Fifty Years in “the Vineyard”—A Way of Life
As told by Clifford Keoghan
THE hall to which we made our way that winter’s night in 1929 was cold and unheated. The bare floor and hard wooden chairs bespoke utility, not comfort. We were going to attend the midweek meeting of the Watch Tower people, or International Bible Students as they were then known. This proved to be a turning point in our lives. Edna and I had planned to be married in the spring and settle in Auckland. I had a job and we had selected a house and purchased some furniture.
Sometime earlier we had undergone water baptism to symbolize our consecration (dedication). As we now sat side by side we held in our hands the monthly Bulletin (now Our Kingdom Service) and there in bold type were the six thought-provoking words that would change our entire lives: “GO YE ALSO INTO THE VINEYARD.” We had already been sharing in the preaching work but this was something special. We agreed, Yes! We would go into “the vineyard.”
How had we come to be there that night? As a boy, reared on the goldfields of the Thames Valley in New Zealand, I was sent by God-fearing parents to the Bible Class at the Anglican Church. Not very much Bible was taught but a sports-minded vicar did teach us how to form rugby football scrums. I believed in God but my view was somewhat blurred by the teaching of the Trinity.
Later, my employment brought me in close contact with death. I was the driver of a horse-drawn hearse for the three funeral directors in the town and often, as a result of fatal mine accidents, I would see a young woman and her children deprived of their breadwinner, plunged into the depths of despair, their religion of little comfort to them. I began to seek the answer to this thing called “death.” The vicar’s answers did not satisfy. I read widely, Christian and non-Christian works—still no answer to life’s problems.
Toward the end of 1927 I moved away from Tauranga, where my fiancée Edna was living, in order to further my trade as a butcher. Before I left, she and I had long discussions about the Bible and realized that neither of us knew much about it. After I left, Edna, thinking it a good opportunity to improve her knowledge, asked her mother for a Bible but instead was given a book and told it would be most helpful. She, in turn, sent the book to me. Incidentally, the day she posted it, her home was burned to the ground. But I had my book, The Harp of God. At last I had the answers I had searched for! And now here we were sitting at that meeting with an invitation in our hands, determined to accept and ‘pass through’ the opening “gates” to service in “the vineyard.”—Isa. 62:10.
INTO “THE VINEYARD”
After our marriage we applied to the Strathfield, Australia, office of the Watch Tower Society for territory and were assigned a 400-mile-long (644-kilometer-long) section of the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand, an area of high hills and coastal plains, of large sheep stations (ranches), large and small Maori settlements, three provincial towns, two small congregations meeting in homes, and two isolated sisters; truly ‘the harvest was great’ and ‘the labourers few.’ (Matt. 9:37, New World Translation; Authorized Version) We set out with an eight-by-six-foot (2.4-by-1.8-meter) calico tent, a 1920 Buick tourer, several cartons of books, a few possessions and not much money, but with plenty of faith—and this would prove to be our richest asset.
That summer of 1930 was long, hot and dry. The grass withered and died; sheep and cattle grew weak and thin as the drought crept down into once-fertile valleys; rivers fell to mere trickles. We carried two four-gallon tins of water on the running boards of the Buick and replenished it where we could. Was Jehovah’s watchcare over us? We had come to a small flow of water and decided that here we would make camp for the weekend, wash the clothes and replenish our water supply. I pitched the tent and was about to tip out the water from one container and get a fresh lot from the stream when for some reason I stopped, put it down and went on doing something else. Ten minutes later a Maori shepherd rode into our camp on horseback. He had seen us from the top of a ridge and had ridden down to tell us not to drink the water from the stream as it was badly polluted. I looked at the tin of water that I had not thrown away and said, “Thank you, Jehovah!”
We were traveling north toward East Cape, placing much literature with the Maori people and station owners, camping wherever we happened to be at sundown. We cooked and ate in the tent and slept in the car at nights. Both Maori and pakeha (white) people were kind to us. The great depression had not yet arrived up there. One experience taught me not to bypass anyone in the presentation of the truth. The day was hot and I was tired. The house was near the road but no one was around, though I could hear wood being sawed across a gully on a distant hillside. I thought of the comfort and shade of the car, started back toward it and had nearly arrived when the thought occurred to me, Why was I doing that? I had come miles to talk to people about God’s kingdom and here I was walking away like Jonah, going in the opposite direction. I turned and made my way across the swamp to where the man was working. He listened with interest to what I had to say and took every piece of literature in my bag, 15 books and 17 booklets!
A NIGHT WE REMEMBER
At the top of the Cape we spent one night that we have never forgotten. After driving along the beach front looking for a place suitable to camp, we settled on a grassy flat somewhat beyond a small Maori township. At the far end was a large rock-strewn mound; the whole area was a dried-up, stony riverbed, which made it difficult for me to drive in the tent pegs. A beautiful full moon had already risen from behind the hills as we ate our evening meal of boiled potatoes and kumera (a sweet root) for which we had traded some books during the day. Soon we had a visitor, a white man who owned property on the hill. He was genuinely concerned for our safety, even inquiring if we had anything with which to defend ourselves, and he was certain we would not sleep that night if we stayed there. We could camp anywhere on his land instead. No, we were not trespassing; it was common land, but it was not wise to stay there. We did not wish to be foolhardy, but we decided to stay put. Our well-wisher left, assuring us that he would leave a light burning in his house and that we were to come up there if we changed our minds.
We wondered what it was all about. The current Watch Tower was “Angels in Zion,” so we sat on the ground in our tent and read by candlelight how “the angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear him.” The night passed, the moon gave way to the morning sun, and all was well. During the day we made inquiries and were told that we had camped on an ancient Maori battlefield. The very spot on which we had pitched our tent had once been the scene of a frightful massacre and the locals believed that under the full moon the spirits of the dead warriors returned and fought the battle afresh. Our friend of the night before had lived so long among the Maoris that he believed as they did. He could not understand how we could possibly survive the night.—Ps. 34:7, Authorized Version.
IN DANGERS FROM EARTHQUAKES
Summer turned to autumn. We came down the coast to the provincial town of Gisborne where there was a small congregation. The depression was now making itself felt. The congregation had little, but this they gladly shared with us. Came the next June and time for us to move farther into our allotted territory. Some months previously a major earthquake had devastated much of the area. The towns of Napier and Hastings were practically demolished. Literature placements were not so prolific now. Money was scarce, so we traded books for food and used what cash we had for petrol. The earthquakes continued, as many as eight or nine a day. At night we could hear them coming across the fields with a rumble not unlike a heavy truck passing.
I think that the weirdest sensation was being in a car during a violent shake. When the vehicle began to move, I would instinctively push the foot brake out but, of course, to no avail; the car simply moved with the land. Hence, when we camped one night near the Mohaka River, where, in the major quake, several acres of good pastureland had slipped into the river and been carried out to sea, we tied the car to a large tree while we slept in it. That night there was quite a shake, but we were safe.
In Napier we had the kindly help of the Tareha family, a large Maori family active in the truth. They gave us the use of a small house and from there we set about covering the territory. We had many fine and encouraging experiences from door to door. While in this area we shared in two important events. One Sunday afternoon in October 1931 we met with the Tareha family to take on the new name “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” which had been adopted at the Columbus, Ohio, assembly earlier that year. How thrilled we were to have a definite identity! The next morning, full of zeal, I knocked on a door and proudly said: “Good morning. I am one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Reaction?—A blank stare and response: “Who are they? Never heard of them.” How different today!—a frequent response is: “You people are always here! Why do you come so often?”
The next important assignment was to serve the booklet The Kingdom, the Hope of the World on all clergymen, politicians and leaders in industry. Our instructions: Leave it with them whether they accept it or not. Napier and Hastings had a large quota of priests and I had a field day meeting them all. Some were tolerant; others flew into a rage. Twice I was manhandled by irate priests. One of these, a giant of a man, his face flushed with anger, grabbed me by the collar, dragged me several yards, threw me down the steps and threw the booklet after me. I picked up myself and the booklet, walked back, laid the booklet at his feet and said: “Do not trample on the Kingdom!” He almost choked himself in frustration. But notice had been served.
DURING THE GREAT DEPRESSION
With the birth of our first child approaching, we headed north to the home of my parents in Waihi. There was a small congregation there that met at the home of Fred Franks in Waikino. The Coromandel Peninsula was part of Waikino’s territory but it had not been worked, and Fred asked if I would do it. Gladly! With two new tires kindly donated by the congregation I was all set to tackle the rugged peninsula with its unformed roads. I left Edna behind in Waihi and set off in the car with a tent, and with a bicycle to reach places that the car could not manage, to visit shacks in the bush, isolated coastal farms and the like. As it was the custom of the dairy farmers to start in their milking sheds at 5 a.m., I would call on them in the sheds at 6 a.m., and one morning I had placed 26 books before 8 a.m. In the small township of Coromandel, I had placed a carton of books before 11 in the morning. In all this time the car, now 12 years old, had never given a moment’s mechanical trouble, although we nearly lost it once when attempting to cross a tidal river in flood.
The great economic depression was now on us. In the spring of 1932 Edna, our nine-month-old son David and I joined Arthur Rowe’s family and Mary Willis on a long trip to Wellington to attend an assembly. From the assembly two pioneer groups were organized, one for the North Island of New Zealand and the other for the South Island. Our group, the North Island one, was to operate from Palmerston North where a brother had given us the use of a fine home. We became a closely knit unit of eight pioneers working both town and country. Thus it was with mixed feelings that we received instructions from the Watch Tower Society’s Australian office to move the group to Auckland, as difficulties had arisen there with the “elective elder class,” causing divisions in the congregation. We were to establish a pioneer home and work with and strengthen the brothers who were staying loyal to God’s organization.
But how were we to move our essentials 375 miles (600 kilometers) to Auckland? Money for petrol for the two vehicles would itself pose a problem, as money was the least of our possessions. We disposed of everything but the barest necessities, giving us sufficient cash to pay railway freight and buy petrol to take us about one third of the way. If it was Jehovah’s will for us to go, we were confident that eventually we would arrive at Auckland. We planned to stop at Wanganui, a town of sufficient size for us to give a witness and, hopefully, place literature to get cash for petrol. We arranged for our mail to be readdressed to Wanganui. When I collected it there, one envelope contained just a piece of cardboard around which was a sheet of paper. But underneath the paper was a five-pound note. Five pounds! In the depression that was real money (in those days equivalent to $25). Tears filled our eyes. We had indeed ‘tasted and seen that the Lord is good,’ very good. (Ps. 34:8, AV) How happy we were that our refuge had been in Him! Thus, with petrol tanks at the full we came on to Auckland.
We rented a large house and settled in, working to build up the faithful brothers. Soon the congregation was doing well. Several who had at first followed the few unfaithful elective elders, and who were sincere but confused, joined again with the loyal ones.
It was during this time that we were stressing the sound-car work, playing Brother Rutherford’s recorded short talks on a transcription machine from the back seat of a car with a loudspeaker on the roof. Many expressed appreciation for the programs. In some Catholic areas, though, crowds would gather and vent their disapproval by trying to pull the speaker from the roof, but it was securely bolted on. They would then try to get the car doors open. Failing in this, they would start rocking the car. As we used to say, “Never a dull moment.”
By now the depression was passing and before long the pioneer home was discontinued. Edna and I moved out into the Morrinsville area where there were no publishers but where I could work as a butcher. In time we had a congregation of 12 publishers. Then came World War II, and with it difficulties. There was no petrol to any extent for our cars. It meant back to the bicycle. An ordinary Sunday could mean riding 36 miles (58 kilometers) on the bike just to visit the brothers and conduct a Watchtower study with them.
With the war came also the ban on our work. Our organization was proscribed and meetings were at first prohibited. Even two Witnesses meeting on a street corner discussing house-to-house activity would constitute an illegal gathering. But restrictions were later relaxed.
Came 1945 and time to make another change, this time back to Tauranga, where there was just one Witness. We shared her home at first until I could rent one. We had a son and a daughter to care for now and I obtained a position in a local butcher’s shop. Other brothers with their families moved in to join us and we were soon a small congregation. The congregation there continued to increase, and today there are three congregations in the same area, each with a fine Kingdom Hall.
In 1952 our family returned to Auckland. I was appointed city overseer and as such enjoyed many privileges. Following the visit of Brothers Knorr and Adams in 1956 I was given the task of arranging the purchase of the property at New North Road, on which the Society built a fine new building in connection with the transfer of the Watch Tower Society’s branch from Wellington to Auckland.
Thus have the days in “the vineyard” passed into years, the years into decades—working here, helping there, not missing meetings or assemblies, counting our blessings, of which there have been many, both large and small. The love and respect of the brothers have ever been an encouragement, something that is treasured.
Our children too have proved to be a blessing to us. Both pioneered for a time, and so have some of their children. My son and son-in-law are elders in Auckland congregations, and my eldest grandson is a ministerial servant. Now I have an infant great-grandson whom, Jehovah willing, I may yet see praising His name. For what more could a person ask? To have had such a relationship with Jehovah and Christ Jesus is a treasure no man can take away.
One thing the years have taught me is not to ‘despise the day of small things.’ (Zech. 4:10) I think of the meetings that we once held in the humble homes of the brothers and now see the softly carpeted, ever-expanding Kingdom Halls, and I think that indeed the prophecy of Isaiah 60:17 has become fulfilled for us. The “stones” have become “iron,” the “iron . . . silver” and the “copper . . . gold.” The promised “peace” has truly been ‘appointed our overseer.’ We also think of the many good companions, brothers and sisters, who shared the years with us. Many have gone now. Some went to new and greater assignments; others to rest in the grave in which we laid them with a sad “Good night,” to return on a brighter day to a welcoming “Good morning” in a paradise earth.
We know that the work in “the vineyard” is not yet completed. It has proved to be a way of life greatly desired. How better could one spend the years that Jehovah gives to us?
One thought predominates as I look at the past. It is the expression of the watchcare that Jehovah and his Son Jesus Christ have for all who take up Jesus’ yoke and follow him. It is as described at Psalm 37:25: “A young man I used to be, I have also grown old, and yet I have not seen anyone righteous left entirely, nor his offspring looking for bread.”
[Map/Picture of Edna and Clifford Keoghan on page 12]
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“Go Ye Also Into The Vineyard”