From Nicaragua to Panama
THE president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, Nathan H. Knorr, was flying the same route that his secretary, Robert Morgan, had taken some days earlier through Central America. While on this flight Brother Morgan had his first view of a volcano that was really belching smoke. There are a number of volcanoes in Central America that are active from time to time, but this one really showed its anger by throwing up a great column of smoke and ashes into the air. He was glad to get a good view of this phenomenon. A fine group of brethren, including the twelve Gilead graduates assigned to Nicaragua, were at the airport to meet him. Brother Morgan was to experience the fact that Nicaragua is really a warm country, even though he arrived there during the cool season. The convention arranged for the visit of the American travelers was already in progress. Eighty-six brethren assembled for the Saturday evening meeting, December 24, 1949. There were representatives from five different cities in Nicaragua. Sunday morning they had an immersion service and six brethren symbolized their consecration to the Lord to carry forward the message of the kingdom of God in that land. One sister was 74 years old and she had traveled 75 miles to get to the convention and symbolize her consecration before the brethren.
The public meeting was scheduled for Sunday afternoon at the Teatro Trebol, an unusual building with four walls but no roof. Practically all theaters in Managua are constructed in this manner, because they like plenty of air-conditioning in this hot country. Good advertising was carried on by the brethren. Forty thousand handbills were distributed; posters were put up; letters of invitation were sent out; announcements were made over the radio; newspapers were used for advertising; and large banners were hung over the streets. This Sunday, however, was Christmas day and the greater portion of the people was carrying on the usual celebration. But despite the Christmas attraction for feasting and celebrating there were 286 persons at the public meeting. It was the largest public meeting yet held in Nicaragua by Jehovah’s witnesses. The brethren were pleased with the results, especially in view of the fact that Christendom was celebrating her feast day of pagan origin, for Christ really was not born on the 25th of December.
It is interesting to observe how the Latins in different countries celebrate the Christmas festivity. In Managua on Christmas eve Brother Morgan was able to observe that many of the people who could get a horse and buggy to drive around the streets celebrated by driving. One of the principal means of conveyance in Managua has been the red-and-black carriage drawn by two small-sized horses. There were also many parties in progress throughout the city. A few days before Christmas Brother Knorr, while in Guatemala, observed that it was the custom for people to carry images of Joseph and Mary through the streets from house to house, looking for someone to give the statues lodging. Some kind-hearted person who was in the mood to celebrate would invite the carriers of Joseph and Mary into his home, along with the few others who followed with their improvised noise-making instruments, and all would join in a feast. So the party began. In Honduras on Christmas eve, where Brother Knorr gave a talk to the brethren, the whole city of Tegucigalpa celebrated in the same fashion as Americans do on the 4th of July. Throughout the entire talk the explosion of fireworks was heard. As the evening drew on toward midnight the crescendo increased until the noise was deafening, and one would suppose that he was in the middle of a battlefield listening to the cannonading and shellfire. How different from the time when the birth of Jesus actually took place! That was not a time of great noise, but one of joyful singing on the part of angels. The shepherds were in the fields watching their flocks, and all was peaceful and quiet.
Then, too, the pagan yule log had to be brought into the picture in some way. Many of the stores, cafés and restaurants, and a good many of the homes that could afford it, obtained boughs of pine trees and set them up. In other places pine needles were strewn over the floor and decorations set up. So every nation has its customs, all of which are handed down by tradition. Very little thought is given to God’s Word on Christmas day or on the days immediately preceding it. Using the occasion to explode fireworks, make a glutton of oneself and become drunk is giving way to ideas far removed from the message of peace which the Savior brought. But so much for Christmas in Central America. There is still much work for Jehovah’s witnesses to do in preaching “this gospel of the kingdom” which will bring peace and comfort and real joy to those people of the world who love righteousness and the peace that surpasses all understanding, and who are not particularly interested in hilarious living for one day.
In addition to addressing the convention, Brother Morgan again talked to the brethren on Tuesday evening and also spent some time checking records and handling Branch matters. He was on his way to the next country, Costa Rica, Wednesday morning. That same afternoon Brother Knorr arrived in Nicaragua for a two-day visit with the missionaries and the Managua brethren. On Thursday night the two units in Managua assembled together in the Kingdom Hall in the home housing the Branch office and there were 90 in attendance. It was good to see such a fine organization in this capital city. Back in 1946 when Brother Knorr visited the then newly established missionary home there were only six company publishers in the land. Now there are 136 on the average every month, with a peak of 166 publishers during the 1949 service year. Good progress is being made, but there is plenty of room for expansion. One Gilead graduate prefers to work alone out among the natives, and she is having a very enjoyable time in some of the smaller towns. Brother Knorr arranged for another group of newly arrived graduates to go to Diriamba, a city of about 13,500 people situated in the hills. There is a real need for many more missionaries in this country, and it is hoped that the Society can send at least ten or twelve more into this land to work other towns, now that the truth is established there and the people of good-will are taking heed to the message of the Kingdom.
The brethren are looking forward to the 1950 assembly, as are all the folks along the way. While they have high hopes that 1950 will be a banner year in preaching the gospel in Nicaragua, we know that all Central American countries will have interruptions due to the fact that so many of the missionaries will be returning for that international gathering of Jehovah’s witnesses in New York city. But they are planning to return to their foreign assignments to accomplish really big things, by the Lord’s grace. They expect many new missionaries to join their ranks immediately after the convention, for the 1951 service year. To “preach the word” is their determination in Nicaragua, as in every Central American land.
It seemed that the days were too short. Being with brethren of “like precious faith” makes time go by quickly. Friday morning saw all the Gilead graduates piling into two cars to go with Brother Knorr to the airport to see him off to Costa Rica, where he would catch up with Brother Morgan and from which place they would finish the trip together.
The trip by air from Nicaragua to Costa Rica was uneventful, although one does fly over Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua, two beautiful bodies of water which take up a large part of Nicaragua. Then there come into view the beautiful hills and cultivated lands of Costa Rica, which make the trip very interesting. Costa Rica has its beauties in nature, and it has a delightful climate, especially around San José. The airport is very convenient to the city; in fact, it adjoins the city. Approximately seventy of the conventioners had come out to the airport to welcome Brother Knorr to the city. This was very much appreciated, and it was not long until all were starting off for the convention hall. The assembly had begun the day before, on the 29th of December, and was going in full swing. A fine cafeteria was organized and excellent food was being served. A well-stocked bookroom was convenient for all the publishers. As far as convention details were concerned, it looked like a good-sized circuit assembly in any country.
Everyone attending was surprised at the number who had managed to get to the assembly, because just a few weeks before terrific rainstorms had washed out sections of the railroad in three different places and it was impossible to come from the Atlantic coast to San José by train. Many of the brethren gathered together all the funds they could get and flew over to San José. They were very glad that they had done so, too, because they not only enjoyed the air trip and the new view of the country it gave them, but they also enjoyed the assembly, which proved to be instructive to all publishers, both in English and in Spanish. The Friday evening meeting found 526 assembled, and Saturday night brought out 542. That Saturday evening in the Estadio Mendoza Brother Knorr was privileged to release the 1950 Yearbook and Calendar at the conclusion of his talk to the brethren. They were very happy to be able to get these publications before the new year began. They certainly appreciated the Calendar with its picture of the new Bethel home, and many were looking forward to coming to New York to see the real thing. After that meeting Brother Knorr spoke to 30 pioneers about the prospect of Gilead, and nine of these pioneers filled out preliminary applications, hoping that some day soon they would be called to receive special training for missionary assignments. Three faithful pioneer sisters had already been called to come to Gilead. They have done excellent work in Costa Rica and so they were in the 15th Gilead class, which started on February 22, 1950.
It is certainly a joy to see the good work that has been done in this country. Many of the brethren have seen their privilege of engaging in the pioneer service, and now there are 47 pioneers in Costa Rica, only seven of these being from Gilead. The remaining 40 are native Costa Ricans. As more of the brethren throughout the Central American countries arrange their time to take up the pioneer service they will find that the Lord richly blesses those who are willing to give up their secular employment and get into the work such as Paul, Timothy and others of the early church did, striking out into new fields and building up new companies that will eventually take care of the work in that territory.
It was in the winter of 1943 that the first missionaries were sent to Costa Rica, and at that time there were 83 publishers, most of them associated with the English-speaking colored company at Port Limón. Very little work was being done among the Spanish speaking people. Since then the work has gone ahead by leaps and bounds until today there are nearly 1,100 publishers scattered throughout the land, organized in 28 companies. While there has been a splendid increase in number of publishers there is still great room for improvement in company organization. One of the outstanding things observed to be true in Costa Rica is also true in many parts of the world. Some brethren do not see their responsibility or appreciate the value of coming regularly to the Watchtower study and service meeting. In San José, far example, one of the units with 160 publishers has an average of 50 to 60 brethren attending the Watchtower study. They are zealous in their work and they do very well from door to door, but a number let other things interfere as to their proper feeding on the Lord’s Word. These points were covered at the assembly. On the other hand, at other places in Costa Rica brethren put forth great efforts to get to the assemblies of the Lord’s people. They appreciate that they should not forsake the assembling of themselves together. Several zealous brethren travel ten miles by canoe to attend every company meeting. Zeal such as this is worthy to be marked by all of Jehovah’s witnesses, especially where so many have to walk only a mile or two to get to a meeting and feed upon things convenient for all of us. It is believed that this, along with other counsel given at the assembly, will stimulate attendance at meetings, which meetings will stimulate the brethren to even greater works, which will result in more expansion in Costa Rica.
On Sunday morning 45 brethren symbolized their consecration to do God’s will. The assembly was concluded with the rousing public meeting held on January 1, another great fiesta day in Costa Rica. All convention attenders were wondering how many of the people would forsake the fiesta to come to hear the Bible talk “It Is Later than You Think!” But 863 gathered together in the auditorium, including the head of the evangelical mission in Costa Rica, who recently published a book against Jehovah’s witnesses. His slanderous remarks have not hurt the work at all.
In between sessions the Branch records had to be checked and other problems discussed. Again time was too short for everything one would have liked to do. At noon on Monday the travelers had to be away for their next appointment, in Panama. Another large crowd was down at the airport Monday noon. Many of the Port Limón brethren were flying back home, too, so it seemed as though the airport was overflowing with Jehovah’s witnesses, some going in one direction and some in another. It surely is interesting to observe that in this little country of approximately 900,000 people there are now 1,100 publishers for the Kingdom. It is believed that there are many more people of good-will to be found and, by the Lord’s grace, the publishers in Costa Rica are going to feed the “other sheep” that Christ gathers to his fold.
The two travelers, Brother Knorr and Brother Morgan, wished they could have remained longer to visit with the graduates of Gilead, for their stay seemed to be no longer than the long breakfast they had together on Monday morning, January 2, at which time some personal problems were discussed. But traveling they must be, in order to keep the schedule. A fast rise was made by our Pan American DC-3 plane in order to get over the nearby mountains to the south. And it was not long till we were flying out over the Pacific and, a little later, approaching the airport at Davíd, Panama. This was just a refueling point, but a few passengers also got off. It was good, however, to see this city in the northern part of Panama where there is a small company organized due to the good work of missionaries. Then on again, flying in an easterly direction out over the Pacific, for here the mainland takes a jog to the east. It was a disappointment to Brother Knorr not to land at Balboa, where he had come in on previous trips; however, within the last three months the commercial airlines had to move out into the country to a new field, Aeropuerto Tocumen. The Balboa field is convenient to the city, but the new airport is about twenty miles away from Panama City. But this did not quench the desire of the brethren to meet the plane. There was a number of carloads of brethren, as well as many travelers by bus, who had come out to welcome the visitors from the Society. There were so many people that it was difficult to see all the missionaries; but it was not long until we arrived at the missionary home on 4th of July avenue and were able to talk to all those who had been through school and had taken up foreign assignments. It was a real pleasure to talk to them that night and show them the latest photographs of the Brooklyn Bethel home and factory and the campus of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead, all of which brought back many memories to them. And they had a lot of questions to ask, including some about the 1950 assembly that were not answered. But it is hoped they will get the answers in due time, to their full satisfaction.
Brothers Knorr and Morgan stayed with the sixteen missionaries at the home in Panama City, which is a very beautiful home. Four and a half days were spent in Panama and they were busy ones. During the day the publishers were busy in the field advertising the public talk “Liberty to the Captives”. In the evening we were busy in the assembly hall, which was a night club rented for the occasion. The session, beginning at 7 p.m., had to be over by 9 p.m. so that the room could be used for other purposes. On Tuesday night there were 350 brethren in attendance, both English- and Spanish-speaking publishers and people of good-will. The lectures had to be interpreted from English into Spanish. Brothers Knorr and Morgan spoke to the congregation.
Wednesday morning, January 4, a baptism talk was given and twelve brethren symbolized their consecration. Advertising of the public meeting by means of handbills and placards continued. That evening the auditorium was packed out, every seat having been taken, and there were hundreds standing. The count showed that 703 had gathered together, and they paid rapt attention. Thursday was devoted to the missionaries and the Branch office activity, as well as was part of Friday. A trip had to be made to Colón on the Atlantic side of the isthmus, where there are also an English and a Spanish company. A visit was made to the missionary home in Colón. Excellent work is being accomplished through it. Two good companies are established, and these brethren assembled together in their regular Kingdom Hall, which they use jointly. Their book-study people were invited to attend this meeting, all in English, as the majority of the Spanish-speaking brethren also understand English. Filling the Kingdom Hall were 294. This was the first session of their English circuit assembly on Friday night, so Brother Knorr and Brother Morgan were their speakers, devoting time to service talks. That night after the meeting a few of the brethren returned to Panama City with the brethren from headquarters, for it was necessary for the visitors to be up early the next morning to travel on to Colombia.
The work in Panama is progressing very nicely, but there is still room for expansion, and that is the thing every missionary is anxious to see. Some are most desirous of getting off into the interior, and they hoped a new missionary home would be opened up. They felt sure they could get away from the larger cities, work the smaller towns and start new companies. So arrangements were made to open up a new missionary home with some of the present Gilead graduates in the interior immediately after the 1950 assembly, for these brethren want to attend the assembly and then return to new territory. Upon reviewing the work it was determined that a number of new missionaries should go into Panama. So probably four or six brethren will be sent to Panama immediately after the international gathering of Jehovah’s witnesses to add stimulus to the work going on so well there. During the first year the missionaries were in Panama, the record shows, there were 53 publishers on the average. And in five years the average has increased to 375, with a peak of 490. Here too we see a number of local brethren taking up the general pioneer service. Fifteen of the publishers in this land have found it possible to get into the full-time service. A number of them have gone into the interior, having excellent success. There are now eleven companies established, and the brethren believe that in 1950 a number more will be built up in other towns and villages.
Panamanians are an excitable people and very active, and, as the missionaries have said, are either quick to grasp the truth or want nothing to do with it. Probably their temperament can be best understood by observing their bus-driving tactics. You find hundreds of these small twenty-passenger busses throughout Panama City; and it is not uncommon to see these small busses racing with one another to get to the next stop first in the hope of getting to the prospective passengers before the competitor. You often wonder how your driver will make it on the narrow streets as he squeezes by other vehicles. Brother Morgan and Brother Knorr were traveling with four Gilead graduates through the city on one occasion, and they were amused to watch the bus driver draw up to the curb and ask someone if he wanted to go somewhere. It is all right for the driver to solicit business, and he will stop for anyone who even looks as if he were thinking about getting on a bus. Sometimes he will stop in the middle of an intersection to pick up a passenger.
However, the two visitors and the Gilead graduates got their greatest thrill and amusement this morning when the driver stopped on a hill behind several other busses. Then this rickety vehicle’s brakes gave way and the fun started. Instead of allowing his machine to drift two or three feet and bump into the machine ahead, the driver foolishly steered the bus to the right and mounted the sidewalk. People scattered quickly to avoid being run down as the bus rolled along the sidewalk. Finally the driver, gesticulating wildly to show that his brakes were not working, wedged the machine in between another bus and the building, blocking the entrances to two shops. Fortunately no one was hurt, and it was impossible to keep from laughing at the situation. The passengers could not get out of the bus, because the entrance was jammed against the building wall and the windows were too small to crawl through. There was much excitement and a lot of talk, and within a few minutes three policemen were on the scene arguing with the bus driver as to why he did such a thing. Arguments were loud and gestures augmented the words to prove that the brakes really did not work. This seemed to wholly satisfy the policemen. It seemed that if your brakes did not hold, that was the thing to do; and there were no traffic violation summonses being handed out to appear in court for using a vehicle for public conveyance that was not in proper shape.
Finally the policeman got after the driver of the bus that had us pinned to the building and told him to get moving. Then we wondered what would happen. Would we continue to roll down the sidewalk? There were hundreds of people standing right in front of the bus by this time, thoroughly discussing the situation, and it would do no good to tell them to move. There was excitement and everyone wanted to be in on it. Fortunately the bus was pressing so tightly against the wall that it would not move down hill. The only way the passengers could now get out was through the emergency door in the side of the bus, now that the other bus had moved on. Brother Morgan tried to open the door by loosening the latch, but he found that the emergency door for quick exit was nailed shut. One of the Gilead graduates explained to the driver in Spanish that we wanted to get the emergency door open. So he took his lucky horseshoe and, using that as a hammer and pry, bent back the nails, making it possible to open the emergency door. All the passengers got out and walked down the street a few blocks to another bus, leaving the excitement behind. Later in the day the same group of brethren got on another bus returning to the missionary home and, much to their surprise, there was the same driver who had run the machine up on the sidewalk. He appeared just as exuberant and happy as ever, only this time he had a new bus and he insisted that the brakes worked on this one. To convince us he drove full speed ahead and then slammed on the brakes to stop quickly at a corner. And so with the little busses and their horns Panama City keeps on the move.