Benefiting From the Loyalty of Loved Ones
AS TOLD BY KATHLEEN COOKE
WHILE visiting relatives in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1911, my grandmother Mary Ellen Thompson attended a lecture by Charles Taze Russell, a prominent member of the Bible Students, later known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Grandma was thrilled with what she heard. Back in South Africa, she contacted local Bible Students. In April 1914 she was one of the 16 baptized at the Bible Students’ first convention in South Africa. Grandma’s daughter Edith, who became my mother, was then six years old.
Following the death of Brother Russell in 1916, there was dissension among the Bible Students worldwide. The number of faithful ones in Durban fell from 60 to about 12. My paternal grandmother, Ingeborg Myrdal, and her son Henry, a teenager who had recently been baptized, took their stand with the loyal ones. In 1924, Henry became a colporteur, as full-time ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses were then called. He preached in many parts of southern Africa for the next five years. In 1930, Henry and Edith were married, and three years later I was born.
An Extended Family
For a while we lived in Mozambique, but in 1939 we moved into Grandma and Grandpa Thompson’s home in Johannesburg. Grandpa had no interest in Bible truth and sometimes opposed Grandma, but he was nonetheless very hospitable. My sister, Thelma, was born in 1940, and she and I learned to care for the needs of older people. Many a suppertime was prolonged as we shared the day’s events with one another or reminisced about the past.
Our family enjoyed the company of visiting Witnesses, especially those in the full-time ministry. They would share in our suppertime conversation, and their expressions added to our appreciation for the spiritual heritage we had. This strengthened the desire of Thelma and me to become pioneers like them.
From a very tender age, we were taught the joys of reading. Mom, Dad, and Grandma all shared in reading to us from good storybooks or straight from the Bible. Christian meetings and the ministry were as much a part of our lives as breathing was. Dad was the company servant (now called presiding overseer) of the Johannesburg Congregation, so we all had to be at the meetings in good time. When we had a convention, Dad was busy helping with its administration, while Mom helped delegates with their accommodations.
A Special Convention for Us
The convention in 1948 in Johannesburg was special. For the first time, members of the headquarters staff of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York, were present. Dad was assigned with his car to be the driver for Nathan Knorr and Milton Henschel for the duration of their stay. At that convention, I was baptized.
Shortly afterward, to Dad’s surprise his father told him that he deeply regretted that following the death of Brother Russell, he had allowed himself to be influenced by those who left the Bible Students. He died a few months later. Granny Myrdal, on the other hand, remained loyal until she finished her earthly course in 1955.
Events That Shaped My Life
I started to serve as a regular pioneer on February 1, 1949. Soon excitement began to mount with the announcement that an international convention would be held in New York City the following year. We longed to go, but it was way beyond our means. Then, in February 1950, Grandpa Thompson died, and Grandma used the money that she inherited to pay passage for the five of us.
Some weeks before our departure, a letter arrived from the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York. It was an invitation for me to attend the 16th class of the missionary school of Gilead. What a thrill, for I had not yet turned 17! When the class began, there I was among the ten students from South Africa, enjoying that great privilege.
After our graduation in February 1951, eight of us returned to serve as missionaries in South Africa. For the next few years, my partner and I preached mostly in smaller towns where Afrikaans was spoken. At first, I was not conversant in that language, and I recall riding my bicycle home one day crying about my ineffectiveness in the ministry. However, in time I improved, and Jehovah blessed my efforts.
Marriage and Traveling Work
In 1955, I became acquainted with John Cooke. He had helped to open up the preaching work in France, Portugal, and Spain prior to and following World War II and had become a missionary in Africa the year I met him. Afterward he wrote: “I got three shocks all in one week . . . A very generous brother presented me with a little car; I was appointed as district servant; and I fell in love.”* We were married in December 1957.
During our courtship, John had assured me that life with him would never have a dull moment, and he was right. We visited congregations throughout South Africa, mostly in black areas. Weekly, we faced the challenge of obtaining permission just to enter such areas, let alone stay there overnight. On rare occasions, we slept on the floor of an empty shop in an adjacent white area, where we tried not to be seen by passersby. We usually had to stay with the nearest white Witnesses, who often lived many miles away.
We also faced the challenge of modest assembly facilities built right in the bush. We showed films produced by Jehovah’s Witnesses that helped people gain appreciation for our worldwide brotherhood. We took our own generator, since there was usually no electricity in those areas. We also had to cope with difficulties in British protectorates where our literature was then banned as well as with the challenge of learning the Zulu language. Yet, we rejoiced to be able to serve our brothers.
In August 1961, John became the first instructor of South Africa’s four-week Kingdom Ministry School course, which was designed to help congregation overseers. He was skilled in the art of teaching and reached hearts with his simple logic and vivid word pictures. For nearly a year and a half, we traveled from one place to another for each successive English-speaking class. While John taught, I shared in the field ministry with local Witnesses. Then, to our surprise, we received a letter inviting us to serve at the South Africa branch office near Johannesburg beginning July 1, 1964.
By this time, though, John’s health had begun to puzzle us. In 1948 he had a bout of tuberculosis and after that often suffered from a general lack of stamina. He experienced flu-like symptoms and would be laid up for days—he could not do anything or see anyone. A doctor whom we consulted shortly before we were called to the branch diagnosed John’s problem as depression.
It was unthinkable for us to change our pace of life, as the doctor suggested. At the branch, John was assigned to the Service Department, and I to proofreading. And what a blessing it was to have a room of our own! John had served in Portuguese territories prior to our marriage, so in 1967 we were asked to help the only local Portuguese Witness family to preach to the large Portuguese community in and around Johannesburg. This meant yet another language for me to tackle.
As the Portuguese community was scattered over a large area, we did a lot of traveling—sometimes up to 200 miles [300 km] to reach deserving ones. By this time, Portuguese-speaking Witnesses from Mozambique began visiting us at assembly times, which was a great help to the new ones. During our 11 years with the Portuguese, we saw our little group of about 30 blossom into four congregations.
Changes at Home
In the meantime, there had been changes in my parents’ home. In 1960 my sister, Thelma, married John Urban, a pioneer from the United States. In 1965 they attended the 40th class of Gilead and served loyally as missionaries in Brazil for 25 years. In 1990 they returned to Ohio to care for John’s ailing parents. Despite the stresses of caregiving, they have remained in the full-time ministry to this day.
Grandma Thompson finished her earthly course in 1965, still faithful to God at 98 years of age. Dad retired from secular work that same year. So when John and I were asked to help in the local Portuguese field, Dad and Mom volunteered to join us. They were a stabilizing influence in the group, and after a few months, the first congregation was formed. Shortly afterward, Mom began to feel the effects of cancer, which took her life in 1971. Dad died seven years later.
Coping With John’s Illness
By the 1970’s, it became clear that John’s health was not improving. Bit by bit, he had to relinquish some of his cherished privileges of service, including presiding at our branch family’s weekly Watchtower Study and morning Bible discussions. His work assignment was changed from the Service Department to the Mail Room and then to working in the garden.
John’s fighting spirit made it hard for him to make changes. When I persistently tried to get him to slow down, he teasingly called me his ball and chain—usually accompanied by an appreciative hug. We eventually felt it advisable to leave the Portuguese field and serve with the congregation that met in the Kingdom Hall at the branch.
As John’s health deteriorated, it was touching to observe his intimate relationship with Jehovah. When John would wake in the middle of the night in a state of deep depression, we talked together until he felt calm enough to pray for Jehovah’s help. Eventually, he managed to cope alone with those bad moments by forcing himself to repeat slowly Philippians 4:6, 7: “Do not be anxious over anything . . .” Then he would become calm enough to begin praying. Often I was awake and would quietly watch his lips move as he lingered in earnest supplication to Jehovah.
Since our branch facilities had become very cramped, construction of a large new branch was begun outside Johannesburg. John and I made frequent visits to this peaceful site, away from the city’s noise and pollution. It helped John very much when we were allowed to move into temporary accommodations there until the new branch was completed.
As John’s thinking and reasoning abilities became more impaired, fulfilling his work assignments became more difficult. I was deeply touched by the way that others supported John in his efforts. For example, when a brother visited a public library to do research, he would take John along. John’s pockets would be bulging with tracts and magazines for the day’s outing. This helped John to retain a sense of accomplishment and worth.
Eventually, Alzheimer’s disease made it impossible for John to understand the written word. We were grateful for the audiotapes of Bible literature and Kingdom songs. We listened to them over and over again. John would often get agitated if I was not sitting and listening with him, so I kept myself busy during those many hours by doing needlework. It kept us well supplied with sweaters and blankets!
In time, John’s condition demanded more nursing care from me. Even though I was often too tired to read or study, it was a privilege to care for him to the end. That end came in 1998 when John died quietly in my arms soon after he turned 85—unswervingly loyal to the finish. How I look forward to seeing him in the resurrection, his health and mind restored!
After John’s death, it was not easy for me to learn to live a life of my own. So in May 1999, I visited my sister, Thelma, and her husband in the United States. How delightful and refreshing it was to meet up with dozens of loyal, dear friends, especially during our visit to the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in New York! It was definitely the spiritual boost I needed.
Reminiscing about the lives of my loyal loved ones is a reminder of so many things that have been beneficial for me. By means of their instruction, example, and help, I learned to widen out in my love for people of other nations and races. I learned patience, endurance, and adaptability. Above all, I experienced the graciousness of Jehovah, the Hearer of prayer. I echo the feelings of the psalmist who wrote: “Happy is the one you choose and cause to approach, that he may reside in your courtyards. We will certainly be satisfied with the goodness of your house.”—Psalm 65:4.
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Grandma with her daughters
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With my parents when I was baptized in 1948
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With Albert Schroeder, the registrar of Gilead, and the nine other students from South Africa
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With John in 1984