I WAS 12 years old when I realized that I had something valuable to give. During an assembly, a brother asked me if I would like to preach. Even though I had never preached before, I said yes. We went to the territory, and he gave me some booklets about God’s Kingdom. Then he said: “You visit the people on that side of the street, and I’ll take this side.” I was nervous, but I began preaching from house to house. I was surprised when I soon placed all the booklets. Clearly, many people wanted what I had to give.
I was born in 1923 in Chatham, Kent, England. In those years after World War I, people hoped that the world would become a better place. But when that did not happen, many were disappointed, including my parents. They were also disappointed in Baptist clergymen who were too interested in getting a higher position in the church. When I was about nine, my mother began going to the hall of the International Bible Students Association, where Jehovah’s Witnesses held their “classes,” or meetings. One of the sisters there gave us children Bible lessons based on the Bible and the book The Harp of God. I liked what I was learning.
LEARNING FROM OLDER BROTHERS
As a teenager, I enjoyed giving people hope from God’s Word. I often preached from house to house alone, but when I preached with others, I learned a lot. For example, one day as an older brother and I were going to the territory, we passed a clergyman and I said, “There goes a goat.” The brother stopped his bicycle and asked me to sit down with him on a log. He said: “Who gave you authority to judge who is a goat? Let’s just be happy giving people the good news and leave the judging to Jehovah.” In those days, I learned a lot about the happiness that comes from giving.
Another older brother taught me that to find happiness in giving, we sometimes have to endure patiently. His wife did not like Jehovah’s Witnesses. One time he invited me to his home for a snack. She was so mad that he had been out preaching that she began throwing packets of tea at us. Instead of getting upset with her, he cheerfully put the tea back in its place. Years later, his patience was rewarded when his wife was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In September 1939, when I was 16, Britain declared war on Germany. In March 1940, my mother and I got baptized in Dover. In June 1940, I watched from our front doorstep as thousands of soldiers passed by in lorries, or trucks. They were survivors of the Battle of Dunkirk. I could see that they were traumatized and had no hope. I really wanted to tell them about God’s Kingdom and give them a hope for the future. Later that year, Germany began bombing Britain. Each night, German bombers flew over our area. We were terrified to hear the whistling sound the bombs made as they fell. The next morning, we would find whole areas of destroyed houses. These experiences helped me to realize even more that the Kingdom was my only hope for the future.
BEGINNING A LIFE OF GIVING
In 1941, I started in the full-time ministry, beginning a way of life that has made me very happy. I had been working in the Royal Dockyard in Chatham, learning how to build ships. This was a job that many wanted, and one with excellent benefits. But Jehovah’s servants already knew that Christians should not fight for one nation against another. And by 1941, we also understood that we should not support any efforts to make weapons. (John 18:36) The dockyard made submarines, so I decided that it was time for me to leave my job and begin the full-time ministry. My first assignment was in Cirencester, a beautiful town in the Cotswolds.
When I was 18, I went to prison for nine months because I refused to join the military. I felt terrible when the door of my cell slammed shut and I was left alone. But soon, guards and prisoners began asking why I was there, and I was glad to explain my faith to them.
After I got out of prison, I joined Leonard Smith, * and we preached in many different towns in the county of Kent, where we were from. In order to bomb London, Nazi planes had to fly over Kent. Starting in 1944, more than a thousand bombs called doodlebugs fell on Kent. These bombs were actually jet planes that had no pilots and that were full of explosives. When we heard the engine turn off, we knew that seconds later the plane would fall and explode. Everyone was terrified. During that time, we had a Bible study with a family of five. We would sometimes sit under an iron table designed to protect us if the house collapsed. That entire family eventually got baptized.
PREACHING THE GOOD NEWS IN FOREIGN COUNTRIES
After the war, I pioneered for two years in southern Ireland. We went from door to door saying that we were missionaries and asking for a place to stay. We offered our magazines on the street. But Ireland was so different from England. Most felt that it was silly for us to imagine that people would respond well to us in such a Catholic country! When one man threatened to hurt us, I complained to a policeman, but he said, “Well, what do you expect?” We did not realize how much power the priests had. People would lose their jobs if they accepted our books. And we were forced to leave the place we were living in.
We soon learned that when we arrived in a new area, it was best for us to preach in places where the priest did not know us. So we had to go far away from where we were staying and visit the people in those places first. After that, we preached to the people nearby. In Kilkenny, we studied with a young man three times a week even though violent mobs threatened us. Because I really enjoyed teaching the Bible, I wanted to get missionary training. So I decided to apply to the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead.
After studying for five months in New York, four of us Gilead graduates were assigned to the smaller islands of the Caribbean Sea. In November of 1948, we left New York City on a 59-foot (18-meter) sailboat named Sibia. I had never sailed before, so I was excited. Gust Maki, one of the graduates, was an experienced sea captain. He taught us some basic sailing skills, such as how to raise and lower the sails, how to navigate using a compass, and how to sail against the wind. Gust skillfully navigated our boat through dangerous storms for 30 days until we reached the Bahamas.
“PROCLAIM IT AMONG THE ISLANDS”
After preaching for a few months on the smaller islands of the Bahamas, we sailed to the Leeward and Windward islands. These small islands extend almost 500 miles (800 kilometers) between the Virgin Islands and Trinidad. For five years, we preached mainly on isolated islands where there were no Witnesses. Sometimes we could not send or receive mail for weeks. But we were very happy preaching about Jehovah “among the islands”!
When we anchored in a bay, the villagers would get excited and would gather on the dock to see who we were. Some had never seen a boat like ours or a white man before. The islanders were friendly people who knew the Bible well. Often, they gave us fresh fish, avocados, and peanuts. Even though we did not have a lot of space on our small boat, we were able to cook, sleep, and wash our clothes.
We would go onshore and visit the people all day long. We told them that there would be a Bible talk. Then at dusk we rang the ship’s bell. It was wonderful to see the people arriving. Their oil lamps looked like twinkling stars coming down the hillsides. Sometimes a hundred people came, and they asked questions until late at night. They enjoyed singing, so we typed out some Kingdom songs for them. The four of us did our best to sing the songs. Then the people started singing with us, and their voices sounded beautiful. What happy times!
After a Bible study, some students would walk with us to the next family we were going to visit in order to join their study too. After spending a few weeks in a certain place, we had to leave. But we often asked the most interested people to continue studying with the others until we returned. It was lovely to see how seriously some of them took their assignment.
Today, many of those islands are full of tourists, but back then they were quiet places with only turquoise lagoons, sandy beaches, and palm trees. We usually sailed from one island to the next at night. Dolphins playfully swam alongside us, and all you could hear was the sound of our boat cutting through the water. The light of the moon on the sea looked like a silver path that led to the horizon.
After five years preaching on the islands, we sailed to Puerto Rico to get a new boat, one with engines. When we arrived, I met and fell in love with Maxine Boyd, a beautiful missionary sister. She had been a zealous preacher of the good news since she was a little girl. Later, she served as a missionary in the Dominican Republic until 1950, when the Catholic government forced her to leave. Because I was a member of a ship’s crew, I had a permit to stay in Puerto Rico for only one month. After that I would sail to the islands and be away for a few more years. So I said to myself, ‘Ronald, if you want this girl, you’ve got to act quickly.’ After three weeks I proposed, and after six weeks we were married. Maxine and I were assigned as missionaries to Puerto Rico, so I never went out on the new boat.
In 1956, we began in the circuit work, and we loved visiting the brothers. Many of them were poor. For example, in the village of Potala Pastillo, there were two Witness families with many children, and I used to play the flute for them. I asked one of the little girls, Hilda, if she wanted to come and preach with us. She said: “I want to, but I can’t. I don’t have any shoes.” We bought her a pair, and she came preaching with us. Years later, in 1972, when Maxine and I were visiting Brooklyn, a sister who had just graduated from Gilead School came to talk to us. She was about to leave for her assignment in Ecuador, and she said: “You don’t recognize me, do you? I am the little girl from Pastillo who had no shoes.” It was Hilda! We were so happy that we cried!
In 1960, we began serving at the Puerto Rico branch, which was located in a small house in Santurce, San Juan. At first, Lennart Johnson and I did most of the work. He and his wife were the first Witnesses in the Dominican Republic, and in 1957, they had moved to Puerto Rico. Later, Maxine sent the magazines to people who had subscriptions. She sent more than a thousand magazines every week. She enjoyed doing this work because she thought of all those people learning about Jehovah.
I have enjoyed working at Bethel because it allows me to use my energy in Jehovah’s service. But it is not always easy. For example, during Puerto Rico’s first international assembly in 1967, I felt overwhelmed by everything that I needed to organize. Nathan Knorr, who was then taking the lead among Jehovah’s Witnesses, came to Puerto Rico. He thought that I had not arranged transportation for the missionaries visiting the country, even though I had. Later, he gave me strong counsel about being organized and said that he was disappointed in me. I didn’t want to argue with him, but I felt that he had treated me unfairly, and I was upset for some time. Still, the next time Maxine and I saw Brother Knorr, he invited us to his room and cooked a meal for us.
We visited my family in England several times. Father did not accept the truth when Mother and I did. But when brothers from Bethel visited their area, my mother often had them stay in our home. My father saw that these Bethel overseers were humble. They were very different from the clergymen who had disgusted him years ago. Finally, in 1962, he was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
My dear wife, Maxine, died in 2011. I am really looking forward to seeing her again in the resurrection. How happy that thought makes me! During our 58 years together, we saw the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Puerto Rico grow from about 650 to 26,000! Then, in 2013, the Puerto Rico branch was merged with the United States branch, and I was asked to serve at Wallkill, New York. After 60 years on the island, I felt as Puerto Rican as a coquí, the popular little Puerto Rican tree frog that sings ko-kee, ko-kee at dusk. I was happy in Puerto Rico, but now it was time to move on.
“GOD LOVES A CHEERFUL GIVER”
I still enjoy serving God at Bethel. I am now over 90 years old, and my job is to encourage members of the Bethel family. Since I came to Wallkill, I have visited over 600 brothers and sisters. Some who come to see me want to discuss personal or family problems. Others want advice on how to make serving at Bethel a success. Still others want advice because they recently got married or they have been reassigned to serve as pioneers. I listen to everyone who talks to me, and when appropriate, I often tell them: “‘God loves a cheerful giver.’ So be happy in your work. It is for Jehovah.”
If you want to be happy at Bethel or anywhere else, you must focus on why what you are doing is important. Everything we do at Bethel is sacred service. It helps “the faithful and discreet slave” to provide spiritual food to the brothers all over the world. (Matthew 24:45) Wherever we serve Jehovah, we have opportunities to praise him. Let us enjoy what he asks us to do, because “God loves a cheerful giver.”
^ par. 13 Leonard Smith’s life story appeared in The Watchtower of April 15, 2012.