A Visit to Central America
WEDNESDAY, November 30, 1949, was the day that N. H. Knorr, president of the Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society, and one of his secretaries, R. E. Morgan, were scheduled to leave New York for a service tour of the Society’s Branch offices and missionary homes in Central America, also taking in three countries on the northern coast of the South American continent and several islands in the Netherlands West Indies. They were to attend conventions and give lectures in the principal cities visited during their trip. Preparations for the journey were interrupted fourteen days prior to the departure date when Brother Knorr was stricken with an acute attack of appendicitis. It was hoped that the inflammation would respond to treatment and subside so as to make an operation unnecessary. However, this was the third attack over a two-year period and the doctors decided that an operation was imperative. So at 10 p.m. on November 16 an appendectomy was performed. This meant, of course, that Brother Knorr would be unable to leave on the journey according to the itinerary sent to all Branch offices of the Watch Tower Society in the area to be visited, even though he was back at his desk and working by November 22, six days after the operation.
Due to the fact that Jehovah’s witnesses in these countries were expecting a visit by representatives from the Society’s headquarters, and because preparations had already been made for conventions and the advertising of public meetings to be addressed by Brother Knorr was being done, he advised Brother Morgan to continue his travel arrangements and plan to make the trip by himself from Mexico through to Nicaragua. Brother Morgan would keep all the speaking appointments and substitute for the president at the public meetings. Brother Knorr decided that, after allowing several weeks for the incision to heal sufficiently, he would leave New York on the 17th of December and spend two days in the first six countries to be visited, finally overtaking Brother Morgan in Costa Rica on December 30. In this way Brother Knorr would be able to handle important matters pertaining to the Kingdom work, check Branch offices, discuss problems of expansion and those confronting missionary homes, and address the local companies that Brother Morgan had already served; and at the same time he would not miss visiting and counseling Gilead graduates in these countries.
Early in the morning of November 30 a group of brethren from Brooklyn Bethel, including Brother Knorr, who was by this time feeling quite well and working every day, accompanied Brother Morgan to the airport at Newark, New Jersey. There was a very heavy smog over the city that morning, and especially over the airfield; but promptly at 9 a.m. the airport loudspeakers announced the departure of Eastern Airline’s Flight 501 to Houston, Texas. The brethren seeing Brother Morgan off wished him the Lord’s blessing upon his journey, and within a few minutes the giant new-type Constellation thundered down the runway and soon disappeared in the haze on its southwesterly flight. With its pressurized cabin it cruised at an altitude of more than 11,000 feet, crossing southeastern United States at better than 300 miles per hour. Riding was smooth for the greater portion of the trip. A few minutes before 2 p.m. the captain called for seat belts to be fastened, and promptly at 2:05 the wheels touched down on the Houston runway. Reservations called for a continuance of the trip to Mexico City via Pan American World Airways at 3:30 p.m. But there was a delay of thirty minutes because of repairs being made on the Pan American DC-4. However, not many minutes after 4 p.m. the “Clipper Archer” was out over the Gulf of Mexico, taking a straight course for the capital city of Old Mexico.
A few minutes after 8 p.m. the lights of Mexico City began to appear in the distance. All was pitch dark in the sky above as we flew over the city and circled to the west, but the brilliance of the multicolored lights below evidenced the fact that Mexico City is a modern city, appearing no different from the sky at night than any large American city might. The plane settled down smoothly on the runway of the Aeropuerto Central on the outskirts of the city. On hand were all the Gilead graduates doing educational work in Mexico City, along with some members of the Mexican Bethel family. They wondered where Brother Knorr was, as the Mexican office had not received the notification that he would come two weeks later, although they knew Brother Knorr had been sick. Some thought that a fellow traveler getting off the plane with Brother Morgan was one of the brethren from Brooklyn Bethel, and they gave that gentleman as royal a reception and shook his hand as vigorously as they did with Brother Morgan. He certainly must have thought well of Mexican hospitality. It was not until a few of the “reception committee” of some thirty or more brethren said, “Wait for the other brother,” that they all learned Brother Morgan was traveling alone.
After all this excitement the group proceeded to the home of the brethren. There everyone gathered around the dining-room tables to look at the latest pictures of the new Brooklyn Bethel and factory, and to talk about friends back home and how things were going in the U.S.A. This was Brother Morgan’s first trip to a strange and interesting country and he was enjoying it.
Thursday and Friday were devoted to checking procedure in the office of La Torre del Vigia de Mexico, A.C. Although Jehovah’s witnesses in Mexico had just concluded three very successful district assemblies, a good number of persons gathered together in Mexico City to enjoy a fourth assembly for that country during the year. Principally those comprising the units in Mexico City were in attendance. All persons interested in the work of Jehovah’s witnesses were invited to attend the special talk to be delivered on the subject “Liberty to the Captives”. There were 670 brethren attending the opening meeting on Friday night. To Brother Morgan this was a new experience and he was impressed by the colorful group—people coming from all walks of life, each distinguished by his dress, but all being the Lord’s “other sheep”. To see babies carried in a rebozo or shawl in the mother’s bosom or on her back was a strange sight when one is used to seeing babies moved about in carriages or carried in the arms of the mother. The children of all ages were unusually quiet and never caused any disturbance. All faces radiated joy and happiness. After a few words of greeting the speaker conveyed the love and best wishes of Brother Knorr and his regrets at not being able to be with them.
Then a fine service program got under way. This concluded with a thirty-minute talk by the traveling representative on the responsibilities of servants in the company organization. Saturday morning was set aside for field service; and the afternoon was devoted to talks, all by graduates of Gilead, two being native Mexican brethren. Saturday evening Brother Morgan spoke again, using a Gilead graduate as interpreter. Although the Mexican brethren do not have a Kingdom Service Song Book, but just the printed words, it seemed that their singing was so much more vigorous and moving than when the same songs are rendered in English. Sunday afternoon 850 persons assembled to hear the special talk “Liberty to the Captives”. There were many persons of good-will in attendance, some having come to their first meeting. The convention concluded Sunday evening with a report on the expansion of the Society’s facilities in the United States and a summary of how the witness work is moving ahead in other countries of the world. Approximately 950 persons enjoyed this last session and they requested Brother Morgan to convey their love to all their fellow workers whom he would meet along the course of his trip. At 11 a.m. Tuesday morning, December 6, Brother Morgan bade good-bye to the brethren at the Mexican office and boarded a Pan American DC-4 for the trip to Guatemala, to the south.
THE PRESIDENT GETS AWAY
The Mexican brethren had a very blessed time with Brother Morgan. They were not downhearted because Brother Knorr had not been present with him, because they knew that in about ten days they would receive a second visit, this time by the president of the Society. While his stay would not be as long, still it meant two visits by someone from headquarters, and for this they were glad. Time rolled by quickly and December 17 was upon them before they knew it. This was the day Brother Knorr was to arrive. He got away from New York on time, saying good-bye to a number of brethren who had come to the airport to see him off. He was traveling the same route he would have traveled with Brother Morgan. The weather was, however, not quite as favorable, for while traveling over the states of Louisiana and eastern Texas the plane ran into a very heavy rainstorm and bumpy air. About half the passengers got sick. Brother Knorr, being a veteran traveler by air, was not disturbed by the bouncing but he felt very sorry for the many distressed passengers. He landed in a drenching downpour in Houston, Texas. All the passengers had to walk through lakes of water to get to shelter. The plane was considerably late and the traveler wondered if the Mexico-bound Pan American plane had waited for the arrival of this Eastern Airlines flight. In checking with Pan American it was learned that their plane was late too and would not leave until 7 p.m. That meant two and a half hours of waiting around the airport.
Desiring to see some brethren in Houston, Brother Knorr phoned the company servant, and shortly thereafter about fifteen brethren came to the airport and spent the time with him. There were many interesting things to talk about, and so until they left about 9:30 p.m. he certainly appreciated their company. Conversation made the time fly by rapidly. Pan American kept postponing their flight 30 minutes at a time until finally midnight rolled around. One of the engines of the DC-4 did not run properly and had to be taken apart two times before they found the trouble. Around 12:15 a.m. the engine was tuned up and sounded as good as the other three. All passengers were on board and they rolled away through a dense fog. Speeding down the runway it was possible to see only a few lights that marked the path for the plane, but within a few minutes they were up in the air above the clouds, observing the stars of heaven. Tired and sleepy, the president of the Society slept all the way to Mexico City, arriving there at 4:30 in the morning. Pan American had informed the brethren who had come out to the airport earlier in the day to meet the plane that it would not leave Houston until morning. So they gave up and went home, with the exception of one brother who checked later in the night and found the plane would arrive between 3:30 and 4:30 in the morning. So he waited until Brother Knorr came. It was good to see Brother Terán, a graduate of Gilead and a native Mexican. The two took a taxi to the Bethel home and got in without being heard or disturbing anyone, and they slept well for a few hours in the morning.
Sunday was a busy day, spent talking to graduates of Gilead school and the Bethel family. Arrangements were made to talk to two of the Mexico City units at 7 p.m. and three units at 8 p.m. The first hall was packed out, with standing room only, and Brother Pérez, the servant in charge, interpreted what Brother Knorr had to say to the company. He was then rushed by car from one hall to the other and started talking there at 8 p.m. At the two meetings there were 550 persons in attendance. Announcement was made at these two meetings that, due to the number of publishers in Mexico City and the crowded three halls they were using, the Society would arrange immediately to break up the five units into twelve, establishing units in all parts of the city so as to make it convenient for those interested to get to meetings and get better attention as to field organization. This arrangement was received with enthusiasm, for the brethren in Mexico are expansion-minded.
Monday was devoted to problems pertaining to the office work and generally in the field. There are nine circuits in the country of Mexico. These are being increased so that better arrangements can be made for circuit assemblies. A circuit servant in Mexico must be physically strong and mature in the truth. Getting from company to company in some of the out-of-the-way places involves much walking, traveling by horseback, sleeping out in the open, enduring all kinds of hardships, never being sure of good drinking water, contending with the threat of malaria and other diseases, etc. But the brethren in Mexico, like the apostle Paul, are willing to endure all things for Christ’s sake. Many little groups of isolated publishers need the service of the circuit servant, and arrangements were made to get in touch with them and give them regular visits. Three and a half years ago Brother Knorr visited Mexico, and in that year they had an average of 3,094 publishers. They have nearly doubled that now with an average in 1949 of 5,547, reaching a peak during the year of 6,733. Companies have increased from 223 to 306. All this expansion has made the brethren rejoice in the Lord’s blessing upon their work. There are over 200 pioneers devoting full time to the service, many getting out into isolated places.
Opposition to the work comes mainly from the Catholic Church. It has for years been their policy in Mexico to keep the people ignorant, whereas Jehovah’s witnesses for some time now have been helping the illiterate to read and write. The government of Mexico has put forth vigorous efforts to help the people in their education. This, of course, has not found favor in the eyes of the Catholics. They have been able to hold their great population throughout the world by keeping people ignorant, but they are in for a day of reckoning. While the Church has been thrown out of government and has little to say in affairs of state, it still does wield great influence over the people who are born into Catholic families and know nothing else but the Catholic system. The Church would like to regain her lost power in Mexico, but the present generation can recall clearly the evil it has done to the nation. Prominent are the remains of some of the church institutions which, if allowed to remain, will always remind the people of the tyranny of religious inquisition that once existed in Mexico. There was nothing “holy” about the years the Catholic Church ruled that land. In one of the sixteenth-century convents, still in a fair state of preservation, we find beautiful gardens covering subterranean dungeons where religious prisoners were chained in pitch darkness. In their fiendishness the priests devised a method of driving prisoners insane by dropping water on their heads. Still preserved is the lime pit where bodies of the victims were destroyed. Places like this speak for themselves as to the “holy years” of Catholic rule.
It is good to see the Word of God now getting into the homes of the people. And the Mexicans are rejoicing and making known the good news of salvation, ‘letting God be true though every man be proved a liar.’ On Monday, the 19th, Brother Knorr left Mexico City to take up his work in Guatemala, after spending a most pleasant time with the Mexican brethren.
Flying over Guatemalan territory to the capital, Guatemala city, to the left of the plane Brother Morgan could see three huge volcanoes: Agua, Acatenango and Fuego, Fuego (meaning “fire”) being the only active one of the three. It was about 2:20 p.m. when the plane passed over Lake Amatitlan at an altitude of only a few hundred feet and then settled down on the paved airstrip south of Guatemala city, one of the finest airports in Central America. Immigration checking was very brief, but Brother Morgan’s baggage was retained at the airport for four hours in order to fumigate it. This is a government precaution against the spread of hoof-and-mouth disease among cattle. Each passenger also had to walk through chemically treated wet sawdust for the same purpose; and all had their baggage handled in the same manner. But within twenty minutes or so the Branch servant and all the Gilead graduates and company publishers who had come to greet the visitors from New York were on their way to the Branch home at 11 Avenida Norte No. 8, Guatemala city. On the way home we passed the site where is being constructed a gigantic sports center. This is being rushed to completion for the Latin-American sports games early in 1950. Right up to date is Guatemala city, with its many busses and fine new cars. At the same time alongside the “new age” are the many yoked oxen, horse-drawn carts and barefooted Indians carrying huge loads on their backs and heads. The fine missionary home consists of seven bedrooms and a modern bath, along with a kitchen and three patios. The largest patio is enclosed and forms an ideal Kingdom Hall that will comfortably seat 200 persons. This certainly provides an excellent headquarters for the Lord’s work in Guatemala.
On Wednesday morning the Branch servant, Brother Munsterman, and Brother Morgan emplaned for Quetzaltenango, a city to the northwest of the capital with a population of about 35,000. Here a missionary home is located and the brethren have been doing good work. For that afternoon they had arranged a public meeting in the Teatro Zarco, one of the town’s several movie houses. The Gilead graduates were a bit apprehensive, wondering what would happen and how many people would come to a midweek meeting. There is no company in Quetzaltenango as yet, and the previous high attendance figure for a public meeting was only thirty-seven. At 3 p.m. there were not more than twenty or thirty persons present, and so it was decided to wait fifteen minutes more to allow some people time to arouse themselves from the midday siesta. By the time the talk “Liberty to the Captives” got well under way there were 145 persons listening. Everyone was delighted with the attendance, and it was hoped that this meeting would give impetus to the work in Quetzaltenango. A company is being formed there now. Thursday morning all the Gilead graduates returned to the capital with Brothers Morgan and Munsterman to attend the convention there.
It was reported that Guatemala city presented a strange sight on Wednesday evening. After 6 p.m. many fires appeared in the streets, two or three to a block. The church bells began to toll incessantly, and the air resounded with the explosion of fireworks. This was the eve of the annual celebration of the immaculate conception of the virgin Mary, and hundreds of fires were lighted everywhere to frighten away the evil spirits. In some cases hot coals are taken into the homes so that no evil spirit will take refuge there. It was observed on Thursday that a large image of the “virgin” was carried from one church to another. Following this image were eight other images, all supposed to represent angels. On Friday night this ceremony was repeated when the “virgin” and her angels were returned to the church of origin. It is a very ceremonious procession and is made somewhat weird in the night by the carrying of lanterns and lighted candles on poles. People line the streets to observe the procession, and many move along with it, selling various kinds of foods and trinkets. The men who bear the statue of the “virgin” on their shoulders pay so much per block for the privilege of carrying her. And those who actually carry her back into the church building, which is considered the greatest privilege of the ceremony, pay the most money. This certainly emphasizes the need of liberty for the captives.
Thursday night a good service meeting was had at the Salón del Reino in Guatemala city, and on Friday evening 184 brethren were present for the opening of the assembly. There were young and old, the oldest being a brother of 80 years. He had traveled 120 miles to attend the convention and felt this might be his last because, as he said, “I’m getting rather old to travel.” But his vision of the Kingdom is clear and he is an active publisher. It is his earnest desire to have help in the preaching in his town. One sister with eight children, who also manages several Bible studies each week, was there too. Great zeal is shown by many in preaching the Word.
Saturday was devoted to field service, principally the distribution of 60,000 handbills which had just arrived from Brooklyn on Thursday. In the afternoon and evening there was a full program of talks. Sunday morning seven brothers and nine sisters symbolized their consecration in a small pool in the park on the edge of town. The attendance of 425 at the public meeting on Sunday afternoon made glad the hearts of all the brethren. This was a figure 173 more than any previous public meeting in the country. All agreed that this was the best convention yet in Guatemala.
Monday, December 12, after dinner, all the brethren at the Branch home piled into the bus that was to take Brother Morgan to the airport; and shortly, with our driver leaning on the horn, we were under way. Sometimes it seems that the brakes are a safety factor second only to the horn. As we passed down the streets we glimpsed the beautiful National Palace, an architectural credit to the city. But it still bears the marks of the last revolution, for its pretty light-green stone surface is pock-marked with small shell holes; and here and there one sees a large hole. However, we were soon at the airport and it seemed as though the visit was all too brief. Here again the brethren were happy that the visit was not completely over, because Brother Knorr was coming in a few days. He arrived on the 20th of December.
The plane Brother Knorr took out of Mexico City left promptly and, having a good tail wind, it arrived early at the Guatemalan airport. He landed and was going through the customary procedure for entering the country, but none of the brethren had arrived to meet him. They were all very much embarrassed when they did arrive and found Brother Knorr already there. All were very cheerful, though, and one would think from the joy they all expressed that a convention was on in full force. They had planned a meeting for that night. All the people of good-will had been invited. So there was arranging of chairs at the Kingdom Hall to be done; and we were delighted to see that 225 persons turned out. The subject discussed was the yeartext, “Preach the word,” and it was pointed out how important it is for the brethren to prepare to be on their own. They should not work just because the Society had a Branch office there, or a missionary home; but each person in the truth should be ready to continue should all be scattered as the brethren in Jerusalem were when persecution became heavy against the early church. All should be ready to “preach the word” everywhere. While there has been no opposition to the preaching in Guatemala, and the message is received well, it must be expected that the Devil will bring pressure to bear from some source to disturb the tranquillity of the organization.
There were many problems to discuss with regard to the Branch and the work yet to be done in Guatemala. There are more than 3 1/2 million people in the country, and at the present time there are 188 publishers on the average, with a peak of 218 last year. However, expansion is very noticeable in Guatemala, for at the time of the last visit there were only twenty-five publishers on the average in the whole country. That was three and one-half years ago. Plans were made this time to send more Gilead graduates to Guatemala, probably ten to work in other cities. And the graduates of Gilead now in the country are going to work not only towns they are in, but on specified days in certain months they will move out into some of the villages to see what can be done to establish companies. More visits will be made by the Branch servant to the four companies already established, and to a number of isolated brethren. There is a lot to do in Guatemala and the brethren are anxious to do it. After spending two happy days in Guatemala, the president of the Society was on his way to San Salvador, following the route his secretary had taken.