“Your Loving-Kindness Is Better Than Life”
As told by Calvin H. Holmes
It was December of 1930, and I had just finished milking the cows when Dad came home from visiting a nearby neighbor. “This is a book Wyman lent me,” he said as he pulled a blue publication out of his pocket. It was entitled Deliverance, published by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. Dad, who rarely read anything, read that book late into the night.
LATER, Dad borrowed other books, with such titles as Light and Reconciliation, by the same publishers. He found Mother’s old Bible and stayed up late at night to read in the light of a kerosene lamp. A great change came over Dad. That winter he talked for hours to us—my mother, my three sisters, and me—as we huddled around our old wood-burning stove.
Dad said that the people publishing these books were called Bible Students and that, according to them, we were living in “the last days.” (2 Timothy 3:1-5) He explained that the earth would not be destroyed at the end of the world but that under God’s Kingdom it would be turned into a paradise. (2 Peter 3:5-7, 13; Revelation 21:3, 4) That sounded really interesting to me.
Dad began talking to me as we worked together. I remember that we were husking corn when he explained that God’s name is Jehovah. (Psalm 83:18) Thus, during the spring of 1931, when I was only 14, I took my stand for Jehovah and his Kingdom. I prayed to Jehovah in the old apple orchard behind the house and solemnly promised that I would serve him forever. My heart was already moved by the loving-kindness of our wonderful God.—Psalm 63:3.
We lived on a farm about 20 miles [30 km] from St. Joseph, Missouri, U.S.A., and less than 40 miles [65 km] from Kansas City. Dad was born in a log cabin that my great-grandfather had built on the farm in the early part of the 19th century.
Training for the Ministry
In the summer of 1931, our family heard on the radio the public talk “The Kingdom, the Hope of the World,” which Joseph Rutherford, then president of the Watch Tower Society, gave at a convention in Columbus, Ohio. It stirred my heart, and I was glad to share with Dad in distributing among our acquaintances the booklet that contained this important public address.
In the spring of 1932, I attended my first meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Our neighbor invited Dad and me to hear a talk in St. Joseph by George Draper, a traveling overseer of Jehovah’s Witnesses. When we arrived, the meeting was half over, and I found a place to sit behind the sturdy, broad back of J. D. Dreyer, who was to play an important role in my life.
In September 1933, I attended an assembly with Dad in Kansas City, where I first shared in public preaching. Dad gave me three booklets and instructed me to say: “I am one of Jehovah’s Witnesses preaching the good news of God’s Kingdom. No doubt you have heard Judge Rutherford over the radio. His talks are broadcast by more than 300 stations each week.” Then I offered a booklet. That evening, as I milked the cows back on the farm, I thought that this had been the most memorable day of my life.
Soon winter set in, and travel for us was limited. But then Brother Dreyer and his wife visited and asked if I would like to come to their home on Saturday evening and stay overnight. The six-mile [10 km] walk to the Dreyer home was well worth the effort because I was able to accompany them in the ministry the following day and attend the Watchtower Study in St. Joseph. Since then, I have seldom missed sharing in the ministry on Sundays. Brother Dreyer’s training and counsel proved invaluable.
On September 2, 1935, I was finally able to symbolize my dedication to Jehovah by water baptism at an assembly in Kansas City.
Beginning of a Lifelong Career
Early in 1936, I applied to serve as a pioneer, or full-time minister, and I was put on the list of those looking for a pioneer partner. Shortly thereafter I received a letter from Edward Stead of Arvada, Wyoming. He explained that he was confined to a wheelchair and needed help to pioneer. I immediately accepted his offer and was appointed a pioneer on April 18, 1936.
Before I left to join Brother Stead, my mother spoke to me alone. “Son, are you sure this is what you want to do?” she asked.
“Life would not be worth living otherwise,” I replied. I had come to appreciate that Jehovah’s loving-kindness is more important than anything else.
Pioneering with Ted, as we called Brother Stead, was excellent training. He was filled with zeal and had a very appealing way of presenting the Kingdom message. But about all Ted could do was write and talk; all his joints were locked by rheumatoid arthritis. I would get up early and wash and shave him, prepare breakfast, and feed him. Then I would dress him and get him ready for service. That summer we pioneered in Wyoming and Montana, camping out at night. Ted slept in the special cab built on his pickup truck, and I slept on the ground. Later that year I moved south to pioneer in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi.
In September 1937, I attended my first big convention in Columbus, Ohio. There arrangements were made to spearhead the preaching work with the use of the phonograph. We called each time we used the phonograph a setup. One month I had over 500 setups, and more than 800 people listened. After witnessing in many towns of eastern Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, I was invited to serve as a special pioneer in a new capacity, working in conjunction with the zone servant, as traveling overseers were then called.
I visited congregations and isolated groups in West Virginia—spending two to four weeks with each one—and took the lead in the field ministry. Then, in January 1941, I was appointed a zone servant. By then Mother and my three sisters—Clara, Lois, and Ruth—had taken their stand for the Kingdom. So our whole family attended the big convention in St. Louis together that summer.
Shortly after the convention, zone servants were notified that zone work would terminate at the end of November 1941. The following month the United States entered World War II. I was assigned to the special pioneer service, which required spending 175 hours a month in the ministry.
Special Privileges of Service
In July 1942, I received a letter that asked whether I would be willing to serve abroad. After responding in the affirmative, I was invited to Bethel, the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses, in Brooklyn, New York. About 20 single brothers were called in for special training at the same time.
Nathan H. Knorr, then president of the Watch Tower Society, explained that the preaching activity had fallen off and that we would be trained to strengthen congregations spiritually. “We don’t want to know only what’s wrong in the congregation,” he said, “but what you did about it.”
While we were at Bethel, Fred Franz, who succeeded Brother Knorr as president in 1977, gave a talk in which he said: “World War II will end, and a great preaching work will open up. No doubt millions will yet be gathered into Jehovah’s organization!” That talk completely changed my outlook. When assignments were made, I learned I was to visit all the congregations in the states of Tennessee and Kentucky. We were called servants to the brethren, an identification since changed to circuit overseer.
I started serving congregations on October 1, 1942, when I was still only 25. At that time the only way to reach some congregations was by foot or by horseback. Sometimes I slept in the same room as the family who put me up.
When I was serving the Greeneville Congregation in Tennessee in July 1943, I received an invitation to attend the second class of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead. At Gilead, I learned what it really means “to pay more than the usual attention to the things heard” and always to have “plenty to do in the work of the Lord.” (Hebrews 2:1; 1 Corinthians 15:58) The five months of the school course flew by quickly, and graduation day came on January 31, 1944.
Canada and On to Belgium
A number of us were assigned to Canada, where a ban had recently been lifted on the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was assigned to the traveling work, which required covering great distances between some congregations. As I traveled, it was a joy to hear experiences about how our preaching work had been carried on during the ban in Canada. (Acts 5:29) Many told about the so-called blitz when during a single night, a booklet was placed in practically every home from one end of Canada to the other. What good news it was to learn in May 1945 that the war in Europe was over!
That summer, while serving a congregation in the small town of Osage, Saskatchewan, I received a letter from Brother Knorr, which read: “I am extending to you the privilege of going to Belgium. . . . There is much work to be done in that land. It’s a war-torn country, and our brethren need help, and it seems well to send someone from America to give them the proper aid and comfort they need.” I replied immediately, accepting the assignment.
In November 1945, I was in Brooklyn Bethel studying French with Charles Eicher, an elderly Alsatian brother. I also received some rapid training in branch procedure. Before leaving for Europe, I paid a brief visit to my family and friends in St. Joseph, Missouri.
On December 11, I left New York on the Queen Elizabeth, and four days later I arrived in Southampton, England. I stayed a month at the Britain branch, where I received additional training. After that, on January 15, 1946, I crossed the English Channel and disembarked at Ostend, Belgium. From there I went by train to Brussels, where the entire Bethel family met me at the railway station.
Stepped-Up Postwar Activity
My assignment was to oversee the Kingdom work in Belgium, yet I couldn’t even speak the language. In about six months, I knew enough French to get by. It was a privilege to work alongside ones who had risked their lives to carry on the preaching work during five years of Nazi occupation. Some of them had recently been released from concentration camps.
The brothers were eager to get the work organized and to feed those hungering for Bible truth. So arrangements were made to hold assemblies and for traveling overseers to visit congregations. We also had encouraging visits from Nathan Knorr, Milton Henschel, Fred Franz, Grant Suiter, and John Booth—all representatives from Brooklyn headquarters. In those early days, I served as circuit overseer, district overseer, and branch overseer. On December 6, 1952, after nearly seven years of service in Belgium, I married Emilia Vanopslaugh, who also worked in the Belgium branch.
A few months later, on April 11, 1953, I was summoned to the local police station and informed that my presence was dangerous to the security of Belgium. I went to Luxembourg to wait while an appeal of my case was made to the Council of State.
In February 1954 the Belgium Council of State upheld the decree that my presence was a danger to the country. The evidence provided was that since my arrival in Belgium, the number of Witnesses in the country had increased dramatically—from 804 in 1946 to 3,304 in 1953—and that, as a result, the security of Belgium was threatened because many young Witnesses were taking a firm stand for Christian neutrality. Thus, Emilia and I were assigned to Switzerland, where we began serving in the circuit work in the French-speaking section.
The Kingdom Ministry School—a school to provide advanced training for Christian elders—was established in 1959 at South Lansing, New York. I was invited there to receive training to teach classes of this school in Europe. While I was in the United States, I visited my family in St. Joseph, Missouri. There I saw my dear mother for the last time. She died in January 1962; Dad had passed away in June 1955.
The Kingdom Ministry School in Paris, France, began in March 1961, and Emilia accompanied me. District overseers, circuit overseers, congregation overseers, and special pioneers came for the school from France, Belgium, and Switzerland. During the next 14 months, I conducted 12 classes of this four-week course. Subsequently, in April 1962, we learned that Emilia was pregnant.
Adjusting to Circumstances
We returned to Geneva, Switzerland, where we had permanent resident permits. However, it was not easy to find a place to live, for there was a severe housing shortage. Finding employment was not easy either. Finally I got a job in a big department store in the center of Geneva.
I had spent 26 years in the full-time ministry, so our changed circumstances required quite an adjustment. During the 22 years that I worked in the department store and helped rear our two daughters, Lois and Eunice, our family always put Kingdom interests first. (Matthew 6:33) After my retirement from secular work in 1985, I began serving as a substitute circuit overseer.
Emilia’s health has been very poor, but she does what she can in the ministry. Lois served as a pioneer for about ten years. What a spiritual highlight it was to be able to enjoy with her that most wonderful international convention in Moscow during the summer of 1993! Shortly afterward, on a vacation trip in Senegal, Africa, Lois lost her life while swimming in the ocean. The love and kindness of our African brothers and the missionaries was a great comfort to me when I traveled to Senegal to care for the burial. How I long to see Lois in the resurrection!—John 5:28, 29.
I am grateful to have enjoyed for well over four decades the loyal support of a loving companion. Indeed, despite my heartaches and troubles, Jehovah’s loving-kindness has been sweet and has made life worth living. My heart is moved to proclaim regarding our God, Jehovah, in the words of the psalmist: “Because your loving-kindness is better than life, my own lips will commend you.”—Psalm 63:3.
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We spearheaded the preaching work with the phonograph
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My parents in 1936
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Street witnessing in Belgium in 1948