Part 1—President Visits Europe and Middle East
TRAVEL now is certainly different from that of forty years ago. Traveling by air I have been able to visit many places throughout the world within a few weeks, looking after branches of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, meeting with missionaries and attending national conventions in several countries. For me Monday, November 26, 1956, at 4 p.m., aboard a DC-7 plane, was the start of another trip of this kind. Within ten hours we touched down in Hamburg, Germany. There a few passengers got off and within thirty minutes we took off again, for Denmark, my first stop.
The reason for my going to northern Europe was to check up on a big building program the Society started about eighteen months ago, which is now under way. During the last few years the work in Denmark has gone along so well that it has become necessary to build a new Bethel home, also a printing plant. Plans were drawn up some time ago, and it was now a real pleasure to go over some details and to inspect the construction of this fine new building being erected in Copenhagen. Within a few months, probably in early summer, this building will be completed and put to its intended use. I had opportunity to go over branch problems (and they were numerous) in connection with the preaching work in Denmark. There the brothers are very zealous and want to carry on the work just as Jehovah’s witnesses do in all other parts of the world, but the government has other ideas. They claim that when Jehovah’s witnesses go from house to house they are engaging in a commercial work. So in working out a solution there is much to do in connection with lawyers. The brothers are not slacking their hands but are continuing to preach the good news of the Kingdom. It was indeed a pleasure to meet with 6,082 of them in the KB Hall (where I had spoken often), which was packed to its limits. Thanks to the fire department, many of our brothers were allowed to stand in the hallways, which were equipped with loud-speakers.
I spent only a day and a half in Denmark and then went on to Germany. Landing at Frankfurt, it certainly was a pleasure for me to meet many of my fellow workers, Brothers Frost and Franke, a goodly number of the Frankfurt congregation and some other brothers from the branch in Wiesbaden. Here too the purpose of the visit was to work on the expansion problem. Our Bethel home and present factory are too small and we called in an architect, a brother. With him we worked all day in designing a larger factory and Bethel home. The Society was able to purchase some property from the city of Wiesbaden, and after considerable discussion the city authorities consented to our changing the location of a street, thus making it possible for us to put our new structure right up against our present one, relocating the street beyond our new building. This was very much appreciated by the Society and it will certainly make a wonderful setup for an efficiently operated Bethel home and factory in Germany. The building will be sufficiently large to take in some new presses, now being built, its high ceiling giving us plenty of headroom.
Sitting down there at the Bethel table and seeing so many familiar faces was just like old times. I did not have time to meet with the family to give them a discourse, but did give them the Yearbook and calendar, which delighted them.
Less than twenty-four hours were spent in Germany working on this new structure and then I moved on to the Netherlands. When we arrived at Frankfurt (to emplane for Amsterdam) I learned there would be a three-hour delay. A number of the Frankfurt brothers were out to say good-by, so I suggested that we go to Frankfurt itself, where some meetings were being held—theocratic ministry schools and service meetings—and I could talk to the brothers at their various halls for probably thirty minutes through an interpreter who was with us. Accordingly, we had a most enjoyable evening. We visited two Kingdom Halls, where at one I spoke to 144 and at another to 151 of my brothers.
Arriving at the first hall before the meeting began I started in right after the opening of the meeting, then went to the second hall. There the theocratic ministry school was in progress and it turned out to be a shock to the speaker when the branch servant, Brother Franke, and Brother Frost and the president of the Society walked in and seated themselves in the front row, conversing with the congregation servant. Of course, many other brothers had also come in, causing a disturbance, and I did feel sorry for the speaker at the moment, for he was really talking under “adverse conditions”! However, he soon gave way to the Society’s president and I proceeded to tell a number of experiences, which all enjoyed.
Germany has surely made improvements since the end of the war and a tremendous reconstruction program has gone on in Frankfurt itself. A number of years ago I had arrived there right after the war and saw its devastated ruins; but now its main streets look just like any other city’s main streets, in the United States or elsewhere. So back to the airport we went, arriving within forty minutes of departure time and, after saying good-by, soon I was met at the Amsterdam airport by the Netherlands branch servant.
Here also a program has been arranged for the building of a new branch home. Our present one, at a fine location in Amsterdam, is much too small and we do anticipate doing our own printing someday. Netherlands’ smallness means they need all the ground they possibly can get and by putting in large dikes, pumping out water and preparing land for growing crops and for building new cities they are continually making new land on which to live. This means that one has to get in line, so to speak, to take one’s turn in getting a location. We hope to acquire a new location just on the edge of Amsterdam where we can build our own structure. Discussion of these matters went on during the day.
Sunday, December 2, I flew to London, arriving at noon. Brother Hughes, the branch servant, along with others of the Bethel family and some architects, went to the new location recently purchased, where we hope to put up a very beautiful structure to house the Bethel family and enlarge our printing plant. Here in London, in what is known as the “Green Belt,” we have a lovely spot. The whole property is surrounded by beautiful big trees, and I could not think of a nicer place to live and still be in the city. Our brothers of the London Bethel home are really delighted with this new project, and the architect said that by February foundation work should be started and soon thereafter we should have the completed building. To many in the truth 34 Craven Terrace, London W. 2, is an old address; but I am sure that those of Britain will be delighted with the change, and when they see the new structure and the new Kingdom Hall in connection with it all will be elated to see these evidences of the Kingdom work’s progress in Britain. As we all learned through the 1957 Yearbook, the work in Britain has gone along marvelously well during the past service year, and in December, 1956, Britain reached another new peak of 32,857 publishers. They certainly need this new structure.
Much regretting the lack of opportunity to address any of our assembled brothers in London (I being there only eighteen hours), early Monday morning I said good-by to dear friends and was away to Paris.
In Paris we had purchased some property and again I spent the day with architects in going over final designs for a new Bethel home and printing plant, much needed in France. Monday was climaxed by an evening meeting at Wagram Hall, where 2,580 of our brothers had assembled. It was indeed a joy to see so many from various parts of France and from Paris itself, and we recalled the wonderful assembly we had in Paris in the summer of 1955. Brother Jontes, the branch servant, gave a short introduction and it was my good pleasure to announce to this fine group of Christian people that in Paris also a new Bethel home will be built, as well as a printing plant. Their enthusiasm was sufficient to make the rafters ring. In December France reached a new peak in publishers, 10,058, another evidence that we need larger quarters.
So it was that in just one week I visited five branches, went over the most pressing problems, and especially devoted my time to construction work on new branch offices and printing plants. Now I was moving to the Middle East, there to attend conventions, check branch offices, visit missionaries and see what could be done to advance the preaching of the good news.
Tuesday morning, clear and bright, I left Paris. Flying above the French Alps and right over Mont Blanc, I could see that all these mountains, deep in snow, were beautiful indeed. How wonderful Jehovah’s creation is! Not long afterward we began leaving the snow behind and to see the green fields of Italy, finally landing in Rome itself. I was there only an hour and the branch servant, Brother Sideris, and Brother Hoffmann, a zone servant in this section of the world, met me. We had a very happy time together and Brother Hoffmann then joined me and traveled on to Greece.
When news was received in Greece about the Athens visit of the Society’s president, the brothers, as I was told, were very enthusiastic and joyful. It had been five years since I was in Greece, but this time I was to be accompanied by the vice-president, F. W. Franz, and also the zone servant, F. C. S. Hoffmann. Brother Franz had made a trip through Portugal and Spain, had stopped off in Rome, and now he was coming into Athens the day after I arrived. So the brothers in Athens were very enthusiastic and eagerly looking forward to a delightful time. The big question in the minds of the branch servant and others in the Society’s office was whether they could have a central meeting somewhere in Athens. In November the branch servant had called upon the Athens police, requesting that the Society be granted a permit to hold one meeting on December 7, and after considerable discussion the police did grant such a permit. One of the principal theaters in Athens was hired; its capacity, 1,200. Everything appeared to be in readiness for this half-day Athens convention, so special invitation cards were mailed throughout Greece to all congregation servants, circuit and district servants. The theater was much too small for seating the groups of Jehovah’s witnesses that regularly meet in Athens and Piraeus. So other plans were made for them to meet with the Society’s president and vice-president.
Imagine the enthusiasm among these brothers who had not been allowed to assemble publicly for twenty-eight years!
Just four days before this little convention in Athens the branch servant received a telephone message from the police, asking him to call at their office. The officer informed Brother Idreos, the branch servant, that they were doubtful as to whether this meeting should be held or not and he advised that no preparations be made for it. However, the branch servant told the police that no preparations were being made now: They had all been made and were already in effect; the theater had been hired, invitation cards sent out and many people were actually on their way to the assembly. The police were undecided and told the branch servant to return the next morning so that they could consult with their superior officers. Some prominent people, who were interested in Jehovah’s witnesses in Greece, telephoned the police during the day; and to these individuals the police disclosed their reason for trying to cancel this meeting, saying it was due to the fact that the archbishop’s office had been after the police, trying to persuade them to prevent this gathering of Jehovah’s witnesses. In the end, however, the police decided that they would let the arrangements go through and hoped that not too many people would come. But we all knew that anyone who had received an invitation card to get into the Kentrikon Theater would certainly be there. In the meantime Brother Hoffmann and I checked the branch office and took care of business in the Bethel home. Brother Franz arrived from Rome and was enthusiastically received, and then came the seventh day of December.
From very early that morning many of the brothers went to the Kentrikon Theater. The police were there too. The theater owners had opened the doors and allowed Jehovah’s witnesses to enter. By 9:30 that morning the police had closed the doors, because the main hall, galleries and balconies were all crowded, every seat being taken. There were 1,200 people in the theater. Here one could see a crowd of very happy persons, all delighted to be in the New World society and eager to see the Society’s president and vice-president and the zone servant serving their country.
The program began promptly at ten o’clock. Brother Hoffmann was introduced and gave some very interesting experiences of brothers in other lands. After his short talk Brother Franz spoke for about an hour, giving a very interesting and stirring address. He told the brothers of his early days when he studied the Greek language at the University of Cincinnati and how he had studied Greek ancient history, and now had opportunity to see some of it there at the Acropolis and Areopagus of Athens, and that he had visited some of these structures the day before. He reminded all how Paul had spoken to the Athenians, and then told how it had been our privilege to visit for a short time at the approximate place where Paul gave his wonderful discourse. Brother Franz also told the brothers of his visit to Portugal and Spain and Italy and of the zeal of their brothers there.
After that I spoke to the very enthusiastic and happy audience. Most persons there from other parts of Greece were now seeing the officers of the Society for the first time, and here was a group of people giving rapt attention, eager to hear whatever was said. On this morning I spoke to the brothers on the theme “Feed My Little Sheep,” showing the great responsibility that was placed upon Peter and all the disciples really to become overseers and take on that responsibility as overseers. Now Jesus was soon to leave them. He had done well in feeding the sheep that had been with him, but he was no longer there to be their shepherd and to see that they were well cared for; and now this whole load of responsibility had fallen upon his faithful followers. It was pointed out that those today who have positions as overseers should be heeding Jesus’ words, “Feed my little sheep,” and should not be neglecting them. Sometimes overseers think that their position is just an honorary one, and that they are to look after the paper work of the congregation and give some speeches; but really the position of the overseer is to feed the little sheep and to see that they are cared for and that they stay in the fold. So the point was made that when people are missing from the congregation it is up to the overseer to find out why they are no longer meeting with the congregation by visiting them, comforting them, giving them the necessary counsel from the Scriptures, and to see that they are fed and returned to the fold.
In Greece one can really see the need of an overseer. There the brothers are not allowed to meet in congregational groups in Kingdom Halls, but all their assembling together must be confined to small homes, in groups of ten to fifteen. From that we can see why an overseer must certainly be alert and keep in touch with all congregation book studies at service centers, to see that all the “other sheep,” as well as those of the “little flock,” are fed. Just think of it, for twenty-eight years Jehovah’s witnesses were not able to assemble together as they did on this morning, and their hearts were simply bubbling over with joy.
Newspapermen were present and made their report of what went on at the assembly of Jehovah’s witnesses. For many years when policemen were sent to meetings of Jehovah’s witnesses their orders had been to arrest them. In the past the police have had to do the bidding of the Greek Orthodox hierarchy, and whenever they wanted anyone arrested and put in prison it was up to the police to do the dirty work. But now, for the first time in twenty-eight years, Jehovah’s witnesses were assembled together in a theater and the police had been sent there to protect them. We sincerely hope and pray that this is a start for assemblies of Jehovah’s witnesses in Greece and that conditions there will change so that these good people who are interested in serving God, and him alone, may enjoy freedom of assembly for true worship.
As stated, it was impossible to have all the brothers together in the one theater. So that afternoon it was arranged for the Society’s president and vice-president to visit small groups of persons throughout Athens in their homes. Beginning at 3 p.m., the branch servant and I started out making these visits to various homes. About twenty-five minutes later Brother Franz and another brother from the branch followed, visiting the same homes. Thus we were able to speak to many more brothers. In fact, by nine that evening 853 brothers had been met and spoken to. This indeed was a joyful day! On returning to the branch office that evening we found that many of the congregation servants from other parts of Greece had come to see the office and the printing plant, and there again I had opportunity to talk to them for about thirty minutes. The Society arranged for a little reception in the branch office, because it was a new structure and many of our brothers from other parts of Greece had never seen it.
To all of us privileged to enjoy this 7th day of December it will be unforgettable. While the brothers were very anxious and happy to see us, we were certainly joyful in meeting them. Next day, according to schedule, we had to start for Turkey. So the brothers took us to the airport. We were not sure whether we would return to Athens from Istanbul to go on to Cyprus. (This all depended upon our getting visas from Cyprus.) At 9:30 we left and by ten we were back, landing on the same airstrip from which we had taken off. When we had flown from Athens for about fifteen minutes some difficulties developed in one of the engines, so the pilot decided to return. An hour later we left Athens in another plane, to Istanbul.
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