A Change of Assignment at 80
AS TOLD BY GWENDOLINE MATTHEWS
When I reached 80, my husband and I decided to pack all our possessions into a rented van and move from England to Spain. We did not speak Spanish, and we were going to southwest Spain, far from the haunts of English-speaking tourists. Most of our friends thought we were crazy, but I cheerfully reminded myself that Abraham was 75 when he left Ur.
AS IT turned out, our years in Spain since we arrived here in April 1992 have been some of the most rewarding in our lives. But before I explain why we moved, let me tell you how our lifetime in Jehovah’s service led us to make such a big decision.
Bible Truth Changes Our Lives
I was brought up in a religious home in southwest London, England. Mother used to take my sister and me to different places of worship as she kept searching for spiritual satisfaction. My father, who was chronically sick with tuberculosis, did not accompany us. But he was an avid reader of the Bible, and he underlined it every time he found a passage that enlightened him. One of my most treasured possessions is that well-worn Bible that meant so much to him.
In 1925, when I was 14, a tract was put under our door that invited us to a public lecture in West Ham town hall. My mother and a neighbor decided to attend the talk, and my sister and I accompanied them. That talk, “Millions Now Living Will Never Die,” sowed the seeds of Bible truth in Mother’s heart.
A few months later, Father passed away at the age of 38. His death was a terrible blow, since it left us heartbroken as well as destitute. At the memorial service, held at the local Church of England, Mother was shocked to hear the priest claim that Father’s soul was in heaven. She knew from the Bible that the dead are sleeping in the grave, and she firmly believed that some day Father would be resurrected to everlasting life on the earth. (Psalm 37:9-11, 29; 146:3, 4; Ecclesiastes 9:5; Acts 24:15; Revelation 21:3, 4) Convinced that she had to associate with people who taught God’s Word, she resolved to cultivate her acquaintance with the International Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then called.
Since we had no money for transportation, every week we walked for two hours from our home to the meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Afterward, we spent another two hours trudging home. But we valued those meetings immensely, and we never missed one, even when the notorious London fog enshrouded the city. Mother soon decided to dedicate her life to Jehovah and get baptized, and in 1927, I also got baptized.
Despite our economic difficulties, Mother always taught me the importance of spiritual priorities. Matthew 6:33 was one of her favorite texts, and she really did ‘seek first the kingdom.’ When she died prematurely of cancer in 1935, she was making plans to answer the call for full-time ministers who could move to France to serve.
Examples That Strengthened Us
In those early years, some in attendance at the meetings in London wanted to proclaim their own ideas, and these people sparked quarrels and harsh outbursts. Yet, Mother always said that it would be disloyal to abandon Jehovah’s organization after all that we had learned from it. Visits by Joseph F. Rutherford, then president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, stimulated us to continue serving loyally.
I remember Brother Rutherford as a kind, approachable man. When I was still a teenager, the London Congregation had an outing at which he was present. He spotted me—a somewhat bashful teenager—with a camera and asked if I would like to take a photo of him. That photo became a cherished memento.
Later on, an experience impressed on me the contrast between those taking the lead in the Christian congregation and prominent men of the world. I was serving as parlormaid in a large London house to which Franz von Papen, one of Hitler’s emissaries, had been invited for a luncheon. He refused to take off his dress sword while eating, and I tripped over it and spilled the soup I was carrying. He angrily remarked that in Germany such carelessness would lead to my being shot. For the rest of the meal, I gave him a wide berth!
A momentous convention, where I heard Brother Rutherford speak, was held in Alexandra Palace in 1931. There we enthusiastically adopted our new name, Jehovah’s Witnesses. (Isaiah 43:10, 12) Two years later, in 1933, I entered the pioneer service, as the full-time ministry is called. Another blessing I remember from those years was that of being able to associate with fine young men who later became missionaries in far-flung parts of the earth. These included Claude Goodman, Harold King, John Cooke, and Edwin Skinner. Such faithful examples made me want to serve in a foreign field.
Pioneering in East Anglia
My pioneer assignment was in East Anglia (eastern England), and preaching there required enthusiasm and zeal. To cover our large territory, we traveled on bicycle from town to town and village to village and stayed in rented rooms. There were hardly any congregations in the area, so my partner and I by ourselves discussed together all the parts for the regular weekly meetings. In our ministry, we placed hundreds of books and booklets that explained God’s purposes.
One memorable visit was to a parsonage where we spoke with the local vicar of the Church of England. In most areas, we put off our visit to the Anglican vicar until the last because he often made difficulties for us when he learned that we were preaching the good news in the area. But in this village everyone spoke well of the vicar. He visited the sick, he lent books to those who enjoyed reading, and he even made home visits to his parishioners to explain the Bible to them.
Sure enough, when we visited him, he was extremely friendly, and he accepted a number of books. He also assured us that if anyone in the village wanted to have some of our books but could not afford them, he would cover the cost. We learned that his dreadful experiences in World War I had made him determined to promote peace and goodwill in his parish. Before we left he gave us his blessing and encouraged us to continue our good work. His parting words to us were those of Numbers 6:24: “The Lord bless thee, and keep thee.”—King James Version.
Mother died two years after I began pioneering, and I returned to London with no money and no family. A dear Scottish Witness took me under her wing, helped me cope with the death of Mother, and encouraged me to continue in the full-time ministry. So I returned to East Anglia with Julia Fairfax, a new pioneer partner. We fixed up an old caravan (trailer) to serve as a semimobile home; we used a tractor or a truck to move it from one place to another. Together with an older couple, Albert and Ethel Abbott, who also had a small caravan, we continued preaching. Albert and Ethel became like parents to me.
While pioneering in Cambridgeshire, I met John Matthews, a fine Christian brother who had already proved his integrity to Jehovah under difficult circumstances. We got married in 1940, not long after the start of the second world war.
Wartime and a Family
When we were a newly married couple, our home was a tiny caravan about the size of a small kitchen, and we got around in our ministry on a trusty motorbike. A year after we were married, John was sentenced to work as a farm laborer when because of his Bible-based convictions, he refused to do military service. (Isaiah 2:4) Although this meant an end to our pioneering, John’s sentence proved to be providential since I was expecting a baby and he would be able to support us.
During the war years, we enjoyed the special meetings that were held despite the hardships. In 1941 our motorbike carried John and me, pregnant with our first child, to Manchester, 200 miles [300 km] away. On the way, we passed many bombed-out towns, and we wondered if the meeting could be held under such circumstances. It was. The Free Trade Hall in the center of Manchester was packed with Witnesses from many parts of England, and the whole program was presented.
At the conclusion of his talk, the convention’s final speaker told the audience that they should vacate the premises immediately, as an air raid was expected. The warning was a timely one. We were not far from the hall when we heard sirens and antiaircraft guns. Looking back, we spotted dozens of planes dropping bombs on the city center. In the distance, amid fires and smoke, we could see the hall in which we had recently been sitting; it was completely destroyed! Thankfully, none of our Christian brothers or sisters were killed.
While we reared our children, we were not able to pioneer, but we opened our home to traveling overseers and to pioneers who had no accommodations. At one time, six pioneers stayed in our home for a few months. No doubt the association with such ones was one reason that our daughter Eunice chose to begin pioneering in 1961 when she was just 15. Sad to say, our son, David, did not continue serving Jehovah when he grew up, and our other daughter, Linda, died under tragic circumstances during the war.
Our Decision to Move to Spain
Mother’s example and encouragement had stirred in me the desire to be a missionary, and I never completely lost sight of that goal. Thus, we were delighted when, in 1973, Eunice left England for Spain where the need for Kingdom proclaimers was greater. Of course, we were sad to see her leave, but we were also proud that she wanted to serve in a foreign land.
We visited Eunice over the years, and we got to know Spain well. In fact, John and I visited her in four of her different assignments. Then, as the years went by, our strength began to fail. John had a fall that seriously affected his health, and I had heart and thyroid problems. Besides, we both suffered from arthritis. Although we really needed Eunice’s help, we did not want her to leave her assignment for our sake.
We discussed our options with Eunice, and we prayed for guidance. She was willing to come home to assist us, but we decided that the best solution would be for John and me to live with her in Spain. If I could not be a missionary myself, at least I could support my daughter and her two pioneer companions in the full-time service. By then, John and I considered Nuria and Ana, Eunice’s two pioneer partners of some 15 years, to be our own daughters. And they were happy to have us come to live with them wherever they might be assigned.
Over six years have gone by since we made that decision. Our health has not deteriorated further, and our lives have certainly become more interesting. I still cannot speak much Spanish, but that does not stop me from preaching. John and I feel at home in our small congregation in Extremadura, southwest Spain.
Living in Spain has taught me a lot about the international nature of our Kingdom preaching work, and I now understand much more clearly how, as Jesus Christ said, “the field is the world.”—Matthew 13:38.
[Pictures on page 28]
Pioneering in the 1930’s