Where Frontiers Mean Nothing
Jehovah’s Witnesses strive to overcome barriers between peoples. They take to heart the principle underlying Jesus’ words to his disciples: “All you are brothers.” (Matthew 23:8) This is well illustrated in two of the Witnesses’ places of worship—one in Portugal and one in Spain.
THE walled city of Valença do Minho, in northern Portugal, was built in dangerous times. Its battlements overlook the Minho River, the frontier between Spain and Portugal. Across the river lies the Spanish city of Tui, with a cathedral that looks suspiciously like a fortress. The main fortifications of Tui and Valença date to the 17th century, when Spain and Portugal were at war.
In 1995, border posts and customs controls between these two countries of the European Union became things of the past. But uniting peoples means more than dismantling border controls. It also involves minds and hearts. In Valença stands a small, attractive building that shows how barriers between peoples can be bridged. It is a place of worship—a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses—shared by Spanish and Portuguese congregations of Witnesses.
This story began in 2001, when the Witnesses in Tui found themselves in need of a new Kingdom Hall. They had to vacate their rented premises, and they lacked sufficient funds to build a new hall. Even rented property was beyond their budget, since the congregation was not a large one. So these Spanish Witnesses asked their Portuguese brothers in Valença if they would mind sharing their hall, which lay just a couple of miles (km) from the center of Tui.
“We discussed the decision at a meeting in December 2001,” recalls Eduardo Vila, a member of the Tui Congregation in Spain. “I realized when I left that meeting that Jehovah had touched the hearts of our Portuguese brothers. They had made great sacrifices to build an attractive Kingdom Hall, and it was faith strengthening to see that they were willing to share what they had.”
“We welcomed the Spanish brothers to our Kingdom Hall,” says Américo Almeida, a Portuguese Witness who was present at the same meeting. “We trusted that Jehovah would bless this arrangement, and we made the decision unanimously.” The Witnesses from both sides of the border get along well together. “It may seem strange, but we don’t even notice that we are from two different countries. We are just spiritual brothers,” says Paolo from Valença.
One of the first things visitors notice inside the Kingdom Hall is the two identical clocks on the rear wall, telling different times. Spain is one hour ahead of Portugal, but the difference in time zones is the only discordant note in the Kingdom Hall. When the building needed renovation, a Regional Building Committee based in Spain supervised enthusiastic workers from both congregations. “Many professionals came from Spain to help us, some from over 100 miles (160 km) away,” recalls Paolo. “The project cemented bonds of affection between the congregations.”
Let us consider a second example of overcoming the challenges of frontiers.
Unity in a Divided Valley
Puigcerdá is a Spanish city on the border with France. It lies in the heart of a fertile valley surrounded by lofty peaks of the Pyrenees mountains. The whole valley, known as Cerdaña, was once part of Spain. But in 1659, in a peace accord known as the Treaty of the Pyrenees, Spain ceded half the valley to France.
Today, French people do their shopping in Puigcerdá, the principal city of the valley. And since 1997, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Puigcerdá have also opened the doors of their Kingdom Hall to their French counterparts. In that year the French Witnesses had to leave their rented property. The nearest Kingdom Hall in France was an hour’s drive away, and during winter months the high mountain pass that travelers must cross to reach it is often snowbound.
When the French Witnesses explained their urgent need of a meeting place, the Spanish Witnesses immediately offered their own Kingdom Hall. “All the Spanish brothers felt enthusiastic about sharing the hall,” remembers Prem, a local Witness. “Of course this spirit sprang from the Scriptural training we had received over the years. A couple of weeks later, we began sharing our Kingdom Hall, and we have been together for the past 13 years.”
“Puigcerdá was the ideal place for us to have a Kingdom Hall,” explains Eric, an overseer in the French congregation. “And I still remember the warm welcome that the Spanish congregation gave us. They adorned their hall with a large bunch of flowers and a sign reading, ‘You are welcome, dear brothers and sisters.’”
“People assumed that the closing of our Kingdom Hall in France meant that the congregation had disappeared,” Eric adds. “But our regular preaching in the area—which included the distribution of printed invitations to attend our meetings in Spain—soon revealed otherwise. Interested people are happy to come to the hall in Spain. Furthermore, the fact that we share a hall with our Spanish brothers has drawn us closer together. Before, we knew that there was a Spanish congregation on the other side of the border, but we had little contact. Now that we see one another regularly, we do not feel so isolated in this remote mountain valley.”
Did cultural barriers create any uneasiness? “When I learned that our meetings would be held across the frontier in Spain, I felt somewhat concerned,” confessed a French Witness in her 80’s. “But thanks to the welcome and friendliness of the brothers in Puigcerdá, the change presented no problem whatever. On the contrary, it has been an opportunity to affirm the international unity of Jehovah’s people.”
The Foundation of a Closer Union
The founders of European union stated that member countries were “determined to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe.” The dismantling of border posts in the 1980’s and 1990’s was designed to accelerate this process. But barriers also need to be overcome in the mind.
Jehovah’s Witnesses work hard to eradicate prejudice and mistrust. They understand that diversity enriches their ranks and that “God is not partial.” (Acts 10:34) At their international conventions and in their Kingdom Halls, they have seen “how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1) The unity that Witnesses from Valença and Puigcerdá have forged with their brothers from neighboring countries is living proof of that.
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“It may seem strange, but we don’t even notice that we are from two different countries. We are just spiritual brothers”
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“The project cemented bonds of affection between the congregations”
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“How good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!” PSALM 133:1
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View of Tui and the Minho River from the walled city of Valença do Minho
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Renovating the Kingdom Hall
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The Pyrenees and the Cerdaña valley
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Two elders from the two congregations—one Spanish and the other French—that meet in the Kingdom Hall in Puigcerdá