More Than 50 Years of ‘Stepping Over’
AS TOLD BY EMMANUEL PATERAKIS
Nineteen centuries ago the apostle Paul received a singular invitation: “Step over into Macedonia and help us.” Paul willingly accepted this new opportunity to “declare the good news.” (Acts 16:9, 10) While the invitation I received does not go back that far, it was nevertheless over 50 years ago that I agreed to “step over” into new territories in the spirit of Isaiah 6:8: “Here I am! Send me.” My numerous travels earned me the nickname Perpetual Tourist, but my activities bore little resemblance to tourism. More than once, on reaching my hotel room, I sank to my knees and thanked Jehovah for his protection.
I WAS born on January 16, 1916, in Hierápetra, in Crete, into a deeply religious Orthodox family. From the time I was an infant, Mama would take me and my three sisters to church on Sunday. As for my father, he preferred to stay at home and read the Bible. I adored my father—an honest, good, and forgiving man—and his death, when I was nine years old, deeply marked me.
I remember that when I was five, I read a text at school that said: “Everything around us proclaims the existence of God.” As I grew up, I was absolutely convinced of this. Thus, at the age of 11, I chose to write an essay with Psalm 104:24 as its theme: “How many your works are, O Jehovah! All of them in wisdom you have made. The earth is full of your productions.” I was fascinated by the marvels of nature, even by things as simple as seeds equipped with little wings so that they would be borne by the wind away from the shade of the parent tree. The week after I submitted my essay, my teacher read it to the entire class, and then to the whole school. At the time, the teachers were fighting against Communist ideas and were glad to hear my defense of God’s existence. As for me, I was just glad to express my belief in the Creator.
Answers to My Questions
My first encounter with Jehovah’s Witnesses in the early 1930’s is still vivid in my memory. Emmanuel Lionoudakis had been preaching in all the towns and villages of Crete. I accepted several booklets from him, but it was the one entitled Where Are the Dead? that really caught my eye. I had such a morbid fear of death that I would not even enter the room in which my father had died. As I read this booklet over and over again and learned what the Bible teaches about the condition of the dead, I felt my superstitious fear disappear.
Once a year during the summer, the Witnesses visited our town and brought me more literature to read. Little by little my understanding of the Scriptures increased, but I continued to attend the Orthodox Church. The book Deliverance, however, marked a turning point. It clearly showed the difference between Jehovah’s organization and that of Satan. From this point on, I began more regularly to study the Bible and any of the Watch Tower Society’s literature that I could lay my hands on. Since Jehovah’s Witnesses were under ban in Greece, I studied secretly at night. Still, I was so enthusiastic about what I was learning that I could not restrain myself from talking to everyone about it. It was not long before the police began to take an interest in me, paying me regular visits at all hours of the day and night to search for literature.
In 1936, I attended a meeting for the first time, 75 miles away in Iráklion. I was so happy to meet the Witnesses. The majority of them were simple men, farmers for the most part, but they helped confirm for me that this is the truth. My dedication to Jehovah was made then and there.
My baptism is an event that I shall never forget. One night in 1938, two of my Bible students and I were taken by Brother Lionoudakis in pitch darkness to the beach. After saying a prayer, he plunged us into the water.
The very first time that I went out to preach was eventful, to say the least. I met an old school friend who had become a priest, and we had an excellent discussion together. But afterward he explained that in line with the bishop’s order, he had to have me arrested. While we waited in the mayor’s office for the arrival of the police from the neighboring village, a crowd gathered outside. So I took a Greek New Testament that was in the office and began to give them a talk based on Matthew chapter 24. At first the people did not want to listen, but the priest intervened. “Let him speak,” he said. “It’s our Bible.” I was able to speak for an hour and a half. Thus, my first day in the ministry was also the occasion for my first public talk. Since the police had not arrived when I finished, the mayor and the priest decided to have a group of men run me out of town. At the first bend in the road, I began to run as fast as I could to avoid the stones they threw.
The next day two policemen, accompanied by the bishop, arrested me at work. At the police station, I was able to witness to them from the Bible, but since my Bible literature did not have the bishop’s stamp required by law, I was charged with proselytism and distributing unauthorized literature. I was released pending trial.
My trial took place one month later. In my defense I pointed out that I was doing no more than obeying Christ’s command to preach. (Matthew 28:19, 20) The judge replied sarcastically: “My child, the One who gave that commandment was crucified. Unfortunately, I do not have the authority to inflict a similar punishment on you.” However, a young lawyer whom I did not know stood up in my defense, saying that with so much Communism and atheism about, the court should be proud that there were young men prepared to defend the Word of God. He then came up and congratulated me warmly on my written defense, which was in my file. Impressed that I was so young, he offered to defend me free of charge. Instead of the minimum three months, I was condemned to just ten days in prison and a 300-drachma fine. Such opposition only strengthened my resolve to serve Jehovah and defend the truth.
On another occasion when I was arrested, the judge noted the ease with which I cited the Bible. He asked the bishop to leave his office, saying: “You’ve done your job. I’ll take care of him.” He then took out his Bible, and we talked about God’s Kingdom all afternoon. Such incidents encouraged me to carry on in spite of difficulties.
The Death Sentence
In 1940, I was called up for military service and wrote a letter explaining why I could not agree to be inducted. Two days later I was arrested and was severely beaten by the police. I was then sent to the front in Albania, where I was court-martialed because I refused to fight. The military authorities told me that they were less interested in knowing whether I was right or wrong than in the impression my example might have on the soldiers. I was condemned to death, but because of a legal flaw, to my great relief, this sentence was commuted to ten years at hard labor. I spent the next few months of my life in a military prison in Greece under very difficult conditions, from which I still suffer the physical effects.
Prison, though, did not stop me from preaching. Far from it! Conversations were easy to start, as many wondered why a civilian was in a military prison. One of these discussions with a sincere young man led to a Bible study in the prison courtyard. Thirty-eight years later I met this man again at an assembly. He had accepted the truth and was serving as a congregation overseer on the island of Lefkás.
When Hitler’s armies invaded Yugoslavia in 1941, we were transferred farther south to a prison in Preveza. During the journey, our convoy came under attack from German bombers, and we prisoners were given no food. When the little bread that I had was finished, I prayed to God: “If it is your will for me to die of hunger after you have saved me from the death sentence, then let your will be done.”
The following day an officer called me aside during roll call and, after learning where I was from, who my parents were, and why I was in prison, told me to follow him. He took me to the officers’ mess in town, directed me to a table of bread, cheese, and roast lamb, and told me to help myself. But I explained that since the other 60 prisoners had nothing, my conscience would not let me eat. The officer replied: “I can’t feed everyone! Your father was very generous to mine. I have a moral obligation to you but not to the others.” “In that case I’ll just go back,” I answered. He thought for a moment and then gave me a big bag to put as much food in as I could.
On returning to the prison, I put the bag down and said: “Gentlemen, this is for you.” Coincidentally, the evening before, I had been accused of being responsible for the plight of the other prisoners because I would not join in their prayers to the Virgin Mary. However, a Communist had come to my defense. Now on seeing the food, he said to the others: “Where is your ‘Virgin Mary’? You said that we would die because of this man, yet he is the one who brings us food.” Then he turned to me and said: “Emmanuel! Come and say grace.”
Shortly thereafter, the advance of the German army caused the prison guards to flee, opening up the doors of captivity. I made my way to Patras in order to find other Witnesses before heading to Athens at the end of May 1941. There I was able to get some clothes and shoes and to have my first bath in more than a year. Until the end of the occupation, the Germans regularly stopped me while I was preaching, but they never arrested me. One of them said: “In Germany we shoot Jehovah’s Witnesses. But here we wish that all our enemies were Witnesses!”
As if Greece had not had enough fighting, it was further torn apart by civil war from 1946 to 1949, causing thousands of deaths. The brothers needed much encouragement to stay strong at a time when just attending meetings could lead to arrest. Several brothers were condemned to death for their neutral stand. But in spite of this, many people responded to the Kingdom message, and we had one or two baptisms every week. As of 1947, I began working at the Society’s offices in Athens by day and visiting the congregations as a traveling overseer by night.
In 1948, I had the joy of being invited to attend the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead, in the United States. But there was a problem. Because of my previous convictions, I was unable to obtain a passport. However, one of my Bible students was on friendly terms with a general. Thanks to this student, in just a few weeks, I had my passport. But I was worried when, not long before I was to leave, I was arrested for distributing The Watchtower. A policeman took me to the head of the State Security Police in Athens. To my complete surprise, he was one of my neighbors! The policeman explained why I had been arrested and gave him the package of magazines. My neighbor took out a pile of Watchtower magazines from his desk and said to me: “I don’t have the latest issue. May I take a copy?” How relieved I was to see the hand of Jehovah in such matters!
The 16th class of Gilead, in 1950, was an enriching experience. At the end of it, I was assigned to Cyprus, where I soon discovered that clergy opposition was as fierce as in Greece. We often had to face crowds of religious fanatics whipped up to a frenzy by Orthodox priests. In 1953 my visa for Cyprus was not renewed, and I was reassigned to Istanbul, Turkey. Here again, my stay was short. Political tensions between Turkey and Greece meant that, despite good results in the preaching work, I had to leave for another assignment—Egypt.
While I was in prison, Psalm 55:6, 7 would come to mind. David there expressed a longing to flee to the desert. I never imagined that one day that is exactly where I would be. In 1954, after a tiring journey of several days by train and Nile riverboat, I finally reached my destination—Khartoum, in Sudan. All I wanted to do was take a shower and go to bed. But I forgot that it was midday. The water, stored in a tank on the roof, scalded me, obliging me to wear a pith helmet for several months until my scalp healed.
I often felt isolated there, alone in the middle of the Sahara, a thousand miles away from the nearest congregation, but Jehovah sustained me and gave me the strength to continue. Encouragement sometimes came from the most unexpected sources. One day I met the director of the Museum of Khartoum. He was open-minded, and we had a fine discussion. On learning that I was of Greek extraction, he asked me if I would oblige him by going to the museum to translate some inscriptions on artifacts found in a sixth-century church. After five hours in a stuffy basement, I found a saucer bearing Jehovah’s name, the Tetragrammaton. Imagine my joy! In Europe it is not rare to come across the divine name in churches, but it is most unusual in the middle of the Sahara!
After the international assembly in 1958, I was assigned as zone overseer to visit the brothers in 26 countries and territories in the Middle and Near East and around the Mediterranean. Often I did not know how I would get out of an awkward situation, but Jehovah always furnished a way out.
I was always impressed by the care that Jehovah’s organization shows for Witnesses who are isolated in certain countries. On one occasion, I met an Indian brother working in an oil field. Apparently he was the only Witness in the country. In his locker he had publications in 18 different languages, which he gave to his workmates. Even here where all foreign religions were strictly forbidden, our brother did not forget his responsibility to preach the good news. His colleagues were impressed to see that a representative of his religion had been sent to visit him.
The year 1959 saw me visiting Spain and Portugal. Both were under military dictatorships at the time, with the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses under strict ban. In one month I was able to conduct more than a hundred meetings, encouraging the brothers not to give up in spite of the difficulties.
No Longer Alone
For over 20 years, I had been serving Jehovah in full-time service as a single man, but I suddenly felt tired of my constant voyages without any fixed abode. It was about this time that I met Annie Bianucci, a special pioneer in Tunisia. We were married in 1963. Her love for Jehovah and the truth, her devotion to the ministry combined with her art of teaching, and her knowledge of languages proved to be a real blessing in our missionary and circuit work in northern and western Africa and in Italy.
In August 1965 my wife and I were assigned to Dakar, Senegal, where I had the privilege of organizing the local branch office. Senegal was a country remarkable for its religious tolerance, no doubt due to its president, Leopold Senghor, one of the few African heads of State to write to Malawi’s President Banda in support of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the terrible persecution that took place in Malawi in the 1970’s.
Jehovah’s Rich Blessing
In 1951, when I left Gilead for Cyprus, I traveled with seven suitcases. On leaving for Turkey, I was down to five. But traveling so much, I had to get used to the 20-kilogram (44-pound) baggage limit, which included my files and my “baby” typewriter. One day I said to Brother Knorr, then president of the Watch Tower Society: “You protect me from materialism. You make me live with 20 kilograms, and I’m doing just fine.” I never felt deprived because of not having many things.
My main problem during my travels was getting in and out of countries. One day, in a land where the work was banned, a customs officer started rummaging through my files. This posed a risk to the Witnesses in the country, so I took out of my jacket a letter from my wife and said to the customs officer: “I see that you like reading mail. Would you also like to read this letter from my wife, which is not in the files?” Embarrassed, he excused himself and let me through.
Since 1982 my wife and I have been serving as missionaries in Nice, in the south of France. Because of failing health, I can no longer do quite as much as I used to. But that does not mean that our joy has diminished. We have seen that ‘our labor is not in vain.’ (1 Corinthians 15:58) I have the joy of seeing numerous people with whom I have had the privilege of studying over the years as well as more than 40 members of my family faithfully serving Jehovah.
In no way do I regret the sacrifices that my life of ‘stepping over’ has entailed. After all, none of the sacrifices we make can compare to what Jehovah and his Son, Christ Jesus, have done for us. When I think back over the past 60 years that I have known the truth, I can say that Jehovah has blessed me abundantly. As Proverbs 10:22 says, “the blessing of Jehovah—that is what makes rich.”
Without a doubt, Jehovah’s “loving-kindness is better than life.” (Psalm 63:3) As the inconveniences of old age keep multiplying, the words of the inspired psalmist often figure in my prayers: “In you, O Jehovah, I have taken refuge. O may I never be ashamed. For you are my hope, O Sovereign Lord Jehovah, my confidence from my youth. O God, you have taught me from my youth on, and until now I keep telling about your wonderful works. And even until old age and gray-headedness, O God, do not leave me.”—Psalm 71:1, 5, 17, 18.
[Picture on page 25]
With my wife, Annie, today