IT IS the spring of 1931. The entrance to the famous Pleyel concert hall in Paris swarms with delegates from 23 countries. Large taxicabs drop off their fashionable passengers in front of the hall, and soon the main auditorium is packed. Almost 3,000 people have come, not to listen to a concert, but to hear Joseph F. Rutherford, who was then taking the lead in our preaching work. His powerful talks are interpreted into French, German, and Polish. Brother Rutherford’s booming voice resounds through the hall.
The Paris convention marked a turning point in the Kingdom-preaching work in France. Brother Rutherford called on the international audience—young Christians in particular—to serve as colporteurs in France. John Cooke, a teenage English delegate, never forgot the stirring exhortation: “Nothing under the sun should stop you young folks from going into the colporteur work!” *
In addition to John Cooke, who later became a missionary, many others responded to this Macedonian call. (Acts 16:9, 10) In fact, the number of colporteurs in France grew from 27 in 1930 to 104 in 1931—an exceptional increase in just one year. Since most of these early pioneers did not speak French, how would they cope with the language barrier, meager means, and isolation?
COPING WITH THE LANGUAGE BARRIER
Foreign colporteurs relied on testimony cards to speak for them about the Kingdom hope. A German-speaking brother who boldly preached in Paris recalls: “We knew that our God is a mighty one. If our heart was beating in our throat when we engaged in the ministry, it was not out of fear of man but because we were afraid we might forget the little phrase: ‘Voulez-vous lire cette carte, s’il vous plaît? [Would you please read this card?]’ We were convinced that our work was really important.”
When preaching in apartment buildings, colporteurs were often chased away by caretakers. One day, two English sisters who knew very little French found themselves face-to-face with an aggressive concierge who asked them whom they wanted to see. Trying to calm the angry caretaker, one sister noticed a small enameled plate on a door. On it were the words: “Tournez le bouton [Ring the bell].” Thinking that this was the householder’s name, she replied cheerfully: “We have come to see Madame ‘Tournez le bouton.’” A good sense of humor greatly helped these zealous colporteurs!
LITTLE MEANS AND ISOLATION DID NOT STOP THEM
In the 1930’s, most people in France had to put up with poor living conditions, and the foreign colporteurs were no exception. Concerning what she and her pioneer partner experienced, an English-speaking sister named Mona Brzoska said: “Our accommodations were generally of a very primitive nature, and one of the big problems was the heating in the wintertime. We were often obliged to make do with a freezing cold room where we had to break the ice on the water in the jug in the morning before we could wash.” Were early pioneers discouraged by the lack of comfort? By no means! One of them nicely summed up their feelings when he said: “We did not own anything, but we lacked nothing.”—Matt. 6:33.
These courageous colporteurs also had to overcome isolation. In the early 1930’s, the number of Kingdom publishers in France did not exceed 700, and most of them were scattered throughout the country. What helped isolated colporteurs to remain happy? Mona, who faced this challenge with her pioneer partner, explained: “We had to fight this isolation by regularly studying together the Society’s publications. Since back in those days we [made no return visits and conducted no home Bible studies], in the evening we had time to write to our family and especially to other pioneers, to share our experiences and encourage one another.”—1 Thess. 5:11.
Those self-sacrificing colporteurs maintained a positive outlook despite obstacles. This can be seen from letters they sent to the branch office, sometimes decades after pioneering in France. Looking back on those years, Annie Cregeen, an anointed sister who traveled the length and breadth of France with her husband from 1931 to 1935, wrote: “We had a very happy and eventful life! We pioneers were a close-knit group. As the apostle Paul said, ‘I planted, Apollos watered, but God kept making it grow.’ This is thrilling to those of us who had an opportunity to help so many years ago.”—1 Cor. 3:6.
Those early pioneers indeed left a legacy of endurance and zeal for consideration by others who want to expand their ministry. Today, there are some 14,000 regular pioneers in France. Many are serving in foreign-language groups or congregations. * Like their predecessors, they do not let anything under the sun stop them!—From our archives in France.
^ par. 13 In 2014, over 900 foreign-language congregations and groups were working under the oversight of the France branch, helping sincere truth-seekers in 70 different tongues.