Serving With a Spirit of Self-Sacrifice
AS TOLD BY DON RENDELL
My mother died in 1927 when I was only five years old. Yet, her faith greatly influenced my life. How was that possible?
MY MOTHER was a staunch member of the Church of England when she married my father, a professional soldier. That was before World War I. World War I broke out in 1914, and Mother took issue with her vicar for using his pulpit as an army recruiting platform. The clergyman’s reply? “Go home, and don’t bother yourself about such questions!” That did not satisfy her.
In 1917, at the height of the war, Mother went to see the “Photo-Drama of Creation.” Convinced that she had found the truth, she immediately left her church to associate with the Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known. She attended meetings with a congregation in Yeovil, the nearest town to our village of West Coker, in the English county of Somerset.
Mother soon shared her newly found faith with her three sisters. Older members of the Yeovil congregation have described to me how my mother and her sister Millie zealously cycled around our extensive rural territory, distributing the Bible study aids Studies in the Scriptures. Sadly, though, for the last 18 months of her life, Mother was confined to bed with tuberculosis, for which there was no cure at that time.
Self-Sacrifice in Practice
Aunt Millie, who was living with us at the time, nursed Mother when she became ill and looked after me and my seven-year-old sister, Joan. When Mother died, Aunt Millie immediately offered to care for us children. Father, glad to be relieved of this responsibility, readily agreed that Aunt Millie should live with us permanently.
We had grown to love our aunt and were happy that she was to remain with us. But why did she make such a decision? Many years later, Aunt Millie told us that she knew she had an obligation to build on the foundation Mother had laid—to teach Bible truth to Joan and me—something she realized our father would never do, as he had no interest in religion.
Subsequently, we also learned that Aunt Millie had made another very personal decision. In order to care for us adequately, she would never marry. Such self-sacrifice! Joan and I have every reason to be deeply grateful to her. All that Aunt Millie taught us and the sterling example she set have remained with us.
A Time of Decision
Joan and I attended the Church of England village school where Aunt Millie took a firm stand with the headmistress regarding our religious education. When the other children marched to church, we went home, and when the vicar came to school to give religious instruction, we sat apart and were given Scripture texts to learn by heart. This stood me in good stead, as these passages remain indelibly fixed in my mind.
I left school at 14 years of age to take a four-year apprenticeship in a local cheese-making factory. I also learned to play the piano, and music and ballroom dancing became my hobbies. Bible truth, although rooted in my heart, had yet to motivate me. Then one day in March 1940, an elderly Witness invited me to accompany her to an assembly at Swindon, some 70 miles [110 km] away. Albert D. Schroeder, the presiding minister for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Britain, gave the public address. That assembly proved to be the turning point for me.
World War II was raging. What was I doing with my life? I decided to go back to the Yeovil Kingdom Hall. At the first meeting I attended, street witnessing was introduced. Despite my limited knowledge, I volunteered to share in this activity, much to the amazement of many so-called friends who mocked me as they walked by!
In June 1940, I was baptized in the city of Bristol. Within a month I enrolled as a regular pioneer—a full-time evangelizer. How happy I was when, a little later, my sister also symbolized her dedication by water baptism!
Pioneering in War Time
A year after the war started, I received papers drafting me into the army. Having registered as a conscientious objector in Yeovil, I had to appear before a tribunal in Bristol. I had joined John Wynn to pioneer in Cinderford, Gloucestershire, and afterward in Haverfordwest and Carmarthen, Wales.* Later, at a court hearing in Carmarthen, I was sentenced to three months in Swansea jail, with an additional fine of £25—a considerable sum of money in those days. Subsequently, I received a second three-month prison term for nonpayment of that fine.
At a third hearing, I was asked: “Don’t you know that the Bible says, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’?” “Yes,” I replied, “I appreciate that, but I would like to finish that verse: ‘and to God the things that are God’s.’ That is what I am doing.” (Matthew 22:21, King James Version) A few weeks later, I received a letter telling me I was free of obligations for military service.
Early in 1945, I was invited to join the London Bethel family. The following winter, Nathan H. Knorr, who took the lead in organizing the worldwide preaching work, and his secretary, Milton G. Henschel, visited London. Eight young brothers from Britain were enrolled in the eighth class of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead for missionary training, and I was among them.
On May 23, 1946, we set sail from the small Cornish port of Fowey on a wartime Liberty ship. The harbormaster, Captain Collins, was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and as we left the quay, he sounded a siren. Naturally, we all had mixed feelings as we saw the English coastline slip away. That Atlantic crossing was extremely rough, but 13 days later we arrived safely in the United States.
Attending the eight-day international Glad Nations Theocratic Assembly at Cleveland, Ohio, from August 4 to 11, 1946, was a memorable experience. Eighty thousand delegates were present, including 302 from 32 other countries. At that convention the magazine Awake!* made its appearance, and the Bible study aid “Let God Be True” was released to the enthusiastic crowd.
We graduated from Gilead in 1947, and Bill Copson and I were assigned to Egypt. But before we left, I had the benefit of some good office training from Richard Abrahamson at Brooklyn Bethel. We disembarked in Alexandria, and I soon acclimatized to the Middle-East life-style. Learning Arabic was a challenge, however, and I had to make use of testimony cards in four languages.
Bill Copson stayed for seven years, but I could not get my visa renewed after the first year, so I had to leave the country. I look back on that year of missionary service as the most productive of my life. I was privileged to conduct more than 20 home Bible studies each week, and some of those who learned the truth then are still actively praising Jehovah. From Egypt, I was directed to Cyprus.
Cyprus and Israel
I began to study a new language, Greek, and to become familiar with the local dialect. A little later, when Anthony Sideris was asked to transfer to Greece, I was appointed to oversee the work in Cyprus. At that time the Cyprus branch office also cared for Israel, and along with other brothers, I had the privilege of visiting the few Witnesses there from time to time.
On my first trip to Israel, we held a small assembly in a restaurant in Haifa, attended by 50 or 60 people. By separating the national groups, we presented the assembly program in six different languages! On another occasion, I was able to show in Jerusalem a film produced by Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I gave a public talk that was reported on favorably by the English-language newspaper.
There were about 100 Witnesses in Cyprus at that time, and they had to fight hard for their faith. Mobs led by priests of the Greek Orthodox Church interrupted our assemblies, and it was a new experience for me to be stoned when witnessing in rural areas. I had to learn to make a quick retreat! In the face of such violent opposition, it was faith strengthening to have more missionaries assigned to the island. Dennis and Mavis Matthews along with Joan Hulley and Beryl Heywood joined me in Famagusta, while Tom and Mary Goulden and Nina Constanti, a London-born Cypriot, went to Limassol. At the same time, Bill Copson was also transferred to Cyprus, to be joined later by Bert and Beryl Vaisey.
Adapting to Changing Circumstances
By the end of 1957, I became ill and was unable to continue in my missionary assignment. With sadness I decided that to regain my health, I should return to England, where I continued pioneering until 1960. My sister and her husband kindly accommodated me, but circumstances had changed. Joan was finding things increasingly difficult. As well as looking after her husband and young daughter, during the 17 years of my absence, she had lovingly cared for our father and Aunt Millie, who by this time were elderly and not well. The need to follow my aunt’s example of self-sacrifice became evident, so I stayed with my sister until both my aunt and my father died.
It would have been so easy to settle down in England, but after a short rest, I felt an obligation to return to my assignment. After all, had not Jehovah’s organization spent a lot of money training me? So in 1972, I made my own way back to Cyprus to pioneer there again.
Nathan H. Knorr arrived to arrange for a convention to be held the following year. When he found out that I had returned, he recommended my appointment as circuit overseer for the whole island, a privilege I held for four years. It was a daunting assignment, however, since it meant speaking Greek most of the time.
A Time of Trouble
I shared a home in the village of Karakoumi, just east of Kyrenia on the northern coast, with Paul Andreou, a Greek-speaking Cypriot Witness. The Cyprus branch office was in Nicosia, south of the Kyrenia Mountains. Early in July 1974, I was in Nicosia when a coup to depose President Makarios took place, and I saw his palace go up in flames. When it was safe to travel, I hastened back to Kyrenia, where we were preparing for a circuit assembly. Two days later I heard the first bomb drop on the harbor, and I saw the sky full of helicopters bringing invading troops from Turkey.
As I was a British subject, Turkish soldiers took me to the outskirts of Nicosia, where I was interrogated by United Nations personnel who made contact with the branch office. I then faced the daunting task of walking through a mass of tangled telephone and electric cables to the deserted homes on the other side of no-man’s-land. How glad I was that my line of communication with Jehovah God could not be disrupted! My prayers sustained me through one of the most harrowing experiences of my life.
I had lost all my belongings, but I was glad to have the security of the branch office. This situation was short-lived, however. Within days, the invading forces had taken control of the northern third of the island. Bethel had to be abandoned, and we moved to Limassol. I was glad to be able to work there with a committee formed to care for the 300 brothers who had been affected by the turmoil, many of whom had lost their homes.
More Changes of Assignment
In January 1981, the Governing Body asked me to transfer to Greece to join the Bethel family in Athens, but by the end of the year, I was back in Cyprus and appointed Branch Committee coordinator. Andreas Kontoyiorgis and his wife, Maro, Cypriots who had been sent from London, proved to be “a strengthening aid” to me.—Colossians 4:11.
At the conclusion of a zone visit by Theodore Jaracz in 1984, I received a letter from the Governing Body that simply said: “When he finishes, we would like you to accompany Brother Jaracz to Greece.” No reason was given, but when we arrived in Greece, another letter from the Governing Body was read to the Branch Committee, appointing me Branch Committee coordinator in that country.
By this time, we were facing outbreaks of apostasy. There were also many accusations of illegal proselytism. Daily, Jehovah’s people were being arrested and brought before the courts. What a privilege it was to get to know brothers and sisters whose integrity had stood the test of time! Some of their cases were subsequently heard before the European Court of Human Rights, with marvelous results that have had a good effect on the preaching work in Greece.*
While serving in Greece, I was able to attend memorable conventions in Athens, Thessalonica, and the islands of Rhodes and Crete. They were four happy, fruitful years, but another change was under way—a return to Cyprus in 1988.
Cyprus and Back to Greece
During my absence from Cyprus, the brothers had acquired new branch premises in Nissou, a few miles from Nicosia, and Carey Barber, from the Brooklyn headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses, gave the dedication talk. Things were more settled on the island now, and I was happy to be back—but it was not to be quiet for long.
The Governing Body had approved plans to build a new Bethel home in Greece, some miles north of Athens. As I could speak both English and Greek, I was invited to return to work on the new building site in 1990 as interpreter for the family of international servants working there. I still recall the joy of being on the site at six o’clock on summer mornings, welcoming the hundreds of Greek brothers and sisters who had volunteered to work alongside the construction family! Memories of their happiness and zeal will always remain with me.
Greek Orthodox priests and their supporters tried to gain entrance to the site and disrupt our work, but Jehovah heard our prayers, and we were safeguarded. I remained on site to see the new Bethel home dedicated on April 13, 1991.
Supporting My Dear Sister
The following year, I returned to England on vacation, staying with my sister and her husband. Sadly, while I was there, my brother-in-law suffered two heart attacks and died. Joan had given me unstinting support during my missionary service. Hardly a week passed when she did not write me a letter of encouragement. What a blessing such contact is for any missionary! Now she was a widow, in failing health and needing support. What should I do?
Joan’s daughter, Thelma, and her husband were already looking after another faithful widow in their congregation, one of our cousins who was terminally ill. So after much prayer, I decided that I should stay to help care for Joan. The adjustment did not come easily, but I am privileged to serve as an elder in Pen Mill, one of the two Yeovil congregations.
Brothers with whom I have served abroad keep in regular contact by telephone and letter, and for that I am very grateful. Should I ever express the wish to return to Greece or Cyprus, I know that my travel tickets will arrive promptly. But I am now 80 years old, and neither my eyesight nor my health is what it used to be. It is frustrating not to be as active as formerly, but my years of Bethel service helped me to develop many habits that stand me in good stead today. For example, I always read the daily text before breakfast. I also learned to get along with people and to love them—the key to successful missionary service.
As I look back over some 60 wonderful years spent praising Jehovah, I know that the full-time ministry is the greatest safeguard and provides the best education. I can echo with all my heart David’s words to Jehovah: “You have proved to be a secure height for me and a place to which to flee in the day of my distress.”—Psalm 59:16.
John Wynn’s life story, “My Heart Overflows With Gratitude,” appeared in The Watchtower, September 1, 1997, pages 25-8.
Formerly known as Consolation.
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Mother in 1915
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On the roof of Brooklyn Bethel in 1946, me (fourth from the left) and other brothers from the eighth class of Gilead
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With Aunt Millie after my first return to England