER
It was September 1959. We were on the Italian liner Julio Caesar crossing the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Cádiz, Spain. The Watch Tower Society had assigned me, along with my wife, Rita, and Paul and Evelyn Hundertmark, another missionary couple, to that Iberian country. We were going to face many challenges. But how was it that we had embarked on a missionary career?
RITA and I were baptized as Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1950 in New Jersey, U.S.A. Soon after, we made a decision that in time would place in our hands a pearl of very high value. We were in a congregation with sufficient brothers and sisters to serve the territory. So we felt obligated to offer to serve where there was a greater need for preachers. At the international assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses in New York City in the summer of 1958, we applied for missionary service.
Shortly thereafter, we were invited to the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead, and within a year we were on our way to Spain as missionaries. Caught up in the many arrangements and overwhelmed with excitement, we did not realize at the time what we had been given. Jesus had spoken of a pearl of very high value. (Matthew 13:45, 46) Though it was not the point of his parable, our privilege of serving as missionaries was to us comparable to such a pearl. Looking back, we now more fully appreciate this precious gift of service in Jehovah’s organization.
A Memorable Experience
At that time the Gilead missionary course was conducted in beautiful rural surroundings in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. There, we spent six marvelous months completely immersed in Bible study and real Christian association, isolated from this world’s affairs and troubles. Our fellow students were from many parts of the world, including Australia, Bolivia, Britain, Greece, and New Zealand. Soon though, it was graduation day. In August 1959, we bade farewell with tears in our eyes as we sailed off to our respective missionary assignments. A month later we set foot on Spanish soil.
A New Culture
We landed at the southern port of Algeciras, alongside the enormous Rock of Gibraltar. That night four of us, Rita and I along with the Hundertmarks, took the train to Madrid. We went to the Hotel Mercador, there to wait until contacted by members of the Society’s clandestine branch office. Spain was under the dictatorial rule of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. This meant that the only legally recognized religion in the country was the Roman Catholic Church. It was illegal to practice any other religion publicly, and the house-to-house preaching work of Jehovah’s Witnesses was banned. Even religious meetings were prohibited, so that Jehovah’s Witnesses, who numbered about 1,200 in 30 congregations in Spain at the time, could not meet in Kingdom Halls as in other lands. We had to meet secretly in private homes.
Learning Spanish and Getting Started
Our first challenge was to learn the language. The first month we spent 11 hours a day learning Spanish—4 hours every morning in class, then 7 hours studying on our own. The second month was the same in the mornings, but afternoons were devoted to house-to-house preaching. Can you imagine? Still not knowing the language and with just a memorized introduction written on a card, Rita and I went out in the house-to-house work all by ourselves!
I recall knocking on a door in Vallecas, a working-class section of Madrid. With my card in hand, just in case, I said in Spanish: “Good morning. We are doing a Christian work. The Bible says (we would read a text). We would like you to have this booklet.” Well, the lady just looked, then took the booklet. When we made the return visit, she invited us in, and as we spoke, she just looked. We started a Bible study with her as best we could, and during the studies, she just listened and looked. After a time she finally told us that she had not understood what we had said on our first visit but had heard the word Dios (God) and that this was enough for her to know that it was something good. In time, she took in considerable Biblical knowledge and was baptized, becoming one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Learning Spanish was extremely difficult for me. While traveling in the city, I used to memorize verb conjugations. What I memorized one week I forgot the next! It was very discouraging. A number of times I almost gave up. Since I spoke such terrible Spanish, the Spanish brothers had to be very patient as I took the lead among them. At one district convention, a brother gave me a handwritten announcement to read from the platform. Having difficulty reading his handwriting, I announced: “Bring your muletas (crutches) to the stadium tomorrow.” It was supposed to be, “Bring your maletas (luggage) to the stadium tomorrow.” Of course, the crowd laughed, and naturally I was embarrassed.
Early Tests in Madrid
Those first few years in Madrid were emotionally very difficult for Rita and me. We missed our home and our friends very much. Every time we received a letter from the United States, a wave of homesickness would sweep over us. Those periods of nostalgia were overwhelming, but they passed. After all, we had given up home, family, and friends to receive in their place a pearl of higher value. We needed to adapt.
For our start in Madrid, we found ourselves in a very shabby boardinghouse, or pension. We had our room and three meals a day. It was a small dark room, and the mattresses were of straw. The month’s rent consumed our modest monthly allowance. We usually had lunch there at midday, and the landlady used to leave our supper in the oven to keep it warm so that late at night we would have something to eat. However, walking the streets during the day and evening, we would get very hungry. If we had no allowance left, we would spend our limited personal funds to buy the cheapest chocolate bar that we could find. This situation soon changed, however, with the visit of the Society’s zone overseer. He saw our plight and said that we could look for a small apartment to use as a missionary home. Well, this would be a lot better than taking baths standing in a round tub on the floor in the kitchen. Now we would have a shower, a refrigerator to keep food in, and an electric burner on which to make our meals. We were very grateful for the consideration.
Marvelous Experiences in Madrid
The house-to-house preaching was carried out very cautiously. The daily hubbub in Madrid was an advantage, screening us so that we were not too conspicuous. We tried to dress and act like others so that we would not stand out as foreigners. Our method of door-to-door preaching was to enter an apartment house, knock at a door, speak to the person, and then leave the building, the street, and the area. There was always the possibility that the householder would call the police, and therefore it was not wise to stay in the neighborhood. In fact, even as cautious as they were in using this method, Paul and Evelyn Hundertmark were apprehended and expelled from the country in 1960. They went to neighboring Portugal, serving there for several years, with Paul caring for the underground branch office. Today he is the city overseer in San Diego, California.
However, for us an equalizing took place. Just a few months later, six missionaries assigned to Portugal were ordered to leave that country! This brought a happy development because Eric and Hazel Beveridge, who were also in our class of Gilead, were now directed to leave Portugal and come to Spain. So there we were in February 1962, at the Hotel Mercador once again—this time to welcome Eric and Hazel as they arrived.
It was during these early days in Madrid that Rita and I had a personal experience with religious hypocrisy. We studied the Bible with a couple, Bernardo and Maria, who lived in a shack made out of any discarded pieces of building material Bernardo could find. We studied with them late at night, and after the study, they would offer us bread, wine, and some cheese or whatever they had. I noticed that the cheese was just like American cheese. One night after the study, they brought out the can that the cheese came in. It had written on it in large letters, in English, “From the American people to the Spanish people—not to be sold.” How did this poor family receive the cheese? The Catholic Church was used by the government to distribute it to the poor. But the priest was selling it!
Fruitful Ministry With the Military
Soon something wonderful happened that would turn out to be a rich blessing for us and for many others. We received a notice from the branch office asking us to visit a young man by the name of Walter Kiedaisch, who was stationed at the U.S. Air Force base at Torrejón, located a few miles out of Madrid. We visited him and his wife, starting a Bible study with them and another Air Force couple there.
During that time, I was conducting about five Bible studies with U.S. Air Force personnel, all in English, of course. Of those, seven were later baptized, and after returning to the United States, four of the men became congregation elders.
This was a time when there were very few ways to get books, magazines, and Bibles into the country because of the ban on our work. However, some literature was brought in by tourists and by our American contacts. I was assigned by the branch to operate a secret literature depot. It was in a storage room in the back of a stationery store in Vallecas. The owner’s wife was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Though not a Witness, the owner respected our work, and even at great risk to himself and his business, he allowed me to use this rear area to prepare packages of literature to send to cities throughout the country. Since this room always had to look like what it was supposed to be—a dusty, cluttered room full of cartons—I had to build a workbench and bookshelves that could be set up and ready for work quickly and then concealed in seconds. At the end of the day, I would wait until there was no one in the store and then quickly exit with my packages.
It was a real privilege to share in distributing spiritual material, such as the Watchtower and Awake! magazines and other literature, to congregations throughout the country. Those were exciting times.
Rita had the joy of conducting 16 home Bible studies, about half of whom became baptized Witnesses of Jehovah. Dolores was a young married woman who spent the cold winters in bed because of a heart problem. In the spring she could get up and be somewhat active. Dolores’ faith was strong, so when the time came for our district convention in Toulouse, France, she wanted very much to go. She was cautioned by the doctor that it would be unwise because of her heart condition. Wearing a housedress and slippers and with no luggage, she went down to the train station to see her husband, her mother, and others off. Tears in her eyes, she could not bear to see them go without her, so she climbed on the train, and off she went to France! Rita did not know that this had happened. But there at the convention, what a surprise when she saw Dolores, smiling from ear to ear!
An Unusual Bible Study
We cannot close this account of our Madrid assignment without including Don Benigno Franco, “el profesor.” A local Witness took me to visit an elderly gentleman living with his wife in a very poor apartment house. I started a Bible study with him. After studying for about a year and a half, he asked to be baptized and become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
This elderly gentleman, Don Benigno Franco, was the cousin of Francisco Franco, the dictator of Spain at that time. It seems that Don Benigno was always a freedom-loving person. During the Spanish Civil War, he sympathized with the Republic and was against his cousin—the general who won the war and established a Catholic dictatorship. Ever since 1939, Don Benigno had been denied the right to work, and he was limited to a very meager living. So it was that the cousin of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, caudillo of Spain, became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In 1965 the Spain branch office invited us to begin traveling in the circuit work in Barcelona. This meant leaving all the loving brothers whom we had grown very close to in Madrid. Now was to begin not only a new experience but also, for me, a test. The experience was frightening because I have always doubted my ability. I know very well that it was Jehovah who enabled me to be effective in this field of service.
Visiting a congregation each week meant living in the homes of the brothers. We had to live out of suitcases, and almost every two weeks, we moved to another home. This is especially difficult for a woman. But soon José and Roser Escudé, who lived in Barcelona, invited us to stay with them for days at a time. This was very loving on their part, for it meant that we would have a permanent place to keep our belongings and a regular location to come home to on Sunday evenings.
Rita and I spent the next four years in circuit work in the province of Catalonia, situated on the Mediterranean Coast. All our Bible meetings were held secretly in private homes, and our house-to-house preaching was also done with discretion so we would not attract attention. Sometimes we had a whole congregation together on Sunday for a “picnic” in the woods, especially when holding a circuit assembly.
We will always admire the many devoted spiritual brothers who risked their jobs and freedom, exerting themselves to keep the congregations united and active. Many of them took the lead in extending the work into the towns outside the city. This formed the basis for the great increase in Spain after the ban was lifted and religious freedom was granted in 1970.
Having to Leave Our Foreign Assignment
During our ten years in Spain, our enjoying this special blessing of serving Jehovah had been tempered by the situation of our parents. On a number of occasions, we almost had to leave our assignment and go home to take care of my mother and father. However, thanks to loving brothers and sisters back in congregations near my parents, we were able to continue in Spain. Yes, the privilege of serving those years in missionary work was due in part to others who participated with us in putting God’s Kingdom interests first.
Finally, in December 1968, we went home to take care of my mother. That very month my father passed away, and my mother was now left alone. Still being relatively free to serve full-time, we received an assignment to serve in the circuit work, but this time in the United States. For the next 20 years, we served Spanish circuits. Though we had lost our missionary pearl of very high value, we had another placed in our hands.
Preaching in the Midst of Drugs and Violence
Now we were serving side by side with many brothers and sisters who were living in crime-ridden parts of the cities. Why, the very first week in circuit work in Brooklyn, New York, Rita had her pocketbook snatched from her.
On one occasion Rita and I were with a group engaged in house-to-house preaching work in another section of New York City. Turning a corner, we noticed some people lined up in front of a hole in the wall of an abandoned building. As we took a few strides up the street, we noted a young fellow standing on the sidewalk looking at us. There was another on the far corner looking out for police cars. We had walked into the middle of a drug operation! The first lookout was startled, but then he saw the Watchtower magazine and was relieved. After all, I could have been a police officer! He then called out in Spanish, “¡Los Atalayas! ¡Los Atalayas!” (The Watchtowers! The Watchtowers!) They knew who we were, identifying us with the magazine, and everything was all right. As I passed close to him, I said, “¿Buenos dias, como está?” (Good morning, how are you?) He replied by asking me to pray for him!
A Tough Decision
In 1990 it became apparent that I would have to be with my mother every day. We had tried hard to stay in the traveling work, but wisdom dictated that it was not possible to fulfill both obligations. We certainly wanted to be sure Mother was lovingly cared for. But once again we were having to give up a pearl of very high value, something that was very precious to us. All the literal gems in the world and all that they can do for one are very little in comparison with the gems of serving as a missionary or as a traveling overseer in Jehovah’s organization.
Rita and I are now in our 60’s. We are quite content and enjoy serving with a local Spanish-speaking congregation. As we look back over our years in Jehovah’s service, we thank him for entrusting us with some pearls of very high value.
[Picture on page 23]
With Rita and Paul and Evelyn Hundertmark (right) outside the Madrid bullring
[Picture on page 24]
Serving a congregation at a “picnic” in the woods