As told by Elva Gjerde
Some 70 years ago, a visitor to our house made a suggestion to my father that completely changed the course of my life. Since that momentous day, several other people have also had an impact on my life. In the process, I have gained a precious friendship that I value more than any other. Let me explain.
I WAS born in Sydney, Australia, in 1932, to parents who believed in God but did not attend church. My mother taught me that God was always watching, ready to punish me if I was naughty. This made me afraid of God. Yet, I was fascinated by the Bible. When my aunt visited us on weekends, she told me many interesting Bible stories. I always looked forward to her visits.
When I was a teenager, my father read a set of books that my mother had obtained from an elderly lady who was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He was so impressed with what he read in those Christian publications that he agreed to study the Bible with the Witnesses. As he was having his Bible study one evening, my father caught me eavesdropping. He was about to send me back to bed when the visitor said, “Why don’t you let Elva sit in?” That suggestion marked the beginning of a new way of life and of my friendship with the true God—Jehovah.
Shortly thereafter, my father and I began attending Christian meetings. What he learned moved him to make changes in his life. He even began to control his temper. This prompted my mother and older brother, Frank, to start attending meetings.* All four of us made progress and were eventually baptized as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Since then, many older ones have influenced me in a positive way during various stages of my life.
WHEN MAKING A CAREER CHOICE
As a teenager, I was drawn to older ones in our congregation. One of them was Alice Place, the elderly sister who had first called on our family. She became like a grandmother to me. Alice trained me in the public ministry and encouraged me to reach out for baptism. At the age of 15, I attained that goal.
I also drew close to an elderly couple named Percy and Madge [Margaret] Dunham. Their association had a great impact on my future. You see, I loved mathematics, and I had my heart set on teaching math. Percy and Madge had served as missionaries in Latvia during the 1930’s. When World War II broke out in Europe, they were invited to serve at the Australia Bethel, located in an inner suburb of Sydney. Percy and Madge took a real interest in me. They related many exciting experiences that they had enjoyed in the missionary activity. I could clearly see that teaching the Bible would be far more satisfying than teaching mathematics. So I decided to become a missionary instead.
The Dunhams encouraged me to prepare for missionary service by pioneering. Thus, in 1948, at age 16, I joined the ranks of ten other young people who were happily pioneering in my home congregation in Hurstville, Sydney.
Over the next four years, I pioneered in four other towns—all in New South Wales and Queensland. One of my first Bible students was Betty Law (now Remnant). Betty, a caring girl, was two years older than I was. She later became my pioneer partner in the town of Cowra, some 145 miles (230 km) west of Sydney. Although we pioneered together for only a short time, Betty and I continue to be friends to this day.
Upon receiving a special pioneer assignment, I moved to Narrandera—a town 137 miles (220 km) southwest of Cowra. My new partner was Joy Lennox (now Hunter), a zealous pioneer who was also two years older than I was. We were the only Witnesses in town. Joy and I roomed with a hospitable couple, Ray and Esther Irons. They along with their son and three daughters were interested in the truth. Ray and his son worked on a sheep and wheat farm outside of town during the week, while Esther and the girls ran a local boarding house. Every Sunday, Joy and I cooked a huge roast dinner for the Irons family and about a dozen of their boarders—all hungry male railway laborers. This service covered part of our rent. After we cleaned up, we served the Irons family a delicious spiritual meal—the weekly Watchtower study. Ray, Esther, and their four children came into the truth and became the founding members of the Narrandera Congregation.
In 1951, I attended a convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Sydney. There I went to a special meeting for pioneers who were interested in missionary work. More than 300 were in attendance at that meeting held in a large tent. Nathan Knorr from Brooklyn Bethel addressed the group and spelled out the urgent need to carry the good news to every corner of the earth. We hung on to every word he said. Many of the pioneers present later opened up the Kingdom work in the South Pacific and other areas. I was thrilled to be 1 of 17 Australians invited to the 19th class of Gilead School in 1952. At just 20 years of age, my dream of missionary service was coming true!
WHEN NEEDING REFINEMENT
The instruction and association at Gilead not only increased my Bible knowledge and strengthened my faith but also had a profound effect on my personality. I was young and idealistic and tended to expect perfection from myself as well as others. Some of my views were overly strict. For example, when I saw Brother Knorr playing a friendly ball game with a group of young Bethelites, I was shocked.
The Gilead instructors—all discerning men with years of experience—must have seen that I was struggling. They took an interest in me and helped me to adjust my thinking. Gradually, I began to see Jehovah as a loving and appreciative God, not as a strict and demanding one. Some of my classmates also helped me. I recall one of them saying: “Elva, Jehovah is not up there using a whip. Don’t be so strict with yourself!” Her plain-spoken words touched my heart.
After Gilead, four of my classmates and I were assigned to Namibia, Africa. Soon we were conducting 80 Bible studies between us. I loved Namibia and missionary life, but I had fallen in love with a Gilead classmate who had been assigned to Switzerland. After spending a year in Namibia, I joined my fiancé in Switzerland. After we were married, I accompanied my husband in his work as a circuit overseer.
WHEN CONFRONTING A CRISIS
After spending five enjoyable years in the circuit work, we were invited to serve at Switzerland Bethel. In the Bethel family there, I was thrilled to be surrounded by many spiritually mature older brothers and sisters.
Soon thereafter, I received a terrible shock. I discovered that my husband had been unfaithful to me and to Jehovah. Then he walked out on me. I was devastated! I don’t know how I would have coped with the situation without the love and support of my dear older friends in the Bethel family. They listened to me when I needed to talk and let me rest when I needed to rest. Their comforting words and kind deeds supported me during my unspeakable pain and helped me draw even closer to Jehovah.
I also recalled words uttered years earlier by wise older ones who had been tempered by trials. These included comments made by Madge Dunham. She once told me: “Elva, in your life of service to Jehovah, you will face many trials, but the hardest tests may come from those close to you. During those trials, draw close to Jehovah. Remember that you serve him, not imperfect humans!” Madge’s counsel steered me through many dark moments. I determined that I would never allow my husband’s mistakes to separate me from Jehovah.
In time, I decided to return to Australia to pioneer closer to my family. During the ocean voyage home, I enjoyed regular lively Bible discussions with a group of fellow passengers. In the group was a quiet Norwegian man named Arne Gjerde. He liked what he heard. Arne later visited my family and me in Sydney. He made rapid spiritual progress and came into the truth. In 1963, Arne and I were married, and two years later I gave birth to our son, Gary.
WHEN CONFRONTING ANOTHER LOSS
Arne, Gary, and I basked in the contentment of happy family life. Soon Arne enlarged our home to accommodate my aged parents. After six years of marriage, though, we reeled under a blow of a different kind. Arne was diagnosed with brain cancer. I visited him in the hospital every day while he undertook a lengthy course of radiation therapy. For a while he progressed well; then his condition deteriorated and he suffered a stroke. I was told that he had only weeks to live. However, Arne survived. He eventually returned home, where I slowly nursed him back to health. In time, he was able to walk again and to resume his activity as a congregation elder. His happy disposition and good sense of humor contributed to his recovery and made it easier for me to give him ongoing care.
Years later, in 1986, Arne’s health again worsened. By then my parents had died, so we moved to the beautiful Blue Mountains outside of Sydney, which placed us closer to our friends. Later, Gary married a lovely spiritual sister, Karin, and they suggested that the four of us share a home. Within months, we all moved into a home only a few streets away from where Arne and I had been living.
During the last 18 months of his life, Arne was bedridden and required constant care. Since I was housebound for most of that time, I spent two hours each day studying the Bible and Bible-based publications. During those study sessions, I discovered much wise advice on how to cope with my situation. I also received loving visits from older ones in our congregation—some of whom had endured similar trials. Their visits truly lifted my spirits! Arne died in April 2003, with a sound hope in the resurrection.
MY GREATEST SUPPORT
When I was young, I was idealistic. But I found out that life seldom turns out the way we expect. I have enjoyed countless blessings and have also endured two major tragedies—losing one partner to infidelity and another to illness. Along the way, I have drawn guidance and comfort from several sources. My greatest support still is “the Ancient of Days”—Jehovah God. (Dan. 7:9) His counsel has molded my personality, and it led me to rewarding experiences in the missionary work. When problems arose, ‘Jehovah’s loving-kindness sustained me and his consolations fondled my soul.’ (Ps. 94:18, 19) I have also enjoyed the love and support of my family and of ‘true companions born for when there is distress.’ (Prov. 17:17) Many of these were wise older ones.
“Is there not wisdom among the aged and understanding in length of days?” asked the patriarch Job. (Job 12:12) Looking back on my life, I can say that the answer is yes. The advice of wise older ones has helped me, their comfort has supported me, and their friendships have enriched my life. I am grateful that I was drawn to them.
Now at 80, I am an older one myself. My experiences have made me especially sensitive to the needs of other elderly ones. I still love to visit and help them. But I also enjoy the company of young people. Their energy is stimulating, and their enthusiasm is contagious. When I sense that young ones are reaching out to me for guidance or support, I find it rewarding to be there for them.
Elva’s brother, Frank Lambert, became a zealous pioneer in the Australian outback. The 1983 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, pages 110-112, relates one of his many exciting preaching expeditions.
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Pioneering with Joy Lennox in Narrandera
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Elva with members of the Switzerland Bethel family in 1960
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Caring for Arne when he was ill