Never before had I preached on my own. I was so nervous that my legs were shaking each time I went out. To make matters worse, the territory was extremely unreceptive. Some people were outright aggressive and threatened to beat me up. During the first month of my pioneer service, I placed only one booklet!—Markus.
THAT was in 1949, more than 60 years ago, but my story begins many years earlier. My father, Hendrik, worked as a shoemaker and gardener in Donderen, a small village in north Drenthe, in the Netherlands. I was born there in 1927, the fourth of seven children. Our house stood on a dirt road in a rural district. Most of our neighbors were farmers, and I enjoyed farm life. In 1947, when I was 19 years old, I came in contact with the truth through one of our neighbors, Theunis Been. I remember that I didn’t like Theunis when I first met him, but shortly after World War II, he became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I noticed that he was much friendlier than he had been before. This change in personality intrigued me, so I listened to him when he talked to me about God’s promise of a paradise earth. I quickly accepted the truth, and we became lifelong friends.*
I started preaching in May 1948, and the very next month, on June 20, I was baptized at a convention in Utrecht. On January 1, 1949, I began pioneering and was assigned to Borculo, in eastern Netherlands, where there was a small congregation. I had to travel some 80 miles (130 km) to get there, so I decided to go on my bicycle. I thought it would take me about 6 hours, but because of the heavy rain and a strong headwind, it took 12 hours, even though I took the train for the final 55 miles (90 km)! Late in the evening, I at last reached my destination, the home of a Witness family with whom I stayed while I pioneered in that area.
In those postwar years, people had few possessions. All I had was one suit and a pair of pants—the suit too big, the pants too short! As I mentioned in the introduction, the first month in Borculo was difficult, but Jehovah blessed me with several Bible studies. After nine months, I was assigned to Amsterdam.
FROM THE COUNTRYSIDE TO THE CITY
Having been raised in an agricultural district, I now found myself in Amsterdam, the largest city in the Netherlands. The ministry was very productive. In the first month, I placed more literature than I had in the previous nine months. I was soon conducting no fewer than eight Bible studies. After being appointed as congregation servant (now called the coordinator of the body of elders), I received an assignment to give my first public talk. To me, it was a daunting prospect, so I heaved a huge sigh of relief when I was transferred to another congregation just before I was scheduled to deliver it. Little did I know then that over the years, I would give more than 5,000 talks!
In May 1950, I was assigned to Haarlem. I then received an invitation to the circuit work. I could hardly sleep for three days. I told Robert Winkler, one of the brothers serving at the branch office, that I didn’t feel qualified, but he said: “Just fill out the papers. You’ll learn.” Shortly after that, I was given a month’s training and started to serve as a circuit servant (overseer). During a visit to one of the congregations, I met Janny Taatgen, a cheerful young pioneer with a deep love for Jehovah and a self-sacrificing spirit. We got married in 1955. But before I continue my story, Janny will explain how she became a pioneer and how we served together after we got married.
SERVING AS A MARRIED COUPLE
Janny: My mother became a Witness in 1945 when I was 11 years old. She immediately saw the importance of studying the Bible with her three children, but my father was opposed to the truth, so she taught us when he was not at home.
The first meeting I attended was a convention in The Hague in 1950. One week later, I attended my first meeting at the local Kingdom Hall in Assen (Drenthe). My father was furious and put me out of the house. My mother said, “You know where you can live.” I knew she was referring to my spiritual brothers and sisters. I first moved in with a Witness family who lived nearby, but my father was still making life difficult for me, so I moved to the congregation in Deventer (Overijssel), which was some 60 miles (95 km) away. However, I was a minor, so my father got in trouble with the civil authorities for making me leave his house. As a result, he told me I could come back home. Although my father never accepted the truth, he eventually allowed me to attend all the meetings and to go out preaching.
Shortly after I returned home, my mother became severely ill and I had to do all the housework. In spite of this, I continued to make spiritual progress and was baptized in 1951 at the age of 17. In 1952, after Mother recovered from her illness, I served together with three pioneer sisters for two months as a vacation (auxiliary) pioneer. We lived on a houseboat and preached in two towns in Drenthe. I became a regular pioneer in 1953. One year later, a young circuit overseer visited our congregation. That was Markus. We got married in May 1955, as we felt that we could serve Jehovah better as a couple.—Eccl. 4:9-12.
Markus: After our wedding, at first we were assigned as pioneers to Veendam (Groningen). We lived in a tiny room that measured only about seven by ten feet (2 by 3 m). All the same, Janny made the room nice and cozy. Every night, we had to move our table and two small chairs out of the way to let down the wall bed.
After six months, we were invited to the traveling work in Belgium. In 1955, there were only about 4,000 publishers in the country. Now there are six times that number! In Flanders, in the north of Belgium, people speak the same language as in the Netherlands. However, the Belgian accent is quite different, so initially we had to overcome a language barrier.
Janny: The traveling work calls for a genuine self-sacrificing spirit. We visited the congregations on our bicycles and stayed in the homes of the brothers and sisters. Because we did not have a place of our own to go to between congregations, we stayed through Monday, traveling to the next congregation on Tuesday morning. But we always viewed our service as a blessing from Jehovah.
Markus: At first, we did not know any of the brothers and sisters in the congregations, but they were very kind and hospitable. (Heb. 13:2, ftn.) Over the years, we visited all the Dutch-speaking congregations in Belgium several times. This brought us many blessings. For instance, we got to know almost all the brothers and sisters in the Dutch district, and they have become very dear to us. We have seen hundreds of youngsters grow to physical and spiritual maturity and dedicate themselves to Jehovah, putting Kingdom interests first in their lives. It’s a real joy to see many of them serve Jehovah faithfully in the full-time service. (3 John 4) This “interchange of encouragement” has made it easy for us to continue wholeheartedly in our assignment.—Rom. 1:12.
A GREAT CHALLENGE AND A REAL BLESSING
Markus: From the day we got married, it was our desire to attend the Gilead School. Every day, we studied English for at least an hour. However, it wasn’t easy to learn English from books, so we decided to go to England during our vacation to practice the language while preaching there. Finally, in 1963 we received an envelope from the world headquarters in Brooklyn. It contained two letters, one for me and one for Janny. My letter was an invitation to attend a special ten-month class of Gilead. The course would focus mainly on training brothers and giving them organizational instruction. So of the 100 students who were invited, 82 were brothers.
Janny: In the letter I received that day, I was asked to consider prayerfully whether I would be willing to stay in Belgium while Markus attended Gilead. I must admit that I was disappointed at first. It seemed that my efforts to reach out had not been blessed by Jehovah. Nonetheless, I reminded myself of the purpose of Gilead School—to help those who attend to accomplish the work of preaching the good news worldwide. So I agreed to stay behind and was assigned to serve as a special pioneer in the Belgian city of Ghent with Anna and Maria Colpaert, two experienced special pioneers.
Markus: Because I had to improve my English, I was invited to go to Brooklyn five months before the start of the school. I worked in the Shipping and Service departments. Serving at world headquarters and helping prepare literature shipments to Asia, Europe, and South America made me more aware of our international brotherhood. I especially remember Brother A. H. Macmillan, who had been in the pilgrim (traveling overseer) work in the days of Brother Russell. He was old by then and quite deaf, yet he faithfully attended all the congregation meetings. That left a deep impression on me and taught me that we should never take our Christian association for granted.—Heb. 10:24, 25.
Janny: Markus and I corresponded several times a week. We missed each other so much! Yet, Markus enjoyed the training he was receiving at Gilead, and I found real joy in my ministry. By the time Markus came home from the United States, I was conducting 17 Bible studies! Our being separated for 15 months was certainly a challenge, but I could see that Jehovah blessed us for the sacrifices we made. The day Markus came back, the plane was delayed for several hours, so when he finally arrived, we cried in each other’s arms. Since then, we have been inseparable.
THANKFUL FOR EVERY PRIVILEGE OF SERVICE
Markus: When I came back from Gilead in December 1964, we were assigned to serve at Bethel. Although we did not know it at the time, that would not be our permanent assignment. Only three months later, we were assigned to the district work in Flanders. When Aalzen and Els Wiegersma were sent as missionaries to Belgium, they were assigned to the district work, and we went back to Bethel where I served in the Service Department. From 1968 to 1980, our assignment changed several times from serving at Bethel to serving in the traveling work. Finally, from 1980 until 2005, I served again as a district overseer.
Although our assignment often changed, we never lost sight of the fact that we had dedicated our lives to serve Jehovah whole-souled. We really enjoyed every assignment that we received, confident that the purpose of any changes in our service was to advance Kingdom interests.
Janny: I especially enjoyed the exciting privilege of going with Markus to Brooklyn in 1977 and to Patterson in 1997 when he received additional training as a Branch Committee member.
JEHOVAH KNOWS OUR NEEDS
Markus: In 1982, Janny underwent surgery and recovered well. Three years later, the congregation in Louvain kindly offered us an apartment above their Kingdom Hall. For the first time in 30 years, we had a little place of our own. On Tuesday, when we packed up to start our visit to a congregation, I had to go down and up the 54 steps several times to take our luggage down! Thankfully, in 2002 arrangements were made so that we could have an apartment on the ground floor. After I turned 78 years of age, we were assigned as special pioneers in the town of Lokeren. We are very happy that we can serve in this way and that we can still go in service every day.
“We firmly believe that it is not important where we serve nor in what capacity but, rather, whom we serve”
Janny: Altogether we have spent over 120 years in the full-time service! We have experienced firsthand the truthfulness of Jehovah’s promise that ‘he will by no means leave us’ and that if we serve him faithfully, we will ‘not lack a thing.’—Heb. 13:5; Deut. 2:7.
Markus: When we were young, we dedicated ourselves to Jehovah. We never looked for great things for ourselves. We have been willing to accept any assignment offered to us because we firmly believe that it is not important where we serve nor in what capacity but, rather, whom we serve.
Over the years, my father, my mother, an older sister, and two of my brothers also became Witnesses.