A New Song Along the “River of the Birds”
THE Indians called it the River of the Birds. To this day, along the edges of this river one can still hear the beautiful song of the lark, the cooing of the dove, the five-note melody of the sparrowlike Chincol, and the paraphrases of the yellow-bellied Benteveo. In time, though, the country lying to the east of the river also came to be known by the name River of the Birds, or as it is said in the Tupí Indian dialect—URUGUAY.
However, “a new song” is now being sung in the River of the Birds. Long ago, Isaiah foretold this, saying: “Sing to Jehovah a new song, his praise from the extremity of the earth, you men that are going down to the sea and to that which fills it, you islands and you inhabiting them.” (Isaiah 42:10) How, though, did this “new song” about the establishment of God’s Kingdom reach Uruguay?
Arrival of the “New Song”
The powerful Kingdom message began to be heard faintly in Uruguay in 1923. That year one of Jehovah’s Witnesses passed through the country and placed a hundred booklets. In September of 1924 Juan Muñiz arrived. He was an ex-Catholic priest from Spain who had become disillusioned with his religion and quit it. However, after moving to the United States, in 1916 his love of the Bible was rekindled by the Kingdom message he heard from the people now known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Muñiz returned to Spain to share what he had learned. But he met such severe opposition that, at the suggestion of the Watchtower Society’s president, he moved to South America. Juan Muñiz was placed in charge of the Kingdom-preaching work in Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
Brother Muñiz was a remarkably capable speaker. It is said that he could captivate an audience for hours, using only the Bible, without notes or outline. Upon seeing that the people in Uruguay responded with considerable interest, Juan Muñiz asked the Society to send more help.
In response, Carlos Ott left Germany in 1925, arriving some time later in Uruguay. There he concentrated his efforts for the next eight years. Being conscious of the need to reach as many people as possible, Brother Ott made good use of the radio, one station even agreeing to transmit recorded discourses free of charge. From this small beginning, the work expanded to all 19 departments (provinces) of Uruguay.
Some seeds of truth fell among foreign immigrants. For example, in northern Uruguay there were a number of Russian families who had abandoned their native land during the furor of World War I. One of them, Nikifor Tkachenco, received the booklet Where Are the Dead? and recognized the clear sound of truth. He unhesitatingly strove to share his newfound faith with other Russians. Quite a few of them accepted the truth, becoming the foundations for congregations in Salto and Paysandú, two other large cities.
In 1939 six German pioneers were assigned to Uruguay. It took them six years, however, to reach their assignment; Nazi persecutors had made them victims of a long manhunt throughout Europe. Yet, when they finally arrived in Uruguay, they immediately set to work. First they tried to locate German families and witness to them. Then, while learning the native language, they carried a Spanish “testimony card” that briefly explained their mission.
This little group diligently covered the entire country on bicycles, exchanging literature for food and sleeping in small tents along the road when no one took them in. Their bicycles were loaded with enough clothing for the season, a small kerosene cookstove, kitchen utensils, and a phonograph with recorded Bible lectures. They defied cold, heat, wind, and floods. But in this way seeds of truth were scattered throughout the land. Soon others were adding their voices to the chorus of those singing the “new song.”
Missionaries Spur On Growth
In March 1945, N. H. Knorr and F. W. Franz, officers of the Watch Tower Society, visited Uruguay for the first time. Besides giving upbuilding counsel, they gave Uruguay its first Gilead graduate, Russell S. Cornelius. Though at the outset he spoke only a few words of Spanish, after only a month and a half, he was able to give a public discourse. He continued to progress and was a great help in directing the Kingdom work. Soon, more young missionaries arrived, until 27 of them—almost as many missionaries as there were publishers—were crowded into a rented branch-missionary home. Naturally, the presence of foreign missionary girls made quite an impact on the community. One newspaper even quipped that “blond angels” had invaded Montevideo!
Mabel Jones was such a one. While attending an assembly in Salto in 1950, she shared the Kingdom hope with Carola Beltramelli and Catalina Pomponi, two friendly neighbors. Both came to that assembly and, a month later, traveled 300 miles (500 km) to attend another in Montevideo. They made rapid spiritual progress. Carola’s sons also responded to the truth. One of the sons, Delfos, entered full-time service and graduated from Gilead in 1965. He now serves as the coordinator of the Branch Committee. The younger son, Luis, is a congregation elder. Sister Pomponi entered the pioneer work in 1953 and has helped over 80 people dedicate their lives to Jehovah.
All in all, 82 Gilead graduates have served in Uruguay. While some have found it necessary to return home for one reason or another, they have left a record of fruitful activity. Even now you will hear old-timers among the Uruguayan brothers say, “My children were younger than my grandchildren are now when Mary Batko came to teach me the Bible” or, “I was still in grade school when Jack and Jane Powers took me preaching on Sundays.”
Growth and Expansion
The “new song” fell on many responsive ears. In 1949 Gerardo Escribano, a young atheist, was invited to a Bible meeting. He accepted on the condition that if there were images or if he had to recite religious prayers, he would never return. He was impressed with what he heard, eventually was baptized, and now serves as a district overseer and member of the branch committee.
The film The New World Society in Action, made in 1953, was taken to almost all cities and towns. Brother Liber Berrueta showed this film hundreds of times in Kingdom Halls, private homes, public parks, and improvised halls. He also had a large share in establishing the Society’s legal corporation in Uruguay, serving as its first president until his death.
At the end of 1961, when there were 1,570 Witnesses in the land, the dedication of a new Bethel Home was an important step. After its completion, the architect, Justino Apolo, was moved to symbolize his dedication to God by baptism. He later became an elder and has generously helped in building some 40 Kingdom Halls in Uruguay.
Similarly, after the construction project, Avelino Filipponi, an expert builder, took up the full-time service along with his wife. He is now a circuit overseer. He, too, has helped greatly with many Kingdom Halls. More recently, he shared in supervising the construction of an addition to the Uruguayan Bethel.
A New Branch Addition
The addition is a two-story structure with an ample basement. Having over 8,500 square feet (790 sq m) of floor space, it is actually larger than the original building. The annex houses a printery, the shipping and magazine departments, literature storage, a garage, and a beautiful Kingdom Hall. Much of the building material was donated by the brothers, and all the work was done by some 500 volunteers. Witnesses who are expert in masonry, metal work, carpentry, and many other trades donated their time and skill in designing, building, decorating, and furnishing the entire structure.
On February 4, 1985, the dedication of the annex began with Grant Miller, a member of the Branch Committee, giving a brief history of Uruguay and the growth of Kingdom work in the land of the River of the Birds. This was followed by delightful experiences and details about the new building. Finally, the audience of 250 appreciated the dedication discourse, “A Happy People With a Purpose,” given by Delfos Beltramelli. It was indeed a memorable day!
But what does the future hold for the work in Uruguay? Consider the rapid growth we have enjoyed. In 1964 we had 2,000 Witnesses. By 1974 the number doubled. During 1985 we reached a peak of 5,329. That there is further potential for growth was clearly evident when 15,243—one in about every 190 persons in the country—came to the 1985 Memorial of Christ’s death.
But even more thrilling is the quality of Christianity our brothers in Uruguay manifest. For example, for some years these had to travel to Brazil for their yearly conventions because the Uruguayan government denied them permission to hold conventions. In 1982 the government decreed that all citizens and residents leaving the country must pay a tax. This placed a severe financial burden upon many brothers. However, brothers with greater means helped poorer families. One group even worked at doing home repairs during their free time in order to contribute toward the expenses of others. Thus some 3,500 Uruguayans were able to travel to the convention in Brazil!
Then, by a surprise change of events, the brothers received permission to hold a convention in Montevideo the week before the dedication of the branch annex. All arrangements had to be made in just 20 days, including assigning the parts on the program, organizing the departments, and repairing and cleaning the unused and dilapidated Hippodrome. But what a joy it was for the 6,245 to meet!
We can therefore be confident that Jehovah will continue to bless the efforts of our brothers as they unitedly work to sing the glorious message of God’s Kingdom along the River of the Birds—Uruguay!
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The Kingdom Hall of the new branch home addition in Uruguay