United in God’s Service Through Good Times and Bad
As told by Michel and Babette Muller
“I HAVE bad news for you,” the doctor said. “You can forget about your missionary life in Africa.” Looking at my wife, Babette, he said, “You have breast cancer.”
We were stunned beyond words. A lot of things flashed through our minds. We had thought that this visit to the doctor would be only a final checkup. Our return tickets to Benin, West Africa, had been purchased. We had hoped to be back there within the week. During our 23 years of marriage, we had experienced good times and bad. Confused and fearful, we now braced ourselves for a fight against cancer.
Let us start from the beginning. Michel was born in September 1947, Babette in August 1945. We grew up in France and got married in 1967. We lived in Paris. One morning in early 1968, Babette was late for work. A lady came to the door and offered her a religious brochure; she accepted it. The lady then said: “May I return with my husband to talk to you and your husband?”
Babette was thinking about her job. She wanted the woman to leave, so she said, “OK, OK.”
Michel relates: “I had no interest in religion, but the brochure caught my eye, and I read it. A few days later, the lady, Joceline Lemoine, returned with her husband, Claude. He was very skilled in his use of the Bible. He had answers to all my questions. I was impressed.
“Babette was a good Catholic but had no Bible, which was not unusual for Catholics. She was very excited to see and read the Word of God. From our study we learned that many of the religious ideas that we had been taught were false. We started to talk to our relatives and friends about the things we were learning. In January 1969 we became baptized Witnesses of Jehovah. Nine of our relatives and friends were baptized soon after that.”
Serving Where Preachers Were Needed
Soon after our baptism, we thought: ‘We do not have any children. Why not take up the full-time ministry?’ So in 1970 we left our jobs, enrolled as regular pioneers, and moved to the small town of Magny-Lormes, near Nevers, in the center of France.
It was a difficult assignment. It was hard to find people who wanted to study the Bible. We could not find secular employment, so we had little money. Sometimes we had only potatoes to eat. During the winter the temperatures plunged well below zero Fahrenheit [-22° C.]. We called the time we spent there the time of the seven thin cows.—Genesis 41:3.
But Jehovah sustained us. One day when we had almost run out of food, the mailman delivered a big box of cheese from Babette’s sister. Another day we came home after preaching and found some friends who had driven 300 miles [500 km] to see us. Having heard how hard things were, these brothers had packed their two cars with food for us.
After a year and a half, the Society appointed us as special pioneers. Over the next four years, we served in Nevers, then in Troyes, and finally in Montigny-lès-Metz. In 1976, Michel was appointed to serve as a circuit overseer in the southwest of France.
Two years later, during a school for circuit overseers, we got a letter from the Watch Tower Society inviting us to go abroad as missionaries; the letter said that we could choose between Chad and Burkina Faso (then Upper Volta). We chose Chad. Soon we received another letter, assigning us to work under the Tahiti branch. We had asked for Africa, a huge continent, but soon found ourselves on a small island!
Serving in the South Pacific
Tahiti is a beautiful tropical island in the South Pacific. When we arrived, about a hundred brothers were there to meet us at the airport. They welcomed us with flower leis, and though we were tired after our long journey from France, we were very happy.
Four months after we arrived in Tahiti, we boarded a small sailing boat filled with a cargo of dry coconuts. Five days later we reached our new assignment—the island of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands. About 1,500 people lived on the island, but there were no brothers. Only us.
Conditions were primitive at the time. We lived in a small house made of concrete and bamboo. There was no electricity. We had a water tap that worked sometimes, but the water was muddy. Most of the time, we used rainwater that collected in a cistern. There were no paved roads, just dirt tracks.
To reach distant parts of the island, we had to rent horses. The saddles were made of wood—very uncomfortable, especially for Babette, who had never ridden a horse before. We carried a machete to cut through bamboo that had fallen across the track. It was a big change from life in France.
We held Sunday meetings, although only the two of us attended. Initially we didn’t have the other meetings since there were only us two. Instead we read the meeting material together.
After a few months, we decided that it was not good to continue that way. Michel relates: “I said to Babette, ‘We must dress properly. You sit down there, and I will sit here. I will start with a prayer, and then we’ll have the Theocratic Ministry School and the Service Meeting. I’ll ask the questions, and you’ll answer, even if you are the only other person in the room.’ It was good we did that because it’s easy to become spiritually lax when there is no congregation.”
It took time to get people to come to our Christian meetings. We two were by ourselves for the first eight months. Later, we were joined by one, two, or sometimes three others. One year, just the two of us started the annual celebration of the Lord’s Evening Meal. After ten minutes, some people came, so I stopped and started the talk again.
Today, there are 42 publishers and 3 congregations in the Marquesas Islands. Although the greatest part of the work was done by our successors, some people we contacted back then are now baptized.
Our Brothers Are Precious
We learned patience on Nuku Hiva. We had to wait for everything apart from the most basic necessities. If you wanted a book, for example, you had to write for it, then wait for two or three months before it arrived.
Another lesson we learned was that our brothers are precious. When we visited Tahiti and attended a meeting and heard the brothers singing, we were moved to tears. It may be true that some brothers are difficult to get along with, but when you are alone, you realize how good it is to be with the brotherhood. In 1980 the Society decided that we should return to Tahiti and serve in the circuit work. There we were greatly encouraged by the warm hospitality of the brothers and their love for the preaching work. We spent three years in the circuit work on Tahiti.
From Island to Island
Next we were assigned to a missionary home in Raïatéa, another Pacific island, and we stayed there for about two years. After Raïatéa, we were assigned to the circuit work in the Tuamotu island group. We visited 25 of the 80 islands by boat. For Babette it was difficult. Every time she traveled on a boat, she got sick.
Babette says: “It was terrible! I was sick all the time we spent on the boat. If we were at sea five days, I was sick five days. No drugs worked for me. Yet, despite my sickness, I thought the ocean was beautiful. It was a marvelous sight. Dolphins would race the boat. They would often jump out of the water if you clapped your hands!”
After five years in the circuit work, we were reassigned to Tahiti for two years and again had a good time in the preaching work. Our congregation doubled from 35 to 70 publishers in a year and a half. Twelve of those with whom we studied the Bible were baptized just before we left. Some of them are now elders in the congregation.
Altogether we spent 12 years in the South Pacific. Then we received a letter from the Society saying that they did not need missionaries on the islands anymore since the congregations were now strong. There were about 450 publishers when we arrived in Tahiti and over 1,000 when we left.
Africa At Last!
We returned to France, and after a month and a half, the Society gave us a new assignment—Benin, West Africa. We had wanted to go to Africa 13 years before, so we were very happy.
We arrived in Benin on November 3, 1990, and were among the first missionaries to arrive after the 14-year ban on the Kingdom preaching activity was lifted. It was very exciting. We had no problem settling down because life is similar to that in the Pacific islands. The people are very friendly and hospitable. You can stop and talk with anyone on the street.
Only a few weeks after we arrived in Benin, Babette noticed a lump in her breast. So we went to a little clinic near the newly established branch office. The doctor checked her and said that she needed surgery very soon. The next day we went to another clinic where we saw a European doctor, a gynecologist from France. She too said that we had to go to France quickly so that Babette could have surgery. Two days later we were on a plane to France.
We were sad to leave Benin. With the renewed religious freedom in the country, the brothers were thrilled to have new missionaries, and we were delighted to be there. So we were upset that we had to leave after being in the country only a few weeks.
When we arrived in France, the surgeon examined Babette and confirmed that she needed surgery. The doctors acted quickly, performed a small operation, and released Babette from the hospital the next day. We thought that this was the end of the matter.
Eight days later, we met with the surgeon. It was then that he broke the news that Babette had breast cancer.
Reflecting on how she felt at the time, Babette says: “At first, I was less upset than Michel. But the day after the bad news, I had no feeling. I was not able to cry. I was not able to smile. I thought I was going to die. To me, cancer equaled death. My attitude was, We have to do what we have to do.”
The Fight With Cancer
We heard the bad news on Friday, and Babette was scheduled for a second operation on Tuesday. We had been staying with Babette’s sister, but she too was sick, so we could not continue to stay in her small apartment.
We wondered where we could go. Then we remembered Yves and Brigitte Merda, a couple with whom we had previously stayed. This couple had been very hospitable to us. So we called Yves on the phone and told him that Babette needed surgery and that we did not know where to stay. We also told him that Michel needed a job.
Yves provided Michel work around his house. The brothers supported and encouraged us with many acts of kindness. They also helped us financially. The Society paid Babette’s medical bills.
The surgery was major. The doctors had to remove the lymph nodes and the breast. They began chemotherapy immediately. After a week, Babette could leave the hospital, but she had to return every three weeks for continued therapy.
During the time Babette was receiving treatment, the brothers in the congregation were very helpful. One sister who had also had breast cancer was a great encouragement. She told Babette what to expect and gave her much comfort.
Nevertheless, we were anxious about our future. Discerning this, Michel and Jeanette Cellerier took us out to a restaurant for a meal.
We told them that we had to quit missionary service and that we could never go back to Africa. However, Brother Cellerier said: “What? Who says you have to quit? The Governing Body? The brothers in France? Who said it?”
“Nobody said it,” I replied, “I am saying it.”
“No, no!” said Brother Cellerier. “You will return!”
Chemotherapy was followed by radiation, which was finished by the end of August 1991. The doctors said that they saw no problem with our returning to Africa, provided that Babette went back to France for regular checkups.
Back to Benin
So we wrote to headquarters in Brooklyn, asking permission to return to missionary service. We were anxious to hear their reply. The days dragged by. Finally, Michel could not wait any longer, so he telephoned Brooklyn and asked if they had received our letter. They said that they had considered it—we could return to Benin! How grateful we were to Jehovah!
The Merda family organized a great get-together to celebrate the news. In November 1991 we returned to Benin, and the brothers welcomed us with a feast!
Babette seems to be fine now. We have returned to France from time to time for complete medical checkups, and the doctors find no trace of cancer. We delight to be back in our missionary assignment. We feel needed in Benin, and Jehovah has blessed our work. Since we returned we have helped 14 people to baptism. Five of them are now regular pioneers, and one has been appointed to be a ministerial servant. We have also seen our small congregation grow and then divide into two congregations.
Over the years, we have served Jehovah as husband and wife and have enjoyed many blessings and have come to know many wonderful people. But we have also been trained and strengthened by Jehovah to endure hardships successfully. Like Job, we did not always understand why things happened as they did, but we did know that Jehovah was always there to help us. It is as God’s Word says: “Look! The hand of Jehovah has not become too short that it cannot save, nor has his ear become too heavy that it cannot hear.”—Isaiah 59:1.
[Picture on page 23]
Michel and Babette Muller wearing traditional dress in Benin
[Pictures on page 25]
Missionary work among Polynesians in tropical Tahiti