I was born in a one-room log cabin in a very small town called Liberty, Indiana, U.S.A. My parents already had three children when I came along—my older brother and two sisters. Later, my mother gave birth to my two younger brothers and my younger sister.
DURING my school years, not much changed. In my school, the people you were with in first grade were the same ones you finished school with; in fact, you knew the names of most people in town, and they knew yours.
The town of Liberty was surrounded by small farms, and the basic crop was corn. When I was born, my father was working for one of the local farmers. As a teenager, I learned to drive a tractor and became familiar with other basic farming skills.
I never knew a young father. My father was 56 years old when I was born; my mother was 35. Nevertheless, my father was a lean, healthy, strong man who loved hard work and taught all of us kids to value it as well. He never made much money, but he kept a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, and food in our stomachs—and he was always there for us. He was 93 years old when he died. My mother died at the age of 86. Neither of them served Jehovah. Of my siblings, I have one brother who has served faithfully as an elder since that arrangement began back in the early 1970’s.
MY EARLY YEARS
My mother was very religious. She took us to the Baptist church every Sunday. When I was 12, I first heard about the Trinity. Curious, I asked my mom: “How can Jesus be both the Son and the Father at the same time?” I remember her answer: “Son, it’s a mystery. We’re not meant to understand it.” It certainly was a mystery to me. Still, when I was about 14, I got baptized in a local creek—dipped three times for the Trinity!
While I was in high school, I had a friend who was a prizefighter, and he convinced me to try boxing. So I started training, and I enrolled in the Golden Gloves, a boxing organization. I wasn’t very good, so after a few bouts, I gave it up. Later, I was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Germany. While I was serving there, my superiors sent me to a Noncommissioned Officers Academy, thinking that I had natural leadership abilities. They wanted me to make the military my career. I had no desire to stay in the military service, so after finishing my service time of two years, I was honorably discharged in 1956. Before too long, though, I enrolled in a very different army.
A NEW LIFE BEGINS
Up to this point in my life, I had learned to be somewhat macho. The idea of what a man should be like, as presented in the movies and the social environment, influenced me a great deal. To my way of thinking, preachers were not manly enough. But I began to learn some things that turned my life around. One day, while I was driving my red convertible through town, two young women waved me over. I knew them—they were the younger sisters of the man who had married my older sister. Anyway, these two girls were Jehovah’s Witnesses. I had accepted the Watchtower and Awake! magazines from them before, but I generally felt that The Watchtower was a bit too deep for my taste. This time, however, they invited me to come to a Congregation Book Study, a small meeting for Bible study and discussion that was held in their home. I told them I would think about it. “Do you promise?” the smiling girls asked me. “I promise,” I said.
I had some regrets about making that promise, but I felt that I could not back out. So that night I went. The children impressed me the most. I couldn’t believe how much they knew about the Bible! After all those Sundays of churchgoing with my mother, I still had very little Bible knowledge. Now I was determined to learn more. I agreed to a Bible study. I learned early on that the personal name of God Almighty is Jehovah. Years before, when I asked my mother about Jehovah’s Witnesses, she simply said, “Oh, they worship some old man named Jehovah.” But I now felt that my eyes were being opened!
I made rapid progress, for I knew that I had found the truth. Within nine months of that first meeting, I got baptized—in March of 1957. My outlook on life changed. When I think about my old macho attitude, I am glad that I learned what the Bible teaches about real manliness. Jesus was a perfect man. He had strength and physical power that would make any ‘macho man’ pale in comparison. Yet, he did not get involved in fights, but “he let himself be afflicted,” just as was foretold. (Isa. 53:2, 7) I learned that a true follower of Jesus “needs to be gentle toward all.”—2 Tim. 2:24.
I started pioneering the next year, in 1958. Soon, though, I had to stop for a short time. Why? I had decided to take a bride—Gloria, one of those two young ladies who had invited me to the book study! I have never regretted that decision. Gloria was a jewel then, and she is a jewel today. To me, she is like the Hope Diamond—but I don’t have to hope in this case. I married her! Let her tell you a bit about herself:
“I was one of 17 children. My mom was a faithful Witness. She died when I was 14. That was when my dad began studying. With Mom gone, Dad made an arrangement with the school principal. My older sister was then a senior in high school, and Dad asked if she and I could go to school on alternate days. We would take turns so that one of us could be at home to take care of the younger children and have dinner ready for the family by the time Dad came home from work. The school principal approved, and that arrangement lasted until my sister graduated. Two Witness families studied with us, and 11 of us children grew up to be Jehovah’s Witnesses. I enjoyed field service, even though I have always struggled with shyness. Sam has helped me with that over the years.”
Gloria and I got married in February of 1959. We enjoyed pioneering together. In July of that year, we applied for Bethel service, for we longed to serve at world headquarters. A dear brother, Simon Kraker, interviewed us. He told us that Bethel was not accepting married couples at that time. We never lost that desire to serve at Bethel—but it proved to be a long time in coming!
We wrote to world headquarters, asking to be sent to serve where the need was greater. In response, we were given just one choice: Pine Bluff, Arkansas. In those days, there were two congregations in Pine Bluff—one white and one “colored,” or black. We were sent to the “colored” congregation, which had only about 14 publishers.
COPING WITH SEGREGATION AND RACISM
You may be wondering why segregation would be practiced in congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses. And the answer, put simply, is that there was little choice back in those days. There were laws in place to make it illegal for the races to mix, and there was also the very real threat of violence. In many places, the brothers had good reason to fear that if the two races met together for worship, their Kingdom Hall would be destroyed. Such things did happen. If black Witnesses preached from door to door in a white neighborhood, they would be arrested—and likely beaten up. So in order to get the preaching work done, we obeyed the laws, hoping that things would change for the better.
Our ministry had its challenges. While we were working a black territory, we sometimes inadvertently knocked at a door of a white family. We had to determine quickly if we should try to give a short Scriptural presentation or just acknowledge our mistake and move on. In some places, that was how things were in those days.
Of course, we had to work hard secularly to support our pioneering. Most of our jobs paid three dollars a day. Gloria had a few housekeeping jobs. I was permitted to help her at one place so that she could get done in half the time. We were given lunch—a frozen prepackaged meal called a TV dinner that Gloria and I shared before leaving. Each week, Gloria did ironing for one family. I did yard work, washed windows, and cared for other odd jobs. In the home of one white family, we washed the windows—Gloria did it from the inside, and I did it from the outside. It took all day, so we were given lunch. Gloria ate inside the house but separate from the family, while I ate outside in the garage. I didn’t mind. It was a very good meal. The family was nice; they were just locked into that system, that way of thinking. I remember one time when we stopped at a gas station. After filling up the tank of our car, I asked the attendant if Gloria could use the restroom. He just glared at me and said, “It’s locked.”
MEMORABLE ACTS OF KINDNESS
On the other hand, we had wonderful times with the brothers, and we loved our ministry! When we first arrived in Pine Bluff, we moved in with the brother who was the congregation servant at the time. His wife was then an unbeliever, and Gloria started a Bible study with her. Meanwhile, I started a study with the couple’s daughter and her husband. Mother and daughter both decided to serve Jehovah and got baptized.
We had dear friends in the white congregation. They would have us over for dinner, but they had to do so under the cover of darkness. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), an organization that promotes racism and violence, was very active then. I remember seeing a man sitting on his front porch one Halloween night proudly wearing a white sheet and hood, as those in the KKK did. That kind of thing, though, did not stop the brothers from showing kindness. One summer, we needed funds in order to travel to the convention, and a brother agreed to buy our 1950 Ford in order to make it possible. One day, a month later, we were tired after walking from door to door in the summer heat and conducting Bible studies. Then we came home to a surprise. There was our car, parked in front of the house! A note on the windshield read: “You can have your car back as a gift from me. Your brother.”
Another act of kindness made a lasting impression on me. In 1962, I was invited to attend the Kingdom Ministry School at South Lansing, New York. It was a full month of training for those with oversight of the congregations, circuits, and districts. When I got the invitation, though, I was unemployed and struggling financially. However, a telephone company in Pine Bluff had interviewed me for a job. If they hired me, I would be the first black man to work for that company. They finally told me that they were going to hire me. What would I do? I had no money to travel to New York. I seriously thought about taking the job and turning down the invitation to the school. In fact, I was getting ready to write a letter declining the invitation when something happened that I will never forget.
A sister in our congregation, whose husband was an unbeliever, knocked on our door early one morning and handed me an envelope. It was full of money. She and several of her young children had been getting up very early in the morning to go out in the fields and chop cotton—removing the weeds growing between the rows—in order to earn enough money so that I could take the trip to New York. She said, “Go to school and learn as much as you can, and come back and teach us!” Later, I asked the telephone company if I could start working there five weeks later than planned. The answer was an emphatic, “No!” But it didn’t matter. I had made my decision. I am so glad that I did not take that job!
Here is how Gloria remembers our time in Pine Bluff: “I fell in love with the territory! I had 15 to 20 Bible studies. So we would go in the house-to-house work in the morning and then conduct Bible studies the rest of the day, sometimes until 11 o’clock at night. Service was so much fun! I would happily have stayed in that work. I have to admit that I did not really want to change my assignment and enter the circuit work, but Jehovah had something else in mind.” He certainly did.
LIFE IN THE TRAVELING WORK
While we were pioneering in Pine Bluff, we applied to become special pioneers. We had high hopes because our district overseer wanted us to help a congregation down in Texas, and he wanted us to go there as specials. The thought of such a change appealed to us. So we waited and waited, hoping for an answer from the Society, but we kept finding the mailbox empty. Finally, a letter came one day—we were assigned to the traveling work! That was January 1965. Brother Leon Weaver, now the coordinator of the United States Branch Committee, was appointed to serve as a circuit overseer at the same time.
I was nervous about becoming a circuit overseer. A year or so earlier, the district overseer, James A. Thompson, Jr., examined my qualifications. He kindly showed me a few areas in which I could improve, mentioning skills that a good circuit overseer needs. I had been in the circuit work for only a short time when I realized that his counsel was surely needed. After I was appointed, Brother Thompson was the first district overseer I served with. I learned a lot from that faithful spiritual brother.
In those days, a circuit overseer received little training. I spent a week observing a circuit overseer as he visited one congregation. Then he spent the following week observing me as I visited another congregation. He offered suggestions and guidance. But after that we were on our own. I remember saying to Gloria, “Does he really have to leave now?” In time, though, I realized something important. There will always be good brothers who can help you—if you let them help you. I still cherish the help I received from such experienced brothers as J. R. Brown, then a traveling overseer, and Fred Rusk of the Bethel family.
Racism ran high in those days. One time, the KKK held a march in a town we were visiting in Tennessee. I remember another time when the service group stopped for a break at a fast-food restaurant. I went to use the men’s restroom, and I noticed that a very rough-looking character, tattooed like a white supremacist, got up and followed me. But a white brother, far larger than either me or the rough-looking customer, came in after us. “Is everything all right, Brother Herd?” he asked me. The other customer left quickly without using the facilities. Over the years, I have seen that prejudice is not really about a person’s skin; it is about sin—the Adamic sin that infects us all. And I have learned that a brother is a brother regardless of skin color, and he will die for you if need be.
A RICH ENDING
We spent 33 years in the traveling work, the last 21 of those in the district work. They were rich, rewarding years, full of encouraging experiences. Another reward was on the way, though. In August 1997 our long-standing dream was realized. We were invited to serve at the United States Bethel—some 38 years after the first time we applied. The following month, we began our Bethel service. I assumed that the responsible brothers at Bethel only wanted me to help out temporarily, but that is not how things turned out.
I was first assigned to work in the Service Department. That was a learning experience. The brothers there have to deal with many sensitive and complex questions from elder bodies and circuit overseers around the country. I appreciated how patient and helpful the brothers were in training me. Nonetheless, I feel that if I were assigned to work there again, I would still be a novice.
Gloria and I love Bethel life. We have always been early risers, and that habit certainly helps at Bethel. After a year or so, I began serving as a helper to the Service Committee of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Then in 1999, I was appointed to be a member of the Governing Body. I have learned many things in this assignment, but the foremost lesson has been how obvious it is that Jesus Christ—not any man—is the head of the Christian congregation.
Looking back on my life, I sometimes feel a bit like the prophet Amos. Jehovah took note of that humble shepherd who engaged in menial seasonal work as a nipper of sycamore figs—food considered fit only for the poor. God appointed Amos to be a prophet, certainly a spiritually rich assignment. (Amos 7:14, 15, ftn.) Similarly, Jehovah took note of me, the son of a poor farmer in Liberty, Indiana, and poured out rich blessings on me—too many even to mention! (Prov. 10:22) I certainly feel that my life may have had a poor start materially, but the ending is spiritually rich, far richer than I could ever have imagined!