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.

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