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Monteiro’s reflections on his detainment in prison

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Monteiro’s reflections on his detainment in prison

Antonio Monteiro was greeted by a crowd of supporters at the aiport in Cape Verde last month following his release from prison in Togo. His detainment had been the focus of several campaigns of the Adventist world church calling for his release. [photo courtesy Monteiro family]

The Adventist pastor’s first interview since his release

February 07, 2014 | Dakar, Senegal | Delbert Baker

Seventh-day Adventist minister Antonio Monteiro dos Anjos was arrested, charged and imprisoned at the Civil Prison in Lome, Togo on March 15, 2012. After 22 months, the Cape Verde native was found innocent of all charges against him by the Togo Appeals Court and released on January 13, 2014. Thousands of Seventh-day Adventists, persons of various faiths, and human rights advocates around the world who had prayed and worked for the freedom of the minister were grateful at the news of his release. Still, others, including Adventist Church member Bruno Amah, remain in prison on charges related to the case.

Monteiro and his family spent the first Sabbath of his freedom in Dakar, Senegal on their way home to Cape Verde. Delbert Baker, a Seventh-day Adventist world church vice president and representative of the world headquarters, met the Monteiros and accompanied them back to Cape Verde. Monteiro received a warm and jubilant welcome from more than a thousand supporters and friends at the Nelson Mandela International Airport in the capitol city of Praia. Baker interviewed Monteiro in Senegal, where he discussed his time in prison, how he felt about his time there, and what he plans to do next.

The Portuguese to English translation was provided by Pastor Monteiro's daughter, Andreia.

REFLECTIONS

Delbert Baker: 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?

Antonio Monteiro: I helped a man who came to my office asking for assistance; a man who 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.

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

Monteiro: 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!

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

Monteiro: 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.

TRIALS

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

Monteiro: 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.

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

Monteiro: No. I was not angry or bitter. I knew there were no basis for the charges against me and that I was being treated unjustly. At first I would always ask, “Why was this happening to me?’ Then I began to ask, “What did 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.  

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

Monteiro: 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 [Bruno] Amah, who I respect and believe to be innocent, and to the believers, that they must continue the work we started. I still to pray that the same God that worked with us in the past will continue to be with them. I remain concerned and supportive.

ACQUITTAL

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

Monteiro: 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.

Baker: 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 re-think about helping others?

Monteiro: 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.   

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

Monteiro: 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.

MINISTRY

Baker: Describe a typical day in prison.

Monteiro: I lived in a prison that was built to hold 500 inmates, but there were almost 2,000 crammed into it. My particular facility had 25-28 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 5:30 p.m. 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 6 a.m. 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.  

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

Monteiro: 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 highpoint 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 and General Conference, and my country, Cape Verde.

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

LESSONS

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

Monteiro: There are many lessons that I learned while in prison. Here are a few. I learned that there is great power in:

First, 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.

Next, 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.

Third, 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,” which summarizes what I sought to demonstrate. It is a powerful word that means hospitality, kindness and love.

Fourth, 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.

Finally, 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, books. I would pray, journal and develop devotionals. I could preach, teach and counsel others. I tried to use my time in constructive ways.

EXAMPLE

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

Monteiro: 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.

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

Monteiro: 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. They 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 2,000 copies 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.

Baker: The typical model of prison ministry is 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?

Monteiro: 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 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.

FUTURE

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

Monteiro: I’m 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.

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

Monteiro: 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. Then I am willing to share my testimony with whoever wants to hear it.

THANKFUL

Baker: 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?

Monteiro: 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—yes, praise the Lord, 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. Then I am thankful to Pastor Wari and the West-Central Africa Division staff, Pastor Guy Roger (and his team), Pastor Solomon Assienin of the then Sahel Union. Special thanks to Dr. John Graz, Dr. Ganoune Diop and you of the GC and Religious Liberty Department who helped me, 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 [Office of General Counsel] for their good legal advice and defense work. I have thanks to the GC, Dr. Baker for you coming to greet and accompany us to Cape Verde after my release from prison.

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.

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