Jehovah Has Provided “Power Beyond What Is Normal”
AS TOLD BY HELEN MARKS
It was a sultry summer day in 1986. I was the only one waiting in the customs shed in one of Europe’s sleepiest airports. This was Tiranë, the capital of Albania, which had proclaimed itself “the first atheist state in the world.”
WITH mixed feelings of uncertainty and trepidation, I watched as an armed officer began searching my luggage. If I did or said anything to make him suspicious, the result could be expulsion from the country for me and prison or labor camp for the people waiting for me outside. Happily, I was able to encourage the officer to be more friendly by offering him some chewing gum and cookies. But how did I, a woman in her mid-60’s, end up in this situation? Why would I forfeit a comfortable life and risk trying to further Kingdom interests in one of the last strongholds of Marxism-Leninism?
A Sickly Girl Full of Questions
Two years after my birth in 1920 in Ierápetra, Crete, my father died of pneumonia. Mother was poor and illiterate. I was the youngest of four children, and since I suffered from jaundice, I was pale and sickly. Neighbors suggested that my mother devote her attention and limited resources to the three healthier children and let me die. I am glad that she did not follow that advice.
To ensure that Father’s soul was resting in heaven, Mother visited the cemetery often, usually employing the services of an Orthodox priest. Those services, though, did not come cheap. I still remember a bitterly cold Christmas day when she returned home from the cemetery with me shuffling along beside her. We had just given the last of our money to the priest. After Mother cooked some greens for us children, she retired to another room, her stomach empty and her cheeks stained with tears of despair. Sometime later, I mustered up the courage to go to the priest and ask why Father had died and why my poor mother had to pay the priest. He responded in a sheepish whisper: “God took him. That’s how it is. You’ll get over it.”
It was hard for me to reconcile his answer with the Lord’s prayer, which I had learned in school. I still remember its beautiful and meaningful opening words: “Our Father in the heavens, let your name be sanctified. Let your kingdom come. Let your will take place, as in heaven, also upon earth.” (Matthew 6:9, 10) If God meant for his will to be done on earth, why did we have to suffer so much?
I almost got the answer to that question when, in 1929, Emmanuel Lionoudakis, a full-time preacher of Jehovah’s Witnesses, visited our home.* When my mother asked him what he wanted, Emmanuel did not say a word but handed her a testimony card. She gave me the card to read. Since I was only nine years old, I understood little. Taking the visiting preacher for mute, my mother replied: “Poor thing! You cannot speak, and I cannot read.” Then she kindly showed him the door.
A few years later, I did find the answer. My brother, Emmanuel Paterakis, received from the same full-time minister the booklet Where Are the Dead?, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.* Reading it, I was relieved to learn that my father had not been taken by God. I realized that death is the result of human imperfection and that my father is awaiting a resurrection to life on a paradise earth.
“This Book Has Destroyed You!”
Bible truth opened our eyes. We found an old Bible that had belonged to Father and started studying it, often by candlelight around the fireplace. Since I was the only young woman in the area who had taken an interest in the Bible, I was not included in the activities of the small local group of Witnesses. For a time, I seriously—though incorrectly—believed that this religion was only for males.
My brother’s enthusiasm for the preaching work was a source of inspiration to me. It was not long before the police began to take an interest in our family, paying us regular visits at all hours of the day and night to search for Emmanuel and for literature. I vividly remember when a priest came to convince us to return to church. When Emmanuel showed him from the Bible that God’s name is Jehovah, the priest grabbed the Bible, waved it menacingly before my brother’s face, and shouted, “This book has destroyed you!”
In 1940 when Emmanuel refused to serve in the army, he was arrested and sent to the Albanian front. We lost contact with him and thought that he was dead. Two years later, however, we unexpectedly received a letter from him sent from prison. He was alive and well! One of the scriptures he cited in that letter has been indelibly fixed in my mind ever since: “As regards Jehovah, his eyes are roving about through all the earth to show his strength in behalf of those whose heart is complete toward him.” (2 Chronicles 16:9) How greatly we needed such encouragement!
From his prison, Emmanuel was able to ask some brothers to visit me. Immediately, secret Christian meetings were arranged to be held in a farmhouse outside the town. Little did we know that we were being watched! One Sunday, armed policemen surrounded us. They loaded us into an open truck and paraded us through the town. I can still hear people deriding and scorning us, but Jehovah through his spirit gave us inner peace.
We were transferred to another town, where they threw us into some very dark and dirty cells. The toilet of my cell was an open bucket that was emptied once a day. I was sentenced to eight months in prison because I was considered to be the “teacher” of the group. However, a brother who was imprisoned there arranged for his lawyer to take up our case, and he was able to bring about our release.
A New Life
When Emmanuel was freed from prison, he started visiting congregations in Athens as a traveling overseer. I moved there in 1947. At last, I met a large group of Witnesses—not only men but women and children too. Finally, in July 1947, I was able to symbolize my dedication to Jehovah by water baptism. I often dreamed about becoming a missionary and started attending evening school to learn English. In 1950, I became a pioneer. Mother came to live with me, and she too embraced the Bible’s truth. She remained one of Jehovah’s Witnesses until her death 34 years later.
In that same year, I met John Marks (Markopoulos), a well-respected, spiritual man from the United States. John was born in southern Albania, and after immigrating to the United States, he became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In 1950 he was in Greece trying to obtain a visa for Albania—by then a closed country under the strictest form of Communism. Although John had not seen his family since 1936, he was not permitted to enter Albania. I was touched by his fiery zeal for Jehovah’s service and his deep love for the brotherhood. We were married on April 3, 1953. Then I moved with him to our new home in New Jersey, U.S.A.
In order to support ourselves while preaching full-time, John and I had a small business at the New Jersey shore, preparing breakfast for fishermen. We worked only during the summer months, from dawn till 9:00 a.m. By keeping our life simple and our priorities focused on spiritual activities, we were able to spend most of our time in the preaching work. Over the years, we were asked to move to various towns where the need for preachers was great. There, with Jehovah’s help, we assisted interested ones, established congregations, and helped construct Kingdom Halls.
Assisting Our Brothers in Need
Soon, however, an exciting prospect opened up for us. Responsible brothers wanted to establish communications with fellow Christians living in Balkan lands where our activities were under ban. For years Jehovah’s Witnesses in those countries had been cut off from the international brotherhood, receiving little or no spiritual food, and they faced cruel opposition. Most of them were under constant surveillance, and many were in prison or labor camps. They urgently needed Bible-based publications, direction, and encouragement. For example, one coded message we received from Albania read: “Pray to the Lord for us. Seizure of literature house to house. They do not allow us to study. Three persons interned.”
Thus, in November 1960 we started a six-month-long trip to visit some of those countries. It was obvious that we would need “power beyond what is normal,” God-given courage, boldness, and ingenuity to accomplish our mission. (2 Corinthians 4:7) Our first destination was Albania. We bought a car in Paris and set off. After we reached Rome, only John was able to obtain a visa for Albania. I had to proceed to Athens, Greece, and wait for him.
John entered Albania late February 1961 and stayed there until the end of March. In Tiranë he met in person with 30 brothers. How thrilled they were to get much-needed literature and encouragement! They had not received a visit from outside for 24 years.
John was moved by the integrity and endurance of those brothers. He learned that many had lost their jobs and were interned because they did not participate in the activities of the Communist state. He was particularly touched when two brothers in their 80’s gave him a donation of about 100 dollars (U.S.) for the preaching work. They had been saving for years from their meager state pensions.
The last day of John’s stay in Albania was March 30, 1961—the date of the Memorial of Jesus’ death. John gave the Memorial talk to an audience of 37. At the end of the talk, the brothers quickly rushed John out the back door and drove him to the port of Durrës, where he boarded a Turkish merchant ship heading for Piraiévs (Piraeus), Greece.
I was happy to have him back safe and sound. Now we could embark on the rest of our hazardous voyage. Our trip took us through three other Balkan countries that had banned our work—a risky venture, since we carried Bible literature, typewriters, and other supplies. We were privileged to meet some very loyal brothers and sisters who were ready to risk their jobs, their freedom, and even their lives for Jehovah. Their zeal and genuine love were a source of inspiration. We were also impressed that Jehovah supplied “the power beyond what is normal.”
After the successful completion of our journey, we returned to the United States. In the years that followed, we continued using various ways to try to send literature to Albania and to receive reports of our brothers’ activities.
In Journeys Often, in Dangers
The years passed, and John’s death in 1981, when he was 76, left me alone. My niece, Evangelia, and her husband, George Orphanides, kindly took me in, and they have provided valuable emotional and practical support ever since. They themselves had witnessed Jehovah’s support while serving under ban in Sudan.*
Eventually, a new effort was to be made to communicate with our brothers in Albania. Since my husband’s relatives lived there, I was asked whether I would be willing to make a trip into that country. Of course I would!
After months of persistent efforts, in May 1986, I was able to obtain a visa from the Albanian embassy in Athens. Diplomatic staff members sternly warned me that if anything went wrong, I could not expect any help from the outside world. When I approached a travel agent to buy air tickets for Albania, he was dumbfounded. Without letting fear stop me, I was soon aboard the sole weekly plane from Athens to Tiranë. Only three very old Albanians were on the same plane; they had been in Greece for medical reasons.
As soon as the plane landed, I was ushered into an empty shed that served as a customs office. My husband’s brother and sister, although not Jehovah’s Witnesses, were willing to help me establish contact with the few local brothers. By law, they had to inform the head of the community about my arrival. As a result, I was very closely watched by the police. Thus, my relatives suggested that I stay in their home while they searched for two of the brothers who lived in Tiranë and brought them to me.
At that time, nine dedicated brothers were known to be in all of Albania. Years of ban, persecution, and close surveillance had made them very cautious. Deep lines marked their faces. After I gained the confidence of the two brothers, their first question was: “Where are The Watchtowers?” For years they had only two copies of older books—not even a Bible.
They spoke at length about the cruel measures the regime had taken against them. They mentioned the case of a dear brother who was determined to remain politically neutral in an upcoming vote. Since the State controlled everything, this meant that his family would not receive any food rations. His married children and their families would all be sent to prison, although they had nothing to do with his religious beliefs. It was reported that members of this brother’s family, because of fear, killed him the night before the vote, dumped his body in a well, and later claimed that he got scared and killed himself.
The poverty of those fellow Christians was heartrending. Yet, when I tried to give each of them a 20-dollar bill, they declined, saying, “We want only spiritual food.” These dear brothers had lived for decades under a totalitarian regime that had successfully indoctrinated the majority of the population to become atheists. But their faith and determination were as strong as that of Witnesses elsewhere. Jehovah’s ability to provide “power beyond what is normal,” even under the most difficult of circumstances, had been truly impressed on me by the time I left Albania two weeks later.
I also had the privilege of visiting Albania in 1989 and again in 1991. As freedom of speech and religion gradually blossomed in that country, the number of worshipers of Jehovah increased rapidly. The handful of dedicated Christians who were there in 1986 has now grown to more than 2,200 active publishers. Among them was Melpo, my husband’s sister. Can there be any doubt that Jehovah’s blessing was on that faithful group?
With Jehovah’s Power, a Full Life
When I look back, I am confident that our work—John’s and mine—has not been in vain. We used our youthful strength in the most beneficial way. Our career in the full-time ministry has been more meaningful than any other that we could have pursued. I rejoice over the many dear ones whom we have helped to learn Bible truth. Now advanced in age, I can wholeheartedly encourage younger ones to ‘remember their Grand Creator in the days of their youth.’—Ecclesiastes 12:1.
Despite being 81 years of age, I am still able to serve as a full-time publisher of the good news. I get up early and witness to people at bus stops, in parking lots, on the street, in shops, or in parks. The problems of old age now make life difficult, but my loving spiritual brothers and sisters—my large spiritual family—as well as the family of my niece, have proved to be a real support. Above all, I have learned that “the power beyond what is normal [is] God’s and not that out of ourselves.”—2 Corinthians 4:7.
For the life story of Emmanuel Lionoudakis, see The Watchtower, September 1, 1999, pages 25-9.
For the life story of Emmanuel Paterakis, see The Watchtower, November 1, 1996, pages 22-7.
See 1992 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, pages 91-2, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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Above: John (far left), me (center), with my brother Emmanuel to my left and our mother to his left, with a group of Bethelites, Athens, 1950
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Left: With John at our business at the New Jersey shore, 1956
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District convention in Tiranë, Albania, 1995
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Bethel complex, Tiranë, Albania. Completed 1996
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Above: article from a 1940 “Watchtower” secretly translated into Albanian
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With my niece, Evangelia Orphanides (right), and her husband, George