ELEVEN: How Many Angels Does it Take to Find an American?

Time has really flown over the last few weeks. It’s been busy, as is probably evident from my notably slower updates. But I’ve been the good kind of busy! I’ve felt the small impact I’ve been able to have on the territory as part of the very hardworking part of this team that is the Bilbao English congregation, and especially during my long days with the Durango group. The territory itself is great to admire. I see lush green fields. I see snow-capped mountains. I see COWS (and I’m not even eating them). What?! It really abounds in natural beauty. But of course the main thing that brings joy is having good experiences out in service. A few stand out to me.

One call had at least three specific angels on our team. I was with Mark (one of our special pioneers) and we were busy in our search work. We were closing in on a lead from a neighbor that some English speaking students were in an apartment nearby, and we knew we were close to finding their home. Again, we typically talk to people through the intercoms to start off with. However, it’s nice to get inside the building in order to scope out the mailboxes and see if any foreign names tip us off to potential English speakers. It’s not a surefire guarantee but it definitely helps us to direct our efforts in the right direction. Getting inside a building often involves waiting for a neighbor to pass through. But something was different this time: the front door of the building of the supposed English students’ apartment was somehow left open (very Cyrus-conquering-Babylon, Isaiah 45:1). Our Front Door angel had been at work.

We went right up to the door. That’s always preferable; it’s way better being able to talk to someone face-to-face. So we went into the building to ask the neighbors where we could find the specific apartment where the English speakers were, not letting the very Basque and Spanish names on the mailboxes deter us.

We knock on door number one.

Click-click-click-click-click

Clack-clack-clack-clack-clack

After a seemingly never-ending process of unlocking her door (did I mention that Spanish doors lock automatically?) an old lady peeked her head around through the barely cracked door. This gave me hope! This meme does a good job of explaining why…

…the old ladies know everything. Many of them have lived in their apartments for years (I’m talking 50+) and know everything about who and what goes on in that building.

“Hola señora, buenos días!” I greeted her with a warm smile, preparing to ask her if she knew of any English speakers, “Le suena si hay…”

The door casually shut just about as quickly as it opened.

Clack-clack-clack-clack-clack

Click-click-click-click-click

“extranjeros en este portal que hablan inglés…” I finished my sentence between chuckles to a very closed (and very locked) door.

“Well she was a peach!” I joked with Mark with a smile. It was definitely not the first time someone had rudely rejected me here. I’d gotten used to laughing it off and moving on. So we tried the next door neighbor. There was no way I was coming this far to not find these English speakers.

Mark knocked and a young mom approached, infant in arms. He asked her about foreigners in the building that spoke English and she said there were! She stepped foot outside of her front door and pointed above to where we could find them. She was super nice and we were really appreciative!

Ok, so the Cool Neighbor angel gave us a hand here. We went to the potential door and knocked. Mark started talking to the young guy who opened the door in Spanish initially. The guy responded, but as soon as he replied it was obvious he was no Spanish native. “Hablo un poquito de español” he replied. I recognized that accent.

“Where are you from?” Mark asked, switching into his English.

“The United States,” he said.

I lit up! An American! My homie! It was SO rare to find Americans (I hadn’t since finding Ralph, the English teacher in Deba).

“Me too!” I exclaimed, as if I’d discovered my long lost twin brother.

“No way man, I’m from Michigan, where are you from?”

“California… Orange County. You been there before?”

I felt the speed of my speech picking up. I used colloquialisms and expressions that I wouldn’t normally use in service here. I felt so at home. This was the service I was used to. We talked about why I was out here in Spain, about his cooking school internship he was doing out here, my shared experience in the restaurant industry as a former manager. It was great to connect like that.

Mark continued the great conversation and placed literature with Blake. (Disclaimer: I can’t remember his name for sure, but it was a typical white boy American name, so I feel like that fits)

“It’s pretty crazy that you found me now… I’d normally be at the restaurant now, but I’m sick today so I stayed home.” (Shoutout to the Common Cold angel!)

He went right on to offer us his schedule, letting us know when he typically gets home without even being asked, and that his four other international roommates also speak English. We’d struck gold.

Mark and I walked out of that building both grinning from ear to ear. It was so cool to see how circumstances just “happened” to work out. The door was open. After a not-so-great neighbor experience and no help from the mailboxes, the right neighbor led us in the right direction. He happened to be home that day because he was sick. What?? Come on. That obviously wasn’t some random scenario.

I don’t want to make a blanket statement about all Spanish householders. Many we talk to in our search work are very nice and very helpful. Sometimes almost too helpful! I was doing search work in a Durango outskirt with a Nigerian sister named Vera, who’s been in Spain long enough to be fluent in Spanish herself. She talked to a lady through the intercom to ask where we could find English speakers, and the lady told us to wait right there.

It seemed kind of odd, but we went with it, listening to her instructions. Down came a very Basque-looking woman moments later, who told us to follow her. She walked us around the corner, explaining to us that she thought she knew of someone in the neighborhood who spoke English. We came to an apartment building and she started ringing one of the bells!

I was laughing inside. Here we had this non-Witness who was helping us go door to door! It was over-the-top helpful. As soon as the person picked up the intercom, she rolled into Basque, presumably asking her friend in which apartment a family Africans lived. I didn’t understand a word of what they were saying, as Basque is completely different form Spanish. It definitely intrigued me though! (More on that at a later time)

She turned back to Vera and me and told us in Spanish that her friend had told her where the Africans lived and gave us the right door to ring. We were so appreciative and wasted no time in trying to get in touch with them. We rang, and a dark skinned woman poked her head out from the balcony.

Vera knew her, it turned out. She was definitely African, however she was from Senegal, where they speak French, not English. However, this woman didn’t even speak French really. She spoke the Senegalese language of Wolof, which she explained to us in Spanish. They chatted for a while, and we thanked her for letting us know that no other English speaking Africans were in her building. We wrote her contact information down for the French congregation anyway. If anyone would be skilled in getting Wolof literature, it would surely be them.

These experiences were really encouraging, and helped maintain the fire that was continuing to grow even more for my ministry out here. But one name stuck into my mind—Charles, my barber that I could never really nail down for a real study. He was always polite, he was always there, and he always gave great shaves. But I couldn’t get that to the next level.

But one sunny Tuesday morning as I left the meeting for service, something hit me. I knew what I had to do to change that.

And it worked.

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TEN: Nisan 14, A Photo-Journal

The most important day of the year, in photos…

Our group had almost 45 in attendance, in addition to about 90 at the congregation’s Memorial. 135 for a 60 publisher congregation isn’t too bad!

Special pioneers Mark and Sophie, such awesome examples in the ministry

Fabian and Leire, two incredible pioneer partners for me

Izzy is newly baptized, and Destiny is working toward becoming a publisher along with his family

Charity and Destiny, with their three boys Edos, Nosa and Osas (aka Destiny’s Child)

Jon and Maria have been such great friends since I’ve been here. And their Uber service is on point!

My buddies Wisdom and Justice

Our Nigerian sisters turning out for tonight!

The early birds

Getting measured for my Special Talk custom made outfit…

… and here we have it. I got into Nigerian mode for the special talk. Not wearing a tie at the meeting is pretty awesome, not gonna lie!

NINE: Beards, Barbers and Bibles—Part 2

I’ve worked to stay consistent with my barber shop call on Tuesdays. Both to continue our spiritual conversations and to get my shave! James had been out of town for a period of time, so I haven’t been able to see him for a while. However, Charles is always there, as it’s his shop. I’ve found it a bit difficult to get him to commit to actually stopping and studying. When we are at his workplace, he’s often busy with clients. His only day off is Sundays, and despite his suggestions that we get together on a Sunday, they never seem to pan out.

While I was on my road trip, I had Sylvester stop by and visit Charles, and they were in fact able to have a brief study about the Kingdom. That’s great! I thought, determined to continue such a discussion the next time I stopped by. It went a little differently than I planned.

I’d texted a fellow pioneer named Marga to see if she wanted to start service a bit early one Friday. The meeting for service was at 4:30, but I figured I’d get an early start considering I’d only gotten back from the road trip the day before. She graciously agreed and I came up with a game plan. I’d have her join me at the barber shop at 2:30, come to my return visit on the far side of town at 3:30 and then head back to the hall for the 4:30 meeting for service.

Charles had warned me in the past that his shop gets busy on Fridays. But I figured I’d left myself enough time. I’d be good, right? Ha! That was definitely wrong. He apparently knew his business slightly better than I did. There were three guys ahead of me. That might not sound like much, but with each person taking 30 minutes or more, the time would’ve crawled by.

I kept brief spurts of conversation going related to spiritual things. But I knew that I was in not position to actually conduct a study with them then, even to have much of an extended conversation at all. But my primary concern shifted to Marga. We were going to meet at my next call at 3:30. It would take me more than half an hour to get there on the metro, as the clock slowly ticked toward the 3 o’clock hour.

What could I do? I definitely needed to shave before the meeting. The vacation beard was in full swing and had to go. And then it clicked.

“Charles, can I just shave myself?”

“You know how to do it?”

“Yeah, I do it all the time at home!”

“Ok, sure.”

Sweet. That would save me more than enough time. I splashed some alcohol on the supplies, threw him some change and went about my way. I left minutes later with a fresh face and time to get my afternoon service started. I met with Marga for a bit, and we did some street work. One goal I wanted to make sure I accomplished that day was mailing off my letters to Russia. The deadline was approaching and I didn’t want to delay. I thought the letter writing campaign was so encouraging. How cool to see the entire world band together to take a stand for our brothers in Russia. It was historic and exciting. I look forward to seeing the outcome when the case finishes. Obviously, no matter the outcome, Jehovah will take care of the brothers there. I’m just privileged to have played a small part in such a historical effort.

*                             *                             *

Charles was pleasant as usual and as he finished up with his first haircut I slipped right in there to show him the Memorial video. I’d gone back a bit earlier than normal for my regular visit to the barber shop.

“So what language did you grow up speaking, Charles?” I asked him, taking a more relaxed approach than usual because I could see that his shop wasn’t as busy as it was the last time.

“English” he replied, thick Nigerian accent fully in tact. This isn’t what I was getting at.

“Besides English though!”

“Oh, it is just a local language”

“Igbo? Edo?” I inquired, naming the common Nigerian languages we often encountered.

“Edo” he replied with a smile. “But you will not have it.”

I looked at my partner Joel (Marga’s husband) with a quick, knowing glance. “I won’t have it, huh?”

He snickered.

If he’d asked me that a few months ago in California, he would’ve been spot on. But today? Oh no, no, no, not today my friend. I was in Bilbao! I was a pioneer! I was ready!

I hit play.

His face lit up as the Memorial video began to play in his own language. I loved not having any idea what was being said. But it was obvious that this touched him personally. I asked him how he enjoyed it, end the answer was clear. “I will try to come if I can close the shop early.” Yes, it was a typical Nigerian non-committal answer. But I would take it.

The Memorial campaign proved to be an exciting time. It’s always been a highlight for

Good support for the Memorial campaign

me over the past few years. I liked that our campaign centered around focusing on addresses we already had, instead of finding new ones in search work. I felt guaranteed to have conversations in my language and even more in my comfort zone. And that happened. I pulled some long days working hard to get the invitation out as much as I could. I went out in some random afternoons with a fellow pioneer brother from Ghana named Isaac. His schedule required him to go out at odd times, and when he told me this often requires him to go out by himself, I told him I’d change my schedule to support him.

I’m all about pioneer support. It’s huge to me. I remember when I was pioneering while

Memorial Day… last morning to get our invitations out.

working and in college. My schedule, understandably, was tight and didn’t have a ton of room for flexibility. During part of that time I had to go out Monday evenings. However, I couldn’t drum up support during that time, and I obviously didn’t want to go out every week alone. But I reached out to a friend in my hall at the time. He was new to our congregation at the time. Service wasn’t his initial inclination. But he began to join me every week. That support was huge to me and it’s something I will definitely always appreciate. That friend eventually went on to become a pioneer himself. It was a definite interchange of encouragement.

So flash forward to 6 years in the future, and here I am “giving back”. I had quite a few afternoons during odd times with Isaac. But I loved that I got to support our territory and support a fellow pioneer. Some of the Nigerians we found could be a bit evasive. They’d let us in to their complex, but just have us “leave it in the buzón (mailbox)” instead of coming to their door. But of course, despite moments of seeming disinterest, we got opportunities to play the video, have conversations and really emphasize the importance of being at the Memorial.

One thing I wanted to do during my time here was go in service in Spanish. I had made a friend in the Spanish congregation, an Angolan brother named Nelson. His English was limited, but between my solid Spanish and the bits of English he spoke, we were able to communicate just fine. One night, I had him, Jon and Maria, and a young brother visiting from Denmark named Magnus over to my place. I made dinner and we watched the Broadcast. It was cool bring able to host some people like that. But from there on, I decided to try some service over in Nelson’s territory.

Spanish service. It’s definitely different here in Spain.

A Spanish service day with Nelson

You know how in California, people are generally polite at the doors. The majority will take the invitation after the typical two sentence presentation I like to give. Here? Ha! The Spanish can NOT be bothered haha. Half a sentence in, they all shut us down. We’d typically ask to be let in through the intercom, not saying we were Jehovah’s Witnesses, as that would’ve been a likely deterrent. But once we came and rang their bells, they were NOT having it. I’ve gotten pretty used to the sense of rudeness that I’ve encountered here. It makes me laugh usually, so fortunately it doesn’t bother me. But you know what, hey at least these people got a Witness. They knew who we were, we left an impression on them, and what they do with that was up to them I learned not to take such rude and quick rejection personally.

I was enjoying the connections I was establishing within my congregation. The social aspect began to take shape too. We would go out for pintxos (Spanish small plates) and drinks. The group hosted an awesome BBQ in the hills of the village of Elorrio (while the congregation had their meeting, heh… having out meeting Saturdays is pretty awesome, I gotta say). I’m talking gourmet style beef, pork, kebab skewers, ribs, the works! This wasn’t a hot dog and hamburgers kinda gig. I’d take hikes with friends too, such as in the hills of Kortezubi, with images painted on the forest’s trees, forcing you to stand at just the right angle to see the full perspective.

Things were connecting.

The painted trees in Kortezubi

Countryside Kortezubi

Me with my homies

I wish I’d gotten pics of the food at the group’s picnic. SO good!!

Elorrio sunsets… unreal

EIGHT: The Road Trip, A Photojournal 


Ten days. A dozen cities.

Last year I planned a European road trip with my friend Miguel from Germany and Taylor from Huntington Beach. It was a whirlwind, but it was such an incredible time. I’ll keep this post simple and share just one photo from each of the twelve cities and five cities (save a shot from a night in Heilbronn, Germany) that we stopped or stayed in. 

I’m happy to be back home in Spain as we work hard at the invitation campaign and gear up for Nisan 14, 2017. More soon!

Zurich, Switzerland

Lucerne, Switzerland

Augsburg, Germany

Dachau Concentration Camp, Germany

Munich, Germany

Kaiserslautern, Germany

Luxembourg City, Luxembourg

Brussels, Belgium

Ghent, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

SEVEN: Un Aguja en un Pajar

My central focus since I’ve been in Bilbao has definitely been centered around being in service. (Random side note, I recently discovered that I actually live in a town called Barakaldo, which is actually just outside of Bilbao, ha!) I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve been able to get a good solid schedule, and I try to be there for just about every meeting for service, which ends up equating to about 5 or so days a week. It’s a schedule that keeps me busy, but focused.

Let me get back to those studies I’d started at the barber shop. I was looking forward to going back, and did, just as I’d promised. It was, naturally, time for a shave too. Seeing as this was the case, I figured I’d just go on my own; I didn’t want to make someone wait as I got shaved as well before the study. But Sylvester decided to come with me. And I was so glad he did.

We got to the shop after a morning of search work and took seats as I waited a few moments to get in my chair. I saw a Nigerian woman sitting next to me and figured, hey why not witness to her? I reached into my bag and pulled out the March Watchtower and asked her opinion on the title question, what she thought God’s greatest gift was.

She raised her eyebrows before uttering even a word in reply. “Jehovah’s Witness?”

They all knew who we were. I confirmed her thought.

“You are always giving us old magazines, last month, last year, this one says April, it must be old too.”

Whoa. I definitely wasn’t expecting that. It was pretty ironic considering the fact that that’s exactly part of the reason why we changed the numbering format on the magazines.

“This is actually brand new, just from this month! It says April 11 on the bottom because that’s referring to a special event coming up next month.”

She didn’t look convinced. But she finally replied that she thought “life” was that greatest gift. By this time, I was in Charles’s chair. But fortunately, Sylvester had stepped in to show the woman how John 3:16 gave the real answer to her question. Charles, overhearing the conversation agreed with our points. But she was not having it. She was strong minded, loud, misinformed and aggressive. She knew a lot of scriptural ideas, but in the wrong way. Sylvester was a champion at handling her. The Nigerian culture can be on the more abrasive side, and you have to be more direct and in their face when reasoning.

She had further issues with us. “Why would you want me to go to your church when you people won’t ever come to ours?” she retorted, in her thick African accent. I started reasoning with her from my favorite section of the Good News brochure, lesson 10 about how to identify true worship. I told her that Jesus himself outlines at least five marks of true worship, and after paraphrasing them briefly to her as tufts of curly hair fell to the floor, I made a simple statement. “If you find a church that does all of those things, let me know and I’ll go. But I only know of one, so that’s the one I go to.”

Her contradictions continued and Sylvester continued to do a great job handling her. I asked Charles when James would be there. Sylvester had set me up to study with them both. Charles had had to cancel the day before, so I was really there to see James, who walked in shortly after. I went planning to study, but this also turned into an intense discussion.

He went big right away, asking if I believed in hellfire.

“Well it depends on how you define that?”

“Well I asked you first, so you tell me whether you believe in it.”

“It depends on how you define it though! Because if you think it’s a fiery place of torment, then no. But if you think of it as the Grave, then yes I do.”

I knew he obviously ascribed to the first definition. Our conversation revealed that if a burning hell really didn’t exist, then he didn’t feel the need to live a good life. We reasoned on that for a while. Questions like, “So you only serve God out of fear of punishment instead of out of actually loving him?” “Would you punish your daughter by putting her hand on a stove?” (the classic) and “Do you actually like the idea of hell?” never truly resonated with him. He just wanted to do a back and forth that really showed me how much people have been blinded out there.

Before our time there had concluded, other Nigerian shop customers were getting involved, heaving false reasoning our way, leaving Sylvester and I to defends ourselves, which I think we did very well overall. It was a wake up call. I’m glad I didn’t go alone. I may have some experience doing this, but the Nigerians are definitely a tough crowd, and they’ll take you to town if you’re not ready. Sylvester was an awesome support, leaving the ratio 2 on 5 instead of just 1 on 5. I let him know how much I appreciated his help. We left unshaken, and ready to bring back more information the following week, to which James and Charles agreed.

 

Thursdays and Saturdays are the days I head out to do service in and around the village of Durango. Two members of the congregation that are really spearheading the preaching efforts out there are Mark and Sophie, who were recently assigned to the congregation fresh out of SKE as special pioneers. He’s from Barcelona (and speaks perfect English) and she’s from Wales and I’ve been able to really bond with them during my time here. It’s pretty incredible what kind of quality friends you can make when you’re focused on the same purpose.

I had quite a few memorable days with them out in Durango and its surrounding villages. They frequently took me to some really beautiful areas in their car, such as Mutriku and Deba. These areas were beachside, sunny port towns that felt like a nice change of pace from being in the city. It definitely gave flashbacks to California. Searching for English speakers in these areas really felt anything but monotonous.

One experience in Deba especially stood out in my mind. We were on the lookout for a man named Ralph. We’d been referred to him by one of his employees at the local English academy. All we were given was a general side of the town that he lived on, so we went to work. I teamed up with Sophie as Mark worked alongside us, inquiring at each building if they knew any English speakers. We were coming up empty until I spotted a woman up in her balcony. I pointed her out to Sophie who immediately jumped at the opportunity to ask her in Spanish if she knew Ralph.

And it was a success. She did! And she told us exactly what apartment to find him at. For the most part, people tend to be pretty helpful, especially in smaller towns like that one. Older ladies are the most knowledgeable as many of them have lived in their homes for a long time and have a good sense of who else lives there.

Sophie and I gave each other a determined look, ready to find this needle in the haystack. We rang his intercom.

Hola?

Hmm. He answered in Spanish. Had we gone to the right door?

“Hi, do you speak English?” I replied, hoping for the best.

“I speak a bit” he replied, with a sense of joking sarcasm.

“That’s great! We’re looking for English speakers to share some positive news about current events; can we bring something up to you?” He gladly buzzed us up.

He was standing at the open door with a warm demeanor. I introduced myself and Sophie, and asked his name, pretending not to already know. Ralph told us he was from New York. I was so excited; I was actually talking to an American. That is always such a rarity in Spain, especially while out in service in the areas I’ve been to. It was a relief to (kind of) hear my accent and talk totally freely. For that moment, I felt like I was back in my home territory, doing a “normal” presentation and getting right into the Good News brochure after we’d exchanged a few pleasantries.

He was very kind and polite. I’ll be honest, I don’t know that he would’ve spoken with us quite as much had we been in the United States, but I feel like he was quite happy to have the (rare) opportunity to speak to native English speakers and wanted to take advantage of it. I placed the brochure with him, and he was quite welcoming to the idea of us coming back, even to talk to other members of his family. You never know how that could turn out.

Sophie and I high fived. We were really excited at how that turned out. It was definitely the boost I needed at the time. Sometimes the search work could feel exhausting. It was a lot of work for what felt like few results. On some of my service days, hours of ringing intercoms resulted in grumpy Spaniards and no new addresses. But this day left me feeling so reinvigorated. It was great.

The meeting the very next evening was also such a great boost. There was a quote in the Kingdom Rules book that felt like it was written just for me at that very time. “We remain joyful workers when we keep in mind that Paul stated: ‘Each person will receive his own reward according to his own work.’ (1 Cor. 3:8) The reward is given according to the work, not according to the results of that work.”

Our Memorial invitation campaign got started soon after. It was nice actually doing typical door-to-door, where were going to addresses where we already knew that English speakers definitely lived, and getting opportunities to invite them to the event of the year! Service was feeling great. Usually, my most common reason for “rejection” while street witnessing was that person was already studying with or being called on by someone else—not a bad reason at all.

My attitude was adjusted. I felt happier. It wasn’t just about starting studies and having a ton of great experiences. It was the work that I was putting in that would get rewarded, and that’s exactly what I was so busy with, and what kept me so motivated.

 

Shoutout to readers: Thanks for the positive feedback on the blog. If you’re reading, please leave a comment and say hey. It’s nice to know who’s keeping up with things out here and I always enjoy hearing from friends and family back home!

 

SIX: Beards, Barbers and Bibles

I’ve been to Europe four times. Each of those times I’ve gone to Spain. Each of those times I’ve gone to San Sebastian, Spain. This time was no exception. I snuck away there for a couple days (it’s only an hour away!) to again meet up with my friends Tish and Malia from California. Additionally, it was awesome to catch up with my friends who live in San Sebastian, Iker and his brother Julen, Yoana, and twins Tamara and Jasmina. And it was a huge privilege to stay with my good friend Antonio, who’s the coordinator of his hall. He used to be a part of San Sebastian’s English group with Iker and Julen, but recently moved back to Spanish to alleviate his heavy load and focus on his health. He’s a great brother and is so welcoming whenever I’m in town.

I always get this feeling of nostalgia when I’m back in San Sebastian. It brings back memories of when my friend Derek and I went to go visit my friend Conrad, who lived out there for a few months back in 2011. The smells, the streets, the landmark locations, the food, the beach… it all felt like such a great throwback.

A tradition that I also always do in San Sebastian is visit a sidrería. It’s a cider house with huge barrels of fermented cider that you drink between courses of typical sidrería food, like cod omelets, cod filets, and the best steak you will ever eat in your life—no joke. Antonio took the girls and me there and the high expectations I’d set for their experience at the sidrería were met and exceeded.

After those brief days, however, I was excited to get back to Bilbao. I was looking forward to really getting integrated into the congregation. I wanted to get my hands on some territories. I wanted to start doing work in the hall. I wanted to cultivate some solid return visits and turn them into studies.

Studies may be my favorite aspect of service. It was hard for me to leave my four students back home, even though it’s just temporary and even though I made sure they were all in great hands. But coming out here, I didn’t have that. I needed that here. Teaching people directly about the truth is really fulfilling.

So I got specific about it. That’s something I’ve tried to work on over the last year or two—being really specific with my prayers. So I decided to put a very detailed request in. I prayed to start one study by the end of the following week. That gave me about 11 days to do so. Doable right? I hoped so.

I made my way on the metro that Wednesday morning, following the details of the address that a brother had texted me, leaving ample time for the metro rides. I rang.

No answer.

I was nervous. Did I go somewhere wrong? Was the time different than 10:15? Was there simply no one who was out today?

I looked up. I was at 28 instead of 26. Ok good! I thought. I rushed down to the proper apartment building and rang again.

No answer.

I was nervous. Did I go somewhere wrong? Was the time different than 10:15? Was there simply no one who was out today?

I texted the brother who gave me the information. He responded moments later. And he did so in true Spanish style. Here in Spain, people love to “spam text” as I call it. Where one text message could easily be used to get a point across in my opinion, they’ll use about 5-6 messages to convey that information.

(shocked emoji)

(shocked emoji)

I mixed Tuesday and Wednesday morning!!!

Sorry!

I will ask the brother conducting to call you now!

I’m so sorry my friend

I assured the brother that it was not a problem at all. It wasn’t. I had to laugh at the barrage of texts that I’d become so used to out here.

His wife ended up getting in touch with me minutes later and explained to me where I could meet the group. I rode the metro a few stops down and got to the intersection where I’d be meeting the group. Since I beat them there, I figured I might as well get my day started. My eyes were peeled. I was looking for Africans. I reflected back on my time in Zaragoza and the ability to distinguish English speaking Africans (primarily from Nigeria and Ghana) from the French-speaking ones (from Mali and Senegal).

There! Found one.

He looked to be in a rush but I figured I’d try anyway. He was on his way to the metro but politely listened as I went through a rather hurried presentation of the Suffering tract, doing my best to gauge how much more time he had to talk. At the moment I was going to go for it and ask for his contact info to follow up, his phone rang and he took off. Ah! SO close to getting my goal, but not quite.

Moments later, the group arrived. The one taking the lead was an older Spanish brother named Jon, as well as two brothers and a sister from Ghana and Nigeria. I was paired with one of those brothers, named Sylvester, and we took off to engage in the search work. My time with him was really enjoyable. I enjoyed getting to hear his story of finding the truth later in life and making his way from Africa to Europe. I told him about my background too and about my goal to start a study. He expressed confidence that I’d be able to achieve that goal soon.

Our search work was something I was getting more comfortable with. Even though most inquiries didn’t end up in new addresses, it was good being able to have a presence in the neighborhood during our “spy” work. However, day one in service had gone by since I’d made my specific prayer for a study, and I’d come up empty. No big deal, I still had time before the end of the following week would be here!

It turned out to be a shorter day for the group. But there was one thing I needed to find… a good barber. On my first day in Bilbao, I’d walked to the predominantly African part of town to get a shave. Since my electric shaver doesn’t work in Europe and I can’t use a razor (perhaps you remember this dilemma from my time in Zaragoza), I’ve decided it’s best to go get shaves once a week at the barber shop. It’s cheap, and more cost effective than buying a shaver for my time here.

Anyway, that first experience was one I was looking forward to. “Ok he’s a homie, he’ll know what he’s doing” when I walked into the shop. I thought back to Godwin in Zaragoza who hooked it up big time. But THIS guy. Different story. He shaved me alright. But I felt like he was trying to shave OFF my face instead of shave my face. It was like he was shearing me like some wild sheep. I would’ve rather gone to the slaughter. I was so mad. I was frowning. I was muttering expressions in my mind that I shouldn’t have been. It was bad.

So, fast forward, it’s time for another shave. Sylvester told me that he knew of a place. We walked right past the last place and went to another barber shop. They were Nigerian as well and introduced themselves as James and Charles. This seemed better. I sat down prepared for either misery or a fresh cut.

Sylvester knew these guys. He’d obviously been there before, and waited to hang out as I got my shave (which I decided to couple with a haircut as well). Early in the process he said something that took me by surprise.

Slipping into a thicker accent, he told the barbers “I brought Eric and he will study the Bible with you.”

The bold statement took me by a bit of surprise. The barbers quickly nodded in agreement, “OK”.

It was that simple. As soon as the cut was done (by the way, it ended with a fresh cut), I grabbed my service bag and got out two Good News brochures. I showed them how the brochure is laid out. I asked them when they were free; one agreed to get together Sunday, and the other on Tuesday. I got their numbers and texted them mine. The deal was sealed.

I kept my cool as we left, but had to break character when I was with Sylvester. I appreciated his direct approach; his bounce-pass turned into a solid layup. Yes, not only had Jehovah answered my prayer a week and a half early, but he gave me what I was asking for and DOUBLED it. I’d started two studies on the very day I’d asked for just one.

The day might’ve started off feeling like a bit of a mishap with the meeting for service mixup. The search work presented no new addresses that morning. But that was no sign of defeat for the day. I’d ended the day on a win, and by no means was that on my own.

FIVE: Spies

I was having flashbacks as I spent my first full day in Bilbao. I thought back to my first night in Zaragoza. That night two years ago, I’d come off a fun trip to Madrid with a good friend, then came to my place in Zaragoza feeling alone. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know where I really was in relation to anything. I had never really felt like that before.

Those feelings started to come back as I was in Bilbao. My roommate Pawel was very friendly and welcoming. But as he left for a day of work and I stayed at the apartment, I felt this strange sense of being out of place. Again I didn’t really know anyone. Again I didn’t know where I was in relation to anything. I honestly was itching to get out in service and get to the meeting in Bilbao so I could get to meet my congregation. That was a huge part of what really made me feel at home in Zaragoza, and mentally I knew that’s what would make the difference for me in Bilbao. It was a bit of a waiting game that I knew I had to play. I sat home for the most part on a sunny Thursday, briefly stepping out to enjoy the (rare) sunshine. But I just wasn’t vibing yet.

I took some time to try to sink my teeth into Bilbao some more. I got a gym membership and got back to working out, something I’d definitely been missing after the preceding period of a bread and beer diet. I went to IKEA and bought some things to make me feel more at home (side note: I never go to IKEA back home but WOW that place is an experience… so huge and overwhelming… I need a year before I take on that beast again).

But then came what I was waiting for: the chance to go out in service. I couldn’t wait. I’m not trying to sound corny, but I genuinely like service and I was really looking forward to using that as a way to get to know people in my new congregation. Pawel had told me that this week was the first time for a brand new meeting for service arrangement in the hall: Friday afternoons right before the meeting.

So I got to the metro and started making the trek to the Kingdom Hall. And I use the word “trek” purposely as the rain was starting to pour—just in time for my journey to the hall and first time in service. My umbrella and water resistant jacket were put to very good use as I rushed into the hall, about 2 minutes past the 4:30 start time.

img_3622Inside were two sisters, Marga and Leire, who warmly greeted me. We started to get to know each other, and it was nice getting to meet two of my fellow pioneers in my new congregation. Soon thereafter in walked Fabian, who was married to Leire and led our meeting for service. I stocked up my service bag and prepared to brave the storm.

To these three brave pioneers, this rain was just the order of the day. It’s so common in Bilbao, so they don’t have the luxury of just not going out in service when it’s a bit wet outside. Grab an umbrella and jacket and they’re good to go! We spent the afternoon doing search work, as I’d gotten a little experience with in Portugal with Taylor. We’d go to a building (keep in mind the territory in Spain is ALL apartment buildings), ring the intercom, and ask in Spanish if the person who answered knew of any English speakers in the building. We also are on the lookout for those speaking certain other languages like Tagalog and Urdu.

Most people replied that they didn’t know any English speakers, that they weren’t going to buzz open the door for us (did I even ask you for that??), or that only Spaniards lived in the building. Fabian would make detailed notes on the territory to keep track of what we were finding. We finally did end up finding one African family, who buzzed us in and allowed Fabian to present the Truth tract. It was neat watching a return visit be set up right then and there on my first service day in Bilbao. The two sisters were working the street with us (which isn’t too common here; often pairs of two are sent into completely different territories) and they had quite a bit of success finding English speakers. It really feels like detective work, but obviously the most fulfilling kind. Spies for the Lord, ha!

But after a while California boy over here was getting cold and wet. When they finally suggested a break, I tried to contain my elation. We grabbed coffee and tapas (typical Spanish style), and from here took off for the next thing that I was excited for: my first Bilbao English meeting.

*                                                                      *                                                                              *

I was still cold. I was still wet. But those facts quickly escaped my mind as soon as I stepped in the Kingdom Hall after the evening of preaching. I could barely get to my seat thanks to the warm welcomes of publishers in the congregation. The hall was a lot… hmm, how should I put this… blacker than my last hall in Zaragoza, haha. There were tons of African publishers, mainly from Nigeria as well as Ghana. I’d learned the special Ghanaian handshake/snap back in Zaragoza so I quickly put it back into use as I met brothers and sisters that night. There was a warm, palpable buzz and the hall quickly filled up as the meting prepared to start.

I sat off to the side, where I’d be in an ideal position to see people as they were called on, so I could begin to learn names (which I’m generally terrible with… You could tell me your name was “John” and to me your name will be “Hey how’s it going?” for at least a couple weeks). I knew that I had to be on top of my commenting game, because with so many non-natives in the congregation, solid English are much appreciated. I decided to leave that typo I just made out of pure irony. Solid English SPEAKERS are much appreciated haha!

The greetings only intensified after the meeting, and it was nice to see people light up when they heard I wasn’t just there on vacation, but was there to help the congregation for a few months. I was really happy to get an invitation to go out to dinner right there after my first meeting. It was after 10pm by that point, but that’s how they do it here in Spain. After a brief consideration, I thought, of course I’d go, why not?

I was happy to join new friends form the hall, my roommate Pawel, and our three bonus roommates to grab dinner. It was funny because some were asking if I wanted to split a burger, because they were big here.

Uhh yeah, I’m good, I scoffed mentally, I think this American can handle a “big” burger in Spain.

“I think I’ll probably grab my own, but thanks!” I replied out loud.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw how right they were. This was literally the biggest burger I had ever seen. It was probably close to 8 inches across in diameter, no lie. It was “YUUUGE”.

But your boy put that whole thing down. 😎 I’ll admit I was scared though.

Nights like this were what would help me to start feeling even more in sync with my new surroundings. The next day helped to cement things for me even more so. That would be my first weekend meeting the next evening. (And yes if you did some deductive reasoning, YES my meetings are Friday and Saturday nights haha 🙃). The way it works here is interesting. The congregation has about 60 publishers or so (with more attendance than that with all the interested ones who visit), and of them a portion are assigned to a group. This group focuses their preaching on a village called Durango, that’s about 45 minutes outside of the city. The whole congregation meets together on Friday nights. Those in the city have their weekend meeting on Sundays. Those in the group in the village have a long service day starting at 10:15 Saturday mornings, followed by a rotated hospitality at someone’s home in the village, and culminating with the meeting at 5pm.

I decided to check out the village Saturday the first weekend and I was glad I did. I rode out there with Jon and Maria, a young engaged couple in the hall. Again, we were focused on search work. It was a bit of a slower morning, but I still got the chance to know some more of the brothers in the congregation as we worked together in the ministry. We stopped by a family’s home for hospitality (I hate to admit it, but at the moment, all of their names are still “Heyhowsitgoing”), and after some time to wind down, headed to the meeting.

It was nice to be with a select few from the congregation in a more intimate setting. Our coordinator, Sam, came to give the talk that day. Typically speakers will give the talk in Durango on Saturday and also in Bilbao on Sunday. It was great to get to know his speaking style.

The little kids in the hall are quite… active! Let’s put it that way, haha. I thought I’d pick a few out and do a little big brother action with them. I’d pull them aside, get to know them a bit, and give them a positive challenge. I asked one, since he was the older of the kids (he was about 7 or so), to help set an example among the other kids in the hall. I tried to ask questions like “Why does Jehovah not want us to play in the hall? Do you think he wants anyone to get hurt?” I was nice but really wanted to help him, and others, to see how we want to act in the hall. I could sense that they respected what I was saying, and I saw their behavior improve. At the time I’m writing this, I haven’t been to the next meeting yet. But we’ll see how that mission goes haha.

I was starting to get in my groove. I was learning names (kinda), figuring out my way around town, making friends. But there was something missing. Something very specific that I loved from back home that I knew I needed here. So I asked Jehovah for it.

And he definitely delivered.