The Tract Distributor
On a rare Saturday visit to Swansea, which is the second largest city in Wales with a population of 150,000, I had another opportunity to visit Des Roberts at his workplace. Forty years ago he began his lifetime vocation of distributing tracts once a week in the main street. At first he stood outside a shop which sold electrical appliances and on one occasion the annoyed manager told him to move away as he was driving trade from him. Des is not easily intimidated, and told him to produce some figures from his financial accounts to prove that he was suffering because of Des’s presence. The policewoman who had been called to the scene by the manager would do nothing as Des had broken no laws. So for years more he stayed there unconcerned with the manager’s glares. Then the pattern of trade in Swansea began to change and a new Quadrant of shops and arcades opened up and Des moved to a new pitch under the shelter of the entrance to the famous Swansea market.
That is where we met and stood side by side on Saturday. He is easy to spot with his shock of white hair, and hooked nose. He rarely wears a tie and hates hot weather. He had put on his rubber overshoes and trousers as it had been raining. He held three or four tracts in his hands and offered them in an unintimidating manner to the passers-by. Young and old came across to him and took a tract. Modest Swansea women thanked him and put the tracts in their hand-bags. “Thank-you,” he says to them. A little boy came up and said, “Please sir can I have three?” Des gave them to him with a quip, one tract for his mother and another for his brother. The woman soon came by, smiling and pushing a pram.
“I have just read Iain Murray’s ‘Evangelicalism Divided’,” he said. “Enjoy it?” I asked. He looked perplexed at me as though that were a foolish question. “Yes,” he nodded curtly. He has a magnificent library. Every inch of the walls of his bachelor home in 183 Long View Road is covered with book shelves. When his mother died the TV disappeared. He has recently read the three volumes of Wylie’s ‘History of Protestantism.’ He lives in one of the toughest areas of Swansea. A few months ago he was disturbed at 3 a.m. by the sound of a robber moving around downstairs. He got up and switched the landing light on. “Who’s there?” he shouted downstairs. “Sorry, mate. Wrong house,” came the reply and the man disappeared through the back door. “How did he get in?” wondered Des. Then he saw the piece of glass cut out of the window and the catch opened. The police were there in five minutes but the man had gone. “He must have been surprised to see all those books,” Des said drolly. The thief took nothing at all.
Des could give out about a thousand tracts every Saturday afternoon until ten or so years ago, but during the past decade the number has dropped to 750. We worked out that he has given away something like one and three-quarter million tracts in the last forty years. He showed me one particular tract which he was giving out. “This one costs thirty pounds for a thousand! Far too expensive. I wont be getting any more of these.” He is an expert in size and cost as well as rigorously demanding about the actual content of the tract. He deplores decisionistic regeneration. He is now an old age pensioner and he depends for the finances to purchase these tracts on the gifts of friends. He has worshipped with the Open Brethren since he became a Christian, and is a fan of the writings of Arthur Pink. He believes in the Universal Command to preach the Gospel – God commands all men everywhere to repent – but hesitates at my affirming the Free Offer of the Gospel. We talk amicably of this terminology. His presence there and that hand stretched out to every sinner in Swansea with the word of life seems to me to be saying “Free Offer!” as I understand it. A stranger came on to him some time ago and introduced himself as a Christian. “What do you make of this hyper-Calvinism?” he said to Des. “Now what do you mean by hyper-Calvinism?” Des asked him, and as the man began to waffle, Des began to explain the Bible to him.
I stand in awe of such disciplined faithfulness. While he has strength in his body he will be at his post on Saturday afternoons. If he can spot a mere ten percent of his tracts discarded and scattered along the pavement at the end of the afternoon then he is assured that six hundred other tracts will have been taken and read. He is doing more good to men’s souls from that one spot by his special ministry than most of the professing churches of his city put together.
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