In 1972 Helvecio Martins led a department of over two hundred employees in Brazil’s major oil business Petrobras and socialized with the country’s elite, but he joined a church where he could not hold the priesthood.
By Helvecio Martins, with Mark Grover
Our lives only began to change when I made my first feeble attempt to contact the source of all truth-God-in what couldn’t exactly be called a prayer. It was more of a cry for help. One night I got stuck in a traffic jam on the way home from work. The cars-all stopped in an area called Maracana near the world’s largest soccer stadium-seemed motionless in an interminably long line. So, with the moon and stars shining on a clear April night, I got out of the car and looked up at the sky.
“My God,” I thought, “I know you are there some place, but I don’t know where. Is it possible you don’t see the confusion my family and I are experiencing? Is it possible you don’t realize we are searching for something and that we don’t even know what it is? Why don’t you help us? Why don’t you help us find that something that will bring us relief, satisfaction, joy?”
After I had uttered my plea, the traffic cleared up and I returned home, quickly forgetting about the incident. But Heavenly Father had not forgotten. I had prayed as earnestly as I knew how to at the time, and my request had been heard. Two weeks later, we returned from a short trip to Belo Horizonte to find a nicely printed card under our door. On one side was a painting of Christ, on the other, a meeting schedule for a local chapel. Missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints left the card.
Intrigued, I took the card to work the next day and told my assistants. “Look at this card I found under my door about the church on Maxwell Street. I would like to go there.”
One of them replied, “That is a church for North Americans. If you don’t know a member, I wouldn’t even try to go, because you can only enter with another member. They won’t let you in.” Because I had been a member of the Freemasons for several years and knew that the only way to enter a Masonic meeting was to attend with a member, I assumed the Church operated the same way. Consequently, I didn’t even try to go to the LDS Church.
However, the Lord had heard my request on that unusual night and wanted to help me. A few days later, two missionaries came to our apartment. I was in a terrible mood that night after a frustrating day at work and, after a brief hello, told Ruda: “I don’t want to see anybody. I don’t even want dinner. I’m going to take a shower and go to bed. If someone calls, I’m not home.” So Ruda quickly informed the children that Daddy was not to be bothered, and they went to their rooms.
The doorbell rang after I had changed my clothes. I hurriedly headed for the bathroom, telling Ruda, “Remember, I’m not home!” But something persuaded me to leave the door open just a crack, and I clearly heard Ruda’s voice saying, “Yes, he would like to talk to you, but he is tired and taking a shower. Then he’s going right to bed. Could you possibly come back another day?” I didn’t hear the response, but after the visitor left, I asked Ruda who had come. She replied that those “two young men from that church you wanted to visit” had just come, and I cried, “Go and bring them back!” She scurried down into the street and retrieved the young men. It was around eight-thirty in the evening.
Into my home came Elder Thomas McIntire from California, the older of the two missionaries, and his companion, Elder Steve Richards from Atlanta, Georgia. Elder McIntire was obviously nervous when he saw me, a big, tall black man standing in the middle of the living room with his hands on his hips. But I, on the other hand, was feeling much better. In fact, the moment those two young men stepped into our apartment, all of my gloom and spiritual discomfort immediately disappeared and was replaced by a calm and serenity that I now know came from the influence of the Holy Spirit. An extraordinary feeling of relief overcame me as I greeted those missionaries and invited my two children into the room.
After everyone was seated, the missionaries said they were representatives of the Lord Jesus Christ and they had a blessing for our family if we would like one. I told them yes, but stated that I first had some questions I would like them to answer. First, we talked in general terms about the Church. Then I asked the question I now realize God had prepared these young men spiritually to handle. I also realize now that God had prepared me and my family to hear their response. “Given that your church is headquartered in the United States,” I began, “a country with a history of racial conflict, how does your religion treat blacks?” Are they allowed into the church?”
The year was 1972-six years prior to the priesthood revelation allowing Blacks to hold the priesthood. Elder McIntire initially went red in the face and nervously squirmed in his chair. Then he asked our permission to have a prayer, which we agreed to, and afterward began giving what I now realize was the first missionary discussion. The elders continued talking. I kept asking questions, the most pertinent of which they responded to. Before we knew it, the hour was one in the morning, and those missionaries had given us, I again realize in retrospect, most of the missionary lessons. During that four-and-a-half hour discussion, we dealt with the issue of Blacks and the priesthood. The missionaries’ explanations seemed clear to me and, more important, I accepted the practice as the will of the Lord.
Before leaving, Elder McIntire asked if I would pray. We knelt together, the missionaries and my family, and I gave my first unmemorized public prayer. A testimony began to grow in all of our hearts that night, and we made another appointment with the elders. Late as it was, my wife and I continued to talk about all we had heard. We had found answers to our questions. We weren’t confused anymore. Calmness, serenity, and happiness had entered our home.
For Helvecio and Ruda Martins, questions about the priesthood were far less important than the joy they felt in finding the Lord. They were surprised to find that others didn’t always feel the same.
As we continued coming to and participating in the Church, many members seemed amazed, even sometimes shocked, that we, as Blacks could stay active without holding the priesthood. Some expressed surprise that we didn’t lapse into inactivity and rarely a week went by without someone asking us how we felt about not holding the priesthood. I researched and studied the question, not for personal interest or because I harbored doubts, but simply in order to respond adequately to the many who were curious about the Church’s position. Frequently, Church leaders asked us to bear our testimonies in firesides and even speak to groups about the doctrine of the priesthood.
As for Ruda, myself, and my family, we knew the Church was true, and that was all that mattered. Yet others seemed agitated by our family’s lack of concern over the priesthood policy. “If I were in your situation,” said one member, “I don’t believe I would stay in the Church.” I replied that I was sorry to hear that, but was sure that, were he in my situation, he would feel differently. Our bishop once remarked, “Helvecio, I believe your greatest challenge is to stay in the Church without the priesthood.”
I responded by saying, “Bishop, I would be grateful if it were my greatest trial. Of course, I realize that I could serve in many more ways with the priesthood, but I in no way feel inferior without it. In fact, I feel things are a bit easier for me compared to you and all of your responsibilities. The Lord expects a great deal from you as a priesthood holder. I sincerely pray for you and want you to always remember your duty. My family and I are dependent upon your priesthood. Remain worthy and faithful, and we will always enjoy the blessings you have for us.”
There were even some members, fortunately only a few, who seemed bothered by our devoutness. Oddly enough, they criticized our struggle to live the things we were taught and even mockingly asked questions about our beliefs. While we felt concern for these members, we did not allow their uncharitable attitudes to affect our activity in the Church. We continued to do what we felt was the Lord’s will and to appreciate the good example of the many faithful members we knew.
Even though Ruda and I knew all things would be restored in the last days, we felt that we would only receive the blessings that would come with my holding the priesthood in the Millennium. Perhaps we believed the way we did as a defense mechanism, wanting to protect ourselves from any disappointments that false hope could entail. But for some reason, we never harbored expectations that any sort of change or revelation would occur during our mortal lives.
Still, we could not forget certain comments and observations fellow members would sometimes make. “Brother Martins,” Heliton Lemos once said, “faithful members like you have demonstrated your claim on the priesthood to the Lord. I have no doubt that one day you will receive the priesthood.” While we appreciated those demonstrations of good will and concern, we also consciously made an effort not to allow them to affect our lives as Latter-day Saints. We asked the Lord only for more faith, stronger testimonies, and the strength to serve.
The Lord, however, had more in mind for us. In the years following our conversion and preceding that remarkable June day in 1978, when the prophet Spencer W. Kimball announced that all worthy male members of the Church could hold the priesthood, we experienced remarkable premonitory spiritual manifestations of what was to come. Still, we could not bring ourselves to even hope that the priesthood would soon be ours. In retrospect, of course, it is obvious the Lord used those years to prepare us for the revelation, even granting us encouragement from the prophet himself on several occasions. But we were slow to believe.
Strong spiritual promptings began for us in 1973 when Ruda, Marcus and I received extraordinary patriarchal blessings-extraordinary because they promised blessings that, at the time, seemed impossible for our family to fulfill. The patriarch informed me that I would be privileged to live on the earth in the joy of an eternal covenant. Ruda received the same assurance. But how? How could we enjoy an eternal covenant when, as Blacks, we could not go through the temple to be sealed?
Just as unusual was Marcus’s blessing. In it, he was promised that he would preach the gospel to righteous families. Other parts of the blessing led us to believe he would serve a full-time mission. Again, how could this happen without the priesthood? We left the home of the patriarch confused, later deciding not to dwell too much on what had been said. We carefully tried not to let the promises in our blessings upset the tranquility of our lives. Nevertheless, we couldn’t ignore personal prophecy from God; we opened a mission savings account for Marcus Helvecio. Today, when I read my blessing, I shed tears at the significance and inspiration of the patriarch’s words to my family that day.
Then in 1975, spiritual experiences foreshadowing the priesthood revelation began occurring to us in earnest when President Spencer W. Kimball announced the construction of the Sao Paulo Temple. I was called to be a member of the public relations communications committee for the temple dedication and often attended meetings in Sao Paulo. One day, after one of these meetings, Ruda and I toured the construction site of the much-anticipated temple, which we never expected to enter. As we walked on the uncompleted main floor, we both stopped at a certain place-a place that, we learned only later, was the very spot of the future celestial room. A powerful spirit touched our hearts as we stood there. We hugged each other and cried, not really understanding why.
In 1977, Ruda and I again met the prophet President Spencer W. Kimball, who once again helped us to spiritually prepare for what was to come. On this particular occasion, the prophet had flown to Sao Paulo for the cornerstone-laying ceremony for the Sao Paulo Temple. He sat on a platform with his counselor President Marion G. Romney. Elder Faust, and other leaders. I was busily involved below with other members of the public relations committee. With the help of Douglas Borba of the Church’s media company, Bonneville International, we assisted reporters from various newspapers, magazines and television-radio stations.
Before the ceremony began, I glanced up at the stand and could see that President Kimball was looking in my direction. He motioned his finger for me to come and speak to him. I turned away, not believing his gesture could be meant for me, and continued with my duties. Still, I couldn’t help looking at him again. Smiling, the prophet repeated the signal, which I again could not believe was meant for me. Finally, he whispered something to Elder Faust, who then repeated the gesture and mouthed the words, “Helvecio, come here.”
I excused myself from Brother Borba and went up to the stand. President Kimball stood up, gave me a hug, asked how I was doing, and introduced me to President Romney. Then the prophet put his arm around me, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Brother Martins, what is necessary for you is fidelity. Remain faithful and you will enjoy all the blessings of the gospel.”
I must have shown my confusion at this unusual counsel, because President Kimball obviously perceived my uneasiness. Believing I had not understood his words, he spoke to Elder Faust, and I think, asked him to explain the significance of this advice to me later.
I excused myself and left the stand, perplexed by the words of the prophet. Concentrating on my responsibilities proved difficult, but I tried to carry on. At the ceremony’s end, President Kimball passed by the front of the line where I stood. He stopped when he reached me, took my hand with a strong grip, and, holding my arm with his other hand, told me, “Don’t forget, Brother Martins, don’t forget.” Then he went on.
While I could never forget that encounter, its meaning became clearer to me only when Elder Faust presided over a stake conference in Rio de Janeiro months later. Before introducing Elder Faust as the last speaker, the stake president requested that everyone in the audience remain seated so that our visitor could depart quickly to the airport for a flight to Sao Paulo. As the stake president spoke, Elder Faust handed a note to the stake executive secretary, who then brought it to me. “Could you please accompany me to the airport?” Elder Faust wanted to know. After the closing prayer, when Elder Faust walked into the congregation, I got up and left with him.
We took my car, and I drove quickly, thinking Elder Faust was late. “No,” he said, “you don’t need to go too fast. We have enough time.” So I slowed down to enjoy Elder Faust’s lively conversation. Before we reached the airport, he asked me if I remembered President Kimball’s counsel. Had I correctly understood his words? I explained what I thought the prophet had told me and admitted that the experience perplexed me. Elder Faust then went on to explain that the Lord expected the same level of faith from everyone, even the prophet-thus I shouldn’t think that the Lord expected greater faithfulness from me than from any of his other children. We all simply need to remain faithful, for only then do we have the right to God’s blessings. “The promises of the Lord,” Elder Faust told me, “will be fulfilled only in the lives of faithful servants.”
On June 8, 1978, I returned home from a typical day at work to find Ruda extremely excited. Two women were with her, one of them Yara Lucia, the daughter of Ruda’s friend Teresinha Bezerra dos Santos. “I have news, amazing news!” Ruda cried as I came through the door. “Rosana Wilken called Yara from the United States. The First Presidency just announced the prophet’s revelation: the priesthood will now be given to all men, regardless of race! Helvecio, you will hold the priesthood.”
I could not respond. Was it actually true? It couldn’t be-we never expected it. Yet, would Yara and her friend come to our house with this news if it were not true? Still, I resisted believing this incredible report. Then our phone, which had been broken, suddenly rang. My associate from Bonneville International, Douglas Borba, told me from the other end, “I’m calling from Salt Lake City. The First Presidency just made the announcement about a priesthood revelation. I have the official declaration in my hands and I’m going to read it to you.” He proceeded to read. My doubts disappeared. The foretold restoration had arrived.
Helvecio Martins was sustained to the Second Quorum of Seventy March 31, 1990 and released September 30, 1995.
The Autobiography of Elder Helvecio Martins
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