Colombia gold: Is it the precious yellow metal or the pernicious white drug cocaine? Neither. The real gold of this South American country is found among her people—the thousands that are making a good name with God.
MENTION Colombia, South America, and what comes to mind? For many people it evokes visions of rich Colombian coffee, exquisite emeralds, beautiful chrysanthemums, and regal orchids—just a few of the good things for which the country is renowned. For others, though, the very hint of Colombia summons dark images of cocaine smuggling and grim drug wars. This is unfortunate. Drugs and murder are not representative of the real Colombia nor, by far, of the vast majority of her citizens.
Come and see for yourself what Colombia is like. You may be surprised, and pleased too, to learn that it is not as primitive or dangerous as you may have imagined. And we are sure you will appreciate why Jehovah’s Witnesses in Colombia are so happy proclaiming the good news of God’s Kingdom in this traditionally Roman Catholic land.
Spanish Crown—Roman Catholic Cross
A look at the map will refresh your memory respecting the geography of the area. As you see, the Isthmus of Panama runs into Colombia in the northwest corner of South America. This gives Colombia, named after the European discoverer of the New World, the advantage of having Pacific and Atlantic coastlines.
After Christopher Columbus’ memorable voyages, the whole Caribbean area quickly became the object of exploration and conquest. Spain’s energies focused on one activity: gaining control of the vast riches of the New World, its gold and silver, which was soon to spur her on in an attempt at world domination. Few will deny that the 16th century belonged to Spain.
But the 16th century, too, was the century of the Protestant Reformation, when nations of northern Europe broke free from the shackles of the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire. Bible translation and publication were soon to flourish and the Holy Scriptures would become a household book. Not so, though, for Spain’s American colonies. Here, as the conquistadores waded ashore to take possession in the name of the crown, they also planted the cross of Roman Catholicism. There it would remain a symbol of a religious monopoly during the next 400 years.
Therefore, to understand Colombia and her people, you must grasp some of her history. And to understand Jehovah’s Witnesses in Colombia, you must also know how secular history intertwined with their theocratic history.
Major Points of Interest
Most of Colombia’s population is concentrated in the western third of the country, in the rich river valleys and on the fertile slopes of three Andean ranges that spread northward from the Ecuadoran border like fingers. Our interest concentrates on six of her cities: the capital, Bogotá, on a plateau in the Cordillera Oriental; three tropical ports on the Caribbean Coast—Barranquilla, Santa Marta, and Cartagena; world-renowned Medellín in the west, with its climate of perennial springtime; and subtropical Cali in the southwest, down Ecuador way, basking in year-round summer weather.
Until the advent of commercial air travel early in the 1920’s, the Magdalena River was the main route to the interior. Half way up river, to the west, stands the snow-covered volcano Nevado del Ruiz—visible from the air on a clear day. Below on the valley floor, the prosperous agricultural town of Armero once stood, before that fateful night in November 1985 when a killer avalanche of mud, ice, and lava wiped the city of 28,000 inhabitants off the map. Some 40 of Jehovah’s Witnesses and interested persons lost their lives in that tragedy.*
On to Bogotá
Leaving the broad Magdalena River valley behind, incoming flights glide over the rich green savanna high in the mountains where Bogotá, the 450-year-old capital and largest city of Colombia, lies. Alert passengers on the right side of the plane might briefly catch sight of reddish-brown roofs on the new Watch Tower branch construction site just west of the capital. Some of the workers may glance up too, wondering whether the passing plane brings more IVCWs (International Volunteer Construction Workers) to speed the job along. As the big jet continues its long glide toward Bogotá’s El Dorado International Airport, straight ahead on the far edge of the plateau the tall buildings of Bogotá reach for the sun and stand outlined against the steep ranges of the Cordillera Oriental.
On exiting the airport, travelers are often surprised at the brisk, cool air. A topcoat or a heavy sweater can take the chill away at this 8,600-foot [2,600 m] elevation.
Colombia Enjoys Freedom of Worship
A shrine tops the mountain range overlooking the capital. It stands as a silent reminder that Colombia is a Catholic country; she is dedicated to “The Sacred Heart of Jesus” and has a concordat signed with the Holy See of the Catholic Church, in force since 1887. This originally stated that Catholicism was the State religion, upholding the belief of the Spanish king, Philip II, that political unity could not exist without unity in religion.
Happily, since 1958 Colombia has enjoyed freedom of worship. Jehovah’s Witnesses appreciate this enlightened attitude of the government.
Witnessing in Bogotá
Meet Agustín Primo, a member of the Colombia Branch Committee. He learned the truth in 1972, from a North American Witness who was serving in Bogotá when the need for Kingdom preachers was very great. Sixty years old and now retired from secular employment, Agustín works full-time at the branch. He tells us that the present branch office and factory are too small to care adequately for the country’s more than 40,000 publishers and 600 congregations, even though the buildings were dedicated just ten years ago.
From where is the increase in publishers coming? Looking at the evangelizing work done in this sprawling city of some five million inhabitants can give us some clues.
Witnessing in wealthier parts of the city is difficult because of guarded apartment buildings and condominiums, where dwellers enter and leave mostly by car. And when calling on the private homes in these sections, publishers face the challenge of getting past the housemaids to reach family members. But it is in the growing middle-class sections where stimulating Bible conversations are often possible.
In the less pretentious, working-class neighborhoods, you will find many people who are well informed about world events. Thus home Bible studies are easier to start with them, and they progress in the truth quite rapidly.
And finally, there is the bane of so many overcrowded cities in developing countries—the shantytowns and squatter settlements that seem to spring up overnight on unoccupied flatlands and denuded hillsides. These are the last camping grounds for the endless streams of people who abandon rural areas for the strange life of the city. Among the scores of thousands living there, many listen to the comforting message of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and some respond by embracing the Kingdom hope.
Colombia’s First Two Kingdom Publishers
“There has been excellent growth since the arrival of the first Gilead missionaries in mid-1945. But there were active Witnesses in Colombia 20 years before that,” Euclides González of the branch office Service Department tells us.
About the same time that Charles Taze Russell and his little group of Bible students began their study classes in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., Heliodoro Hernández was born in the hill country, some 200 miles [300 km] north of Bogotá. That was in 1871. Fifty-one years later, he was to become Colombia’s first active Witness.
In his youth Heliodoro was an avid reader who had a consuming desire to possess a Bible. But Bibles were scarce in those days. Finally, at age 25, he acquired one all his own, and for the next quarter of a century, he read it with great fondness.
In 1922 he borrowed from an acquaintance several copies of the Watch Tower magazine as well as the booklet Millions Now Living Will Never Die. Overjoyed with what he read in these publications, Heliodoro began sharing this good news with everyone he met. Two years later, Heliodoro found a hearing ear in young Juan Bautista Estupiñán, just back from military service in Bogotá. Heliodoro was then 53 and Juan, 25. Juan later married Heliodoro’s niece. These two Christian men sowed seeds of Kingdom truth throughout villages and towns of northwestern Colombia.
Out of the Reach of Flying Stones
In the 1930’s the Society sent Heliodoro and Juan a battery-powered transcription machine to help them spread the good news more effectively. They walked to neighboring towns lugging that heavy machine as well as their literature supplies. Imagine the effect of playing subjects such as “Trinity Unveiled” and “End of the World” in the main squares of those Catholic towns. Is it any wonder that upon entering each town, they would search for an indoor spot to plant their machine before operating it? In this way the amplifier would not only be out of sight but also out of the reach of flying stones hurled by opposers.
Heliodoro died in 1962 at 91 years of age. And his preaching companion, Juan Bautista Estupiñán, died faithful in 1976.
Who Would Answer the Call?
In 1930, after 43 years of church-dominated rule, a change in government opened the way for greater religious freedom. Various Protestant groups began to expand their activities in Colombia, and so did Jehovah’s Witnesses.
At the convention in Washington, D.C., in 1935, Joseph F. Rutherford, second president of the Watch Tower Society, urged the Lord’s people to consider volunteering to preach in South America. However, Hilma Sjoberg and Kathe Palm, two spunky pioneer sisters, were already preaching in Colombia. Sister Sjoberg, born in Sweden, was the widow of a Texas cotton farmer. Kathe Palm, who had learned the truth in her native Germany, had pioneered in the United States prior to entering the South American field.
Sister Palm remembers: “Hilma Sjoberg sent money to the Watch Tower Society in November 1934 to pay for a trip from the United States to Colombia by ship. The Society asked me if I wanted to help Sister Sjoberg in South America. . . . So by December I arrived in Buenaventura, Colombia.” With only a testimony card in Spanish and limited knowledge of the language, she set out alone and preached in that seaport town.
Then she took the train over the Cordillera Occidental and down into the rich agricultural Cauca River valley to Cali. Here, while awaiting Hilma’s arrival by land from Ecuador, she witnessed in Cali and then Palmira on the other side of the valley. When Sister Sjoberg arrived, the two newly acquainted sisters traveled over the Central Cordillera and up to the plateau where Bogotá lies. Sister Palm says that they worked the capital city for more than a year, placing cartons of books.
“White Gloves” for Business Territory
Spanning the years 1939, 1941, and 1942, the mother-and-daughter team of Marian and Kate Goas from Mexico witnessed in Bogotá and several other cities, even in the gold-mining town of Condoto, in the Pacific lowlands of swamps and dense forests. They also visited the seaports of Cartagena, Barranquilla, and Santa Marta on the Caribbean Coast. Kathe Palm says that these pioneer sisters “dressed elegantly—wearing white gloves—while they worked mostly business territory.”
The response they met in each city was a foregleam of how the Kingdom work would progress. For example, regarding religious Medellín, they reported that hardly a day passed without attacks from priest-incited mobs of schoolchildren. About Barranquilla they wrote: “There are many kind, well-meaning people in Barranquilla, and I believe a really good group of people could be gathered together for studies were there some publisher here who could devote his entire time to this work.”
Previous to this, in Barranquilla a Witness from another country contacted a young businessman of Palestinian descent. Farah Morán was his name. Farah had a Bible and loved to read it. One hot Saturday afternoon in the mid-1930’s, a foreigner called at his haberdashery to “talk about government.” Farah stated that he never discussed politics. “But this was about God’s government.” Ah, that was different. Farah accepted the Society’s book Government.
He began reading it immediately and became so absorbed that he closed his business for the day to continue reading at home. By four in the morning, he was halfway through the book; by six, Farah was up and bathed and off to the hotel to find the man who had given him the book. Farah obtained more literature from that Witness. In order to grasp Bible truth, he read and reread those books during the next 14 years.
Thus, before the arrival of graduates of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead, self-sacrificing foreign pioneers did an admirable work in Colombia, enduring hardships and opposition as they sowed Kingdom seed throughout the land.
No Thatched Huts in Sight
The month World War II ended, August 1945, the plane carrying the first three graduates of Gilead to come to Colombia touched down at the old Bogotá airport. Their initial task was to find a suitable place for a missionary home, since more graduates would be arriving shortly.
Prior to arriving in Colombia, some of those missionaries had dreamed of a country with Caribbean-washed shores, swaying palm trees, quaint thatched huts, and friendly people just waiting to come into the truth.
On arrival in Bogotá, however, the graduates woke up to a city of half a million inhabitants just starting to emerge from a colonial past. Here the people dressed mostly in black and gray, the weather was oftentimes cloudy and damp, and the nights at an elevation of nearly 9,000 feet [2,700 m] were chilly. Yes, they were pioneering again but now with a new language, a difficult territory to cover, no thatched huts in sight, and no sign yet of those “friendly people just waiting to come into the truth.”
Grandmothers Now—Still Missionaries at Heart
Most missionaries, though, grew to love the assignment. “It was fun walking in the rain with raincoats and umbrellas,” reminisces one former missionary. “And there were many days that were absolutely gorgeous, all sunny and bright. With the flowers in profusion, the colonial-style houses, the new customs to learn, and the challenge of the language, we thought our missionary assignment was wonderful!”
The missionaries began witnessing first in the middle-class neighborhood around their home, and they found the inhabitants friendly and hospitable—typical of the Colombian people. But when the missionaries turned to the Bible to explain the purpose of their visit, deep-rooted religious fears surfaced, ending the conversation. Prospects for return visits were few, and Bible studies were hard to come by.
Adjusting to group life in the missionary home was not always easy. Several missionaries left because they were unhappy. Some later returned home because of sickness. And Satan succeeded in breaking down the moral integrity of a few.
Nevertheless, three of the young sisters in that first group never lost the missionary spirit: Marian Brown, Jewel Harper, and Helen Langford. Although they discontinued their missionary service later when they got married, they remained in their assignment—now grandmothers all—still missionaries at heart.
“It Had the Ring of Truth”
But there were friendly people just waiting to come into the truth in Bogotá. One was 23-year-old David Guerrero. He came from a devout Catholic family. At the age of ten, however, his father’s death triggered doubts about religion. That personal tragedy convinced him, contrary to Catholic teachings, that the dead are nonexistent. Thus, years later, when he was working in a small sweater factory owned by his brother, he was primed for hearing the truth from two missionaries who entered the Guerrero shop.
David continues the story: “One morning my brother called me up front to talk with some foreigners who were having trouble explaining the purpose of their visit. I came, with the little English I knew, and found to my surprise two nicely dressed North American girls. They wanted to talk to us about the Bible. ‘Takes a lot of courage to do a work like that in a neighborhood like this,’ I thought. Well, the visit ended, and I found myself with two books with interesting titles, one named ‘The Truth Shall Make You Free’ and the other called Children. The girls promised to return.”
David began reading large portions here and there in the books. “I liked what I read,” he said. “It had the ring of truth. And those people were doing the right thing, taking this message directly to the people.”
The Witnesses returned a few days later with a missionary couple and arranged for a Bible study, and soon David was attending the meetings. “And before I knew it, I had become a Kingdom publisher,” he said.
The First Two Baptisms
The first baptism occurred in 1932 when a visiting Society representative baptized Colombia’s first two Kingdom publishers, Brothers Hernández and Estupiñán, along with two women, in a swimming pool in Bogotá. One of the two women baptized was Alejandrina Moreno. She died faithful in 1950, and her funeral was the first in Colombia conducted by the Witnesses.
On the last Sunday in January 1946, the second Witness baptism on record in Colombia took place with 30 people present. Seven of the new publishers symbolized their dedication by baptism, David Guerrero included. The missionaries were delighted with the subtropical setting for the baptism, located 4,000 feet [1,200 m] down from the savanna. A profusion of colorful birds and flowers, coffee plants, and a clear mountain stream in the midst of bamboo and banana trees graced the site—just what many had imagined an assignment in the tropics would be like.
Later, David Guerrero married missionary Helen Langford. After living in the United States for a time, they returned to Colombia to pioneer and later to enjoy privileges of the traveling overseer work.
Organized as a Branch—May 1, 1946
A month after that second baptism, excitement ran high in anticipation of the visit of the Society’s third president, Nathan H. Knorr, and the then vice-president, Frederick W. Franz, announced for April 12-17, 1946. On Christendom’s Palm Sunday, 87 persons assembled in the missionary home to hear Brother Knorr’s talk, “Be Glad, Ye Nations.” For the Lord’s Evening Meal two days later, 29 were present, with Brother Franz speaking in Spanish extemporaneously.
The Colombia branch office was organized during their visit, to begin operating on May 1, 1946. A few months later, five of the missionaries were transferred to Barranquilla to open a missionary home and begin Kingdom preaching in that coastal city.
John Green, the first branch overseer, served until November of that year, when Robert Tracy arrived. Green had to return to the United States because of his wife’s failing health.
Robert Tracy was a graduate of the sixth class of Gilead. After serving a few months in circuit work, he received training in Brooklyn Bethel before moving to Colombia. Friendly and energetic, Brother Tracy was to play a key role in developing the organization in Colombia.
The year 1946 was noteworthy for another reason too. Just as the Witnesses were making good headway in the disciple-making work, along came a political tidal wave that would sweep Colombia into totalitarianism and back into the Middle Ages, religiously speaking. This chain of events plunged Colombia into one of the bloodiest periods of its history—La Violencia.
After the 1946 presidential elections, defeated party candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán protested loudly and eloquently in favor of the oppressed. His popularity was immense. On April 9, 1948, at midday, an assassin gunned down this champion of the people. The fury of the citizenry at the death of their idol erupted into rioting and a frenzy of killing, looting, and destruction. Angry mobs, in a violent display of anticlericalism, destroyed or damaged almost all the churches in the capital. Even the residence of the papal nuncio was left in ruins.
Colombia’s infamous La Violencia had begun. Senseless killings and vicious brutality would spill the blood of some 200,000 Colombians during the next decade. Century-old political rivalries fanned the flames of unsettled hatreds and spread the shooting and machete swinging throughout the rurals and the mountain regions. Village priests took sides in the conflict too. With what result? More and more men were heard to say, “I’m Catholic. I believe in God, but I don’t like the priests.”
Mob action moved against the Witnesses, and clergy-instigated harassment by police was used in an attempt to curtail their worship. Seeking to avoid arrest while in the preaching work, the brothers would move frequently from one territory to another, at times posting sentinels to warn of approaching interference. Jehovah’s Witnesses were politically neutral, yet in various parts of the country many were arrested and some were sentenced to short jail terms. However, there is no record that any Witness was killed, as were some Protestants who took sides in the dispute.
Strangely, though, in the larger cities, life continued on as usual. Foreigners visiting the capital for short periods were not aware of the civil war raging in the hinterlands.
Language Limits No Barrier
In early 1948 Robert Tracy was witnessing near the business district in Bogotá when he called on the Rojas family. The father was a radio repairman. He and his wife and four children all lived in one room, the same room where he did his secular work. “Despite my limited use of Spanish,” recounts Brother Tracy, “the family progressed and gradually all became Kingdom publishers, Luis, the oldest, taking up special pioneer work, followed by Gladys and Marlene.”
Gladys married a missionary and served with her husband in Bolivia and Ecuador. And Luis is now one of the three district overseers in Colombia.
Branch Transferred to Barranquilla
In December 1949 three new Gilead graduates, Dewey Fountain and wife Winnie, along with daughter Elizabeth, arrived in Bogotá, bringing the total count of missionaries in the country to nine. By then the majority of the Kingdom publishers were on the northern Caribbean Coast, and the work was beginning to bloom there.
In view of this, in December 1951 the Society transferred the branch office from Bogotá to Barranquilla. Robert Tracy continued as branch overseer there until April 1952, when he returned to Bogotá to marry “Libby” (Elizabeth) Fountain. James Webster, a missionary in Barranquilla, replaced Tracy as branch overseer, serving as such for the next 13 years. We will hear more about these men later.
Non-Catholic Activity Banned
In 1953 the totalitarian president had readied for adoption a new constitution embodying the principles of a corporate-Fascist state. His plans were stopped cold when the army marched in and toppled his government. The general of the army, Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, became the new dictator-president. This portended no good for the Witnesses.
Gabriel Piñeros, now an elder in one of the congregations in Cali, personally knew General Rojas. Gabriel at one time was a colonel in the Colombian Air Force and was assigned as the general’s pilot. Brother Piñeros remembers the general as a kindly man, who wanted to end the violence and stabilize the country. “The general started out well, but power and ambition went to his head,” says Brother Piñeros. “Although he was not a particularly religious man, he let himself be influenced by the church.”
Desiring to strengthen his position as president, General Rojas courted the backing of the Catholic Church. Hence, he announced that his rule would be strictly Roman Catholic. Three months after taking over, he banned all non-Catholic religious activity in 18 Catholic mission territories. Then, in June 1954, another decree. This one prohibited non-Catholic religious activities anywhere in public. Only private meetings in the homes of recognized non-Catholic groups or in established religious temples would be permitted.
Covers Ripped off Bibles
In May 1953 members of the Bogotá Congregation planned an outing, but this one was not a pleasure trip for recreation. They descended some 4,000 feet [1,200 m] from their high, mountain city to the subtropical pueblo of Tocaima for an open-air baptismal ceremony and more. After the baptism, the publishers spread out to witness in the town.
It was not long before the police arrested one of the sisters and locked her in jail. Brother Tracy and others tried to secure her release, but they were locked up too. Soon eight Witnesses were in custody. The angry police sergeant shouted that they were Communists and had no right to preach in that Catholic village. The mayor had the Witnesses’ literature thrown into a large water vat in the center patio of the police station after the police had ripped the covers off the books and Bibles. Finally, an hour later, the officials calmed down and released the Witnesses.
The four-hour trip back home up the side of the mountain was a happy one for the congregation, as all ‘rejoiced because they had been counted worthy to be dishonored in behalf of Jesus’ name.’—Acts 5:41.
Bogotá Congregation on Their Own
In 1954 Bogotá was a city of over 600,000 inhabitants and was growing rapidly. Yet, after more than eight years of missionary activity, the Bogotá Congregation still averaged only 30 publishers. With so little to show after so much effort, the Bogotá missionary home was closed and the missionaries sent elsewhere. But where? To Cali, where Sister Kathe Palm had witnessed 18 years before. Cali was now an expanding, industrial city, a logical place in which to open a new missionary home.
To look after the Kingdom work in the Bogotá Congregation, a local brother, Porfirio Caicedo, was appointed congregation overseer. He was a skilled carpenter who made molds for metal castings. On learning the truth in 1950, he had applied his enterprising spirit to bringing up his large and growing family “in the discipline and mental-regulating of Jehovah.”—Ephesians 6:4.
Porfirio’s second son, Raúl, began pioneering right out of high school in the early 1960’s. He took his ministry seriously and served in the circuit and district work and then attended Gilead School. Back in Colombia, now as a missionary, he received his final appointment, to be a member of the Branch Committee. It was a sad day for all when Raúl Caicedo died of cancer in 1981 at the age of 38. His father, Porfirio, died two years later.
The faithful record of Porfirio Caicedo and his large family continues today.* All 17 of the surviving children are dedicated, active Witnesses. And among the some 50 grandchildren, 20 are baptized, and the remaining younger ones are growing up in the truth.
On the Coast, Everyone Knows Jehovah’s Witnesses
Now let us look at the Kingdom work on the Caribbean Coast. Recall Sister Kate Goas’ report after she preached in Barranquilla back in 1942? She believed there were “many kind, well-meaning people” there who would respond favorably to the truth. Well, four years later, five missionaries arrived from Bogotá ready to begin preaching in that coastal city.
Tropical Barranquilla has a charm all its own: the easygoing way of life, the extroverted people, the special ring in their voice. Truly, the Costeños are outgoing and quite often happily boisterous. You would like them immediately.
The five missionaries who moved from Bogotá to Barranquilla in 1946 received additional help in November of that year. A lanky, 28-year-old former farm boy from the United States, James Webster, arrived. “What a sudden change!” said Webster. He was a Gilead classmate of Robert Tracy and, like Tracy, had served as a circuit overseer before coming to Colombia.
Six months later, in May 1947, Olaf Olson moved from Bogotá to reinforce the missionary group. Because he was a North American of Norwegian descent, he spoke Spanish with a colorful Scandinavian lilt. Barranquilla, then a city of some 160,000 inhabitants, had only a handful of local people meeting regularly with the seven foreigners. Olson predicted that one day Barranquilla would have 500 publishers. It seemed impossible then, but that mark was reached by January 1959.
Most of the newly associated ones came from the poorer class, el pueblo, as Colombians call them. During Colombia’s terrible La Violencia, it was Witnesses from el pueblo who courageously pioneered the truth to other coastal cities and into the interior.
“There are 62 congregations in Barranquilla today, more than in any other city in the country except Bogotá,” says Rogelio Jones, the city overseer and a builder who has helped the Society in construction projects since the 1950’s. “And the preaching done along the coast has been effective. Almost everyone in town has a relative, friend, or workmate who is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Caribbean coastal region is perhaps the only place in Colombia where people consistently differentiate between Jehovah’s Witnesses and other non-Catholic groups.”
Lottery Ticket Salesman, Now Regular Pioneer
Strangers visiting Colombia quickly note the ubiquitous lottery ticket salesmen—models of initiative and persistence. José Villadiego, one of these street entrepreneurs, obtained some of our literature from a missionary engaged in street witnessing and liked what it said. A few days later, José chanced upon a Kingdom publisher who was witnessing from door to door. Since he was an old hand at that kind of work, only with a much different product, he began accompanying the publisher. First he listened to how the preaching was done. Then he himself would chime in to emphasize the importance of the message.
The following Sunday morning, José was at the Kingdom Hall ready for field service. (Back then the requirements for new publishers were not as clearly defined as today.) Soon, though, José left his lottery-ticket peddling to qualify for dedication and baptism. Six months after his baptism, he became Barranquilla’s first regular pioneer, in April 1949. Today, José Villadiego is an elder in a congregation in Barranquilla and is still an example of initiative and enthusiasm as a regular pioneer.
‘The Man’s Kindness Impressed Me’
There were friendly people of the wealthier class also waiting to come into the truth. For example, in the El Prado district lived a disconsolate widow, Inez Wiese. Jamaican-born of English parents, she spent her childhood in Colombia. Later she married and moved to Germany where, during World War II, her German husband and two adopted sons died. After the war she returned to Colombia. One day in 1947, Olaf Olson called at her door, offering the Watchtower subscription. She later commented: “I had heard nothing about Jehovah’s witnesses and knew very little about the Bible. However, I decided to subscribe on account of his kind, considerate attitude.” Two years later Inez began to pioneer, at the age of 59.
She made generous contributions to the Kingdom work, including a refrigerator and a washing machine, much needed for the missionary home, and a large new 1953 model station wagon for the branch. Down through the years, she was also an effective Spanish teacher for the newly arriving missionaries. Until she died in 1977, Inez was a fine example. Her sense of humor and her appreciation for the truth were an encouragement to missionaries and local brothers alike.*
“Things Were Really Starting to Move!”
Farah Morán, the previously mentioned owner of a haberdashery store, who for some 14 years had been reading books written by Brother Rutherford, was convinced that he had found the truth. One day in September 1949, when one of the missionaries called at Farah’s store, introduced himself as a minister, and tried to proceed with his presentation, Farah interrupted, saying: “I’m not interested in hearing about any religion except the one that Judge Rutherford explains!” When shown that this was the same message, Farah eagerly accepted the book “Let God Be True.” For Farah, meeting attendance began that very week.
Brother Webster relates: “Farah’s wife and some of her family came into the truth. Farah’s old hunting companion, César Roca, along with his wife and large family as well as several other friends, accepted the message. Farah’s Protestant brothers and their families and some of their in-laws also came in. Things were really starting to move!”
Growth was rapid in Barranquilla, and soon a second congregation was formed, with Farah Morán’s home as the Kingdom Hall. Olaf Olson was the presiding overseer. Fifty-two were present at the first meeting. Brother Olson trained Farah so that he could oversee the group. A third congregation was formed in September 1953. Two years later, a fourth congregation began.
The Priest’s Microphone Was Left On
Brother Webster tells of a big boost to the evangelizing work:
“In March 1953 we received the new station wagon that Sister Wiese had donated to the branch. We began regular group witnessing in the surrounding suburbs and nearby pueblos. Soon we had witnessed in ten towns previously untouched in the Atlántico Department. On trips of more than one day, only brothers would go. Expenses were shared. We would find lodging for the night with hospitable families, sleeping in hammocks, on the floor, or in ‘La Teocratica,’ as the station wagon came to be called. More than once, village priests appealed to the secular mayors and had police interfere with the work.”
One Sunday morning a service group arrived in the public square of the town of Tubará, when the priest’s voice bellowed from loudspeakers on the church tower: “Our friends, Jehovah’s Witnesses, greetings! I invite you to come over and talk, and we’ll see who is right.” Several of the brothers marched over to the church, and the priest asked them to show him the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism.
James Webster began with the history of first-century Christianity and described the apostasy that developed in the second and third centuries. After a brief review of the history of the Catholic Church down to the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s, he emphasized that both Catholicism and Protestantism have the same fundamental teachings of pagan origin—the Trinity, the immortal soul, and hellfire. Then he went on to explain what the Bible really teaches about Jehovah God, Christ Jesus, the Kingdom, and a paradise earth.
The discussion was carried on for 15 minutes right beside the priest’s microphone, which had been left on. Since the loudspeakers booming from the church could be heard throughout the town, the count showed a visible audience of 169 in the town square, plus many more people listening in their houses.
The priest then remembered the live microphone and suddenly said that he had an appointment for a wedding and abruptly ended the discussion. When the brothers returned to the rest of the group, a recorded song blared over the loudspeakers, entitled “¡Palo con esa gente!” (Take a club to those people!) But no mob formed. The Witnesses went peacefully about their house-to-house preaching, much to the consternation of the priest.
Arrested and Ordered to Leave Town
Antonio Carvajalino, a tailor, once advocated the cause of the Communist party when he lived in the small town of Aracataca. Later, when witnessing, Brothers Webster and Olson found him living in Barranquilla. Lively Bible discussions followed for a number of visits while Antonio’s four single sisters strained to hear each word from an adjacent room. Finally, he gave in and acknowledged that God’s Kingdom is the only hope for the poor people of Colombia and the rest of the world. Antonio was later baptized. His four sisters also responded to the truth with appreciation and soon entered the pioneer service along with their brother.
Later the whole Carvajalino family, together with nephew Tomás Dangond, was assigned as a special pioneer group to the petroleum-refining center of Barrancabermeja, up the Magdalena River. Barranca was Catholic mission territory, off limits for non-Catholic proselytizing, according to the decree of the general and dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla. The Evangelicals in town were meeting behind closed doors in their own church building. On learning that Jehovah’s Witnesses were now preaching in town, the Evangelicals stormed over to the Catholic bishop with The Watchtower and Awake! in hand to report that the Witnesses were the ones who distributed these magazines, not the Evangelical organization.
Police were ordered to pick up the Witnesses. First they arrested the four sisters. Then detectives went to the pioneers’ place of lodging and arrested the two brothers, confiscating their briefcases and their 20-carton literature supply. The police judge ordered the pioneers to pay fines and sign statements that they would desist from preaching in the city. They all refused, so all six were sentenced to 90 days in jail.
The following day the two brothers convinced the mayor that “it was a terrible disgrace on the part of his administration to have four Christian women locked up like criminals under such deplorable conditions.” They requested that the sentences of the sisters be added to their own so that the four women could be set free. The mayor agreed, and Antonio and nephew Tomás were sentenced to nine months in jail.
The branch overseer, James Webster, flew to Barrancabermeja and sought a lawyer to defend the Witnesses. But none had the courage to do so. Then he flew to Bogotá to present the case in person before the secretary of the president. Having heard the facts, the secretary phoned the mayor of Barranca and ordered him to release the brothers and return their literature on the condition that the group leave town within 48 hours.
They Helped Over 300 Learn the Truth
Within the stipulated time, the Carvajalinos, while under police surveillance, boarded a bus for nearby Bucaramanga, capital of Santander Department, or province. The banditry caused by La Violencia was still rampant in the surrounding countryside, leaving people fearful and suspicious of strangers. Notwithstanding, the pioneers preached with tact and won the confidence of the locals. In one year’s time, they established a congregation of 13 publishers. And a surprising number of 65 people attended the public talk during the circuit overseer’s visit.
Where is the Carvajalino family now? Antonio Carvajalino died in 1958, his sister Inés in 1987. Nephew Tomás Dangond is an elder. He, his wife, and his daughter are serving as special pioneers in neighboring Venezuela. The Carvajalino sisters never married, in order ‘to serve the Lord without distraction.’ (1 Cor. 7:35) All told, they have helped over 300 persons to a knowledge of the truth.*
Other special pioneers were also incarcerated during those years. In the Magdalena River port of Magangué, Miguel Manga and his wife, Leonor, spent 11 days in jail in 1956 at the instigation of the town priest. And in the then fanatical town of Sahagún, Córdoba, a misguided mayor arrested special pioneer Carlos Alvarino and sentenced him to two weeks’ hard labor.
“Like Living in Another World”
Paul wrote to Timothy: “The things you heard from me . . . , these things commit to faithful men, who, in turn, will be adequately qualified to teach others.” (2 Tim. 2:2) Two of such prospective faithful men were Benjamín Angulo and Armando Gómez.
Benjamín Angulo, a 27-year-old factory worker in Santa Marta, had lost faith in the church, and politics did not interest him. He used to think: ‘Injustice and suffering are everywhere. It is so unfair! How can there be a God?’
Then one day in 1955, a workmate spoke to him about Jehovah God and His Kingdom and offered him a weekly Bible study in the book “Let God Be True.” Benjamín accepted, insisting that the study be held every lunch hour, six days a week.
A month passed. The Witness then decided it was time to invite his new student to the meetings. Of course, he would like to attend! Benjamín was delighted with that first meeting but upset too. He asked why the Witness hadn’t told him about these wonderful meetings before. He had lost “a whole month of valuable instruction.”
There were few brothers in the Santa Marta Congregation, and although extremely shy, Benjamín was put right to work with assignments in the Theocratic Ministry School and soon in other meetings. The Theocratic Ministry School textbook became his instruction manual as he conscientiously read and applied all its counsel. Rejoicing in his newfound purpose in life, Benjamín exclaimed: “It is like living in another world—the truth, the meetings, the love of the brothers, the privileges I am enjoying!”
‘The Disciple Becomes as His Teacher’
As a special pioneer, assigned in 1958 to Montería on the river Sinú, Benjamín soon found another of those prospective faithful men, the 20-year-old son of a new publisher in the congregation, Sister Gómez. The lad’s name was Armando.
Benjamín left Montería to accept an assignment in the circuit work, while Armando continued in the congregation at home. Armando kept his eye set on the example of the older Hermano (Brother) Benjamín. Did not Jesus say, “It is enough for the disciple to become as his teacher”? (Matt. 10:25) Armando too became a special pioneer and then a circuit overseer. Armando Gómez now serves in Bogotá Bethel as one of the five members of the Colombia Branch Committee, along with Benjamín Angulo, who took him in the field service in Montería more than 30 years ago.
The Rough-and-Ready Respond to the Truth
The Kingdom good news spread quickly from Montería into the countryside and then into the remote regions of Córdoba. Back in the 16th century, European gold-seekers combed this region in search of Indian caves and tombs, where golden objects in abundance had been buried. These fortune hunters found immense booty, which they sent down the Sinú River to the sea, then up the coast to Cartagena for shipping to Spain.
Other Spaniards later moved in, these settling down to stay. And Córdoba came to be known as a land of rough-and-ready ranchers and farmers, men who took the law into their own hands and settled their differences with machetes and revolvers. Interestingly, many of these men and their families responded readily to the Kingdom message and set about sharing it with neighboring ranchers and farmers. Thus, as the number of newly interested ones increased, congregations were formed, and circuit visits began. Many of Colombia’s traveling overseers were broken in on the Córdoba circuit, some jokingly describing this experience as training for surviving “the great tribulation.”—Rev. 7:14.
Benjamín Angulo, looking back on those early days, states: “I had so many experiences on that circuit in Córdoba—riding all day on horseback and donkeys, wading through snake-infested streams, threatened by guerrilla groups, bouts with high fever—it would fill a book if I tried to relate them all.”
It is interesting to note that the isolated regions of Córdoba are the only rural territories in Colombia that have so far been thoroughly covered with the Kingdom message.
“Disband the Assembly”
The first district convention in Colombia was held in the branch, the Barranquilla missionary home, in December 1952. Brothers came from six departments, or provinces, some traveling four days by boat down the Magdalena to attend. Peak attendance was 452, with 58 immersed. The final session was scarcely over when excited talk began about the next assembly.
In 1955 for the “Triumphant Kingdom” national convention, the brothers contracted for a dance hall, used also for other social functions. But the mayor and the governor intervened to cancel the contract—on orders from the Catholic bishop. On one day’s notice, the Witnesses had to change plans and again hold a convention at the branch.
The first evening session was just beginning, with 600 present, when a police captain and a dozen armed officers appeared. Storming in, the captain ordered, ‘Disband the assembly!’ Next morning, an appeal to the mayor established the right of the Witnesses to hold religious meetings on their own premises. The secretary to the mayor apologized for the unauthorized interruption of the convention. The second night the attendance rose to 700, and nearly 1,000 squeezed onto the branch property the fourth and final day.
End of Totalitarian Rule
In May 1957, Colombia’s military dictatorship was overthrown. The new regime swallowed up the flood of totalitarianism that was unleashed in the late 1940’s, legally guaranteed fundamental freedoms, and swept in relative political peace and stability. Now more missionaries could be assigned to Colombia to help expand the Kingdom work more swiftly throughout the country.
With their new religious freedom, 1,200 happy and excited persons jammed into the Kingdom Hall and onto the patio and driveway of the branch property in Barranquilla during the 1958 visit from Brooklyn of Milton G. Henschel, now a member of the Governing Body. The next annual gathering would surely be held in a larger, more suitable hall!
“Trouble With the Bishop”
True, nearly ten years of martial law and dictatorship that granted special privileges to the Catholic religion had ended, yet the church was more determined than ever to perpetuate her stranglehold on the Colombian people. Evidence of this surfaced at the time of the “Awake Ministers” District Assembly in 1959.
The air-conditioned Teatro Metro, which had a capacity of 2,000 and was one of the finest meeting places in Barranquilla at the time, was chosen for the last three days of the scheduled four-day convention. Everything was in order, or at least so it seemed. The Witnesses had in their hands a signed and notarized contract, a deposit receipt, and a written statement from the mayor’s office certifying that the Witnesses could hold their assembly “wherever they saw fit.”
On Monday morning, just three days before the convention was to begin, the Metro manager phoned the branch and said excitedly that the Catholic bishop was pressuring him to cancel the contract. What could be done? Delegates were already arriving from different parts of the country. A quick visit to the mayor’s office made it clear that he was in a state of agitation too. The last thing the mayor wanted was “to have trouble with the bishop.” He wanted us to cancel the convention.
On Tuesday morning, the Witnesses returned to the mayor and pointed out that the Constitution of Colombia, Article 53, clearly states: “Freedom is guaranteed for all religions that are not contrary to Christian morals or in violation of the law.” All to no avail. The mayor would not budge.
The next step was to appeal to the Minister of Government in Bogotá. The government officials were sympathetic. “It is clear that you are within your rights,” they assured the brothers. Still, the officials were unwilling to put anything in writing, fearing that it “would cause problems with the church.” The governor of Atlántico Department was advised of their decision. He in turn spoke with the mayor.
Thursday morning the convention opened according to schedule on the branch premises. Finally, at day’s end, the brothers emerged from the mayor’s office triumphant—written approval in hand. Jehovah had granted the victory! The Witnesses enjoyed the last three days of the assembly in air-conditioned comfort in the Teatro Metro. The final attendance peaked at 2,200.
Afterward, the theater manager was a changed man. The smoothly functioning organization, the orderly conduct of the Witnesses, the dignity of the program—all of this left him visibly impressed. He said he would be happy to rent the premises to the Witnesses for their next convention, and he did.
Where Are They Now?
James Webster served as branch overseer from April 1952 until he and his wife, Phyllis, returned to the United States in January 1965. They were expecting a baby. To this day, the old-timers on the Colombian coast still have fond memories of their Hermano Jaime. “He was always kind and loving, ready to lend a sympathetic ear to all,” they recall. The Websters are special pioneers in one of the many Spanish-speaking congregations in the United States. Their son, Jaime junior, and his wife are serving in Brooklyn Bethel.
James’ former partner, Olaf Olson, has served in all the major cities of Colombia. He is the oldest missionary in the country and now lives in Neiva on the upper Magadalena River.*
And with that, we leave the work in Barranquilla. Next, the historic seaport of Cartagena on the coast, southwest toward Panama.
Cartagena de Indias
A 16-minute flight from Barranquilla brings Cartagena into view, with its excellent natural harbor and series of waterways. Spanish colonizer Pedro de Heredia is to be commended for his choice when founding Cartagena de Indias here in 1533. And each year more vacationers discover Cartagena too, as they come to sun and bathe on the beaches of Boca Grande Peninsula and visit the ancient sites that retell the city’s colonial past.
From the vantage point of Fort San Felipe de Barajas overlooking the bay, historically minded tourists can imagine the harbor below full of Spanish sailing vessels, such as the famous Tierra Firme galleon fleets, that took on gold from the mainland and, with favorable winds, set sail with their precious cargo to Spain.
But Cartagena once dreaded foreigners because of forays by pirates. Fleets of French, British, and Dutch corsairs plundered Spanish ports and galleons. Cartagena was sacked by the privateer John Hawkins and then by his audacious nephew, Sir Francis Drake; both were sailing for England and both were Protestants. Drake’s father, in fact, was a Protestant preacher. Sir Francis Drake’s seizure and holding of Cartagena for ransom in 1586 was one of the grievances that provoked Philip II to launch the great Spanish Armada against Protestant England in 1588—a turning point in European and world history.
Free From Superstitious Fears
The story of Colombian gold is incomplete without mentioning the slaves. African blacks became the principal mine workers, and Cartagena “was transformed into the most important slave market in the Caribbean—perhaps in the entire New World.” Here the African was converted to the white man’s religion. And to replace his fetishes, he was given crucifixes and medallions. Instead of animism, he was taught to pray to statues and paintings of “saints.” To his previously held beliefs respecting the dead were added further pagan ideas of purgatory, hellfire, and Limbo. Emancipation from slavery came for him in 1851, but freedom from superstition and fears regarding the dead would have to wait another century.
Gregorio de la Rosa, a Cartagenero, is an example to note. Born into a strongly religious household, replete with images and a family altar, he recalls how hellfire and purgatory teachings filled his childhood with dread. Even when grown and married, anxieties about death continued to torment his mind.
Then special pioneer Leonor Manga started a Bible study with Lilia, Gregorio’s wife. At first he just sat listening, unobserved in the other room. He liked what he heard and along with the couple’s five daughters soon joined the study. It was not long before Gregorio took the lead in Kingdom service. Next came circuit work and later a call to work on the branch construction project in Facatativá.
Increase in the number of Witnesses in Cartagena was slow after the 1950’s. During the 1980’s, however, the city has experienced a 100-percent increase in the number of Kingdom publishers, here too principally from among el pueblo. The more than 1,000 publishers in 17 congregations are conducting nearly 3,000 Bible studies each month.
From 1983 till 1987, a missionary home in the resort area of Boca Grande housed missionaries from Mexico, Denmark, Finland, Canada, and the United States. The missionaries took the Kingdom message to many, including businessmen. “Working the Cartagena business district is a joy,” commented one of the missionaries. “Many businessmen take time to listen and talk. Some have come into the truth.”
Antioqueños, a Staunchly Roman Catholic People
Now, on to internationally renowned Medellín in the province of Antioquia, 45 minutes by air and inland from Cartagena. Spanish Basques and Asturians settled this region during the second half of the 16th century. Their descendants today are a proud and energetic people, staunchly Roman Catholic, with a reputation for being shrewd and thrifty but friendly and, above all, loquacious. Antioqueño farmers over a century ago turned to coffee growing and helped develop Colombia into the second-largest coffee-producing country in the world, after Brazil.
Medellín, second-largest city in Colombia, lies in a valley bordered by 1,600-foot [500 m] ranges on east and west. Signs of prosperity are everywhere: industrial and commercial activity, an elevated rapid-transit metro system near completion (the first in Colombia), freeways with interchanges, attractive shopping centers, and in the southeast, luxury high-rise apartment buildings. There is poverty too, squatter settlements climbing high on barren hillsides, the dwellers often heedless of the danger of seasonal mudslides and avalanches.
Eugene Iwanycky is the city overseer. Although Austrian born, he learned the truth in Canada and moved to Colombia in 1969 with his family. He reports that there are now 33 congregations in the city—more if suburban areas are counted—and they are growing rapidly.
It was Wednesday, October 1, 1958, when the first Gilead graduates arrived in Medellín to spearhead the evangelizing work. Although the dictatorship had ended and Jehovah’s Witnesses were already established in the other major cities of the country, Medellín was different. At the time, it was renowned as the religious capital of Colombia. Nevertheless, the missionary couples welcomed their new assignment. After a year in hot, tropical Barranquilla, they were delighted with the mild, springtime climate of Medellín and were pleased to find a clean city with an abundance of colorful flowers, including many orchids.
Richard and Virginia Brown were one of those missionary couples. Richard, now coordinator of the Colombia Branch Committee, describes how the missionaries felt: “The accounts we had heard about the city’s being notoriously religious were eloquently confirmed. Black-robed priests and nuns seemed to be everywhere—along the streets, in the stores, on the buses. The city was full of churches, chapels, and religious schools. In our limited Spanish, we made attempts at informal witnessing, only to be rebuffed by disapproving looks.
“Though we were just four missionaries in the city, notices began appearing in the newspapers about our activity: ‘A warning to Catholics. Intense campaign started by Jehovah’s Witnesses . . . Reject and destroy any of such literature that gets into your hands.’ Still, interest was found, and by June 1959, with 23 publishers, including 5 who had come to serve where the need was greater, Medellín’s first congregation began to function.”
‘Throw Stones at the Witnesses’
In March 1960 a new missionary, George Koivisto, arrived in Medellín from Canada. He was single, blond, and of Finnish descent. After a month of concentrated Spanish classes in the missionary home, his time arrived for field service. George will never forget his first morning in magazine service.
“I was working with a small group of pioneers and local publishers,” George relates, “and I was still very limited in speaking and understanding Spanish. The publisher I was with understood no English. It was midmorning, when a howling mob of schoolchildren targeted us, hurling stones and clumps of clay.
“The householder hustled us inside her home and quickly slammed closed the wooden shutters, just in time. Rocks and stones began to rain against the front of the house, onto the clay tile roof, and down into the center patio.
“Shortly a patrol wagon drove up. The police wanted to know what was behind the uproar. Someone shouted that it was the schoolteacher; he had let some 300 children out of school long before lunchtime. Another voice cried out: ‘Not so! It was the priest! He announced over the loudspeakers to let the students out to “throw stones at the Protestantes.”’”
After that incident, attitudes changed throughout the neighborhood, and soon the Witnesses were finding interest and starting Bible studies.
In 1961 George married a local pioneer, and before long two sons were born. The Koivistos remained in Colombia another 18 years. In 1980 George moved back to Canada with his family. The Koivistos—George, Leonilde, and their two sons—have been serving in the Canadian Bethel since 1983.
Schoolboys Left Confused
On another occasion, a missionary sister was witnessing alone in Medellín when a group of teenagers began screaming to the householder that she should not listen to that missionary. This frightened the woman. So the missionary ended her conversation and began to leave the neighborhood quietly, but the boys surrounded her, not letting her take another step.
They asked her if she had Protestant literature in her bag. She replied that she had the Bible and asked them if the Bible was a Protestant book. They did not know how to answer, so they charged that the Witnesses do not believe in the Virgin. The missionary calmly took out her Bible and asked them to find where it talked about the Virgin. But none of them could.
Thereupon, the sister said: “I know where to find it. Would you like me to find it for you?” Then she opened the Bible to Luke 1:26-38 and had them read the account of the angel Gabriel’s visit to the virgin Mary. She then assured them that Jehovah’s Witnesses believe what the Bible says. The boys retorted that they had been told that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in the Virgin. Now they were confused and again did not know what to say. The sister put her Bible back into her literature bag and quietly walked away, leaving the schoolboys perplexed and pensive.
There, in the 1960’s, we leave the history of the work in Medellín. Next, the city of Cali, founded in 1536, the year that Bible translator William Tyndale was burned at the stake.
Southward to Cali
Traveling 280 miles [450 km] southward along the Pan-American Highway to Cali is a scenic all-day motor trip, up and down mountains, as well as through green coffee-producing country and a valley of sugarcane plantations. Today you will find Jehovah’s Witnesses in all the major towns and cities throughout this region.
Cali lies against foothills and ranges that rise, each one higher than the next, up to 13,000 feet [4,000 m]. Then, on the other side of the peaks, the ranges drop to Pacific shores, which are less than three hours from the city by car. Pleasant breezes off the slopes of the cordillera bring relief from the heat of the day. Three crosses on one hilltop and a large statue of Cristo Rey (Christ the King) on another overlook the city.
Friendly People, Receptive to the Truth
When Kathe Palm preached here during 1936, Cali was a small town. Then, early in 1949, the branch overseer, Robert Tracy, after a brief visit, wrote to the Society’s headquarters in Brooklyn: “Cali is one of the most progressive cities in Colombia.”
Tracy had tucked into his field service bag 15 books and the names of several interested persons. He found the people friendly and receptive, and within just two hours, his supply of literature ran out. “As soon as possible, missionaries should be sent there,” he wrote when concluding his report.
During the second world war, industrialization began in Cali, and soon foreign, multinational, and locally owned factories and businesses sprang up throughout the area. Now there are 3,657 Witnesses, making up 37 congregations in this city with a population of some two million.
A Work Contract in Just Half a Day
In 1954 the Tracys and the Fountains left Bogotá to establish the Cali missionary home. A few months later, in December, two new missionaries arrived, Jesse and Lynn Cantwell. Jesse, the youngest in a family of eight pioneers in the United States, had begun his preaching career as a 12-year-old schoolboy, in 1934, during the years of the Great Depression.
The Cantwells entered Colombia as tourists, since dictatorial decrees were still in force in 1954. With limited schooling and an elementary knowledge of Spanish, Jesse set out looking for work that would qualify him and his wife for a resident visa. In just half a day, he had a contract with the University of the Valley, as an English teacher in the Medical Department. “This could only have been accomplished with Jehovah’s help,” Jesse confessed. With six missionaries now in town, the Kingdom work in Cali took root and began to grow.
When the political situation changed and religious restrictions ended, Cantwell resigned from the university to travel on one of the two circuits then in Colombia. Next came district work, then a stint in the branch office in Barranquilla. In 1970 the Cantwells were transferred to the Dominican Republic, where Brother Cantwell served as branch overseer. Presently, Jesse and Lynn Cantwell are enjoying the circuit work in the United States.
Arrogant Priest—Sympathetic Police
In a middle-class neighborhood of Cali, a priest named Arango waged a relentless battle against Jehovah’s Witnesses. One day Sister Fountain and a new publisher, Ana Valencia, were making a return visit when priest Arango burst into the house and barked to the housewife: “Get those Indians out of here!” Furious, he phoned the police himself. Meanwhile, the sisters asked the woman to call them a taxi. The patrol wagon and the taxi arrived at the same time. Quickly Sister Valencia stepped up to the patrol wagon and convincingly said to the driver: “Look, Sir, the priest called for the paddy wagon for himself. We phoned for the taxi, so we’ll go in it.” The officer agreed, and the sisters jumped into the cab to ride to the police station, leaving the paddy wagon for the priest.
At the police station, the irate priest charged: “These women were going around my parish causing a disturbance, corrupting the people and teaching customs that are different.”
“Since you have offended the padre,” the judge said to the sisters, “I will have to detain you.” The sisters were held incommunicado for some six hours, until Brothers Fountain and Cantwell finally found them and obtained their release. The judge apologized: “I know that your religion is good, but if I hadn’t kept you here, I’d lose my job tomorrow.”
Never Again Doubted the Wisdom of His Move
Not only did the year 1957 mark the end of dictatorship in Colombia but it also marked the beginning of the program of “serving where the need is greater.” Those who came to Colombia arrived in two different waves: first in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s; then a second immigration—almost like a flood—ten years later.
Consider Elbert Moore and Stephania Payne Moore, graduates of the third class of Gilead in 1944, who had served as missionaries in Paraguay and Chile respectively. Married and living back in the United States, with a daughter and a small son, they were among the first to answer the call to serve where the need was greater in Colombia. Elbert came down alone to Barranquilla in January 1958. On the way into town from the airport, the car passed through a poor section of the city. Doubts grew, and he asked himself: “What in the world are you doing in a place like this?” Some 15 minutes later, a warm welcome by enthusiastic missionaries in the branch office changed his outlook completely. “I have never again questioned the wisdom of my move to Colombia,” he said.
His being hired as an English teacher the following day solved the problem of a work contract. Thus, he sent for his family to join him. After a year on the coast in Barranquilla, the Moores packed their belongings into an old Studebaker pickup and bounced 780 dusty miles [1,300 km] through scenic highlands and lowlands, including areas harboring guerrillas and bandits, to take up an assignment where the need was even greater—Cali. Moore was put right to work in the Cali Congregation, as well as right to work in the Language Department of the University of the Valley, where he continued till retirement 20 years later.
The Moores’ children, both married now, still live in Colombia. The son and the son-in-law are Christian elders. After retirement, Brother Moore served for several years in the circuit work and district work. Now he is in Bethel service, one of the five members of the Colombia Branch Committee—more convinced than ever of the wisdom of his move to Colombia more than 30 years ago. His wife, Stephania, died in November 1988.
“The Golden Years”
To pull up stakes and move to a foreign country is a big step, especially if you have four small children and only $100 laid away for the trip. That was the situation in early 1959 with the Zimmerman family of the United States. Harold and Anne, graduates of the 18th class of Gilead in 1952, had spent three years as missionaries in Ethiopia. Now Colombia was their goal, but their funds were inadequate. They pondered carefully the counsel offered to prospective pioneers at a circuit assembly. The speaker said: “Don’t wait until you have a car and trailer and money in the bank. Set the date and then go!” But how would transportation costs be met?
The following week, just as wife Anne finished making airplane reservations for Harold’s flight from Los Angeles to Colombia, an envelope arrived in the mail. Inside was a check for $265, an income-tax reimbursement. Following on the heels of that financial windfall, the next day several Witness families presented the Zimmermans with a gift of $350. The budget for phase one of the project was now completed.
On arrival in Cali, Harold received a jolt: He saw newspaper reports of warfare and banditry, with photographs of mutilated bodies lying in rows on the ground—the infamous La Violencia. ‘Why hadn’t I heard about this before?’ he asked himself. ‘Do I really know what I am doing, bringing a wife and four little ones down to live here?’
‘Right decisions,’ he reminded himself, ‘are made by looking for Bible principles that apply in each case.’ He remembered the Israelites who listened to the ten fearful scouts, back from spying out the Promised Land. They feared that ‘their wives and little ones would become prey’ and wanted to return to Egypt. Jehovah’s answer: They themselves would die during 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Their little ones would survive to enter the Promised Land. (Num. 14:3, 31, 32) There was the answer. Harold forged ahead with the plan.
How does Harold sum up 30 years of life and service in Colombia? He answers: “We came to this land to serve a ‘few years till Armageddon.’ Years came and went. True, many more than we had counted on, but years filled with privileges and blessings for all in the family as we kept ‘close in mind the presence of the day of Jehovah.’”—2 Pet. 3:12.
“All our children are married and walking in the truth, and we have never become prey to violence. My wife and I live now in a little bungalow near the new branch construction project in Facatativá, enjoying our ‘golden years’ as volunteer workers in Bethel service.”*
Vatican II—Helped the Witnesses Start Studies
The Catholic Church in Rome had come to recognize that her centuries-old medieval policy of religious intolerance was no longer tenable in the 20th-century world. She had to modernize if she was to retain credibility. This led to the ecumenical council Vatican II (1962-65). But liberalization was not to the liking of some of the higher clergy in the Colombian church. Catholics now listened to the Mass in Spanish, instead of Latin. Images began disappearing from the churches. Protestants now enjoyed the status of “separated brothers,” no longer to be labeled “enemies of the Church.”
Moreover, church members were now encouraged to read the Bible. Schoolchildren began buying their personal copies for use in their religion classes. Prayer groups for Bible reading sprang up in homes around the neighborhood. Gradually, fear of the Bible began to disappear. Catholics frequently inquired of the Witnesses, “What is the difference between your Bible and the Catholic Bible?” thus paving the way for more home Bible studies.
“The Fever Hasn’t Cooled off Yet”
In the Pacific seaport of Buenaventura lived a young Catholic lad named Óscar, an honor student in his last year of high school. He counted the bishop among his personal friends. Óscar’s mother began to study the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses, so he agreed to a Bible study too, intending to confuse the young pioneer minister who was teaching his mother. The sessions turned into heated discussions on various doctrines—the Trinity, the soul, hellfire, infallibility of the pope.
Óscar sought the bishop for reasoning to defend his Catholic belief in the Trinity. What a disappointment, no help from that source! Next he asked the priest in his religion class in school. The priest replied, “I know that the Trinity does not appear in the Bible, Óscar, but I have burned the midnight oil studying for over 13 years, and I have to reap the benefit from what they taught me.” No help there either.
Finally, convinced that Jehovah’s Witnesses had the truth, Óscar began to study in earnest. Baptized in six months, he abandoned plans for a university education in biology. The critical times in which we live and Bible chronology convinced him of the urgency of pioneering instead. His old high school chums said he just had a fever that would soon cool off and that in five or six years, when they were all enjoying success in their professional careers, Óscar would come to them begging for work.
Óscar pioneered in the oil-refining city of Barrancabermeja, served in the challenging Córdoba circuit for four years, then went on to other circuit assignments, 12 years in all. Now a member of the Bethel family in Bogotá, along with his wife, Otilia, Óscar Rivas thinks back on how his old school buddies scoffed at him. “Twenty-one years have passed, and the fever hasn’t cooled off yet,” he says. “In fact, the warmth I feel in my heart for Jehovah’s truth goes on increasing all the time.”
Nothing Could Stop the Progress Now
With constitutional freedom of worship honored, the 1960’s saw congregations sprouting in all the major cities and even in smaller communities. Southward from Cali, local pioneers and missionaries carried the good news to the religious strongholds of Popayán and Pasto toward the Ecuadoran border and over to Tumaco on the Pacific Coast. Local Witnesses took on a more active role in the organization too. Nothing could stop theocratic progress now. Soon all parts of this country would blossom with Jehovah’s praise.
Our chronological review of the Kingdom work in Colombia left the Bogotá Congregation back in the mid-1950’s, struggling with no missionary help. We will pick up the account there again, this time to cover the next three decades to the present.
Brother Knorr Launched a Migration
From 1960 onward the Kingdom work progressed in the capital, Bogotá. New Gilead graduates arrived to open a missionary home in the northern part of the city and then a second home in the southern part. As the number of congregations increased, foreign families moved in to help. Before the 1960’s ended, another important factor contributed to organizational growth in Colombia.
In 1966 the Society arranged for tours through Latin America in connection with the “God’s Sons of Liberty” conventions. The Society’s then president, Nathan H. Knorr, encouraged the visiting delegates to broadcast to fellow Witnesses in their home country that Central and South America is a large and satisfying field for those with the missionary spirit.
Brother Knorr’s recommendation launched a migration of foreign brothers to these Latin-American lands, an influx that would continue into the 1970’s. Thus, hundreds of Witnesses moved to Colombia.
“By 1970 a large number of Witnesses from the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Germany, Austria, and as far away as Australia were settled in Medellín, many with families,” says Eugene Iwanycky. “Most of these foreign brothers settled down in middle-class sections of the city, where they began to visit the homes of businessmen and professionals. This soon produced Kingdom fruitage. Many local elders today are fruits of the labors of these ‘temporary residents.’”
The current Branch Committee coordinator, Richard Brown, adds another important detail about those foreign brothers who moved to cities throughout Colombia. He says: “In the matter of Kingdom Hall construction alone, the initiative and experience of these foreign brothers, of whom some were architects, engineers, and builders, resulted in roomy, attractive meeting places, which proved a real stimulus to the work.”
Purpose in Life Found
Jehovah’s Witnesses are looking for people who are willing to stop and think on the subject of religion. For the most part, the Catholic Church has not taught her members to do this.
For example, in the mid-1960’s a young girl from a Colombian family romanticized about serving God and finding satisfaction in life as a cloistered nun. Hence, she later went to live in a convent in Costa Rica, where she dedicated much of her time to studying philosophy. But instead of being edified spiritually, she lost her faith, even doubting the existence of God. Convent life became meaningless, then unbearable. She decided to leave and return to Colombia.
Once in her home country, she traveled to the Pacific coastal area of Chocó to live with and be a help to an Indian tribe in the dense forest. A year in that primitive environment convinced her of the futility of that course. Back in civilization, she began investigating a revolutionary political movement—but again disillusionment.
Frustrated on three counts, she decided to try carving out a niche for herself in a capitalistic society. But before she could emigrate to the United States, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses called on her. Favorably impressed with the Kingdom message, and especially with the description of how Jehovah’s organization operates, the ex-nun set travel plans aside in order to investigate further. She learned that God has a valid reason for permitting injustices and that life does have a purpose, with a real hope for the future. Now she serves as a full-time minister, not only experiencing the satisfying life she sought for so long but also willingly offering the same to others.
Even His Own Buddies Were Afraid of Him
In August 1968 Pope Paul VI made a landmark visit to Colombia, the first papal visit ever to Latin America. Then followed the Second Latin-American Episcopal Conference in Medellín, Colombia, August/September 1968. At the conference, Roman Catholic bishops of Latin America decried the poverty in which large groups of humanity in these countries live, thus giving a strong boost to the controversial liberation theology. After hearing this, more of the poor turned to violence as a means to grab for themselves a greater share of the national wealth.
One of the embittered ones—we will call him Gonzalo—joined a guerrilla group hiding in the mountains in 1971. He became so ferocious that even his own buddies were afraid of him. He was surprised at first to find priests and nuns within the guerrilla ranks. They claimed to be “fighting against social injustices that could not be combated in any other way—only with violence.” A certain day one of the priests went out to battle and never returned. That was the death stroke to any belief in God that might have remained in Gonzalo’s heart.
Gonzalo was eventually captured and sentenced to six years in prison. “That poisoned my heart even more!” he recounts. Before joining the guerrillas, he had lived with a woman named Susana. In prison he heard a rumor that she was living with another man. He vowed that he was going to kill her when he got out.
Upon his release, though, he found Susana eagerly waiting for him. While he was in prison, a neighbor, a Witness, began to tell Susana about the blessings of Jehovah’s Kingdom, and she liked what she heard. Now, she was adamant and insisted that she and Gonzalo had to get married.
“I am too old to think about getting married,” he protested. “If you do not agree to marry me,” Susana insisted, “I will have to separate from you and this time for good.”
Gonzalo figured he had better examine Susana’s new belief. He agreed to attend a meeting at the Kingdom Hall, with the intent of proving that this religion was a sham like all the rest. And he took two pistols along with him “just in case,” he said.
Favorably impressed by what he saw and heard, Gonzalo agreed to the offer of a home Bible study. He commented finally: “It is a miracle that I am alive at all. Now I’m going to serve Jehovah.” He and Susana got married and became Kingdom publishers. “Gonzalo is now mild-tempered like a lamb, thanks to the power of Jehovah’s truth,” said one circuit overseer who served his congregation.
“Why All the Gringos?”
Next consider the experience of Carlos, a psychologist. Born into a strict Catholic household where the family tradition was that among the sons, there must always be a doctor and a priest, Carlos was picked to become the priest.
In university Carlos became enthralled with science and technology. He discarded his early Catholic training as unreasonable, adopted revolutionary philosophies, and joined in rallies against Yankee imperialism.
Years passed, and Carlos still felt strongly about “foreign imperialism,” when a Witness, who was a chemical engineer and the husband of Carlos’ cousin, began reasoning with him about the only remedy for all the injustices in the world, God’s Kingdom. Carlos could see the point. Both he and his pediatrician wife agreed to a Bible study.
On their first visit to the Kingdom Hall a month later, what Carlos saw almost froze him in his tracks. North Americans sitting in the audience. ‘Why all the gringos here?’ he muttered to himself.
After the meeting, the presiding overseer, who just happened to be a North American, approached the bearded visitor and asked what he thought of the meeting. “Very good,” was Carlos’ curt reply. “But tell me, why all the gringos? And why does all of this have to originate in the United States of America?”
The elder explained that the North American Witnesses were in Colombia as evangelizers and that the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses is in the United States. He also told Carlos that Jehovah’s Witnesses are politically neutral in all countries of the world and that in former years they have suffered severe persecution in the United States, requiring them to fight many court battles to establish their constitutional rights.
Today Carlos is an elder in the local congregation, and he works secularly as a practicing psychologist. He does not hesitate to speak to his patients about God and the Bible, and when he discerns evidence of a sincere desire for righteousness, he will share some of the information contained in the Society’s publications with them. A number of them have come into the truth in this way.
The Professor and the Trinity
A university professor who had been a Baptist for five years became skeptical about all religions. One Saturday morning his wife accepted The Watchtower and Awake! from a Witness couple who called at their door. She invited them to return and talk with her husband, “because he likes to investigate all kinds of religion,” she said.
The professor welcomed the discussions. But before an organized study could be started, the Witnesses had to spend many hours explaining the doctrinal differences between Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Protestants. The professor’s sister, a born-again fundamentalist, gave him literature containing every conceivable argument against the Witnesses. One by one these false accusations had to be Biblically refuted.
On arriving for one of their weekly Bible study sessions, the Witnesses were surprised to see a Protestant missionary awaiting the visit. In the hour-and-a-half discussion that ensued, the Protestant could not successfully defend his Trinity doctrine. The professor reasoned, “How foolish to think that Satan would try to tempt Almighty God to bow down before him in exchange for all the kingdoms of the world!”
From that night on, the professor progressed rapidly. It was not long before a fine new family group was added to the local congregation.
Move Back to Bogotá
By the mid-1970’s branch operations in Barranquilla had outgrown the premises. As the search for available property got under way, no one imagined that it would lead them back to where the branch was first established in 1946, Bogotá, or that Colombia would soon have a new Bethel Home and a factory that would be printing magazines for four neighboring countries as well as for Colombia.
In Bogotá, land was acquired and plans were drawn up for comfortable living quarters to accommodate 60 branch workers and factory space sufficient for two offset presses. These were to be installations adequate for years to come.
Brother Frederick W. Franz, president of the Society, came for the dedication program in September 1979. The following service year, the organization began to increase again. The new branch had been built at an opportune time.
In 1982—after spending 36 years as a missionary in Colombia and overseeing the branch during 22 years—Robert Tracy received an assignment as Branch Committee coordinator in another Latin-American country. Colombian Witnesses remember Bob and Libby Tracy with warm affection, even as the Tracys hold a large warm spot in their hearts for the brothers in Colombia.
“Impossible! Don’t Even Try It”
Down through the years, Colombia received the Society’s magazines from Brooklyn, first by surface mail and then by bulk ocean freight shipments. Because of the time involved in transportation, Colombia was always months behind other countries in the dates for the distribution of the magazines as well as for the weekly Watchtower study dates. How fine it would be if someday they could print their own magazines there in Colombia!
Well, now they do. William (Bill) Lensink, factory overseer, will tell us how this came about. Bill has been in Colombia since 1969, when as a small boy he moved there with his family from Canada to serve where the need was greater.
“In June 1982 Brooklyn wrote that they would be sending an offset printing press to Colombia in January 1983,” Bill begins. “Delighted, we began making plans. Then early in November, we learned that customs duty on printing equipment would be upped to 15 percent on January 1, 1983. Would Brooklyn agree to early shipment of the press? And could they accomplish this before the year’s end? Professional importers and customs brokers told us: ‘In less than two months and during the year-end holidays, impossible! Don’t even try it.’
“‘But if it is Jehovah’s will,’ we reasoned, ‘we can do it.’ The Colombia branch previously had proposed to Brooklyn a plan and a budget to have the press trucked to the U.S. city of Miami and flown into Bogotá by 747 jumbo jet—less trouble, more economical, much faster, and less rough handling. We asked the Society for a decision, and the Publishing Committee of the Governing Body approved!
“The brothers would oversee this big job themselves. On November 16 we submitted the license to the Importation Board for approval—one month minimum, if approved. That would cut things pretty close. Next, our task force outlined customhouse procedures, working out emergency plans for every step of the way. I thought I had better keep a diary of events.”
Diary of Events
“MONDAY, DECEMBER 20: News from Miami—the trucks had arrived from New York; press towers and parts ready for loading on the jumbos. Still no word about the import license.
“TUESDAY, DECEMBER 21: Bethelite José Granados along with a customs broker went to the customs office to request permission to nationalize the importation right at the airport. The executive secretary wouldn’t hear of such an unorthodox proposal. Then Granados spoke up and explained the purpose of our nonprofit society. ‘The Society will take care of all the handling,’ he added. ‘The first shipment arrives from Miami Thursday.’ Permission was granted—authorization typed up, signed, and sealed.
“WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 22: Bethelite Bill Neufeld and I left early in the morning for the Importation Board. ‘What if the license is rejected?’ We didn’t allow ourselves to think about that. When we arrived at the office, the secretary greeted us with a warm smile. ‘The Board approved your license yesterday,’ she said. ‘Go downstairs and pick it up.’
“THURSDAY MORNING, DECEMBER 23: Our Witness team was at El Dorado Airport early—crane and low-bed trucks standing by—the big 747 arrived with the first of three heavy shipments. Customs officials, inspectors, tax liquidators, and auditors, all in turn expressed their objections. But photocopies of the official authorization removed all resistance.
“FRIDAY, DECEMBER 24: Second jumbo load received and nationalized. No problem in spite of Christendom’s holiday eve.
“WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 29: The last shipment landed as scheduled, cleared customs, and was trucked off to the branch without a hitch, just in time to beat the year-end slowdown and halt in official activities.
“The ‘impossible’ had been accomplished! In the Bethel Home, the rejoicing at that year’s end had nothing to do with the world’s New Year. It was jubilation for Jehovah’s having crowned with success the efforts to get Colombia’s offset printing press into the factory before the December 31, 1982, deadline!”
In Step at Last
“Our first Watchtowers,” Bill Lensink continues, “began rolling off the press three and a half months later—the issue of April 15, 1983. The Kingdom publishers were jubilant. Shortly La Atalaya and ¡Despertad! were appearing on magazine counters in Kingdom Halls throughout the country before the date of issue. No more confusion as to ‘which Atalaya to study this week.’ By year’s end our press was turning out 200,000 magazines each month for Colombia alone. In 1984 we began printing for the neighboring republics of Venezuela, Panama, Ecuador, and Peru.
“And in May of that year—with simultaneous printing of the magazines in English and Spanish—we were in spiritual step with the vanguard of the theocratic organization at last.”
The Real “Salt of the Earth”
During a second papal visit to Colombia in July 1986—this time in the person of John Paul II—the head of Roman Catholicism made a special appeal to Colombian youths when he said: “You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world!” However, he did not clarify what that enlightening message was that Catholic youths were to communicate to all Colombia, Latin America, and the rest of the world.
There is no doubt, though, about the message young Witnesses of Jehovah are to bear, nor the way they are to take this to the people. Trained in the Theocratic Ministry School at their local Kingdom Halls, and using introductions and presentations suggested in the book Reasoning From the Scriptures, they have become skilled at preaching the good news from house to house, revisiting the interested ones, and conducting Bible studies in their homes. More and more Witness youths, too, are responding to the call to full-time ministry as pioneers, Bethelites, and volunteer workers on the new branch construction project. Indeed, here are young people who, along with their older brothers and sisters worldwide, are the real “salt of the earth,” “the light of the world.”—Matt. 5:13, 14.
The Drug Trafficker and the Witness
About the end of the last decade, when Colombian drug lords began amassing huge fortunes in the narcotics trade, two isolated houses stood side by side on the edge of a small town. In one lived a young man, a link in international drug traffic—in the other, a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
While the young drug trafficker and his friends reveled during one of the many lavish parties he threw, our sister next door told her husband that she was concerned about the neighbor because no one had witnessed at that house. Her husband said that the man was dangerous and that he thought it would be better to leave well enough alone for now. Our sister, though, just could not put this matter out of her mind.
Months later, when the drug trafficker was home from one of his out-of-town trips, the sister decided it was time to make the witnessing visit. With her field service bag in hand and a prayer in her heart, she knocked on the door.
“And what do you want?” was the man’s brusque greeting.
The sister does not remember exactly what she said, but it was something about the Kingdom and its blessings. The young man listened attentively and then said simply, “I believe in God.” Heartened, the sister gave a thorough witness. The young man responded favorably and accepted the offer of a Bible study.
Happy with the Bible truths he was learning, the neighbor began talking to his “business associates,” who believed he had gone crazy from reading the Bible. To start life anew in a respectable business, he bought a taxi. Field service, dedication, and baptism followed.
One day he drove a Witness friend to work in his cab. Through the office window, fellow employees watched their workmate step out of the taxi and bid the driver a friendly farewell. They warned their fellow worker that he was keeping bad company. “That man is a known mafioso!” they told him. Our brother then responded with satisfaction, “He was a mafioso before. Now he is my spiritual brother, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses!”
Heartening News From Brooklyn
During a visit of Brother Lyman Swingle of the Governing Body in January 1987, the Branch Committee explained to him how the lack of suitable Kingdom Halls was holding back spiritual advancement. It was explained that few congregations could raise enough money to build and that many meeting places were crowded rooms or covered-over patios in out-of-the-way parts of town. Circuits too were finding it difficult to rent suitable assembly halls.
Soon after his visit, heartening news came from Brooklyn: Funds were to be made available for Kingdom Hall and Assembly Hall loans. In addition, Christian meeting places must be ample and attractive and located in sections of town where the public will not hesitate to attend.
A Flood of Local Witnesses
How could people living in isolated areas hear the good news? Edwin Muller, a graduate of the first Gilead Extension class in Mexico, 1980-81, now working in the Service Department at the branch in Bogotá, explains:
“We studied the map of Colombia and tabulated more than a hundred towns of 10,000 inhabitants that had not been touched by organized witnessing, most of these in the Andean mountain region. Then, with Governing Body approval, we made arrangements to send 150 publishers as temporary special pioneers to 30 of these towns for three months, beginning in either September or October 1988.
“Results were impressive: 1,200 new Bible studies; in most cases the pioneers held all the regular meetings; new publishers started in field service; in one town many came asking for Bible studies, but the six pioneers, with 20 studies each, just couldn’t handle them.
“Newly associated ones began to worry about what would happen when the 90 days ended. In one town 18 persons signed a letter and sent it to the branch, expressing appreciation for the Kingdom message the pioneers had brought them. But now what would they do when the special mission was over? ‘Would others be sent to help?’ In other towns the people pleaded with the pioneers, ‘Please don’t leave us alone. We will help you find work, if only you will stay.’”
Brother Muller concludes: “Now we have sent out a call for more who can serve where the need is greater. Brothers are writing in or coming personally to the branch office to inquire about moving to isolated territories to help preach the good news. This time, it is not a flood of foreigners immigrating to Colombia to help preach but local Witnesses themselves rising to the occasion to fill the need in an admirable way.”
No More Space
Activities in the Bethel Home and factory had increased beyond expectations. The number in the Bethel family was now climbing toward 90, well past the 60-member mark originally planned for the home in 1975. Additional offices had long since taken over the Kingdom Hall, easing out several Bogotá congregations that had been meeting there. Printing and shipping magazines for over 130,000 publishers in five countries now occupied all factory space. Literature storage, shipping operations, and job press—the printing of the Kingdom Ministry and small items like forms and tracts—were being squeezed out. Obviously, more space was needed. What could be done?
The Society’s headquarters in Brooklyn approved the construction of a new branch for Colombia. A large chicken farm was purchased on the edge of Facatativá, a small town on the savanna just 45 minutes west of the capital. Initial contacts with the government authorities met with favorable response. An illustrated compendium detailed the project, emphasizing the printing of the Awake! for export. Photographs of the present branch, along with brochures of the Germany branch and of Watchtower Farms in the United States, with its cultivated fields, impressed the officials. To top off the presentation, Awake! articles on conservation and ecology were shown.
The project began early in 1987. Many IVCWs (International Volunteer Construction Workers) flew to Bogotá and were soon adjusting to life on La Granja in Faca (The Farm in Facatativá). During 1989 there were some 75 of them on the job. Also, Colombian volunteers swelled the size of the family. Nearby in Faca, townspeople looked on with curiosity and admiration as a large dilapidated rooming house that the Society bought was remodeled and spruced up, transforming it into Las Torres (The Towers) to provide comfortable lodging for 80 additional workers.
With the drone of earth-moving equipment and the rhythmic clanging of the concrete-pile driver, the project began to take shape. On weekends and holidays, enthusiastic volunteers from the 100 congregations in the Bogotá area went out to La Granja to work shoveling sand and concrete or shaping and tying steel for concrete piles and thick wall panels, to be tilted up by cranes and fastened in place. In the kitchen, volunteers assisted in preparing noon and evening meals for these hungry workers.
Hundreds of temporary IVCWs, scheduled by the Society, pay their own way to Colombia and spend two weeks or a month or two on the project. One foreign worker, when back home, wrote to the branch: “I was able to spend the most enjoyable two weeks of my life as a worker at the construction site in Facatativá, Colombia. I had the opportunity to see that something very special and unusual was happening there.”
Local visitors too, during tours of Bethel and the Faca work site, have been impressed, surprised at the organization and the magnitude of the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Colombia. They cannot conceive that all those people are volunteers and pay their own way to go there to work. One company executive said that his family “just had to see this.” The mayor of the town and city council members, after lunch and a tour of the site, said that they would like to have their city employees “come out here and really learn how to work.”
No doubt about it, the new branch construction in Facatativá betokens great things for the future of the Kingdom work in that part of the world.
More Work to Be Done
There is still a vast amount of Kingdom work to be done in Colombia. During the late 1960’s and the 1970’s, isolated cities and towns were worked periodically until congregations were formed. The same procedure, as we have seen, is now being applied to smaller communities and rural areas throughout the hills and valleys of the Andean mountain region.
Still, westward along the Pacific Coast, in many of the dense rain forests there, and eastward down through expansive plains that end in the Amazon rain forest bordering on Brazil, there are hundreds of scattered villages and settlements that are entirely untouched. There remains, too, the challenge of those ever-increasing “walled cities,” the exclusive apartment buildings, condominiums, and closed residential units. How are all these people ever going to be reached? We are encouraged by the Bible statement that “the hand of Jehovah has not become too short that it cannot save, nor has his ear become too heavy that it cannot hear.” (Isa. 59:1) There can be no doubt that Jehovah has means at his disposal to make his name and Kingdom known far and wide in a very short time.—Luke 19:40.
Nearly Seven Decades of Christian Evangelizing
Throngs who went out to hail the bishop of Rome during his 1986 visit heard him refer repeatedly to “450 years of evangelization in Latin America.” What he meant was that the conquest of these lands by the cross of Catholicism was viewed by Rome as a fulfillment of the commission that Christ gave his disciples before his departure. (Matt. 24:14; 28:19, 20) But the “evangel” that Spanish missionaries brought to these shores never explained God’s Kingdom or Christ’s Millennial Reign or everlasting life on a paradise earth.
This true evangel, or good news, reached Colombian shores first during the 1920’s, when God’s spirit moved two Christian men to start out alone proclaiming “this good news” in the villages of northwestern Colombia. Next, in the 1930’s, courageous Christian women—motivated by that same spirit—announced these truths in major cities throughout the land. Following that, came dozens of missionaries and scores of Witnesses from other countries, making their contribution to the progress of the disciple-making work.
Back in 1940, there were just the two original Jehovah’s Witnesses regularly reporting Kingdom preaching in Colombia, Heliodoro Hernández and Juan Bautista Estupiñán.
Forty years passed, 1980, and 16,000 Colombian disciples were then unitedly proclaiming that Kingdom hope. Just nine years more, 1989, the Kingdom publisher count had jumped by 150 percent, to over 40,000. From all over the country, reports come in: Kingdom Halls overflowing, new congregations ready to be formed, packed attendance at Memorial celebration. Nearly seven decades of true Christian evangelization is blossoming with Kingdom fruitage in all parts of that land.
On that note, we conclude our visit to Colombia, a country rich in scenic beauty and natural resources, with a people friendly and hospitable. And a land where, for nearly 70 years now, Jehovah’s Witnesses have taught true Christianity, building a spiritual paradise and extending it to the nation’s borders.
For the life story of Porfirio Caicedo’s family, see The Watchtower, June 1, 1976, pages 328-32.
For her life story, see The Watchtower, July 15, 1969, pages 443-6.
For their life story, see The Watchtower, May 1, 1972, pages 281-6.
For Harold L. Zimmerman’s life story, see The Watchtower, May 1, 1984, pages 23-7.
[Chart on page 134]
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1950 1960 1970 1980 1989
1950 1960 1970 1980 1989
[Box/Map on page 66]
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Official Language: Spanish
Major Religion: Roman Catholic
Branch Office: Bogotá
[Picture on page 70]
Agustín Primo, Branch Committee member
[Pictures on page 71]
Witnessing in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, and in subtropical Cali, left
[Pictures on page 73]
Heliodoro Hernández and Juan Bautista Estupiñán from the mid-1920’s sowed seeds of Kingdom truth
[Pictures on page 82]
Gabriel Piñeros, former Air Force colonel, now an elder in one of the congregations in Cali
[Pictures on page 84]
Porfirio Caicedo, father of 18 dedicated children; son Raúl, a Gilead graduate and a Branch Committee member until his death in 1981
[Picture on page 87]
Missionaries Olaf Olson and James Webster
[Picture on page 88]
Rogelio Jones, José Villadiego, and Farah Morán—a building contractor, a former lottery ticket salesman, and a former owner of a haberdashery store—early publishers still active in Barranquilla
[Picture on page 95]
The Carvajalino sisters, an exemplary pioneer group, who helped more than 300 persons to learn the truth
[Picture on page 96]
Benjamín Angulo and Armando Gómez, members of the Branch Committee
[Pictures on page 101]
Cartagena, an important Caribbean seaport in Spanish colonial history, hears the good news
[Picture on page 102]
Gregorio de la Rosa with wife, Lilia, broke free from superstitious fears
[Picture on page 105]
Richard and Virginia Brown opened the first missionary home in Medellín in 1958. Richard is Branch Committee coordinator
[Picture on page 110]
Elbert S. Moore was one of the first who, with his family, answered the call to serve in Colombia. He is now a member of the Branch Committee
[Picture on page 113]
Harold and Anne Zimmerman, who raised four children in Cali, are now assigned to the new branch project in Facatativá
[Picture on page 116]
Óscar Rivas chose a career in full-time service, now in Bethel
[Picture on page 123]
Bob and Libby Tracy, who served in Colombia 36 years and 32 years respectively, were transferred to another branch in 1982
[Pictures on page 124]
Though experts said, “Impossible! Don’t even try it,” Colombia’s rotary printing press was flown in by jumbo jet at a considerable saving. Colombia prints “The Watchtower” and “Awake!” for five Latin-American countries
[Pictures on page 131]
Kingdom Hall in Ibagué, constructed with help of the Watch Tower Society
[Pictures on page 132, 133]
New branch construction project; structural steel being mounted for new factory building; model of new branch