Happy for My Share in Global Bible Education
AS TOLD BY ANNA MATHEAKIS
The ferryboat was on fire. If it sank, the 561-foot-long [171 meters] hulk would drag me into a watery grave. I frantically swam to safety, fighting violent waves. The only way to stay afloat was to hold tight to a life jacket worn by another woman. I prayed to God for strength and courage. It was all I could do.
THE year was 1971, and I was returning to my third missionary assignment, Italy. In that shipwreck, I lost almost everything I owned. But I did not lose the most important things—my life, the loving Christian brotherhood, and the privilege of serving Jehovah. That service had already taken me to three continents, and the shipwreck was just one incident in an eventful life.
I was born in 1922. My family lived in Rām Allāh, about ten miles [16 km] north of Jerusalem. My parents were both from the island of Crete, but my father was raised in Nazareth. I was the youngest of three boys and two girls. Our family was shattered by the death of my second-eldest brother, who drowned in the Jordan River while on a school excursion. After this tragedy my mother refused to stay in Rām Allāh, and we moved to Athens, Greece, when I was three years old.
Bible Truth Reaches Our Family
Shortly after we arrived in Greece, my eldest brother, Nikos, who at the time was 22 years old, came in contact with the Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known. Taking in Bible knowledge gave him great joy and a burning zeal for the Christian ministry. This enraged my father, and he put Nikos out of the house. However, when my father would travel to Palestine, my mother, my sister, and I would accompany Nikos to Christian meetings. I can still hear my mother speaking enthusiastically about the things she heard at those meetings. But shortly thereafter, she succumbed to cancer and died at age 42. During that difficult time, my sister, Ariadne, lovingly took charge of our family. Despite her youth, she was like a mother to me for years to come.
My father always took me to the Orthodox Church when he was in Athens, and after he died, I continued going to church, though less frequently. Since I saw no sign of godly devotion being practiced at church, I eventually stopped attending.
After my father died, I was able to get a secure job with the ministry of finance. My brother, however, had devoted his life to the Kingdom-preaching work, serving for many years in Greece. In 1934 he moved to Cyprus. At the time, there were no baptized Witnesses of Jehovah on that island, so he had the privilege of advancing the preaching work there. After he married, his wife, Galatia, also served as a full-time minister for many years.* Nikos frequently sent us Bible-based books and magazines, but we hardly ever opened them. He remained in Cyprus until his death.
Making Bible Truth My Own
In 1940, George Douras, a zealous Witness in Athens and a friend of Nikos, visited us and invited us to join a small group for a Bible study in his home. We gladly accepted the invitation. Soon we started sharing with others what we were learning. Taking in knowledge from the Bible led my sister and me to dedicate our lives to Jehovah. Ariadne was baptized in 1942, and I, in 1943.
When World War II ended, Nikos invited us to come to Cyprus, so in 1945 we moved to Nicosia. Unlike in Greece, in Cyprus the preaching work was unhindered. We shared not only in the house-to-house ministry but also in street witnessing.
Two years later, Ariadne had to return to Greece. There she met her future husband, a fellow worshipper of Jehovah, so she remained in Athens. Soon my brother-in-law and my sister encouraged me to return to Greece and take up the full-time ministry in the capital. Since pioneering had always been my goal, I returned to Athens, where the need was greater.
New Doors of Opportunity Are Opened
On November 1, 1947, I started pioneering, spending 150 hours every month in the preaching work. Our congregation territory was vast, and I had to walk a lot. Still, I enjoyed many blessings. The police often arrested any Witnesses they found engaging in the preaching work or attending Christian meetings, so it was not long before I was arrested.
I was charged with proselytism, a serious offense at the time. I was sentenced to two months in the Averof Women’s Prison in Athens. Another female Witness was already there, and the two of us enjoyed delightful and upbuilding Christian fellowship despite being locked up. After I had served my sentence, I happily continued pioneering. Many of those with whom I then studied the Bible are still faithful servants of Jehovah, and that gives me great joy.
In 1949, I received an invitation to attend the 16th class of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead in the United States, where full-time servants are trained for missionary work. My relatives and I were thrilled. I planned to attend an international convention in New York City in the summer of 1950 and then to enter Gilead.
After arriving in the United States, I had the privilege of serving for a few months as a housekeeper at the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in New York City. The environment there was clean, pleasant, and upbuilding, and I was surrounded by smiling brothers and sisters. I will always remember with fondness the six months I spent there. Then it was time to attend Gilead School, where five months of intensive study and instruction flew by. We students came to realize how rich and beautiful Scriptural knowledge is, and that increased our joy and our desire to share with others the life-giving knowledge of the truth.
My First Missionary Assignment
At Gilead School, we were allowed to choose our future partners before receiving our missionary assignments. Ruth Hemmig (now Bosshard), an exceptional sister, was my partner. Ruth and I were overjoyed when we received our assignment to Istanbul, Turkey—a crossroads between Asia and Europe! We knew that the preaching work was not yet recognized in that country, but we had no doubt that Jehovah would support us.
Istanbul is a beautiful cosmopolitan city. There we found overflowing bazaars, a blend of the world’s finest cuisines, interesting museums, charming neighborhoods, and an always fascinating waterfront. More important, we found sincere people who wanted to learn about God. The small group of Witnesses in Istanbul consisted mainly of Armenians, Greeks, and Jews. However, there were many other nationalities, and it was useful to be conversant with a variety of languages, including Turkish. We thoroughly enjoyed meeting people of different nationalities who were thirsting for the truth. Many of these continue to serve Jehovah faithfully.
Unfortunately, it was impossible for Ruth to renew her residence permit, and she was obliged to leave the country. She continues in the full-time service in Switzerland. After all these years, I still miss her pleasant, upbuilding companionship.
Moving to Another Hemisphere
In 1963 my residence permit in Turkey was not renewed. It was difficult to leave behind fellow Christians whom I had seen progressing spiritually while they struggled to overcome many hardships. In order to cheer me up, my relatives graciously paid my way to New York City so that I could attend a convention there. I had not yet received my next assignment.
After the convention, I was assigned to Lima, Peru. Along with a young sister who was to be my partner, I went straight from New York to my new assignment. I learned Spanish and lived in the missionary home that was situated above the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was very pleasant to preach there and get to know the local brothers and sisters.
Another Assignment, Another Language
In time, my relatives back in Greece began to experience the effects of old age and deteriorating health. They never encouraged me to discontinue my full-time service and return to a so-called normal life in order to assist them. However, after much thought and prayer, I realized that it would be better for me to serve closer to my family. The responsible brothers lovingly agreed and assigned me to Italy, and my relatives offered to cover the expenses for the transfer. As it turned out, there was a great need for evangelizers in Italy.
Once again, I had to learn a new language—Italian. My first assignment was in the city of Foggia. Later, I was transferred to Naples, where the need was greater. My territory was Posilipo, one of the most beautiful parts of Naples. It covered a large area, and there was only one Kingdom publisher. I enjoyed the work very much, and Jehovah helped me to start many Bible studies. In time, a large congregation developed in that area.
Among the first local people with whom I studied the Bible were a mother and her four children. She and her two daughters are still Witnesses of Jehovah. I also studied with a married couple who had a little girl. The whole family progressed in the truth and symbolized their dedication by water baptism. Now the daughter is married to a faithful servant of Jehovah, and together they are serving God zealously. While studying the Bible with one large family, I was impressed with the power of God’s Word. When we read several scriptures that show that God does not approve of worship through images, the mother did not even wait for the study to finish. Right then and there, she disposed of all the images in her house!
In Dangers at Sea
When shuttling between Italy and Greece, I always traveled by ship. The voyage was usually very pleasant. But one trip, in the summer of 1971, was different. I was traveling back to Italy on the ferryboat Heleanna. Early on the morning of August 28, a fire broke out in the ship’s kitchen. The fire spread and so did panic among the passengers. Women were fainting, children were crying, and men were protesting and shouting threats. People ran to the lifeboats on each side of the deck. However, there were too few life jackets, and the mechanism that lowers the lifeboats into the sea did not work properly. I had no life jacket, but the flames were rising higher, so the only sensible thing to do was to jump into the sea.
As soon as I found myself in the water, I saw floating near me a woman who was wearing a life jacket. It seemed that she could not swim, so I grabbed her by the arm to pull her away from the sinking ship. The sea was getting rougher, and the fight to stay afloat made me very tired. The situation seemed hopeless, but I kept beseeching Jehovah for courage, and this gave me strength. I could not help but remember the shipwreck experienced by the apostle Paul.—Acts, chapter 27.
Holding on to my companion, I struggled with the waves for four hours, swimming when I had the strength for it and calling on Jehovah for help. Finally, I spotted a dinghy approaching. I was rescued, but my companion had already died. When we reached the town of Bari, Italy, I was taken to a hospital, where I received first aid. I had to stay in the hospital for a few days, and many Witnesses visited me, kindly providing all that I needed. The Christian love they showed deeply impressed others who were in the hospital ward.*
After I had recuperated fully, I was assigned to Rome. I was asked to work the business territory in the center of the city, which I did for five years, with Jehovah’s help. For a total of 20 years, I enjoyed the ministry in Italy, and I came to love the Italian people.
Back to Where I Started
In time, the health of Ariadne and her husband took a turn for the worse. I realized that if I lived closer to them, I would be able to repay in some measure all that they had so lovingly done for me. I must admit that it was heartbreaking to leave Italy. However, the responsible brothers gave their permission, and since the summer of 1985, I have been pioneering in Athens, where I began the full-time service back in 1947.
I preached in the territory assigned to my own congregation, and I asked the brothers at the branch office if I could also preach in the business territory in the city center. This I did for three years with a pioneer partner. We were able to give a thorough witness to people who are rarely found at home.
As time passes, though, my desire to serve is constantly being renewed but my physical strength is not. Now my brother-in-law has fallen asleep in death. Ariadne, who has been like a mother to me, has lost her eyesight. As for me, my health was good during the years I spent in full-time service. Recently, however, I tumbled down a marble staircase and broke my right arm. Then I fell and broke my pelvis. I had to undergo surgery and was in bed for a long time. Now I can no longer move about freely. I use a walking stick and can go out only if someone accompanies me. Still, I do my best, hoping that my physical condition will improve. Sharing in the Bible education work, even in a limited way, continues to be my main source of happiness and satisfaction.
When I recall the happy years that I have spent in the full-time ministry, my heart overflows with gratitude to Jehovah. He and the earthly part of his organization have consistently provided sound direction and precious assistance, enabling me to reach my full potential as I have spent my life serving him. My heartfelt desire is that Jehovah strengthen me to continue in his service. I am happy for my modest share in the global Bible education work that he directs.—Malachi 3:10.
See pages 73-89 of the 1995 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
For more details, see Awake! February 8, 1972, pages 12-16.
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With my sister, Ariadne, and her husband, Michalis, as I was leaving for Gilead
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Ruth Hemmig and I were assigned to Istanbul, Turkey
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In Italy, early 1970’s
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Today, with my sister, Ariadne