Determined to Serve Jehovah
AS TOLD BY RAIMO KUOKKANEN
In 1939, World War II broke out in Europe, and the Soviet Union attacked my homeland of Finland. My father went off to fight in the Finnish army. Soon Russian warplanes were dropping bombs on the city where we were, and my mother sent me to live with my grandmother in safer surroundings.
IN 1971, I was serving as a missionary in Uganda, East Africa. One day while I was preaching from door to door, many frightened people came running by me. I heard gunshots and started running toward home. As the gunfire got closer, I jumped into a ditch that ran along the road. With bullets zinging overhead, I crawled to my home.
I could do little to avoid the effects of World War II, but why would my wife and I expose ourselves to unrest in East Africa? The answer is closely related to our determination to serve Jehovah.
A Seed of Determination Is Planted
I was born in 1934 in Helsinki, Finland. My father was a painter, and one day his work took him to the building that housed the Finland branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Witnesses told him about their congregation meetings. When he got home, he told my mother about those meetings. She did not start attending at that time, but later she began discussing Bible subjects with a workmate who was a Witness. Mother soon took seriously what she learned, and in 1940 she was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Just before that, my grandmother had taken me into her country home for the duration of World War II. From Helsinki my mother began writing to her mother and younger sister about the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Both of them showed interest and shared what they learned with me. Traveling representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses visited Grandmother’s home and encouraged us, but I was not yet determined to serve God.
Theocratic Training Begins
When the war ended in 1945, I returned to Helsinki, and Mother started taking me to the meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Sometimes I went to the cinema instead. But Mother would tell me about the talk that she had heard at the meeting, and time and again she emphasized one point to me: Armageddon is very near. I became convinced of that and stopped missing meetings. As my appreciation for Bible truth grew, so did my desire to share in all the activities of the congregation.
I especially enjoyed attending the assemblies and conventions. In 1948, I attended the district convention held near my grandmother’s home, where I was spending my summer vacation. A friend of mine was to be baptized at that convention, and he invited me to do the same. I told him that I did not bring any swimming trunks, but he suggested that after he was baptized, I could use his. I agreed and was baptized on June 27, 1948, when I was 13 years old.
After the convention, some friends of my mother’s told her that I got baptized. The next time she saw me, she wanted to know why I had taken such an important step without consulting her. I explained that I did understand basic Bible teachings and that I knew I was responsible to Jehovah for my conduct.
My Determination Grows
The brothers in the congregation helped me to strengthen my determination to serve Jehovah. They accompanied me in the house-to-house ministry and gave me parts on the meetings almost every week. (Acts 20:20) At 16 years of age, I gave my first public talk. Soon afterward, I was appointed as Bible study servant in our congregation. All that spiritual activity helped me mature, but I still had to conquer my fear of man.
In those days, we advertised the public talk of the district convention with large signs. Each of these signs consisted of two placards connected by straps that hung over a person’s shoulders and covered the front and back of his body. For that reason some people called us sandwich men.
One time, I was on a quiet street corner with my sandwich sign when I saw a group of my classmates coming right toward me. As they walked by, the look in their eyes made me cringe. I prayed to Jehovah for courage and stood still with the sign. Overcoming fear of man at that time prepared me for the greater test of maintaining Christian neutrality.
In time, the government ordered me and a number of other young Witnesses to report for military service. We went to the military base as ordered, but we respectfully refused to put on the uniform. The officials held us in custody, and soon afterward a court sentenced us to six months in prison. We were also incarcerated for the eight months required for military service. So we spent a total of 14 months in prison because of our neutral stand.
In the prison barracks, we met together every day to consider the Bible. During those months, many of us read the entire Bible twice. When our sentence was up, most of us left prison more determined than ever to serve Jehovah. To this day, many of that group of young Witnesses serve Jehovah faithfully.
After leaving prison, I returned to live with my parents. Shortly afterward, I got to know Veera, a zealous, newly baptized Witness. We were married in 1957.
An Evening That Changed Our Lives
One evening while we were visiting with some responsible brothers from the branch office, one of them asked us if we would like to go into the circuit work. After praying all night, I called the branch and said yes. Going into the full-time ministry meant leaving my well-paying job, but we were determined to put the Kingdom first in our lives. I was 23 years old and Veera was 19 when we took up the traveling work in December 1957. For three years we enjoyed visiting and encouraging congregations of Jehovah’s people in Finland.
In the latter part of 1960, I received an invitation to the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead in Brooklyn, New York. Three of us from Finland were to attend a special ten-month course for training in branch operation. Our wives remained behind and worked at the Finland branch office.
Just before the course ended, I was told to report to the office of Nathan H. Knorr, who was then overseeing the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide. Brother Knorr offered me and my wife a missionary assignment in the Malagasy Republic, now known as Madagascar. I wrote to Veera, asking what she thought of that assignment, and she promptly answered, “Yes.” When I returned to Finland, we rushed to get ready for life in Madagascar.
Joy and Disappointment
In January 1962 we flew to Antananarivo, the capital of the country, wearing fur hats and heavy coats, for we had left in the Finnish winter. In the tropical heat of Madagascar, we quickly changed our style of dress. Our first missionary home was a little house with one bedroom. Another missionary couple was already there, so Veera and I slept on the porch.
We started learning French, an official language of Madagascar. This was rather difficult because the two of us did not share a common language with our instructor, Sister Carbonneau. She used English to teach us French, but Veera did not speak English. So I translated Sister Carbonneau’s instructions into Finnish for Veera. Then we realized that Veera understood technical concepts better in Swedish, so I explained French grammar to her in Swedish. Soon we were making good progress in French and took up studying Malagasy, the local language.
My first Bible study in Madagascar was with a man who spoke only Malagasy. I looked up Bible verses in my Finnish Bible, and then we searched for those verses in his Malagasy Bible. I could do little to explain the scriptures to him, but soon Bible truth grew in that man’s heart, and he progressed to baptism.
In 1963, Milton Henschel from the Brooklyn headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses visited Madagascar. Shortly afterward, a new branch office was established in Madagascar, and I was appointed the branch overseer, in addition to my work as circuit and district overseer. All the while, Jehovah blessed us richly. From 1962 to 1970, the number of Kingdom publishers in Madagascar grew from 85 to 469.
As we returned from the public ministry one day in 1970, we found a note at our door ordering all missionaries of Jehovah’s Witnesses to report to the office of the interior minister. There an official told us that the government had ordered that we leave the country immediately. When I asked what crime required my deportation, the official said: “Monsieur Kuokkanen, you have done nothing wrong.”
“We have been here for eight years,” I said. “This is our home. We cannot leave just like that.” Despite our efforts, all the missionaries had to leave within one week. The branch was closed, and a local Witness began to look after the work. Before leaving our dear brothers in Madagascar, we received a new assignment, to Uganda.
A few days after departing from Madagascar, we arrived in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. We immediately started to learn Luganda, a language with a beautiful songlike quality but very difficult to learn. Other missionaries helped Veera learn English first, and in that language we were able to preach effectively.
Kampala’s hot, humid climate took its toll on Veera’s health. So we received an assignment in Mbarara, a town in Uganda with a more temperate climate. We were the first Witnesses there, and on our first day in the ministry, we were blessed with a good experience. I was speaking to a man in his house when his wife came out of the kitchen. Her name was Margaret, and she had listened to my presentation. Veera started to study the Bible with Margaret, who made fine spiritual progress. She was baptized and became a zealous Kingdom publisher.
Fighting in the Streets
In 1971 civil war shattered our peace in Uganda. One day a battle took place around our missionary home in Mbarara. It was at that time that I had the experience described at the beginning of this account.
Veera was already at the missionary home when I arrived after crawling a long way in a ditch, hidden from the soldiers. In a corner of the house, we built a “fortress” out of mattresses and furniture. For one week we remained indoors, listening for news on the radio. Sometimes bullets ricocheted off the walls as we crouched in our fortress. At night we used no lights, concealing that we were in the house. Once, soldiers came to the front door and shouted. We stayed put, silently praying to Jehovah. After the fighting was over, our neighbors came and thanked us for their safety. They believed that Jehovah had protected all of us, and we agreed with them.
Conditions remained calm until one morning when we heard on the radio that the Uganda government had banned Jehovah’s Witnesses. The announcer said that all of Jehovah’s Witnesses should return to their former religion. I pleaded our case before government officials but without success. I then went to the office of President Idi Amin and asked for an appointment with him. The receptionist told me that the president was busy. I went back many times, but I never got to see the president. Finally, by July 1973 we had to leave Uganda.
One Year Becomes Ten
The sadness that we felt when we were expelled from Madagascar overtook us again as we left our dear Ugandan brothers. Before going to our new assignment in Senegal, we traveled to Finland. There, our African assignment was canceled, and we were told to stay in Finland. Our work as missionaries seemed to be finished. In Finland, we served as special pioneers and then again in the circuit work.
By 1990 opposition to the work in Madagascar had diminished, and Brooklyn headquarters surprised us by asking if we would go there for a one-year assignment. We wanted to go but were facing two great challenges. My elderly father needed care, and Veera continued to have health problems. I was saddened by the death of my father in November 1990, but Veera’s improving health gave us hope of returning to the missionary work. We went back to Madagascar in September 1991.
Our assignment in Madagascar was for one year, but it lasted ten. During that time, the number of publishers increased from 4,000 to 11,600. I greatly enjoyed serving as a missionary. Yet, at times I felt discouraged, wondering if I was neglecting the physical and emotional needs of my dear wife. Jehovah gave both of us the strength to continue. Finally, in 2001 we returned to Finland, where we have been working at the branch office. Our zeal for the Kingdom continues to burn, and we still dream of Africa. We are determined to do Jehovah’s will wherever he assigns us.—Isaiah 6:8.
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On our wedding day
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From circuit work in Finland, 1960 . . .
. . . to missionary work in Madagascar, 1962
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With Veera today