New York Harbor Is My Pulpit
As told by Ans Insberg
A SUNDAY calm has set in on the New York water front. Just yesterday the harbor was a maze of tugs and freighters, tankers and barges, ocean liners and roaring helicopters. Today all is quiet, except for a few ferryboats passing each other between lower Manhattan and Staten Island. The midmorning sun is reflected off the sky-high tiers of windows in the Wall Street skyscrapers. Early traffic speeds along the ribbon of superhighway skirting the water front. Under the flags of 170 steamship companies lie row upon row of newly painted ocean vessels as though stretching themselves in the sun. This is the port of New York, richest harbor in the world. It is also my pulpit and has been for the past twenty years.
At the Port Authority gate a uniformed pier guard checks my pass and motions me inside. I head for the nearest gangplank and make my way below deck, Bible in one hand and witness case in the other. Here and there are groups of seamen discussing things of interest, such as the possibility of war over Berlin. I often preach to cooks and sailors first, and then progress deck by deck to the officers, engineers, mates, radio operators and finally the captain. In this manner I try not to miss anyone and still cover from three to five ships a day.
Compared to land dwellers, I find seafaring men more broad-minded and better acquainted with the Bible. Perhaps this is due to the fact that they have more time for reading and contemplation. Then, too, they have traveled more and they spend much time close to God’s handiwork—the sea and the starry heavens.
Aboard a French ship, I introduce myself to the chief engineer. “Come into my cabin,” he says. “I will show you two books which have given me much satisfaction and pleasure. I have been reading them in my spare time.” To my delight he produces two well-known Watch Tower publications in French, “Let God Be True” and “The Truth Shall Make You Free.” The engineer gladly accepts our new Bible-study aid From Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained. Next, the captain obtains the same book. Now both have some interesting and important new reading in store for them.
On another vessel I find a group of friendly Spanish seamen. “Gather around, boys, and I will show you something!” Turning to a beautiful illustration in the Paradise book, I risk a little broken Spanish: “See? No mas guerra, no mas muerte.” (”No more war, no more death.”) “Wouldn’t you like to live in a world like that?” “!Si!” I offer them the book on a small contribution basis, but get the reply, “No tengo dinero.” (”I have no money.”) Assuring them that money is not the important thing compared to putting good things into their minds, I agree to let them have the book for a few nickels, but on one condition: “You must pass it from hand to hand like a circulating library.” Agreed. And all receive some tracts in Spanish before the pleasant visit is concluded.
OUT OF ALL NATIONS
Languages and religions vary from ship to ship. Most seamen I meet are Spanish, Portuguese and Scandinavian. There are also crewmen from Italy, Japan, Germany, India and other lands. In fact, the port of New York receives traffic from every maritime country in the world. It is not unusual to find myself discussing God’s kingdom with Moslems, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Hindus or Buddhists. Most speak English. I speak English, Russian and Latvian and a few phrases in Spanish and German. However, I carry the Watchtower Society’s booklet “Preach the Word,” which explains in thirty major languages exactly why I am aboard.
One day, on a Japanese freighter, I came to the captain’s quarters and introduced myself as a minister of the gospel. The captain arose and graciously offered me his chair. Seated around the table were his guests, the chief mate and the chief engineer, all of whom spoke English. “Soon, under God’s kingdom, everything on earth will be beautiful,” I said. The captain brought out a large Bible printed in Japanese. We located Matthew 24:14, Jesus’ prophecy foretelling a world-wide witness to be given about the Kingdom just before the end comes. “This scripture is being fulfilled aboard your ship today,” I explained, “and also around the world in 181 lands by Jehovah’s witnesses.” The captain rang for the waiter. Soon we were enjoying hot coffee and refreshments. It was a pleasure to place the interesting book What Has Religion Done for Mankind? with the captain.
“SHEEP AND GOATS”
Just a short time ago the Watchtower Society gave me a letter it had received from a woman in Florida requesting a Witness to call on her father, a second engineer aboard a ship in the harbor. Finding the gentleman, I explained my purpose in calling and was pleased to hear him say, “Come in. I have been expecting you.” “In that case,” I replied, “let me demonstrate how your daughter and your two grandchildren are preaching the good news of God’s kingdom with Jehovah’s witnesses.” He listened attentively to a short Bible sermon on God’s purpose to bring peace, health and life to obedient mankind. He immediately subscribed for The Watchtower. Seamen usually get their mail at the office of the shipping company in Manhattan when they return to port. His subscription written up, the engineer asked if I would join him for dinner. While enjoying the chicken treat I was able to explain my mission to others, including the Spanish waiter, who obtained a copy of the Paradise book in his native tongue. Before leaving the ship I was glad to answer some Bible questions for the captain and write up a Watchtower subscription for another officer. So ended a happy day along the water front.
Generally seamen are most receptive and hospitable. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. A few days ago aboard a Swedish vessel I was greatly reviled, threatened and finally ordered off the ship. On an earlier occasion, some Italian seamen plainly objected: “We are Catholics and Communists here!” Nevertheless, this hostility is not typical. My most appreciative listeners are Spanish and Portuguese Catholics.
The rare rebuffs are soon buried by happy experiences, such as the one I recently enjoyed aboard a British ship manned by a Nigerian crew. The Nigerians gathered around to hear my sermon, which prompted many Bible questions. Three crewmen obtained copies of the Paradise book. “How about coming to visit the Watchtower Society’s headquarters?” I asked. They agreed to come the next day. Monday arrived and so did six Nigerians with a British officer. All enjoyed an interesting tour of the Society’s massive printing plant. “Why don’t you build a beautiful building like this in our country?” one seaman asked. Perhaps by now he has seen the Society’s lovely branch building in Nigeria. Greatly impressed by the peace and unity of Jehovah’s headquarters organization, my guests said good-by.
Saying farewell is the hardest part of my work, because the “good-by” is usually for good. I do not see most of my listeners again because ship personnel changes about every three months. There is some exchange of letters, but only the occasional pleasure of a brief reunion. For this reason before ending any discussion with interested seamen I always point out the list of the Watch Tower Society’s branch offices at the back of the literature. “You have a wonderful opportunity to get to know Jehovah’s witnesses wherever you sail,” I tell them. “There is hardly a country you will enter that does not have one of our branch offices. Be sure to get better acquainted at your next port.” Then I demonstrate how to take the Bible-study aid, ask the questions at the bottom of the pages, and thereby gain a better understanding of Jehovah’s purpose that leads to everlasting life.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
How did I happen to claim this huge harbor for my pulpit? It was a happy decision made two decades ago after I visited an old friend aboard a ship in the Bethlehem Shipyards. During the conversation we discussed the good news of God’s kingdom. He enjoyed it and I enjoyed it. I asked myself, “Why not do this on other ships?”
Of course, I was no stranger to ships. For fifteen years I had sailed under the flags of America, Britain, Sweden and Germany. It was aboard a ship in the Southern Hemisphere one clear, starry night that I poured out my heart to the Lord and asked him to lead me to the people who really worshiped him in spirit and in truth. I had seen much hypocrisy among churchgoers in my native Latvia and later in Russia and I wanted none of that. My prayer was answered when I attended a showing of the Society’s “Photo-Drama of Creation” in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1914. At last I had found the truth—how perfectly it harmonized the Bible with science and history! In two years I was baptized and took up the preaching work, going back to the sea whenever funds ran low. The summer of 1922 brought an invitation from Judge Rutherford, the Watchtower Society’s president, to join the headquarters staff, where I have served ever since. It is from this home on Brooklyn Heights that I journey to the water front each Sunday morning.
When preaching to these seamen who are far from home I sometimes think of my boyhood in Latvia, where my father used to read two or three chapters of the Bible daily at breakfast. The love for God this instilled in me was heightened when we moved to the rugged Ural Mountains of Russia. In my mind Manhattan’s skyscrapers fade into familiar mountains, deep ravines and waterfalls. I can still hear the song of the cuckoo after the magnificent thunderstorms and the brilliant rainbows. I cannot forget the early morning singing of the nightingales nor the blinding snowstorms as well as the little bluebells pushing their way up through the snow to announce the coming of spring. How often I tended my father’s sheep in green mountain pastures!
I am still tending “sheep” right here in the harbor, for my heavenly Father, Jehovah. Jesus himself found many a meek, sheeplike hearer along the water front of Galilee. Nineteen centuries has brought bigger ships than Galilee’s little fishing boats—and bigger worries. Humble sailors still love the good news that God has a Kingdom government that will restore paradise to earth. With such a happy message and so many eager listeners, you can imagine why I am looking forward to next Sunday morning when, with Bible and witness bag, I shall head for my fascinating pulpit.