WHEN I was 12 years of age, I first realized that I had something valuable to give. During an assembly, a brother asked me if I would like to preach. “Yes,” I said, although I had never preached before. We went to the territory, and he gave me some booklets about God’s Kingdom. “You visit the people on that side of the street,” he said, “and I’ll take this side.” Nervously, I began going from house to house, and to my surprise, I had soon placed all the booklets. Clearly, many individuals wanted what I had to give.
I was born in 1923 in Chatham, Kent, England, and I grew up in a world full of disappointed people. The Great War had not lived up to the promise of making the world a better place. My parents were also disappointed by Baptist clergymen who seemed too interested in their own advancement. When I was about nine, my mother began going to the hall of the International Bible Students Association, where people who had adopted the name 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. Although I often went out and worked from house to house alone, I also learned by preaching with others. For example, one day as an older brother and I were cycling to the preaching 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.” I learned a lot about the happiness of giving in those early days.
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. Once he invited me to his home for refreshments. She was so furious that he had been out preaching that she began throwing packets of tea at us. Rather than reprimand 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.
My desire to give others a hope for the future continued to grow, and my mother and I got baptized in Dover in March 1940. Britain had declared war on Germany in September 1939 when I was 16. In June 1940, I watched from our front doorstep as thousands of traumatized soldiers passed by in lorries (trucks). They were survivors of the Battle of Dunkirk. I saw no sign of hope in their eyes, and I yearned to tell them about God’s Kingdom. Later that year, the regular bombing of Britain began. Each night, I watched as squadrons of German bombers flew over our area. The bombs whistled, and you could hear them falling, adding to the terror. When we went out the next morning, we would find whole areas of destroyed houses. I increasingly realized that the Kingdom was my only hope for the future.
STARTING OUT ON A LIFE OF GIVING
It was really in 1941 that I embarked on the life that has made me so happy. I had been working in the Royal Dockyard in Chatham as an apprentice shipwright, a coveted position with excellent benefits. Jehovah’s servants had long understood that Christians should not fight for one nation against another. By 1941 we were becoming aware that we should not work in the arms industry. (John 18:36) Since the dockyard was building submarines, I decided that it was time for me to leave my job and take up the full-time ministry. My first assignment was in Cirencester, a picturesque town in the Cotswolds.
When I turned 18, I was imprisoned for nine months because I refused to perform military service. It was a dreadful feeling when the door of my cell first slammed shut and I was left alone. But soon, guards and prisoners began asking why I was there, and I gladly explained my faith to them.
After my release, I was asked to join Leonard Smith * to preach in various towns in our home county of Kent. Starting in 1944, over a thousand unmanned jet planes packed with explosives fell on Kent. We were exactly under the flight path between Nazi-occupied Europe and London. Those flying bombs were called doodlebugs. It was a terror campaign, for if you heard the engine cut out, as we often did, you knew that seconds later the plane would fall and explode. We conducted a Bible study with one family of five. At times, we sat under an iron table designed to protect them if the house collapsed. That entire family eventually got baptized.
TAKING THE GOOD NEWS ABROAD
After the war, I pioneered for two years in southern Ireland. We were not aware of how different Ireland was from England. We went from door to door asking for accommodations, saying that we were missionaries, and we offered our magazines on the street. What “silly” things to do in such a Catholic country! When a man threatened us with violence, I complained to a policeman, who said, “Well, what do you expect?” We did not realize how much power the priests had. They had people dismissed from their jobs if they accepted our books, and they had us evicted from our lodgings.
We soon learned that when we arrived in a new area, it was best to cycle far away from our place of lodging, preaching only where people had a different priest. Last of all, we visited the people nearby. In Kilkenny, we studied with a young man three times a week despite the threats of violent mobs. I so much enjoyed teaching Bible truths that I decided to apply for training as a missionary at the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead.
After the five-month course 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 aboard a 59-foot (18 m) schooner named Sibia. I had never sailed before, so I was excited. One of our number, Gust Maki, was an experienced sea captain. He taught us some basic seamanship, such as how to raise and lower the various sails, how to maintain a compass bearing, and how to tack against the wind. Gust skillfully navigated our craft for 30 days through dangerous storms until we reached the Bahamas.
“PROCLAIM IT AMONG THE ISLANDS”
After spending a few months preaching on the smaller islands of the Bahamas, we set sail for the Leeward Islands and the Windward Islands, which extend some 500 miles (800 km) from the Virgin Islands near Puerto Rico and stretch almost to Trinidad. For five years, we preached mainly on isolated islands where there were no Witnesses. Sometimes we went for weeks without being able to send or receive mail. But how happy we were proclaiming Jehovah’s word among the islands!
When we anchored in a bay, our arrival would create quite a stir among the villagers, and people would gather on the jetty to see who we were. Some had never seen a schooner or a white man before. The islanders were friendly religious people who knew the Bible well. Often, they gave us fresh fish, avocados, and peanuts. Our small vessel had little space for sleeping, cooking, or washing clothes, but we managed.
We would row ashore and visit the people all day long. We used to tell them that there would be a Bible talk. Then at dusk we rang the ship’s bell. It was wonderful to see residents arriving. Their oil lamps were like twinkling stars coming down the hillsides. Sometimes a hundred people came, and they stayed late into the evening asking questions. They enjoyed singing, so we typed out and distributed the words of some Kingdom songs. As the four of us did our best to sing the tunes, the people joined in, their voices harmonizing beautifully. What happy times!
After we conducted a Bible study, some students would walk with us to the next family we were to visit in order to join in their study too. Although we had to leave after spending a few weeks in a certain place, 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 bustling tourist resorts, but back then they were secluded places with only turquoise lagoons, sandy beaches, and palm trees. We usually sailed from island to island at night. Dolphins playfully swam alongside our boat, and all you could hear was the swish of our bow cutting through the water. The moon shining on the calm seas made a silvery highway stretching to the horizon.
After spending five years preaching on the islands, we sailed to Puerto Rico to exchange the schooner for a boat 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 childhood. Later, she served as a missionary in the Dominican Republic until she was expelled from that country by the Catholic government in 1950. As a ship’s crewman, I had a permit to stay in Puerto Rico only one month. I would soon be sailing 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 visiting congregations in the circuit work. Many of the brothers were poor, but we loved visiting them. 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 Bethel, a sister who had just graduated from Gilead School approached 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 were asked to serve at the Puerto Rico branch, which was located in a small two-story house in Santurce, San Juan. At first, Lennart Johnson and I did most of the work. He and his wife were the first Witnesses of Jehovah in the Dominican Republic, and they had arrived in Puerto Rico in 1957. Later, Maxine processed the magazine subscriptions
I enjoy Bethel service, for it is a life of giving. But it is not without its challenges. For example, during Puerto Rico’s first international assembly in 1967, I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility. Nathan Knorr, who was then taking the lead among Jehovah’s Witnesses, came to Puerto Rico. He mistakenly assumed that I had neglected to arrange transportation for the visiting missionaries, although I had done so. 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 misjudged and upset for quite a while. Nevertheless, the next time Maxine and I saw Brother Knorr, he invited us to his room and cooked a meal for us.
From Puerto Rico, we visited my family in England several times. Father did not accept the truth when Mother and I did. But when speakers from Bethel visited, my mother often had them stay in our home. My father saw how humble these Bethel overseers were in contrast with the clergymen who had disgusted him years earlier. 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. What a happy thought! During our 58 years together, Maxine and I saw Jehovah’s people in Puerto Rico grow from about 650 Witnesses 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. But it was time to move on.
“GOD LOVES A CHEERFUL GIVER”
I still enjoy serving God at Bethel. I am now over 90 years of age, and my job is to encourage members of the Bethel family as a spiritual shepherd. I am told that I have visited over 600 since I came to Wallkill. Some who come to see me want to discuss personal or family problems. Others ask for counsel on making a success of their Bethel service. Still others who recently got married are looking for advice on marriage. Some have been reassigned to the field. I listen to all who speak to me, and when appropriate, I often tell them: “‘God loves a cheerful giver.’ So be happy in your work. It is for Jehovah.”
The challenge of being happy at Bethel is the same as it is elsewhere: You have to focus on why what you are doing is important. Everything we do at Bethel is sacred service. It contributes to helping “the faithful and discreet slave” to provide spiritual food for the worldwide brotherhood. (Matt. 24:45) Wherever we serve Jehovah, we have opportunities to praise him. Let us enjoy what he asks us to do, for “God loves a cheerful giver.”
^ par. 13 Leonard Smith’s life story appeared in The Watchtower of April 15, 2012.