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When Tyson and Nikea Erickson signed up to serve as Jehovah’s Witnesses missionaries, they were prepared to go anywhere in the world.
They ended up in a nation they knew little about.
“I thought Lithuania was in Africa,” Mrs. Erickson said with a laugh.
She was off by a continent or two, as Lithuania is in eastern Europe bordering Poland, Belarus, Latvia, the former East Prussia, now a Russian enclave, and the Baltic Sea.
The Ericksons, who hail from Edmonton, are in Toledo this week to attend the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ District Convention at the SeaGate Convention Centre.
The couple, both 30 years old, graduated from the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead in September, 2008, and have been in Šiauliai, a city of 120,000 in northern Lithuania, for three years.
“I think my family’s got missionary blood in it,” Mr. Erickson said. “When I was 13, my parents packed up their five kids and moved to Ecuador. I saw firsthand how the Bible can change people’s lives.”
The Gilead School, in Patterson, N.Y., was founded in 1943 and has trained 8,000 missionary students serving in more than 200 lands.
School sessions are five months, with mornings devoted to verse-by-verse studies of the entire Bible.
After lunch, students attend lectures on biblical evangelism and missionary life. They end each day with 2½ hours of physical labor, from laundry and housework to carpentry, the Ericksons said.
There are tests every day.
“It’s not a question ‘if’ there’s a test today, it’s how many tests,” said Edmund Richard, a graduate of the Gilead School who served in Papua New Guinea.
“It’s quite intense,” Mrs. Erickson said. “You end up answering about 5,000 test questions by the time you graduate.”
The goal is to train the missionaries well enough to help people apply the Bible to their daily lives no matter where they live, said David Dunn, a Toledo convention organizer.
There are 44 Jehovah’s Witness congregations in Lithuania, a nation of 3.5 million, and 83 active members of the Ericksons’ congregation in Šiauliai.
The Ericksons, who had studied Chinese before going to the Gilead School, spent three months of intense training to learn Lithuanian, a language they described as one of the most difficult on Earth.
When they arrived in Šiauliai on a rainy December day, their first impression was not exactly flattering.
“It looked like a Soviet country — very gray, very bleak,” Mrs. Erickson recalled.
The people are wary of foreigners, having lived under communism for half a century, but once the ice was broken, the Ericksons said, they found Lithuanians to be warm and friendly.
Lithuanians today proudly inform visitors that their nation was the first to break away from the Soviet Union, declaring its independence on March 11, 1990.
Mr. Erickson said he spends at least 130 hours a month — not including time with his Jehovah’s Witness congregation — spreading the Gospel in Lithuania, knocking on doors and leading Bible studies.
Many Lithuanians have no knowledge of the Bible because the Holy Book was banned under atheistic communism, he said.
“They don’t know the Bible or the Scriptures. It’s like starting from ground level,” Mr. Erickson said.
But the couple have seen results from their evangelistic efforts.
One boy whom they witnessed to was baptized just last week at a district convention in Šiauliai, as were a mother and son the couple have been teaching.
They said there have been no restrictions from the government regarding their religious practices.
While the cost of gas in Lithuania is around $8 a gallon, most other expenses are far lower than in Canada and the United States, the Ericksons said. Internet access is much faster in Lithuania than the United States or Canada, they said, and the couple use Skype to chat with family and friends overseas.
But after three years in the mission field, the Ericksons said they consider Lithuania home.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ district convention continues Saturday and Sunday at the SeaGate Convention Centre. The last convention of the summer is Friday through July 31.
Contact David Yonke at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.