Chapter 7 - Making a Start in Venezuela

Chapter 7 - Making a Start in Venezuela
“For ye have not passed this way heretofore” Joshua 3:4

Mr. James Gunn of Toronto had arrived at the Johnston home shortly before my arrival, and he was making himself useful cutting the paper for “El Mensajero Cristiano” (The Christian Messenger), the Gospel paper then under Mr. Johnston’s care. The latter suggested to me that if I would run the press for him, he would teach me Spanish, to which I readily agreed. However, he was too busy a man to fulfill his part of the contract, although I was only too willing to do my end of it. “Hugo’s Spanish Self Taught” was my text book, a very simple and practical course for beginners. To this I applied myself in real earnest. Mr. Johnston had ingeniously harnessed the big Minerva press to the tiny gasoline motor of his Maytag washer, so the press moved at low gear, giving me ample time to memorize the list of verb conjugations at my left hand as I fed the press with my right hand.

Occasionally brother Johnston and I walked out to nearby villages to distribute tracts and talk to the people. With a small Spanish hymn book in my hand I would ask him the meaning of any word that I was not so far acquainted with. In this way Mr. Johnston was a great help to me. On one such occasion the dinner hour found us far from home in a place where there were no restaurants, so we bought some rice, eggs, bread, and a lump of native sugar to make a hot drink with. A woman living in a shack was willing to cook the meal for us and she spread a cloth on a small table out in her yard, where we ate our meal but not in peace, as many “lookers-on” began to stare at us and different types of animals drew near, hungry for scraps.

Brother Johnston also arranged a weekend tract distributing trip for which we took the train as far as Guacara. After giving out tracts in that large town, we passed on to the rural community of Yagua, staying the night with a Christian family. Next morning we tramped along the dusty road under the scorching sun, carrying our weekend bags and distributing literature en route. Upon entering the city of Valencia, we decided to go down to the river for a wash-up. A sister in Yagua had given Mr. Johnston a quart bottle of honey which he put in his hand bag with his shaving kit and towel. When he opened this to get out his soap and towel he found that the honey had fermented with the heat, blown the cork out and the contents of the bag was all covered with honey. He certainly felt the better of the wash-up after so much dust, perspiration and honey! There was no assembly in Valencia at that time, only a few Christians who met together Sunday evenings; so we joined them and had a little meeting.

One Saturday afternoon brother Gunn and I thought we would like to have a swim in the sea, which is only half a block from the house, so we decided to walk along the beach to a spot where we would be alone. We had to cross the mouth of a swollen river, which was too deep to wade through so we decided to swim across. Just as we were about to do this, a fisherman signaled to us and looking in the direction indicated, we saw the dorsal fin of a shark ready to seize anything that might be coming out of the mouth of the river. The Lord mercifully saved us from that danger. Well might the Psalmist exclaim: “He that keepeth thee will not slumber.”


Having gone twice through Hugo’s Spanish text book I now needed to practice what I had learned. A couple of weeks before Easter we had a visit from Don Manuel Acosta, who made his home in San Felipe, the large front room of which was used as the meeting room for the assembly. An encouraging work was in progress in and around the city at that time. He was very anxious that I should go over and join him in Gospel activities. After praying about this I believed the Lord was calling me to those parts, and felt that brethren Johnston and Gunn were quite able to cope with the needs of Puerto Cabello. There was no paved highway or motor traffic at that time to the State of Yaracuy, so it was necessary to board a small steamer that crossed the bay to Tucacas. In that small port a German woman ran an overnight lodging for passengers, with supper and breakfast. Crabs worked their way up through the sandy floor at night and became unwelcome companions. In the morning, passengers boarded the small train with its wood burning locomotive and this took us on the second stage of our journey as far as Palma Sola (Lone Palm), at that time a jungle village. It was my privilege later to be the first to enter that place with the Gospel. The man who pumped water by hand for the locomotives was one of the first to be saved. He had an impediment in his voice so he could not preach, but he taught some of the young Christians to read and this proved a great help to the work.

At about 3 P.M. another train arrived to take us to San Felipe. There was just one passenger coach and several wagons, mostly loaded with bananas, maize and other agricultural products. On the way to San Felipe two brethren boarded the train at a wayside station. They were in the banana business but were anxious to meet me and continue the journey in my company. They informed me that a house had been rented in a town four miles away, and they expected me to have special Gospel meetings. I expostulated that I was not qualified for that, but they would not take “no” for an answer, so I counted on their help and the Lord’s help and each night we walked out and walked back along a narrow donkey path. One night on the way home a snake came in between me and the leader with the lantern. I could not remember the Spanish word for snake but my shout made the guide turn around, and the snake was soon killed.

In those days doctors’ fees were too high for many of the poor, so my elementary practical knowledge of medical matters was soon put to the test. The most interesting case was old Don Simon, who suffered a complicated fracture of the tibia (or shin bone) as a result of his old kitchen wall caving in and the heavy adobe bricks falling on his leg. The doctor came and put the leg in splints but as in due time there was no sign of improvement, the doctor told the family that the man was too old, and that it would be better to amputate the leg. This caused them much sorrow as they feared the old man could not survive the operation, and furthermore, they were penniless. However, a Christian merchant went surety and the operation was arranged. News of this reached me two days before the operation was to take place, so I went to see the old man and told the family if they cared to leave the case in my hands I would see what could be done. This was a great comfort to them and the operation was cancelled. I had a double object in taking on the case; first, I wanted with God’s help to save that leg, and second, I wanted to read and explain the Gospel to the patient as a daily routine. I made the splints, cleaned up the wound which did not look good, and bandaged up the leg. One day whilst I was there the doctor called in. He had a barbarous way of demonstrating to the family that the bone would never unite. He untied my bandages, removed the splints, then taking the leg with both hands, he gave it a violent jerk. One could hear the grating of the broken ends but above that the gnashing of the old man’s teeth with the pain. The family said nothing, so he departed, and I fixed up the leg again. One morning the family scared me by saying that maggots had been coming out of the small hole to which the wound had been reduced. However, the truth dawned upon me that the old man had taken the bandages off against my orders and a blowfly had laid eggs in the opening. This was really a blessing in disguise as the maggots were absorbing the toxins from the decomposed tissues. Some days later, as there seemed to be no sign of the bone uniting, I prayed about it and believe the Lord guided me to put a probe into the small hole where the fracture was. Then I discovered that there were fragments of splintered bones inside. Seven of these I extracted with tweezers, and after that the two ends of the bone came together, were calcified and the old man was put on his feet again. The last time I saw him he didn’t even need a stick to walk with. To the Lord be all the glory. Thereafter I had many and varied opportunities of lending a helping hand to those who were in physical distress.

My sojourn in San Felipe lasted two years, and as no one in those parts spoke English, the only way to make myself understood was trying to practice my Spanish. My host and hostess, Don Manuel and Sra. Elba, were a great help in correcting my mistakes and in supplying a word here and there I could not remember. In a cottage meeting in a rural district, I was explaining how that one could be saved even though they did not have a cent in their pocket. The current word for cent in that district was “chiva”, and I said “chivo”, the popular word for he goat. The hearers could not refrain from smiling at my blunder. This reminds one of the mistake made by a fellow worker, recovering from malaria, when asked what he felt like eating. He wished to say “chicken soup”, but instead he said “sopa de pollino” and this latter word means a donkey’s colt. He should have said, “sopa de pollito.” Just one letter made the difference. However, his kind friends found out what he really meant. Reformation and regeneration are sometimes taken to mean the same thing but they represent two vastly different processes. The former is man’s futile effort to get right with God; the latter is the new birth by the operation of the Holy Spirit. Reformation puts a new coat on the man, whereas regeneration puts a new man in the coat. Reformation is superficial; regeneration begins in the heart and transforms the life: “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature,” II Corinthians 5:17.