“Jehovah Is My Strength”
As told by Joan Coville
I was born in July 1925 in Huddersfield, England. I was an only child and in poor health. In fact, my father used to say, “Whenever the wind blows on you, you get sick.” And that seemed to be true!
WHEN I was a child, clergymen prayed fervently for peace, but when the second world war broke out, they prayed for victory. This puzzled me and raised doubts in my mind. Just at that time, along came Annie Ratcliffe, the only Witness of Jehovah living in our area.
Contact With the Truth
Annie left the book Salvation with us and invited Mother to attend a Bible discussion that would be held in Annie’s home.* My mother asked me to go along. I still remember that first discussion. It was about the ransom, and to my surprise, the discussion was not boring at all. It answered many of my questions. The following week, we attended again. That time, Jesus’ prophecy on the sign of the last days was explained. Looking at the sad conditions in the world, Mom and I immediately recognized the ring of truth. That same day, we were invited to go to the Kingdom Hall.
In the hall, I met some young pioneers, and among them was Joyce Barber (now Ellis), who still serves with her husband, Peter, at London Bethel. I got the impression that pioneering was something everyone did. So right away I began preaching 60 hours every month, even though I still attended school.
Five months later, on February 11, 1940, Mother and I were baptized at a zone assembly (now called a circuit assembly) in Bradford. Father was tolerant of our newfound faith, but he never took a stand for the truth. About the time I was baptized, street-corner witnessing was introduced. I participated, carrying a magazine bag and placards. One Saturday, I was assigned to stand at the busiest part of a shopping area. I still had a fear of man, and sure enough, it seemed as though all my schoolmates passed the corner where I was standing!
In 1940 the company (as a congregation was then called) to which we belonged needed to be divided. After that took place, nearly all my peers were in the other company. I complained about this to the company servant (now called presiding overseer). He said, “If you want young companions, go out and find them in the field.” And that is exactly what I did! Before long, I met Elsie Noble. She accepted the truth and then became a lifelong friend.
Pioneer Service and Its Blessings
After finishing school, I worked for an accountant. However, as I observed the joy that full-time servants had, my desire to serve Jehovah as a pioneer increased. In May 1945, I had the joy of starting to serve as a special pioneer. During my first day of pioneering, it poured all day. Yet, I was so glad to be out in the preaching work that I could not have cared less about the rain. Actually, being outside every day and getting regular exercise on my bicycle in the ministry had a good effect on my health. Although I have never weighed more than 90 pounds [42 kg], I have not at any point had to interrupt my pioneer service. Over the years, I have experienced in a very literal sense that “Jehovah is my strength.”—Ps. 28:7.
With the goal of starting new congregations, I was as a special pioneer sent to towns where there were no Witnesses. First I served three years in England and then three years in Ireland. While pioneering in Lisburn, Ireland, I studied with a man who was an assistant pastor in a Protestant church. As he learned the truth about basic Bible doctrines, he shared his newly acquired knowledge with his congregation. Some of them complained to the church authorities, and he was, of course, asked to explain. He said that he felt it was his Christian duty to tell the flock that he had taught them many falsehoods. Although his family severely opposed him, he dedicated his life to Jehovah and served him faithfully until his death.
In Larne, my second pioneer assignment in Ireland, I served alone for six weeks, since my pioneer partner was attending the Theocracy’s Increase Assembly in New York, in 1950. That was a hard time for me. I longed to be at the assembly. Yet, during those weeks, I had several encouraging experiences in the field service. I met an elderly man who had accepted one of our publications more than 20 years earlier. Over the years, he had read it so many times that he knew it almost by heart. Together with his son and daughter, he accepted the truth.
Receiving Training at Gilead School
In 1951, along with ten other pioneers from England, I was invited to attend the 17th class of Gilead School in South Lansing, New York. Oh, how I enjoyed the Bible instruction we received during those months! At that time, sisters were not yet enrolled in the Theocratic Ministry School in the local congregations, but at Gilead we sisters received assignments to give student talks and reports. Were we nervous! Throughout my first talk, my hand holding my notes was shaking. The instructor, Brother Maxwell Friend, humorously said: “Not only were you nervous in the beginning, as all good speakers are, but you were nervous right to the end.” During the course, we all improved in our ability to express ourselves in front of the class. All too quickly, our training was finished, and we graduates were assigned to a number of foreign lands. My assignment was Thailand!
“The Land of Smiles”
I consider it to be a gift from Jehovah that Astrid Anderson was assigned to be my missionary partner in Thailand. It took us seven weeks on a cargo ship to get there. When we arrived in the capital, Bangkok, we found a city with hectic marketplaces and a network of canals that served as its thoroughfares. In 1952, there were fewer than 150 Kingdom publishers in Thailand.
When we first saw The Watchtower in Thai, we wondered, ‘How will we ever be able to speak that language?’ It was especially challenging to say the words in the right tone. For example, the word khaù spoken with a tone starting high and then dropping means “rice,” but the same word spoken with a deep tone means “news.” So when we were out in field service, we at first were busy telling people, “I bring you good rice” instead of “good news”! But gradually—and after many laughs—we succeeded.
The Thai people are very friendly. Appropriately, Thailand is called the Land of Smiles. Our first assignment was the city of Khorat (now called Nakhon Ratchasima), where we served for two years. Later, we were assigned to the city of Chiang Mai. Most Thai are Buddhist and are not familiar with the Bible. In Khorat, I studied with the postmaster. We discussed the patriarch Abraham. As the man had heard the name Abraham before, he nodded enthusiastically. I soon found out, though, that we were not speaking about the same Abraham. The postmaster had in mind Abraham Lincoln, former president of the United States!
We enjoyed teaching honesthearted Thai the Bible, but at the same time, the Thai people taught us how to be happy living a simple life. That lesson was valuable, for in the first missionary home in Khorat, we had no electricity or running water. In such assignments, we “learned the secret of both . . . how to have an abundance and how to suffer want.” Like the apostle Paul, we experienced what it means to “have the strength by virtue of him who imparts power.”—Phil. 4:12, 13.
A New Partner and a New Assignment
Back in 1945, I visited London. During that visit, I went to the British Museum together with some other pioneers and Bethelites. One of them was Allan Coville, who shortly thereafter attended the 11th class of Gilead. He was assigned to France and then to Belgium.* Later, while I was still serving as a missionary in Thailand, he asked me to marry him, and I accepted his proposal.
We got married in Brussels, Belgium, on July 9, 1955. I had always dreamed of going to Paris on my honeymoon, so Allan arranged that we would attend an assembly there the following week. However, upon our arrival, Allan was immediately asked to help out as an interpreter during the entire assembly. Every day, he had to leave early in the morning, and we returned to our place of lodging late at night. So I did spend my honeymoon in Paris, but I mostly saw Allan from a distance—on the platform! Even so, I was glad to see my new husband being used to serve his brothers and sisters, and there was no doubt in my mind that if Jehovah was central in our marriage, we would be truly happy.
Marriage also brought me to a new preaching territory—Belgium. Almost all I knew of Belgium was that it had served as a battlefield in several wars, but I soon learned that most Belgians really are peace loving. My assignment also meant that I had to learn French, which is spoken in the southern part of the country.
In 1955 there were some 4,500 publishers in Belgium. For almost 50 years, Allan and I served at Bethel and in the traveling work. The first two and a half years, we traveled by bicycle, up and down the hills, rain or shine. Over the years, we stayed overnight in more than 2,000 different homes of fellow Witnesses! I often met brothers and sisters who were not physically strong but who served Jehovah with all the strength they had. Their example encouraged me not to give up in my service. At the end of each week spent visiting a congregation, we always felt built up. (Rom. 1:11, 12) Allan proved to be a true companion. How truthful are the words at Ecclesiastes 4:9, 10: “Two are better than one, . . . for if one of them should fall, the other one can raise his partner up”!
Blessings From a Life of Serving in ‘Jehovah’s Strength’
Over the years, Allan and I had many happy experiences in helping others to serve Jehovah. For instance, in 1983 we visited the French congregation in Antwerp, where we stayed with a family who also hosted Benjamin Bandiwila, a young brother from Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo). Benjamin had moved to Belgium to pursue a higher education. He told us, “I really envy you the life you have, completely devoted to Jehovah’s service.” Allan responded: “You say that you envy us; yet you are pursuing a worldly career. Don’t you think that is contradictory?” That straightforward comment made Benjamin think about his life. Later back in Zaire, he started pioneering, and he presently serves as a member of the Branch Committee.
In 1999, I underwent surgery to remove an ulcer from my esophagus. Since then, I have weighed only 65 pounds [30kg]. I really am a fragile ‘earthen vessel.’ Yet, I am grateful that Jehovah has given me “the power beyond what is normal.” After my surgery, he made it possible for me to accompany Allan again in the traveling work. (2 Cor. 4:7) Then, in March 2004, Allan died in his sleep. I miss him very much, but knowing that he is in Jehovah’s memory comforts me.
Today, at age 83, I look back on more than 63 years of full-time service. I am still active in the ministry, conducting a Bible study at home and using daily opportunities to speak about Jehovah’s wonderful purpose. At times, I wonder, ‘What would my life have been like had I not started pioneering in 1945?’ Back then, my poor health seemed a valid reason not to do so. How grateful I am, though, that I took up the pioneer service when I was young! I have been privileged to experience personally that if we put Jehovah first, he will be our strength.
Salvation was published in 1939. It is now out of print.
Brother Coville’s life story appeared in The Watchtower of March 15, 1961.
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With my missionary partner, Astrid Anderson (at right)
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In the traveling work with my husband, 1956
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With Allan in 2000