Chapter 24 - An Adventurous Trip to the Extreme Southwest of Venezuela

Chapter 24 - An Adventurous Trip to the Extreme Southwest of Venezuela

An unaffiliated group of evangelicals in the extreme southwest of the Republic sent in their names to Mr. Henry Fletcher, as subscribers to the Argentine magazine for believers, “El Sendero del Creyente” in Spanish. They were so impressed with truths concerning Christ and the church that they invited him to visit them. Brother Gordon Johnston was willing to join him, so they purchased an old Ford car and went. The believers there enjoyed the ministry and invited them to return. The following year, 1928, as Mr. and Mrs. Fletcher had left for Canada, Gordon invited me to go with him. We took a good supply of Scriptures with us for colportage work from house to house along the way. We also took our hammocks, a small gasoline camp unit and necessary items for preparing our own meals, as there was need for enconomizing. The first night we rented an empty room in a hostel where donkey men put up for the night and where they could get fodder for their beasts. The proprietor’s name was Don Pantaleon and we sold him a large Bible, then had a friendly talk with him about eternal realities. The kind of life he had lived for years had him set in his ways, and to his way of thinking, the world was a great pasture land and we are all burros (donkeys); intimating thus that he believed in promiscuous mating with no moral standards. Poor man! He was so accustomed to seeing donkeys around all the time that he considered himself on the same level. This is something similar to evolution theories which put us amongst the monkeys!

As we journeyed further from the centre we found the people more open-minded and less fanatical. In Acarigua we looked up one of our “Mensajero” subscribers, who arranged with a friend to have a meeting that night in his commodious residence. A good number of people were present and we got a good hearing. Then we worked the large religious town of Guanare, the home of the national patron saint, the “Virgin of Coromoto,” a diminutive image with an infant. Tradition claims that it dropped from heaven and was found by an Indian on his way home from Mass. He took it to the priest who put it in the temple, but then it disappeared and was found a long way off! They understood from this that the virgin wanted a “home” of her own, so they built a special shrine, to which thousands of “pilgrims” go periodically. Mr. Johnston happened to call at the dentist’s house to see if he would buy a Bible, but that gentleman looked at him with a pitying eye and offered to take him to the statue of the virgin to confess his sins and repent!

In such a place of religious fervor one would expect to find a higher standard of morality than in other parts, but to our surprise the proprietress of the inn where we rented a room for the night, asked us brazenfaced if we would like a visit with two young women who were at our orders! We then let her know who we were and what our business was.

On our way south, we called on a small group of believers with no sectarian connections, and we preached that night in a sugar mill belonging to a large plantation. We crossed one large river next day, and after working several towns with tracts and Scriptures, a few days later we reached the Apure river, which flows east and eventually empties into the Orinoco. Before crossing over to the open plains on the other side, Gordon had to rummage around for a bolt needed for the car. He came across the kind he wanted but it was completely rusted into a piece of scrap iron. He had to heat the piece up to get the bolt out, and this served the purpose. After crossing the river, the people on the other side assured us we would need a guide, and they sent along a man who had been drinking hard and who wanted to get a free trip home. We told him we did not need his services, and felt confident that the Lord would see us safely through. We had obtained certain indications of how to proceed over those rough, trackless plains, by keeping our eyes on one landmark to another, such as a lone palm tree or a cattle ranch. Now and again we followed the tracks of a truck, taking merchandise down there and bringing out salted fish or dried capybara meat. Much of this is sold to faithful Roman Catholic’s during Easter week, who are prohibited the eating of meat, but who persuade themselves that as the capybara is an aquatic animal, the largest rodent in the world, it’s the same thing as eating fish!

It was most interesting to find ourselves in themidst of such a variety of wild life, and we overtook a large Great Anteater, with its club feet, strong claws, long snout and palm like tail. We slowed down and drove alongside of it for some distance and it made no sign of fear or objection to our company. Once or twice we followed what seemed like a trail but which turned out to be a cattle path down to a water hole. We camped overnight outside a cattle ranch and went into the house in the morning to buy milk for the porridge, but to our surprise, although there were 10,000 head of cattle on the range, they only kept one cow for milk, and all we could get was half a glass full. As we traveled over those lonely plains with only cattle in sight, our prayer was in the language of the hymn writer: “Guide us, 0 Thou great Jehovah, pilgrims through this barren land; we are weak, but Thou art mighty; hold us by Thy powerful hand”, etc.

We reached Guasdualito, State of Apure, our destination, with a burnt out connecting rod. Brother Johnston, raised on a farm but an office man by profession, was equal to the emergency. He dismantled the engine, took out the damaged piece, searched around till he found some babbitt metal on an old sewing machine; melted it off; got a carpenter to make a mold, poured the molten metal, like a foundryman, and again had the connecting rod in working order. We did the work in a shed where the hens had their roost above, and we suffered much from chicken lice falling on us which, together with a state of continual perspiration due to the excessive heat, was most uncomfortable, but we were glad to get a cold shower after the day’s work.

It was so hot in that place that the people only ate twice a day, but at noon we could get a drink of rice water or “chicha” made from maize. On one occasion they brought us some turtle eggs, of which the people are very fond. There are some of them who will even eat alligator eggs. In those big rivers there are electric eels, which have a battery of tiny dynamos in their body and can produce sufficient current to knock a horse down. There are men who seem insulated against shock and who will catch an eel to give to a “green horn”, asking him to guess how much it weighs. The moment the person touches it the strong current nearly knocks him down.

We had ten nights of meetings there; Mr. Johnston taking up the subject of the Tabernacle and I spoke from Acts 2, on Church truth. There were those who wanted to carry out the Word of God regarding gathering to the Name of the Lord Jesus alone, but some were not prepared to go all the way. As there was no unanimity, we left them as they were.

Our host, Dr. Prato, a dentist, took us one afternoon down the big river in a dugout canoe to a distant settlement where the people were favorable to the Gospel. Those men of the plains can squat in the seatless canoes and tell stories for hours without getting tired. By the time we reached the settlement it was dark and a meeting was arranged in a large ranch without walls. As we were closing the meeting, a large contingent of people arrived in dugout canoes from another isolated river settlement. They could not leave their homes until dusk as they had to see all their chickens and livestock safely shut up and protected from nocturnal predators. Then paddling upstream was a slow procedure. Our host prepared a meal for us and it was 10 P.M. ere we began the second meeting. The ranch overflowed with people, so I suggested to those inside that if anyone was overcome with sleep would they please go outside, and their place could be filled by some of those who had not found a seat inside. Nobody found it necessary to carry out this recommendation; there were no sleepers, although it was so late at night.

After the meeting, hammocks were slung from cross beams and all the visitors retired, fully clothed, in one common dormitory. What a privilege to be able to take the light of life to those who live in such lonely regions!

We also made a trip across the international boundary into Colombia and visited some Christians there. They arranged a meeting in their back yard and we went around inviting the neighbors. At one house we met a Christian woman who related to us how she had been saved. A few years previously, two evangelical missionaries were in town overnight and she was invited to a meeting to be held in a back yard nearby. She replied that she was too busy and had to stay at her sewing machine. When the meeting started she could hear the preaching clearly, and the message was from “the Prodigal Son.” The word that arrested her attention was: “I will arise and go to my Father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee.” She was overwhelmed with a sense of her own guilt and got down on her knees beside her sewing machine, in true repentance taking Christ as her Saviour.

When we crossed again into Venezuela, we stayed overnight in a small inn operated by a Christian family, the man himself being an Italian. One of the daughters was a spiritual young woman and told us how God saved her. As a girl she always liked to take candies to bed with her and thus soiling the linens. Her parents forbade her doing this but she continued the practice secretly. One night she fell asleep with her lips all sticky from eating candies. A mouse was attracted and began nibbling away trying to extract the sweetness from her lips. In the morning she awoke with bleeding lips, and the reason was quite obvious to all. She realized that God’s word had been fulfilled in her case, “be sure your sin will find you out”, and it led her to the Saviour’s feet, where she found pardon and cleansing through the precious blood.

Some years later a Colombian couple with their family arrived at the inn. They were amongst the first to get saved at the meetings Mr. Williams and I had when beginning the work in San Carlos. His name was Saturno Baena and his wife Julia. In his early days, he had survived from a revolutionary conflict in Colombia, having received gunshot wounds in one leg, which made him lame, and in one hand, which was crippled and it was no easy matter for him to raise a family of five boys, so he had to move around a lot to make a livelihood. Whilst they were staying in the inn, a Colombian named Luis crossed over from the other side and came to the inn. The proprietor asked our brother if he would have any objection to the man eating at the same table with them, to which Baena replied: “Not at all.” As they were about to commence the meal, Baena said to the visitor that they always gave thanks to God before commencing a meal and he hoped that his friend would have no objection. The other readily acquiesced. After Baena had thus given thanks, the visitor was greatly impressed and asked him where he had learned that beautiful prayer. This opened the way for an earnest conversation on the subject of salvation. Luis was a serious minded man and it was not long before he had found peace through believing in the Lord Jesus Christ.

He felt burdened about his own countrymen so obtained a supply of Bibles, New Testaments and Gospels, and started out to sell Scriptures and spread the message of the Gospel in rural districts of Colombia. He corresponded with us and we sent him literature for believers. We advised him of the date of our year end conference and he made arrangements to attend, as he wished to be baptized. But it was during the second war and no foreigner could travel without a permit from the governor of the state. It took considerable time to get a permit as there was no direct overland communication with the state capital. It was also the wet season and he decided to travel with the mail carrier, who had two oxen, one for the mail and the other with a saddle for any passenger. Rivers were flooded and only oxen could get through the deep mud in places. At San Cristobal, in the Andes, he was able to get a bus, which was a “slow coach”, so the conference was all over before he arrived. He stayed with us and we noticed he had a bad cough so persuaded him to go to the health department for an x-ray. His lungs were badly affected and he got a six months treatment. Not long after he reached home he departed to be with Christ. He was a single man and a carpenter by trade. A Christian woman nursed him to the end. She is now in our Home for Aged Saints.

A few light showers warned us that the wet season was near, so we had to get away in time. We were well on our way when we overtook a family stalled with their car in a treacherous, spongy spot. The passengers were the Civil Chief of El Amparo and his family, with a chauffeur. We offered to go on to the nearest ranch and bring help. Some cowboys were available, and between us all, the car was lifted out of the mire and placed on solid ground. The Civil Chief then sent word on ahead to prepare dinner in the ranch for everyone, so we enjoyed a good hot meal. He then told his chauffeur to keep behind us so as not to get into trouble again. We felt highly honored to have the confidence of these people in our ability to lead the way.

By dusk we arrived at a large cattle ranch and tied up our hammocks in the corridor with the rest of the people, and lay down with our clothes on. We had hardly got to sleep when the Civil Chief came and awakened us. An aviation officer had just arrived with word that a revolutionary general, named Cedeno, was crossing the plains and would soon be arriving at the ranch, in which case we would no doubt have our cars and goods taken from us. They assured us that there was no danger of getting lost in the dark and wanted us to start out with them. The officer carried his compass and had a guide with him. Our car had a broken spring, strengthened with a stick, so it was hard for us to keep up with the other two cars, especially as the terrain was rough with small mounds of earth and tufts of long grass growing out of them. We traveled an hour and came to a parting of the ways. After a discussion, it was decided to go to the right. Another hour of travel found us back at the ranch: it was a “circular tour”, and much precious gasoline had been wasted. We started out a second time and got to the cross-roads, where we turned to the left, but after awhile the two cars stopped and the Civil Chief came to advise us that the guide had completely missed the way and we would have to stay there till daylight. He warned us not to sleep, as this might be a trap to betray us into the hands of the revolutionists. So we made ourselves some tea and stayed up all night.

The Lord heard our prayers, and at dawn the guide got his bearings, after scouting around for some time. We arrived safely at the river crossing and as we waited for the ferry, there was a large cayman half submerged near the shore. The officer drew his powerful revolver and fired: the reptile swam away as if someone had hit it with a peashooter! At the village on the opposite shore we had to look for gasoline. There were no gas pumps but one merchant had low grade gas in a drum. As there was no competition, he was selling it at one Bolivar per litre, ten times the price of it today in the central towns. However, an Arab rancher, scared of the possible revolution, was looking for a chance to get to Valencia and was willing to pay us one hundred Bolivares for a seat in our car. Two others also wanted to go to the next town and paid their fare, so this helped to pay for the gas.

At sunset we reached another big river and stayed overnight for a few hours in a nearby inn. By 2 A. M. we were off again and crossed on the ferry, traveling steadily all day and reaching San Carlos at about 9 P. M. We thought of sleeping for a few hours there but the place was in darkness and doors closed, so we passed through until reaching open country and decided to stop where there was a large mango tree. We tied our hammocks to the branches and tried to sleep, but some cattle began to rub themselves against the tree and green mangoes began to fall on us. We moved on and came to a dangerous part of the road, with a high bank on one side and a sheer drop to the river on the other side. The old Arab was lying in the back seat with his feet dangling over the side and we all were very weary, so Gordon and I began to sing hymns, one being “When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there”, and this seemed to cheer the Arab. After this, Gordon was completely overcome with sleep and allowed the car to keep edging nearer the brink, until I took over the wheel and let him relax. We came to a village where the people were up early for a feast, and there Gordon got a cup of strong black coffee which revived him, and we were able to make Valencia in time for the meeting. We had sold many Bibles, Testaments and Gospel portions, besides distributing a large quantity of tracts. I had extracted quite a few teeth, which gave us openings to speak to the families about God’s salvation. Bearing in mind the proverb that, “In all labor there is profit”, we hope some day to learn something of the results of our effort. “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.”

A number of years ago, brethren Turkington, Frith, Thomson and others began evangelistic work in San Fernando, the capital of the state of Apure. A portable hall and a house have been built, and although it has needed much patience to toil on with very little apparent progress, yet in recent months there has been more encouragement. Some souls have been saved and others are attending who have exercise as to the scriptural way of gathering. Brethren Walmsley and Ussher have also taken a good interest in that work. It is a large state without an assembly testimony so far.