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Reflections on a Ministry in Prison: An interview with António Monteiro dos Anjos

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Reflections on a Ministry in Prison: An interview with António Monteiro dos Anjos

Delbert Baker

Delbert Baker, PhD, is general vice president, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

 

Editor’s note: On March 15, 2012, António Monteiro dos Anjos, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor from Cape Verde, was falsely accused, arrested, charged, and subsequently imprisoned at the civil prison in Lomé, Togo. After 22 months in prison, he was found innocent of all charges against him by the Togo Appeals Court and released Monday, January 13, 2014. Pastor Monteiro and his family spent the first Sabbath of his freedom in Dakar, Senegal. Delbert Baker met Pastor Monteiro and his family in Dakar and conducted the first interview after his release. Pastor Monteiro then returned home to Cape Verde, where he received a warm and jubilant welcome from more than a thousand supporters and friends at the airport in the capital city of Praia. The Portuguese to English translation of this interview was provided by Pastor Monteiro’s daughter, Andreia.

Delbert Baker (DB): In brief, how do you summarize your experience of being falsely accused, arrested, and imprisoned for almost two years for a crime you did not commit?

António Monteiro (AM): I helped a man who came to my office asking for assistance; a man whom I had never seen before. Sometime later, this same man, when in trouble with the police, blamed me and others for a crime that I knew nothing about nor had anything to do with. As a result of these false accusations, I was arrested and held unjustly in prison.

When all this was happening, it was if the sky had fallen in on me. The last sermon I preached before I was arrested was on personal revival and walking with God. Little did I know when I preached that sermon how much I would need to believe and follow the very Bible principles I spoke about. My faith was tested, but God sustained me.

DB: The Togo courts recently found you innocent of all charges. What were your emotions when you heard the verdict?

AM: I was thankful, relieved, and glad. I remember when the judge was reading the declarations with all the legal terms and laws, the two guards who stood by me quietly turned to me and said, “Pastor, you are free!” It was an emotional and joyful moment. My first thought after hearing the verdict was, I would be so happy to be with my wife and family!

DB: What were the factors that led to your eventual acquittal and freedom?

AM: First, it was the direct intervention of God. He moved through people. I could have been overlooked or forgotten in prison, but my wife and family, local Adventist church leaders, and colleagues on all levels of the church did not forget me. Then God worked through the Cape Verde government and the attorneys for my defense. God’s power was magnificent.

DB: As you look back, do you have any idea why God may have allowed this experience to happen?

AM: I really can’t explain why this happened. It seems God may have been accomplishing a bigger purpose. I realize I don’t have to have the answers to all the things that happen in life. Some things you just have to live through. My biggest concern was for my family. If something befell them because of what happened to me—that would have been the worst thing.

DB: Did the accusations and time in prison ever make you angry or bitter?

AM: No. I was not angry or bitter. I knew there was no basis for the charges against me and that I was being treated unjustly. At first, I would always ask, “Why is this happening to me?” Then I began to ask, “What does God want me to learn from this situation?”

That was a much better way to approach my predicament. I decided not to spend time being negative but to use it as a learning, growing experience. I saw so many other prisoners who were angry, mad, and upset all the time. I saw what anger and bitterness did to break them down and poison their relation­ships. I didn't want to be like that.

DB: What about the others who were accused with you and not freed?

AM: Someone said to me, and I believe it: I was on a mission in prison. I would not leave that prison before my mission was done. It was true with me, and it is true with the others as well. We have a mission to do, and God will be with us when we remain to do it or when He wants us to leave.

When departing from prison, I said to Brother Amah, who I respect and believe to be innocent, and to the believers, that they must continue the work we started. I still pray that the same God who worked with us in the past will continue to be with them. I remain concerned and supportive.

DB: What if your verdict had been differ­ent? What if you hadn’t been freed?

AM: That’s a good question that I’m happy I don’t have to deal with [laughter]. When I was in prison, I really believed that God would free me. He impressed me with that thought. Yet I knew that I could not say too much about that convic­tion. But even though I believed that God would free me, I was prepared to remain in prison or to make any sacrifice that might be called for.

DB: You did the work of a Christian by helping a person in need. Then, the one you helped falsely accused you. Does this experience cause you to rethink helping others?

AM: No. What happened doesn’t influ­ence me against helping others. The fact that undesired things may hap­pen when we do good shouldn’t stop us from doing good. Jesus did good, and look how He was treated on the cross. In prison I was able to help more people than ever before. However, when helping others, we should always be wise and thoughtful and take safe and sensible precautions.

DB: Do you feel your previous spiritual experience prepared you for this test?

AM: God will not allow any experi­ence or temptation to come to us that we cannot handle. I do believe that God prepares us for what we will face. Yes, my previous experience with God helped prepare me to cope and prog­ress in this situation. It is not that one event will prepare you.

Like Jesus, I said, “Lord, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” But then I would add, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” These are thoughts that don’t come only once, but come back from time to time. Each time you must face and dismiss them in faith and move on believing.

DB: Describe a typical day in prison.

AM: I lived in a prison that was built to hold five hundred inmates, but there were almost two thousand crammed into it. My particular facility had approximately twenty-five men in it, very tight quarters, with no windows or air conditioner. We got up early. I would take time for personal prayer and Bible reading and then move out into the yard. Many prisoners considered the food to be not food at all. Of course we were denied the basic freedoms.

At five-thirty every evening, the guards would lock all of us in the room, and you couldn’t go out nor would they come in until the next morning at six o’clock. We had no beds, just mats on the hard floor. There was a big pail in the middle of the floor that everyone used as a toilet. There was no privacy. Let me just say the living conditions were not desirable. Due to the environment, there was sickness and the potential of fights. However, I was blessed for the way the other prisoners respected and treated me and the fact that I never once got sick.

DB: Many people visited you in prison from around the world. What impact did these visits have on you and your time in prison?

AM: Yes, the visits were most encourag­ing. I better understand what the Bible means when it says that we should visit those in prison. Each visit was a witness and demonstrated love and support.

The high point of my day was when my wife visited. She was allowed to bring me food, and she did so every day. Often my children would come as well. Then I received visits from Adventist union and mission leaders, pastors, and members; visits from representatives of the division, the General Conference, and my country, Cape Verde.

One of the most special visits was from Pastor Ted Wilson, president of the world church of Seventh-day Adventists. Everyone—prisoners, guards, prison officials, members, and community people—were impressed that the presi­dent took time to come and visit.

DB: What are some lessons you’ve gained from your prison experience?

AM: There are many lessons that I learned while in prison. I learned that there is great power in:

Forgiveness without resentment. There was a temptation to be bitter and mad about how I was treated. But I remembered that Jesus was also mistreated and wrongly accused, even by His own followers. So my plan was to forgive and hold no resentment. That’s why I was able to relate kindly to the man who falsely accused me; a man who was later confined in the same prison where I was held. That gave me spiritual fire and staying power.

Acceptance without giving up. I didn’t know what my future would be but accepted my state in prison. I believed I would be freed at some point, though I didn’t know where and how it would happen. Therefore, I didn’t tell people what or how I would react if not released. Why? Because I didn’t want them to misunderstand me and think I was doubting and unsure. I would not give up on believing in and working for justice against the false accusations.

Compassion and generosity. In prison there is always a need for helping people. Love and kindness were very important in that prison. We had many inmates in a small place. In this difficult situation, there is a real need to show the love of Christ.

When people were hungry, needed money, discouraged, having home prob­lems, I would step up and help whenever possible. Then, when prisoners would get mad and fight, I sought to bring peace and reconciliation. Most of all, when people were open, I shared the gospel. There is a Portuguese word, morabeza, that summarizes what I sought to dem­onstrate. It is a powerful word that means hospitality, kindness, and love.

Persistent trust in God. I kept believ­ing that God was in prison with me. I would not give up. I thought of other Bible characters who spent time in prison—Joseph, Jeremiah, Paul, and others—and it gave me encouragement. Like Paul, I was not a prisoner of Togo but of Jesus Christ.

Spending time wisely. I had time on my hands. I could waste it, or I could use it to grow mentally and spiritu­ally. I read the Bible and other books. I would pray, journal, and develop devotionals. I could preach, teach, and counsel others. I tried to use my time in constructive ways.

DB: You talked about forgiving those who falsely accused you. How were you able to exercise the ministry of forgiveness?

AM: I just forgave. In light of my decision not to be angry or bitter, I resolved to forgive just like God forgave me. Revenge doesn’t pay, it costs.

People saw me treat my accuser kindly and decently, and they wanted to know how I could do that. This living demonstration of forgiveness opened many doors to witness, and it began to make a difference. The prison became a more peaceful place. The people would say, “We can’t fight like we used to with Pastor Monteiro around” [laughter]. The example of forgiveness is powerful and contagious.

DB: You did widespread evangelism and witnessing. There are pictures of you conducting Communion services and baptisms. Tell us about your outreach activities.

AM: The prison was an evangelistic ter­ritory, and the inmates were persons to help and, if possible, win to Christ. The prison experiences of Paul and Daniel and Joseph and their witnessing habits were good examples. Paul witnessed and won souls for Christ while in chains. Daniel was thrown into prison for a time and witnessed to the king. Joseph was in prison unjustly and yet witnessed to and treated other prisoners kindly.

When I arrived at prison, they intro­duced me as a Seventh-day Adventist pastor. The prisoners wanted me to preach to them, and so I did. I would regularly preach and give Bible stud­ies. Then I also gave away truth-filled literature that the church brought to the prison. We used and gave away the Conflict of the Ages series; hundreds of Bible studies, the Connected With Jesus series; books such as The Adventist Home, Steps to Christ, and more than two thousand of The Great Controversy.

Then we organized prayer and Bible study groups. We also organized a Pray for Togo Day. For the first time, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, and other religions came together to fellowship and pray for the country and leaders of Togo. These activities created unity in the prison.

DB: In the typical model of prison ministry, people minister from the outside to the inside. In your case, it was from the inside to the inside. Did you find it difficult to do prison ministry as a prisoner?

AM: At times, it was difficult minis­tering in prison, but there was also joy, especially when you saw prayers answered and lives changed. I didn’t go into prison with a developed or established outreach plan [laughter]. The plan developed as opportunity presented itself.

I preached on Tuesdays and Thursdays and gave Bible studies all through the week. I also had time to translate the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy literature into Portuguese. Then there were the baptismal and Communion services that were so meaningful. In one baptismal service, nine inmates were baptized and joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

DB: What do you think is the spiritual legacy of your time in prison?

AM: I am not sure that I would call it a legacy, but I would like to think I accomplished the mission that Jesus wanted me to do. I went there accused of something I didn’t do. While there I discovered that great needs existed. I had something special to offer, a special work to do, and I did it.

DB: Your ministry will undoubtedly con­tinue. What are some future possibilities that you see?

AM: My desire is to minister to and help people. I will see what God has in the future. I have a pastorate in the Cape Verde Conference. Further, I have a great interest in ministry in prisons and to those who are there. I think I can use my experience to minister in this area and make things better. This is the ministry that Christ encourages, and there is much that can be done in this important area. I am willing to share my testimony with whoever wants to hear it.

DB: What message would you like to share with Adventists and other people around the world who prayed for you and are happy for your freedom?

AM: I have a message, a message of thanks. Tell the whole world church, thank you, thank you, thank you. I am grateful for the love, support, and prayers during the whole time I was in prison. The love of my wife and family, as well as the love of our whole church, will stay with me.

I’m thankful for the support of the Adventist Church; that was a strong witness to the government and people of Togo. It was also a powerful picture to my own country that Adventists are unified and supporters.

I am thankful to Pastor Ted Wilson for his prison visit and ongoing support. I am thankful to Pastor Gilbert Wari and the West-Central Africa Division staff, Pastor Guy Roger (and his team), Pastor Salomon Assienin of the then Sahel Union. Special thanks to you, John Graz, and Ganoune Diop of the General Conference (GC) and Religious Liberty Department who helped me and my family and gave leadership to the global movement to free me. Then I have deep appreciation for the defense attorneys and to Todd McFarland of the GC Legal Department for their good legal advice and defense work.

So I’m thankful for everyone who supported me in every way. Words can never fully express my gratitude. I have so much to be thankful for.

DB: Thank you, Pastor Monteiro, for sharing your inspiring experience and for your message of praise and thanksgiv­ing. I know God will continue to bless your ministry for Him.

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