Serving Wherever I Was Needed
AS TOLD BY JAMES B. BERRY
It was 1939. The Great Depression was making life hard in the United States, and war was looming across Europe. My younger brother Bennett and I had traveled from our home in Mississippi to Houston, Texas, in search of work.
ONE day near the end of summer, we heard a dramatic announcement crackling over the radio: Hitler’s armies had marched into Poland. “Armageddon has started!” exclaimed my brother. Immediately, we quit our jobs. We went to the nearest Kingdom Hall and attended our first meeting. Why a Kingdom Hall? Let me start at the beginning.
I was born in Hebron, Mississippi, in 1915. We lived in farm country. The Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then called, came through the area about once a year and arranged for a talk at someone’s home. As a result, my parents had many Bible publications. Bennett and I came to believe what these books taught: Hell is not hot, the soul dies, the righteous will live on earth forever. Still, there was a lot we had yet to learn. Sometime after I finished school, my brother and I headed to Texas in search of work.
When we finally contacted the Witnesses at the Kingdom Hall, they asked if we were pioneers. We had no idea that a pioneer was a full-time minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They then asked us if we would like to preach. “Sure!” we responded. We assumed that they would send someone with us to show us how to go about it. Instead, they just handed us a map and told us, “Work there!” Well, Bennett and I did not know the first thing about how to preach, and we hated the thought of being embarrassed. Finally, we just dropped the territory card in a mailbox and went back to Mississippi!
Making Bible Truth Our Own
After returning home, we read the publications of the Witnesses every day for almost a year. There was no electricity in our home, so at night we read by firelight. In those days zone servants, or traveling overseers, visited congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses and isolated Witnesses to strengthen them spiritually. One of these servants, Ted Klein, visited our congregation and accompanied Bennett and me in the door-to-door preaching work, often taking both of us with him at once. He explained to us what the pioneer work was all about.
Being in his company really got us thinking about doing more to serve God. So it was that on April 18, 1940, Brother Klein baptized Bennett, our sister Velva, and me. Our parents were present at our baptism, and they were happy with our decision. About two years later, they were baptized as well. Both of them remained faithful to God until their deaths—Dad in 1956 and Mama in 1975.
When Brother Klein asked me if I could pioneer, I told him I would like to, but I had no money, no clothes, nothing. “That’s all right,” he said, “I’ll fix that.” And he did. First he sent in my application for pioneering. Then he took me with him to New Orleans, about 200 miles [300 km] away, and showed me some nice apartments above a Kingdom Hall. They were for pioneers. Soon I moved there and began my career as a pioneer. The Witnesses in New Orleans assisted by giving the pioneers clothes, money, and food. During the day, brothers would bring food and leave it at the door or even put it in the refrigerator for us. A brother who owned a restaurant nearby invited us to come regularly at closing time to get fresh food—such as meat, bread, chili, and pies—left over from the day.
Facing Mob Violence
After a time, I was assigned to Jackson, Mississippi, to pioneer. My young partner and I met with some mob violence there, and it seemed that the local law-enforcement agents were backing the mobs! It was similar in our next assignment—Columbus, Mississippi. Since we preached to people of all races and nationalities, certain white people hated us. Many believed that we were guilty of sedition. The post commander of the American Legion, a very patriotic organization, held that view. Several times he incited angry mobs to attack us.
The first time that we were attacked in Columbus, a mob came after us while we were offering magazines on the street. They backed us against a plate-glass store window. A crowd gathered to see what was happening. Soon the police arrived and took us down to the courthouse. The mob, having followed us to the courthouse, announced in front of all the officials there that if we left town by a certain date, we could leave with our skin. If we left after that date, it would be without our skin! We thought it best to leave town for a time. But a few weeks later, we returned and resumed preaching.
Not long afterward, a gang of eight men came upon us and forced us into their two cars. They drove us into the woods, stripped us of our clothes, and gave us each 30 lashes with my belt! They had guns and even ropes, and I must say that we were scared. I thought that they were going to tie us up and throw us into the river. They tore up our literature and scattered it and even smashed our phonograph to pieces over a tree stump.
After whipping us, they told us to put on our clothes and walk down a path in the woods without looking back. As we walked, we really thought that if we dared to turn around, they would shoot us to death—and get away with it! But after a few minutes, we heard them drive away.
On another occasion, an angry mob chased us, and we had to tie our clothes around our necks and swim a river in order to escape. Not long after that, we were arrested on charges of sedition. We spent three weeks in jail before the trial took place. The event was well advertised in Columbus. The students of a nearby college were even allowed to leave class early in order to attend. When the day came, the courthouse was packed—standing room only! Those testifying for the State included two preachers, the mayor, and the police.
A Witness lawyer named G. C. Clarke and his companion were sent to represent us. They asked that the charges of sedition be dismissed for lack of evidence. The lawyer working with Brother Clarke, although not one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, made powerful statements on our behalf. At one point he told the judge, “People say that Jehovah’s Witnesses are crazy. Crazy? Thomas Edison was crazy!” Then he pointed to a light fixture and said, “But look at that light bulb!” Edison, who invented the light bulb, may have been considered crazy by some, but no one could argue with his achievements.
After hearing the testimony, the presiding circuit court judge announced to the prosecutor: “You don’t have a shred of evidence of sedition, and they have a right to do this work. Do not bring them back into this courtroom and waste the State’s time and money as well as my time until you have evidence!” Victory for us!
Afterward, though, the judge called us into his chambers. He knew that the whole town was against his decision. So he warned us: “What I said was according to the law, but my personal advice to both of you is: Get out of here, or they will kill you!” We knew he was right, so we left town.
From there I joined Bennett and Velva, who were serving in Clarksville, Tennessee, as special pioneers. After a few months, we were assigned to Paris, Kentucky. A year and a half later, we were just about ready to form a congregation there when Bennett and I received a very special invitation.
To Missionary Service
When we saw the invitation to attend the second class of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead, we thought, ‘They made a mistake! Why would they invite two simple, young Mississippi boys to that school?’ We had imagined that they wanted educated people, but we went anyway. There were 100 students in the class, and the course lasted five months. Graduation was on January 31, 1944, and we were eager to serve in a foreign field. But in those days, passport and visa documentation took much time, so students were temporarily assigned to the United States. After serving for a while as pioneers in Alabama and Georgia, Bennett and I finally received our assignment—Barbados, West Indies.
World War II was still in progress, and the work and literature of Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned in many places, including Barbados. At customs there, the officials opened and inspected our luggage and found the literature we had hidden in it. We thought, ‘We are finished.’ Instead, one official simply told us: “We’re sorry we had to go through your luggage; some of this literature is banned in Barbados.” Still, he let us through with every piece of literature we had packed! Later, when we witnessed to government officials, they said that they did not know why the literature had been banned. After some months, the ban was lifted.
We had much success in the ministry in Barbados. We conducted at least 15 Bible studies each, and most of the students progressed spiritually. We were happy to see some coming to congregation meetings. However, because the literature had been banned for some time, the brothers there lacked current understanding of how meetings were to be conducted. Soon, though, we were able to train a number of capable brothers. We had the pleasure of helping many of our students start out in the Christian ministry and of seeing the congregation grow.
Raising a Family
After about 18 months in Barbados, I needed surgery and had to return to the United States. While there, I married a Witness named Dorothy with whom I had been corresponding. My wife and I then pioneered in Tallahassee, Florida, but after six months we moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where a Witness had offered me a job. My brother Bennett continued his service in Barbados for many years. He later married a fellow missionary and served in the traveling work in the islands. Eventually, they had to return to the United States for health reasons. They continued serving Spanish-speaking congregations in the traveling work until Bennett’s death in 1990 at the age of 73.
In 1950, Dorothy gave birth to our first child, a baby girl we named Daryl. We eventually had five children. Our second, Derrick, died at just two and a half years of age from spinal meningitis. But Leslie came along in 1956, and Everett followed in 1958. Dorothy and I endeavored to raise our children in the way of Bible truth. We always tried to have a weekly family Bible study program and to make it interesting for all the children. When Daryl, Leslie, and Everett were still young, we gave them questions each week to research and answer the following week. They also acted out preaching from house to house. One went in the closet and pretended to be a householder. The other stood outside and knocked. They used comical lines to intimidate each other, but this helped them to develop a love for the preaching work. We also preached with them regularly.
When our youngest son, Elton, came along in 1973, Dorothy was almost 50 and I was near 60. In the congregation, they called us Abraham and Sarah! (Genesis 17:15-17) The older boys often took Elton out in the ministry with them. We felt that it was a powerful witness for people to see families—brothers and sisters, parents and children—working together, sharing Bible truths with others. Elton’s older brothers took turns carrying him on their shoulders and put a Bible tract in his hand. People almost always listened when they opened the door and saw this cute little lad on his big brother’s shoulders. The boys taught Elton to hand the tract to the person when the conversation was over and to say a few words. That was how he started preaching.
Over the years, we have been able to help others to come to know Jehovah. In the late 1970’s, we moved from Louisville to Shelbyville, Kentucky, to serve in a congregation where there was a need. While there, we not only saw growth in the congregation but also assisted in finding land and building a Kingdom Hall. Later we were asked to serve in another congregation not far away.
Uncertainties of Family Life
I would like to say that all our children stayed in Jehovah’s way, but that was not the case. After they grew up and moved away from home, three of our four surviving children left the way of the truth. However, our son Everett followed my example and entered the full-time ministry. He later served at the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in New York and in 1984 was invited to attend the 77th class of Gilead. After graduating, he went to his assignment in Sierra Leone, West Africa. In 1988 he married Marianne, a pioneer from Belgium. They have served together as missionaries since then.
As any parent can imagine, it was disheartening for us to see three of our children give up a way of life that is satisfying now and holds the beautiful hope of everlasting life on a paradise earth in the future. At times I blamed myself. But I found comfort in knowing that even some of Jehovah’s own spirit offspring, or angels, left off serving him—although Jehovah disciplines in love and kindness and never makes mistakes. (Deuteronomy 32:4; John 8:44; Revelation 12:4, 9) This has impressed upon me that as hard as parents may try to rear their children in the way of Jehovah, some may nonetheless refuse to accept the truth.
Like a tree that gets blown by strong winds, we have to bend to the different hardships and problems that come our way. Over the years, I have found that regular Bible study and meeting attendance give me that strength to bend and to survive spiritually. As I grow older and see the mistakes I made in the past, I try to look on the bright side. After all, if we just stay faithful, such experiences only add to our spiritual development. If we learn from them, the negative aspects of life can have certain positive aspects.—James 1:2, 3.
Now Dorothy and I no longer have the health or strength to do what we would like to do in Jehovah’s service. But we are grateful for the support of our dear Christian brothers and sisters. At nearly every meeting, the brothers tell us how much they appreciate our being there. And they extend themselves to help us in any way possible—even with repairs on the house and car.
Once in a while, we are able to engage in the auxiliary pioneer service, and we conduct studies with interested ones. A special treat that we always enjoy is receiving news from our son serving in Africa. We still have our family Bible study, even though it is just for the two of us now. We are happy to have devoted so many years to Jehovah’s service. He assures us that he will not ‘forget our work and the love we showed for his name.’—Hebrews 6:10.
[Picture on page 25]
Velva, Bennett, and me being baptized by Ted Klein on April 18, 1940
[Pictures on page 26]
With my wife, Dorothy, in the early 1940’s and in 1997
[Picture on page 27]
The public address, “The Prince of Peace,” being advertised on a city bus in Barbados
[Picture on page 27]
My brother Bennett in front of the missionary home