A Life I Have Never Regretted
AS TOLD BY PAUL OBRIST
In 1912, when I was six, Mother died while giving birth to her fifth child. About two years later, a young housekeeper, Berta Weibel, started caring for our family. When Father married her the following year, we children were happy to have a mother again.
WE LIVED in Brugg, a small town in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Berta was truly a Christian person, and I liked her very much. She had started studying the publications of the Bible Students (Jehovah’s Witnesses) in 1908, and she would share with others what she learned.
In 1915, soon after Berta and Father were married, I went with her to a showing of the “Photo-Drama of Creation.” This slide and film presentation of the International Association of Earnest Bible Students left a deep impression on my mind and heart. Others were also impressed. The hall in Brugg was so full that the police closed the doors and turned away further arrivals. Many then tried to gain entrance through an open window by means of a ladder, and a few succeeded.
Mother’s Fine Example
World War I was then raging in Europe, and people were fearful about the future. Thus, to call from house to house with the comforting message of God’s Kingdom, as Mother did, was a noble task. Sometimes she let me accompany her, and I greatly enjoyed this. In 1918, Mother was finally able to symbolize her dedication to Jehovah God by water baptism.
Father had not interfered with Mother’s worship until her baptism, but then he began to oppose her. One day he seized her Bible literature and threw it in the stove. Mother was able to snatch only her Bible from the fire. But what she did next was astounding. She went to Father and hugged him. She did not harbor any resentment toward him.
Totally surprised, Father calmed down. However, from time to time, his opposition flared up, and we had to put up with his outbursts.
Employment and Spiritual Progress
In 1924, after completing a three-year apprenticeship as a hairdresser, I left home and found employment in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. This provided opportunity to improve my knowledge of the French language. Although the move hampered my spiritual progress somewhat, I never lost my love of Bible truth. So when I returned home six years later, I began attending the meetings of the Christian congregation in Brugg.
Shortly afterward I moved to Rheinfelden, a small town about 25 miles [40 km] away. I worked there in my sister’s hairdresser shop and continued my spiritual progress by meeting with a small group of Bible Students. When concluding our midweek Bible study one day, Brother Soder, the elder in charge, asked: “Who plans to participate in the field ministry Sunday?” I volunteered, assuming I would accompany someone and be shown how to do the work.
When Sunday arrived and we reached our territory, Brother Soder said, “Mr. Obrist will work over there.” Though my heartbeat accelerated as never before, I began calling on people in their homes and talking to them about God’s Kingdom. (Acts 20:20) From that time on, I never wavered in carrying on the preaching work that Jesus said must be accomplished before the end of this system of things would come. (Matthew 24:14) On March 4, 1934, when I was 28 years old, I symbolized my dedication to Jehovah God by water baptism.
Two years later I found work as a hairdresser in Lugano, a city in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. I immediately began preaching the good news there, even though I knew little Italian. Still, during my first Sunday in the ministry, I placed the 20 booklets I had taken along. In time, I was able to gather a few interested persons to form a group to study The Watchtower. Eventually a number of these were baptized, and in February 1937 we formed a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Lugano.
Two months later, in April 1937, I received a letter that dramatically changed my life. It was an invitation to serve at Bethel, as the branch facilities of Jehovah’s Witnesses in a country are called. I immediately accepted the invitation—a decision I’ve never regretted. Thus I began what has become a 60-year career in the full-time ministry.
Bethel Service in Troublous Times
At that time the Swiss Bethel was located in the city of Bern, the capital of Switzerland. There we printed books, booklets, and magazines in 14 languages, and these were shipped all over Europe. On occasion, I took the printed literature to the train station by wheelbarrow, since in those days we did not always have a van at our disposal. My first assignment at Bethel was in the Composition Department, where we assembled the lead type from which the printing was done. Soon I began working at the reception desk, and, of course, I also served as the barber for the Bethel family.
In September 1939, World War II broke out, and the Nazi onslaught spread terror throughout Europe. Switzerland was a neutral country in the center of the warring nations. Initially, we continued our Christian activity without interference. Then, on July 5, 1940, at two o’clock in the afternoon, while I was at my desk in the lobby, a civilian appeared, accompanied by a soldier carrying a rifle with a mounted bayonet.
“Where is Zürcher?” the civilian barked. Franz Zürcher at the time was the branch overseer of our preaching work in Switzerland.
“Whom may I announce?” I asked. Immediately they grabbed me and dragged me up the stairs, demanding that I take them to Zürcher’s office.
The entire Bethel family—we were about 40 then—was ordered to assemble in the dining room. Four machine guns were positioned outside the building to discourage anyone from trying to escape. Inside, about 50 soldiers began searching the building. Contrary to expectations, no evidence was found that Jehovah’s Witnesses were involved in promoting resistance to military service. Still, large quantities of literature were confiscated and taken away in five army trucks.
When we refused to allow The Watchtower to be censored by government authorities, its publication was discontinued in Switzerland. This meant that fewer personnel were needed for the work at Bethel, and younger members of the family were encouraged to leave and become pioneers, as Jehovah’s Witnesses who engage in the full-time preaching work are called.
Pioneering During Wartime
In July 1940, I returned to the Italian-speaking area of Switzerland near Lugano, where I had lived before coming to Bethel. This staunch Catholic territory, which by then was also under the strong influence of Fascism, became my pioneer assignment.
Rarely did a day go by without my being stopped by the police who demanded that I give up my preaching activity. One day while I was talking to a woman at a garden gate, a man in civilian clothes grabbed me from behind, led me to a patrol car, and drove me to Lugano. There he handed me over to the police. When I was questioned, I explained that Jehovah God had commanded us to preach.
“Here on earth, we are the ones commanding,” the officer answered presumptuously. “God may command in heaven!”
During the war, it was especially vital that we heed Jesus’ counsel to be “cautious as serpents and yet innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16) Thus, I hid most of my literature in the inside pockets of my shirt. And to be sure that I would not lose anything, I wore knickerbockers that were tightly gathered below the knees.
In time, I received instructions to move to the valley of Engadine, where the cat-and-mouse game with the police continued. This is a beautiful valley in the eastern Swiss Alps, which in wintertime is buried below masses of snow, so I had my skis sent to me to help me get around in the territory.
Warm gloves are vital when traveling by skis during a cold winter. Because of constant use, mine soon began to wear out. How grateful I was one day to receive an altogether unexpected parcel by mail containing a hand-knitted pullover as well as warm gloves! A Christian sister in my former congregation in Bern had made them for me. Even now when I think about it, I am moved with thankfulness.
Many Joyous Privileges
In 1943, conditions in Switzerland began to stabilize, and I was called back to serve at Bethel. Because of certain problems in the French-speaking congregation in Lausanne, about 60 miles [100 km] away, I was assigned to visit that city regularly to help the publishers get a proper view of God’s organization.
Later I served for a time as circuit overseer for all the French congregations in Switzerland. Early in the week, I worked at Bethel, but I spent Friday, Saturday, and Sunday visiting a different congregation each week in an effort to be of spiritual assistance. In addition, when a French-speaking congregation was formed in Bern in 1960, I became its presiding overseer. I served in this capacity until 1970, when Bethel was moved from Bern to its present beautiful location in the town of Thun.
I was happy to find a small group of Italian-speaking Witnesses in Thun, and I began working with them. In time a congregation was formed, and I served as its presiding overseer for a number of years until younger brothers became qualified to shoulder that responsibility.
What I have considered an especially joyous privilege is attending international conventions of Jehovah’s people. For example, in 1950 there was the memorable Theocracy’s Increase Assembly at Yankee Stadium, New York. Visiting the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York, left a lasting impression on me. I will also never forget Brother Milton G. Henschel’s talk the following year at the Clean Worship Assembly in London, England, that highlighted Jesus’ words, “I tell you, If these remained silent, the stones would cry out.” (Luke 19:40) Brother Henschel asked, “Do you think the stones will have to cry out?” I can still hear in my ears the roaring, “No!” that came from tens of thousands of voices.
When I went to Bethel back in 1937, my father, who learned that we received only a small allowance, worriedly asked, “Son, how will you survive in old age?” I answered by quoting the psalmist David’s words: “I have not seen anyone righteous left entirely, nor his offspring looking for bread.” (Psalm 37:25) These words have certainly been fulfilled in my case.
How happy I am that over 80 years ago, Berta Weibel married Father and that by means of her example and guidance I came to know Jehovah and his qualities! Although other members of the family scoffed at her, she faithfully served Jehovah down to the time of her death in 1983. She never expressed regret at having served her God, Jehovah; neither have I ever regretted staying single and devoting my life wholly to Jehovah’s service.
[Picture on page 25]
Working at Bethel