A Barren Land Becomes Fertile
AS TOLD BY ARTHUR MELIN
It was a clear spring day in 1930, and I was standing on a dock in Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Looking down at the boat resting on the seabed, I wondered, ‘Where has all the water gone?’ This was my first experience with the tides of the Pacific West Coast where the sea level may drop as much as 24 feet [7 m] in just six hours. But how did a prairie farm boy come to be on the shores of the Pacific Ocean?
I HAD been invited to enlarge my privilege of full-time service to Jehovah by joining the crew of the boat Charmian. Our assignment was to pioneer the preaching work along the isolated west coast from Vancouver to Alaska. This stretch consisted of most of British Columbia’s many miles of coastline, which was barren of active praisers of Jehovah. The only exception was a small group of Kingdom publishers in the town of Prince Rupert.
I was anxious to get started, so on stepping off the train, I immediately headed for the docks to see the boat Charmian and meet its crew, Arne and Christina Barstad. No one was aboard, so I left. On my return later in the day, I was shocked. It looked as if the ocean were running dry!
But what led up to this interesting assignment?
A Spiritual Heritage
My appreciation for spiritual things began at home on the plains of Alberta, Canada. My father had found a tract written by Charles Taze Russell of Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society that changed his life profoundly. Father started preaching to his neighbors, despite his time-consuming work of homesteading in Calmar, Alberta. That was a hundred years ago, during the early 1890’s.
It was into this God-fearing home that I was born on February 20, 1905, the eighth of what eventually became ten brothers and sisters. Father, as well as others in this Swedish community, became associated with the International Bible Students. In time, they built a meeting place, later called Kingdom Hall. It was one of the first in Canada.
Farm work never kept us from attending Christian meetings, some of which featured talks by visiting speakers sent out by the Watch Tower Society. These talks built in us an earnest desire to share in the preaching work. As a result, nearly all in our family have steadfastly walked in the light of Bible truth.
Sharing in the Preaching Work
Early in the 1920’s, I was given my first witnessing assignment. I was to distribute public-talk invitations from door to door in the city of Edmonton. As I stood there alone that day, I learned a valuable lesson: Trust in Jehovah. (Proverbs 3:5, 6) How happy I was to accomplish that first assignment with Jehovah’s help!
My confidence in Jehovah’s visible organization and in his faithful and discreet slave class continued to grow as more understanding was shed on his Word of truth. Many of Christendom’s appendages, such as celebrations of Christmas and birthdays, were discarded. Personal salvation no longer became a preoccupation; instead, Kingdom preaching began to take on a proper place of importance. All of this had a profound effect on my life. So not long after dedicating my life to Jehovah on April 23, 1923, I made the full-time ministry my goal.
During the subzero prairie winters, we witnessed in the rural areas with a horse and sleigh. I once spent two weeks with a group in what was known as the house-car work. These special cars proved practical in witnessing in the wide-open spaces of the Canadian prairies. Despite financial problems, severe weather conditions, and great distances to travel, I managed to persevere in the pioneer ministry in Alberta off and on for about three years until that memorable day in 1930 when I was invited to serve on the Pacific West Coast. Since I knew nothing about the sea or boats, that invitation puzzled me.
Well, it wasn’t long after my arrival in Prince Rupert that I felt right at home with my new fellow workers on the boat. Brother Barstad was a seasoned sailor, having engaged in commercial fishing for many years. The next six years was a period of intense preaching, plying the coastal waters of British Columbia from Vancouver to Alaska. Another lesson learned: Always accept an assignment from Jehovah, and never hold back.
Sowing Seed by the Sea
Our first port of call that spring of 1930 was Ketchikan, Alaska, where we loaded on 60 cartons of Bible literature. For a number of weeks, we called on all the homes in Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau, Skagway, Haines, Sitka, and other scattered settlements. Next we covered the entire British Columbia coast, completing it before the end of summer. Remote logging camps, fish-processing camps, Indian villages, small towns, as well as isolated settlers and trappers, were visited. At times it was hard to get away from lonely lighthouse keepers who welcomed someone to talk to.
In time, the Society equipped us with portable phonographs and recorded Bible lectures. We carried these with us, along with books, Bibles, and magazines. Often we had to carry them as we scrambled over coastal rocks. During low tide, we sometimes had to lug them up rickety ladders onto towering docks. I was happy for the physical training that I had received in my youth working on a prairie homestead.
The public-address system on our boat served as a powerful tool in spreading the Kingdom news. Reflected off the water, the recorded lectures were often heard for miles. Once while anchored in an isolated cove on Vancouver Island, we played one of these Bible lectures. The next day people living inland excitedly told us: “Yesterday we heard a sermon right out of heaven!”
On another occasion an elderly couple said that they heard music coming down their chimney, but when they went outside, they heard nothing. Returning inside, they heard a voice. Why was that? Well, while they were outside, we had been changing the record. We would play music first to catch people’s attention, then play a Bible lecture.
On yet another occasion, when we were anchored near an island with an Indian village, two young native boys came rowing out to see where the voices were coming from. Some on the island thought they were the voices of their dead who had come to life!
It was not unusual to place a hundred books a day with those working at remote fish canneries. Having few distractions, they had time to think of spiritual things. Eventually many of these isolated ones became Witnesses. On succeeding trips, we looked forward to visiting them for “an interchange of encouragement.”—Romans 1:12.
Continued Service With a Mate
In 1931, I married Christina Barstad’s sister, Anna. Afterward we continued our pioneering together on the boat and enjoyed many rewarding experiences over the years. Whales, sea lions, seals, porpoises, deer, bears, and eagles were our companions against a background of majestic mountains, secluded inlets, and intimate bays, forested with cedars, pines, and giant Douglas firs. Several times we assisted exhausted deer and their fawns as they tried to swim across fast-moving channels to escape from predators.
One afternoon we spotted a bald eagle flying low across the water, its talons firmly grasping a large chinook salmon. The fish was too big to lift completely out of the water, so the eagle was heading for the shore with the salmon in tow. Frank Franske, a member of the crew, saw the potential and ran along the shoreline to meet the tiring eagle and persuaded it to give up its catch. Our pioneer crew had a delicious salmon supper that evening, and the eagle learned to share, albeit reluctantly.
On one islet at the north end of Vancouver Island, a couple named Thuot embraced Bible truth. He was an illiterate, strong-willed, independent person in his mid-90’s, and she was in her mid-80’s. However, he was so intrigued with the truth that he humbled himself and allowed his wife to teach him to read. Soon he was able to study the Bible and the Society’s publications for himself. Less than three years later, I had the joy of baptizing both of them at their remote island home, using our rowboat as a baptismal tank!
We also had the joy of seeing the Sallis family in Powell River respond to the Kingdom message. Walter read the booklet War or Peace—Which? and recognized the ring of truth immediately. Shortly the whole family joined Walter in the pioneer ranks in Vancouver, where we would tie up Charmian for the winter. He proved to be very zealous, and over the years endeared himself to the whole association of brothers in the Vancouver area. He completed his earthly course in 1976, leaving behind a large family of Witnesses.
The clergy in the Indian villages often resented our work, considering us poachers on their spiritual domain. At Port Simpson the local clergyman demanded that the village chief prohibit us from calling at the homes. We contacted the chief and asked if he thought the clergyman rightly classified his people as too ignorant to think for themselves. We suggested that his people be given the opportunity to hear a discussion of God’s Word and decide for themselves what they wanted to believe. The result: He gave us the go-ahead to continue preaching in the village.
Another village chief for decades thwarted all attempts by council members and religious groups to hinder the Witnesses from making contact with his people. “As long as I am chief,” he said, “Jehovah’s Witnesses are welcome here.” True, we were not always welcome everywhere, but despite the opposition we were never forced to leave an area. Thus we were able to accomplish our ministry each time we docked.
Enduring Troubles at Sea
Over the years, we faced difficulties with storms, tides, uncharted rocks, and sometimes engine trouble. Once we drifted too close to Lasqueti Island, about a hundred miles [160 km] north of Vancouver. We got hung up on a reef, caught there on a falling tide, and were at the mercy of the elements. If the weather had turned bad, the boat would have been smashed to pieces on the rocks. All of us scrambled onto the rocks and made the best of a bad situation. We had lunch, caught up on some studying, and waited for the tide to rise again.
In spite of the many risks and inconveniences, it was a healthy, happy life. The birth of our two sons, however, brought a big change. We continued to live on the boat, but whenever we sailed as far north as Oona River, Anna and the boys stayed there with her parents while the rest of us continued farther north to Alaska. Then, when we returned south, Anna and the children rejoined us.
I do not remember the children ever complaining or being sick. They wore life belts at all times, and sometimes we even tied a rope around them. Yes, there were some tense moments.
In 1936 we had to leave the Charmian, and I obtained secular employment. Later we had a third son. In time, I purchased a fishing boat, which not only served as a means of livelihood but also allowed us to continue in the preaching work along the coast.
We established a home on Digby Island, across the bay from Prince Rupert, and before long a small congregation was formed. During World War II, when the preaching work of Jehovah’s Witnesses was banned in Canada, we would take a boat over to Prince Rupert after midnight and “blitz” the territory, leaving literature at every home. No one ever related our midnight crossings to the distribution of banned literature!
The Land Has Become Fertile
Gradually more people began to associate with Jehovah’s Witnesses, and in 1948 the need for a Kingdom Hall in Prince Rupert was apparent. After buying an army building located across the harbor, we dismantled it, rafted it across, and then trucked it to the building site. Jehovah blessed our hard work, and we had our own Kingdom Hall.
In 1956, I reentered the pioneer ranks, and Anna joined me in 1964. We again worked by boat along the Pacific Coast. For a time we also shared in the circuit work, visiting congregations from the Queen Charlotte Islands eastward across the mountains to Fraser Lake, and later as far as Prince George and Mackenzie. Over the years, we traveled throughout the Pacific Northwest thousands of miles by car, boat, and plane.
In Prince Rupert we have continued to enjoy fine experiences in the ministry. Both Anna and I have studied with individuals who later attended the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead and afterward served as missionaries in foreign lands. What a joy it is to see our spiritual children carry the precious Kingdom message to distant lands!
Now both of us are well past 80 and are coping with deteriorating health, but we are still happy in Jehovah’s service. The natural beauties we have seen in Alaska and British Columbia evoke treasured memories. Yet it brings even greater joy to see the once barren spiritual wilderness of this vast area now blossoming with many congregations of Jehovah’s praisers.
Especially has it done our hearts good to see our own children, as well as our spiritual children, grow up and bless Jehovah. We rejoice that we have had a small part in the spiritual growth in this part of the earth. Alaska, for example, now has its own branch office that coordinates the work of over 25 congregations.
Here in Prince Rupert we had the privilege in 1988 of dedicating a beautiful new Kingdom Hall, right in the very heart of the city. Yes, we rejoice, as did Isaiah, in saying: “You have added to the nation; O Jehovah, . . . you have glorified yourself. You have extended afar all the borders of the land.”—Isaiah 26:15.
[Picture on page 21]
Serving in the circuit work 1964-67
[Picture on page 24]
The type of boat used in witnessing along the coast