Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Memorial 2021

For the last several blog entries, the majority of the space has been dedicated to the various difficulties we've encountered with trying to handle meetings, field service, etc. So for this entry, I'd like to tell you about how all that work has paid off even better than we could've expected. And since this is in a written form and not a conversation, I'm going to take you the long way around to it.

A particular challenge with the pandemic is that many need-greaters were out of the country when everything shut down and restrictions were put in place. Happily with meetings moving over to Zoom and so forth, they were able to remain with their congregations, but getting back to their return visits and Bible studies proved a challenge. Lots of people in Guyana don't have internet connections, so therefore how can a publisher in the US/England/Trinidad stay in contact with them? International calling isn't really an option considering the cost and the sheer amount of minutes that would be used. Zoom does have a feature to call a phone number and be connected to the meeting, but the number you call is a US number and therefore doesn't do us any good.

Due to this problem, we began working with a network of need-greaters to find a way around this, and we did at last work out a marvelous system to allow someone in another country to join Zoom, and then we (locally in Guyana) call their return visits and patch them together. I won't go into the details because it's long and complicated, but suffice it to say we found a workable system and everyone was happy.

The more we used this system, the more it nagged at some of our minds. Here's why:

I've talked at length about how in Orealla we use phones for our meetings due to even rarer internet than most of Guyana, and the internet we do have we pay based off how much we use. Problem with phone meetings is the signal is bad and the more phones we have on the conference call, the more beeps we get during the meeting. But some in Orealla had internet. Is there a way we can adapt this overseas publisher return visit system to our meetings here?

The breaking point came during a meeting where we had so many phones tied in that we would get 10 beeps every 15 seconds. We couldn't hear anything. It was time to change how we connected our meetings. So we did a test. We calculated exactly how much data it would take to connect to an audio only Zoom meeting, and then called every single household in the congregation with a smartphone and asked if they would be willing to try it. About half the congregation had smartphones and data. We set up a Zoom room and had them join, and then we connected the other half of the congregation by phone like normal.

The result? Massive success. Clearer sound than we'd ever had, and fewer beeps (sometimes no beeps at all for, again, reasons that take too long to explain).

With every passing week, more people began budgeting data for meetings and making the switch over to Zoom, which has had the extra bonus of freeing up space on the telephone conference call so we could have more interested ones listening in (because yes, we had to turn people away from the meetings before this due to not having space on the limited size conference call). Our average meeting attendance continues to climb and so far shows little sign of slowing down. The special talk had an attendance of at least 89, more than double our 42 publisher count. Our goal became, for the Memorial, to get all publishers on Zoom so we'd have the phones completely free for interested ones without internet or Zoom or whatnot.

Plans were going great. Everything in place.

Then the day before the Memorial, during a seemingly normal day of field service, I got a text message that one of the brothers in our congregation died.

As I heard other publishers talking in the background on their call, I stared at the phone dumbfounded. I read it about ten times over because I was sure I had misread something. Finally I responded asking for clarification. It couldn't be. This brother was 40 years old. He had no real medical problems. He had a wife and three children between the ages of 17 and 10. He was the picture of health. Turns out an accident had killed him that morning.

We had already experienced trying to organize a funeral in the middle of the lockdown. But this was the day before the Memorial. How do you prioritize?

The man's wife and children gave us the answer. They focused on the Memorial. They were going to address everything else later. They made the bread, got the wine, prepared their home, and that morning watched the Morning Worship video. They invited some of their relatives, who attended.

And what a Memorial. With the Zoom/phone linkup we got 149 in attendance, more than we've had for some of our circuit assemblies. And while every Memorial talk is meaningful, this one was more so than ever for us. 

Sunday morning we began working out the arrangements for the funeral. Monday the family was in field service again. Tuesday I realized the deceased man's father was scheduled for talk at our midweek meeting, so I called him to offer to find a substitute for it. He refused, and Thursday he gave the talk as assigned. Saturday was the funeral and the family strictly adhered to the Covid protocols locally put in place, and made sure all attendees did too. So many wanted to attend that we had to make the Zoom feature available for that as well, and so many came that it filled up our room.

The brother who died was my neighbor in a literal sense. He also did more than anyone else around (myself included) to make sure my home kept well stocked with food and essential supplies during the most difficult parts of lockdown. And someday he'll be delighted to learn his family and congregation made sure to focus more on the death of Jesus than on him. He was that kind of guy.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Out With the Old, in With the New


You may remember five full years ago I moved out of the Kingdom Hall's attached house and into a different one nearby (pictured above). After a half decade, it has come time to move out, and very very hastily as well.

Note to landlords: if you want to keep your tenants, don't raise the rent 150% overnight.

Can't complain though. The house provided me a place, as well as the Circuit Assembly guests we would constantly get, plus a never ending stream of roommates and house guests. Seriously. I got up to 70 people passing through my place before I just quit counting.

But of course, needing to immediately move raises the obvious question. Move to where? Well, by the strangest coincidence (Coincidence? I think not!) one brother needed to move out of Orealla to another village just three weeks prior, leaving behind a fully furnished home. So here's a few of the perks:

1. The person we're renting from is now a Witness instead of someone from the field

2. Our neighbors (on both sides!) are now also Witnesses, as opposed to a police station and a church

3. This house is not on stilts like the previous one, but rather has a complete downstairs and upstairs (seen in the picture below)

Could it use a coat of paint? Yes, but let's not be hasty.

4. One of those neighbors has a freezer and lets us make use of it!

5. We can still access the village wifi from here, which has even allowed me to use Zoom on occasion!

6. This one has a toilet (outhouse) already. At the last house we didn't get one until a full year had passed.

Plus, it is magnificent to get a little further away from the center of town. When I first came here seven years ago it was practically Mayberry, no crime, no disturbance, whatsoever. Now the level of crime has increased somewhat, people are less trustworthy, and Orealla is even jumping on the bandwagon of civil unrest.

It was bound to happen eventually.

In case anyone is worrying about my health and how the village is doing because of the line about how the toshao (village captain) has been handling Covid, you have nothing to fear. The protest is that he's being too restrictive. As far as keeping covid at bay, we're all doing fine.

So in summary, getting away from all that and further into the bush surrounded by JW neighbors, with semi-reliable wifi has been amazing. And don't even get me started on the yard. Instead of a tiny square of grass surrounded by dirt roads, we have this...

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Pause and Reset

 One of my favorite ways of passing time is rewatching Gilead Graduation programs, and one of the points that stuck out to me more than any other is to, quote, "pause and reset." The advice was specifically in regard to getting away from devices and the digital world, and instead taking some time to meditate on creation, and how doing this will help your mental state.

I have long loathed cell phones, so in general this was easy advice for me to follow. Especially living in a place like Orealla where I only get electricity a few hours a day, it kind of forces you to separate from the devices and do something else.

This, however, has recently become a challenge. Whereas before I spent almost all day outside, routinely walking 5+ miles a day for Bible studies alone, now we're being told to spend our time indoors. As for devices? They're inescapable now. For field service, I've written already about how letter writing is not really an option for us, so it is all telephone witnessing. So there's something like 2.5 hours per day on my phone already. Add another hour for studies and we're at 3.5. Now consider that, even prior to lockdown, getting our literature on time was a hassle, so you can imagine quarantine has made that even more difficult, meaning for the most part all meeting preparation is done using our phones instead of paper copies. Then meetings themselves requires everyone being tied in over the phone. Not to mention shepherding calls, Convention and assembly are watched on my laptop.

Now allow me to make one thing absolutely clear. I am not complaining about these things being available, because without them there's no way we could ever get by or find another way to maintain meetings/service. What I am saying is that the switch has been absolutely jarring for me, and has made me more reliant on the electricity than I ever was before.

So recently in my habitual rewatching of Gilead Grads, I came across the advice once more to "pause and reset," and I will admit my first reaction was the laugh at the advice to give devices a break. How can that be done? It can't.

Or at least that was my first thought. When I thought about it realistically though, it became more clear. The advice was never to give up technology entirely, it never has been. Just put it down sometimes when you aren't in need of it. Go outside and observe creation. If you can't go outside, find another way to observe it.

I'll be honest here, I have no idea how easy or difficult of a thing this is for most of you. I have experienced exactly one location since all this began, so I'm not going to pretend to be qualified to tell you how to adapt to your circumstances. But I can tell you how I've been able to.

Thankfully I live next to a river. It's close enough to my house that I can go to it daily while still "sheltering in place," and without coming in contact with other people. At first I would go to it primarily to swim, do laundry, etc. But it dawned on me that that's a terrible waste of an extraordinary privilege. It is the absolute best opportunity to put down the phone (after service is over) and get away from it. And you know what? It is easy. It's amazing how quickly my mind wanders and how quickly I lose track of time. I have never once missed a vital phone call or an imperative text message. And it feels so much better to get back home to a few messages waiting for me, rather than to be sitting next to the phone and feeling it constantly vibrate throughout the day.

And that electricity I've come to rely on so much? If it doesn't come on when it's supposed to (which is, er, about three times a week) it no longer feels like the end of the world. Go sit on a dock and stare at the water, or the sky, or the sunset, or whatever there may be that day.

Sometimes I sit and think. Sometimes, I just sit.

So again, I have no idea what each of you, with your unique circumstances, are able to do. But I definitely recommend you give it a try. Find a way to pause and reset. Doing so makes the time you're able to spend with other people through devices so much better.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

All Pro, No Con


I distinctly recall the first time I began to think the idea of moving where the need was greater was appealing. The 2006 Yearbook had been released, and I decided I was going to make a real, concerted effort to read the entire thing front to back.

(in a twist of irony, the first time I'd attempted this was the year before, aka the yearbook about Guyana, but I also distinctly recall deciding to skip Guyana's section and go to Iceland instead, because it seemed more interesting at the time)

The 2006 Yearbook was about Samoa, and I was enthralled. As fascinating as the stories and all were, what really stood out to me was the life of one man who moved to serve there early on and spent his life slaving away trying to help out. The payoff came, decades later, when Samoa built their first Assembly Hall, and this same brother was invited for the dedication program. I was struck for a moment, wondering how he would've felt looking back on his life, the time and effort he'd put forward, and how magnificently he got to see it paying off. This kickstarted an obsession with me. The idea of reaching old age and being able to look back with absolutely zero regrets about how my life had been used so far. I imagined that was what this man was able to do, and that's what I wanted as well.

(disclaimer: I have not gone back and double checked this story at all, so I may be remembering it incorrectly. Whether I am or not, this was the gist of the affect it had on me)

So honestly, being a need greater was not necessarily the goal, but rather that sense of a life well used. Need greating was certainly an option, but not the main focus. It didn't become so until I was introduced to Guyana (properly this time).

More than ten years have passed, and so far it has turned out even better than I expected. Take my current assignment, for example. When I first arrived in Orealla, there were two appointed brothers (one of which was, well, me). There was about 15 publishers and about the same average meeting attendance. We had three pioneers. Attending circuit assemblies and conventions was a constant struggle. I went into this thinking it was a three month assignment, and at first I remember being grateful that was all the longer it was going to be. This seemed too difficult of a place to be for much longer than that.

That was six years ago. And while we haven't built an assembly hall in Orealla, even in just those six years things have changed dramatically. For the better.

Even in the midst of a pandemic, we've seen our numbers growing. Two new baptized, one new unbaptized, and more return visits/studies than we can handle. The total number of publishers has grown from 15 to 42 at the present moment. The two appointed brothers have become five. The three pioneers have become eight (with a whopping eleven signing up for auxiliary during this last C.O. visit!) It has now become the norm for our attendance at pioneer meetings to exceed our average meeting attendance from years ago.

The biggest difficulty we've had in the midst of the pandemic has been how to tie in all the people for meetings who've shown interest. I've talked before about the system we've been using where we have five conference calls tied together by a conference call. But during the recent CO visit we needed to tie together a total of ten to fit everyone. Working out the logistics was a very exciting challenge.

This was (I think) draft #3, and the one we eventually used.

And while, again, I haven't been able to sit down in the auditorium of a newly built Assembly Hall, I still get to marvel at how quickly the work here has progressed. I've been able to see us even getting our own assemblies (in rented facilities) in this village, sparing everyone the stress and expense of traveling out for it.

If you had told me after my first meeting that we would reach this point in just a few years, I never would have believed it.

Now let's not sugar coat things though. It's been rough at times, and I very nearly got fed up and left on at least two occasions. But in all honesty, would it have been different anywhere else? It's not like life would've been easier or more pleasant if I'd stayed where I was, or if I'd taken another assignment elsewhere. Life is going to be rough at times. That's all there is to it.

The chief difference? This way, despite dealing with stress and all that, I presently have no regrets about what I've done with my time.

And I intend to keep it that way.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Quarantine on the Corentyne

I have battled with how to handle this blog post for a considerable amount of time now. I try to be generally positive on here, but it's difficult to manage that when talking about 2020 and the events it's contained. Eventually it reached a point where I decided I wouldn't even try.

But then I remembered storm clouds. You know the expression "silver linings"? I looked up the full phrase, and it is "every cloud has a silver lining", or in other words, no matter how bad things seem, there is always a positive element to it. And I feel this expression fits our current situation perfectly, because I don't think any one of us would be crazy enough to say everything going on is good. And yet, there are still many things to be thankful for. Dwelling on the positive doesn't mean we're glad these things are happening, but at least we're finding the best part of it.

So with that in mind, let me share with you what's been happening in Orealla since all this insanity has gone down.

When the virus first hit Guyana, I had the incredible misfortune to actually be in Georgetown (the virus epicenter) at the time. Due to this, when I was preparing to return to Orealla, I was told that they were banning anyone who had been in or near Georgetown. I would have to wait two full weeks before I could come back in, or fourteen full days. That wasn't too big a deal, some brothers out on the coast were able to find me a place to crash for the time. It was comfortable, it had electricity, refrigerator, all that good stuff. Like was good.

But as my 14 day ban continued, Coronavirus starting building a stronger and stronger presence in Guyana, and it spread from just being in Georgetown to getting within one hour of where I was staying. The village council in Orealla got understandably worried, and eventually decided they would shut down all boats in and out of the village, so there would be no chance whatsoever of the virus reaching them.

Great idea. Sensible precaution. But I was still outside.

One night (the final night of my 14 days ban) a brother in Orealla calls me and tells me there is one last boat going into Orealla the following day. If I don't catch it I'm stranded. So I pack up and run down to the dock the next day. After some slight hassle on the boat where I had to try to find proof that I hadn't been in Georgetown for 14 days (which I managed to find!)I was allowed back in. And with that, the river shut down.

Obviously, the biggest question became how to do meetings? Many congregations are doing Zoom meetings, but we don't have the internet requirements for that. We considered downloading and distributing the streamed meetings, but then realized about half the congregation doesn't have the equipment necessary to display the videos.

Finally, the solution came. Everybody at least has an old touchpad style cell phone, so we found the maximum size conference call our cell provider allows (six phones total) and split the congregation up into four groups of six households. Each group would have to do their own meeting individually.

This lasted about a month and a half, when we discovered an odd but workable way of expanding the conference call so large we could fit the entire congregation on one call. Each hosting phone has to purchase a considerably expensive cell plan to allow it to happen, but thankfully we've gotten some overseas contributors who have enabled us to keep renewing this plan month after month. As of last week, we've even figured out how to tie in phones from other congregations (and even overseas!) to allow visiting speakers, which is giving the local congregation a nice break from hearing the same three voices every single Sunday, over and over and over again.

However, this left another problem. Field service. Letter writing doesn't work here because there's no mailboxes or delivery service. The only way we could deliver our letters would be if we were to go house to house leaving them in doors, but I'm sure you can see the problem with doing that.
Of course, with the swanky new phone plan six of us got, phone witnessing became an option, but there was a problem with that too. Even though practically everyone in Orealla has at least a cheapo cell phone, there's no phone directory. I personally have the numbers of only witnesses and the local hospital workers. So who can we call for field service?

Here's where our C.O. stepped in and worked out a deal for us with a city congregation. They have literally thousands of homes with landlines, whose numbers you can find on the internet and on a phone directory. So this congregation went through the work of compiling around 2,000 phone numbers and sending them to us, so we could do phone witnessing. So now, each of the six hosting phones (which all have unlimited talking time) simply call the others in the congregation who want to share in ministry for the day, and there we go. We remain in our homes, we get an almost endless supply of people to call, and all is well.

Now if you're wondering how we're getting on with the river shut down and no boats coming in bringing supplies, honestly we're fine. Orealla has only gotten electricity in the time that I've been here, so everyone is pretty skilled at living without conveniences. On top of that, they have also worked out a deal with the Suriname government (who has legal oversight of the river) to send out two boats a week now, with only necessary crew on board, and buy in bulk whatever supplies people in the village need or want. So far, this system has worked out great. The village hasn't even run out of Coke yet for crying out loud, so really we're having a pretty good time through this.

However, my coffee supply has nearly run out. There is that.

So in the face of everything going on, what has been the silver lining for us?

First off, even though we've had to overhaul how we do our meetings, our average attendance has seen a huge uptick. We went from averaging 58-59 on Sunday to getting 65-75 each week. Our Memorial attendance was an all time high, even without tying in our neighboring village. Numerous ones in the congregation who couldn't get out in the ministry because of being home bound, or easily getting sick in the intense sun, are now simply staying at home and doing phone witnessing on a weekly basis. Some have even been auxiliary pioneering throughout all of this. We've been cooperating more with other congregations, both through contact with brothers in the city congregation offering us phone numbers, and even through simply joining phone witnessing groups in other halls. I personally have worked now with people from about eight different countries now, and that's just off the top of my head. And instead of the congregation being subjected to public talks from the same three people all the time, they're now getting to hear a limitless influx of voices from basically anywhere in the world with phone signal. Just yesterday one of my studies was gushing about how nice it was to hear someone else for a change ("not that I don't enjoy your talks!" he hastily added).

We've even seen formerly opposed relatives of our studies start taking an interest because of seeing how well the Witnesses have been handling the situation, in stark contrast to the churches of the village (one of which has had members repeatedly get arrested because they kept sneaking into their church at night for services)

The biggest annoyance for us though was the cancellation of our Circuit Assembly (which happened literally one week before the day it was scheduled for). While not having the do the related work was nice, the disappointment was that a local brother was meant to get baptized at the assembly, and now wouldn't be able to.

But no fear! We did indeed get our silver lining!

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Ten Years

The weirdest things can trigger memories.

A few days ago I was laying in my hammock (as usual) and I suddenly recalled a conversation I'd had when I was 17. Specifically, someone asked if there was a question I'd very much like an answer to, and my immediate response was “What will my life be like in ten years?”

The true shock of my remembering this conversation was the realization that it has now been that ten years since the conversation. And let me tell you, there's no way I could have possibly predicted my life would turn out this way.

What I was doing then: I was 17. I was regular pioneering and had just recently finished pioneer school and doing my first ever visit to seldom worked territory (Cynthiana, Kentucky if I do recall correctly). It was a gob of fun, but my interests laid elsewhere. Ever since I was about 4 years old I wanted to work at Bethel. I don't know why exactly this line of work appealed to me so much at that age, though I do remember being quite fond of a paper shredding machine that misprinted literature got chucked into. But of course, one must be 19 before applying, so really everything I was doing up to the age of 17 was merely to pass time until I could apply for Bethel and score my cushy dream job of manning that sweet shredder.

I had never heard of Guyana. I had never met nor could comprehend the existence of the people I now call my closest friends.

If during that conversation you told me that in less than a year I'd be hiking through a jungle up a mountain carrying two boxes of literature on a continent I'd never seen in a country I hadn't known existed, I would've been utterly baffled at what bizarre string of events could have possibly led to that life decision.

Honestly, even looking back on it with the full knowledge of what happened, I'm still baffled by the whole thing. Here's what essentially happened: somebody mentioned Guyana, and suddenly I knew I should move there. At that point I may or may not have believed it was in Africa.

(Allow me to clarify just in case anyone is wondering: Guyana is not in Africa. It is in South America. Kinda between Venezuela and Brazil. See any South America map for reference)

And if after mentioning to me this strange mountain jungle hike, you proceeded to go on and tell me a summary of what would happen to me over the next ten years, I would have laughed in your face. I'm not even going to try to attempt mentioning all these things because oy, that's over a hundred blog posts worth of material.

The strangest part to me is that if you told me all this, but also told me that I would in fact get to work at Bethel, but then voluntarily give it up to return to a life of living in a jungle in a secluded congregation, with no musicians to jam with, no Subway, no Morning Worship or Monday night Watchtower study, no ice cream sandwiches, etc … more than anything, I would flatly deny it was possible. Bethel was the dream. Bethel is what I was thinking of when I got baptized and when I applied to auxiliary and then regular pioneer. Guyana was a one year diversion to kill time until I could apply. How could that side project become my life? And yet, as unrealistic as it would have seemed to me 10 years ago, that's how it went. And that's how I want it to be.

So in answer to 17 year old Josh Westfall's question “What will my life be like in ten years?”:

It's going to be great. It's also going to be stressful, chaotic, confusing, exciting, depressing, exhilarating, frustrating, and at weird little moments you're going to hate it more than anything else in the world.

But yet, at the end of the day, you wouldn't trade it for anything.

"Yuck. Give us more jokes next time."

Thursday, April 18, 2019

From Pressures to Blessings

One thing I have become convinced of over time is that Jehovah is a fan of poetic justice. You know how we always read these accounts of the work being banned, only for the population of Witnesses to explode into greater and greater numbers? It seems like that's always how it goes. The harder Satan pushes, the more Jehovah turns that pressure into blessings.

Living in a territory like this, which never ceases to have its fair share of pressure from Satan, I've been able to be eyewitness to this exact scenario more times than I can count. Whether things go wrong at the last minute for our assemblies or our travels out to conventions, it has never failed to turn into a positive for us.

Let me share the most recent example of this with you. Maybe you're familiar with our beloved congregation boat, Kingdom Proclaimer VII.

Or "K-Pro" for short.

In the last few years this boat has endured 50-60ish trips to Siparuta, and it has received a heavy amount of wear and tear throughout its faithful service to us. Until of course two weeks ago when it wound up getting stolen, right in the middle of our Circuit Assembly.

So here was our original plan: we were going to take K-Pro to Siparuta the Thursday after assembly, cover the whole village (or as much as possible) with the invitations for Special Talk/Memorial, and then go over again the morning of the Special Talk, get everything set up, and just hope everyone who was interested would remember the event. Repeat for Memorial.

Once news broke of our boat being stolen, we had a problem. How to get to Siparuta? Walk three hours through the jungle, in the midst of a borderline monsoon? (We're experiencing rainy season here at the moment) That didn't seem a good option. Here was the pressure. But what would the blessing turn out to be?

A Bible student over in Siparuta made a tantalizing offer. See, there's a commercial boat that goes from Orealla to Siparuta on Friday night, and travels back Sunday afternoon. So this study suggested that if we came on the boat Friday night, we could stay at their house until Sunday, and then ride back. Added bonus, the boat captain offered to take us for free.

You can see how distraught we are over our predicament.

So now instead of taking a small boat that holds six people over to Siparuta to preach for a few hours and go back home once every month (and spending a decent amount of money buying the fuel for it), now we have the option of going any weekend we want, with as many people as we want, spending all Saturday in house-to-house and Bible studies, keep a Public Talk/Watchtower study on Sunday (which many in the village have been literally begging for) and then get a ride back. All for free.

Yet another bonus! Now we can spend several leisurely hours swimming in Siparuta's wonderful blackwater creeks!

We first used this method for the Special Talk weekend, which resulted in nine people attending. We intend to make use of this new arrangement as often as possible, at least once a month. Stay tuned to see how this pans out in the future.