IN THE dead of night, the mighty Niger River stretched out before us—swift and nearly a mile (1.6 km) wide. The Nigerian Civil War was raging, so crossing the Niger could be fatal. Still we had to take the risk, more than once. How did I come to be in that position? Let’s go back to the time before I was born.
In 1913 my father, John Mills, got baptized in New York City at the age of 25. Brother Russell gave the baptism talk. Shortly thereafter, Dad went to Trinidad, where he married Constance Farmer, a zealous Bible Student. Dad helped his friend William R. Brown to show the “Photo-Drama of Creation.” They did so until the Browns were assigned to West Africa in 1923. Dad and Mother, who both had the heavenly hope, carried on in Trinidad.
PARENTS WHO LOVED US
My parents had nine children, naming their firstborn Rutherford after the then president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. When I came along on December 30, 1922, I was named after Clayton J. Woodworth, editor of The Golden Age (now Awake!). Our parents gave all of us a basic education, but they especially emphasized spiritual goals. Mother had an extraordinary ability to reason persuasively from the Scriptures. Dad loved to tell us Bible stories, using his whole body to make the account come alive.
Their efforts bore good fruit. Three of us five boys attended Gilead School. Three of our sisters pioneered for many years in Trinidad and Tobago. By means of their teaching and good example, our parents planted us children “in the house of Jehovah.” Their encouragement helped us to stay there and flourish “in the courtyards of our God.”—Ps. 92:13.
Our home became a base for the preaching activity. Pioneers gathered there and often talked about Brother George Young, a Canadian missionary who had visited Trinidad. My parents spoke excitedly about their former partners, the Browns, who were by then in West Africa. All of this moved me to begin field service when I was ten years old.
Our magazines were fiery in those days, exposing false religion, greedy commercialism, and dirty politics. In response, in 1936 the clergy prompted Trinidad’s acting governor to ban all Watch Tower publications. We concealed the literature but continued to use it till all supplies were exhausted. We had information marches and bicycle parades, using handbills and placards. Along with the sound-car group from the town of Tunapuna, we preached even in the remotest parts of Trinidad. It was exciting! That spiritual environment led to my getting baptized at 16 years of age.
Our family heritage and these early experiences ignited in me a desire to be a missionary. That desire was still alive when I went to Aruba in 1944 and joined Brother Edmund W. Cummings. We were thrilled to gather ten people for the Memorial in 1945. The next year, the first congregation on the island was formed.
Shortly thereafter, I witnessed informally to workmate Oris Williams. Oris put up strong counterarguments to defend the doctrines she had been taught. Through a Bible study, however, she learned what God’s Word really says and got baptized on January 5, 1947. In time, we fell in love and got married. She began pioneering in November 1950. With Oris my life flourished anew.
EXHILARATING SERVICE IN NIGERIA
In 1955 we were invited to attend Gilead School. In preparation for that privilege, Oris and I resigned from our jobs, sold our home and other possessions, and said farewell to Aruba. On July 29, 1956, we graduated with the 27th class of Gilead and were assigned to Nigeria.
Looking back, Oris observed: “Jehovah’s spirit can help a person to adjust to the ups and downs of missionary life. Unlike my husband, I never wanted to be a missionary. I would rather have had a home and raised children. I changed my thinking when I realized how urgent it is to preach the good news. By the time we graduated from Gilead, I was fully set to evangelize as a missionary. As we boarded the liner Queen Mary, Worth Thornton, from Brother Knorr’s office, bid us ‘Bon voyage!’ He told us that we would be serving at Bethel. ‘Oh, no!’ I sighed. But I quickly adjusted and came to love Bethel, where I had various assignments. The one I enjoyed most was working as a receptionist. I love people, and this work brought me into direct contact with the Nigerian brothers. Many would arrive dusty, tired, thirsty, and hungry. It was a pleasure to care for their needs for refreshment and comfort. All of it was sacred service to Jehovah, and that is what brought me satisfaction and happiness.” Yes, every assignment allowed us to flourish.
At a family get-together in Trinidad in 1961, Brother Brown related some of his thrilling experiences in Africa. Then I reported on our growth in Nigeria. Brother Brown lovingly put his arms around me and said to Dad: “Johnny, you never made it to Africa, but Woodworth did!” In response, Dad said: “Carry on, Worth! Carry on!” Such encouragement from those spiritual veterans deepened my desire to accomplish my ministry thoroughly.
In 1962, I was privileged to receive further training in the 37th class of Gilead, a ten-month course. Brother Wilfred Gooch, then the branch overseer in Nigeria, attended the 38th class and was assigned to England. Oversight of the Nigeria branch then became my responsibility. Following Brother Brown’s example, I traveled extensively, getting to know and love the dear Nigerian brothers. Though they lacked many material things common to people in more developed lands, their joy and contentment clearly demonstrated that a meaningful life is not dependent on money or material possessions. Considering their circumstances, it was marvelous to see them clean, neat, and dignified at the meetings. When they flocked to conventions, many would arrive in lorries and bolekajas* (open-sided buses made locally). Often these buses bore intriguing slogans. One was: “Little drops of water make a mighty ocean.”
How true that slogan is! Every bit of individual effort counts; we added ours. By 1974, Nigeria became the first land outside the United States to reach the 100,000-publisher mark. The work had flourished!
In the midst of this growth, the Nigerian Civil War raged from 1967 to 1970. For months, our brothers on the Biafran side of the Niger River were cut off from the branch office. We just had to take them spiritual food. As mentioned in the introduction, with prayer and trust in Jehovah, we crossed the river several times.
I vividly remember those dangerous trips across the Niger, risking death from trigger-happy soldiers, disease, and other hazards. It was one thing to get through the lines of suspicious federal troops but frightfully worse to get through on the blockaded Biafran side. On one occasion, I crossed the rushing Niger River at night by passenger canoe from Asaba to Onitsha and went on to encourage the overseers at Enugu. Another trip strengthened the elders in the mandated blackout at Aba. In Port Harcourt, our meeting hurriedly ended with prayer when federal forces broke through Biafran defenses outside the town.
Those meetings were vital to reassure our dear brothers of Jehovah’s loving care and to give sorely needed counsel on neutrality and unity. The Nigerian brothers successfully came through that horrible conflict. They demonstrated the love that transcends tribal hatred, and they maintained Christian unity. What a privilege to be at their side in that hour of trial!
In 1969, Brother Milton G. Henschel was chairman of the “Peace on Earth” International Assembly at Yankee Stadium, New York, and I learned much as his assistant. This was timely because in 1970 we held the “Men of Goodwill” International Assembly in Lagos, Nigeria. Coming so soon after the civil war, this event succeeded only with Jehovah’s blessing. It was a record-making 17-language event, attended by 121,128. Brothers Knorr and Henschel and visitors on chartered planes from the United States and England observed one of the biggest Christian baptisms since Pentecost—3,775 new disciples! Helping to organize that event was perhaps the busiest time of my life. The growth in publishers was not just an expansion but an explosion!
During the more than 30 years in Nigeria, I enjoyed serving occasionally as a traveling overseer and as a zone overseer in West Africa. How appreciative the missionaries were to receive individual attention and encouragement! What a pleasure it was to assure them that they had not been overlooked! This work taught me that showing personal interest in people is key to helping them flourish and maintain the strength and unity of Jehovah’s organization.
It was only by Jehovah’s help that we were able to cope with the problems brought on by the civil war and illness. Jehovah’s blessing was always evident. Oris commented:
“We both had malaria several times. In one case, Worth landed in a hospital in Lagos unconscious. I was told that he might not survive, but thankfully he did! When he regained consciousness, he spoke about God’s Kingdom to the nurse who was keeping watch over him. Later, I went with Worth to visit the nurse, Mr. Nwambiwe, to cultivate his interest in the Bible. He accepted the truth and later became an elder in Aba. I too had success in helping many, even staunch Muslims, to become devoted servants of Jehovah. We very much enjoyed getting to know and coming to love the Nigerian people, their culture, their customs, and their language.”
This was another lesson: To flourish in our foreign assignment, we had to learn to love our brothers and sisters no matter how different their culture was from ours.
After serving at Bethel in Nigeria, in 1987 we received a new assignment as field missionaries on the beautiful island of St. Lucia in the Caribbean. It was a very pleasant assignment, but it presented new challenges. Unlike in Africa, where a man married many wives, here in St. Lucia, the problem was that a couple lived together without marrying honorably. God’s powerful Word moved many of our Bible students to make the needed changes.
As our vigor decreased with age, the Governing Body lovingly transferred us to world headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A., in 2005. Daily I still thank Jehovah for Oris. She was overcome by that enemy death in 2015, and the sense of loss is unspeakable. She was a superlative companion and a loving, lovable wife. I loved her dearly throughout our 68 years together. We found that the formula for happiness, both in marriage and in the congregation, is to respect headship, forgive freely, maintain humility, and display the fruitage of the spirit.
When disappointments or discouragement threatened, we looked to Jehovah to help us keep our personal sacrifices unspoiled. As we continued to be readjusted, we saw that things kept getting better all the time—and the best is yet ahead!—Isa. 60:17; 2 Cor. 13:11.
In Trinidad and Tobago, Jehovah blessed the work of my parents and others, so that—according to the latest reports—9,892 have joined in true worship. In Aruba, many worked to strengthen the original congregation I was part of. That island now has 14 prosperous congregations. As for Nigeria, the number of publishers has increased to a mighty crowd of 381,398. And on the island of St. Lucia, 783 are supporting Jehovah’s Kingdom.
I am now in my 90’s. Psalm 92:14 says of those planted in the house of Jehovah: “Even in old age they will still be thriving; they will remain vigorous and fresh.” I am so grateful for the life I have lived in Jehovah’s service. The rich Christian heritage I received has encouraged me to serve Jehovah fully. In his loyal love, Jehovah has allowed me to “flourish in the courtyards of [my] God.”—Ps. 92:13.