Denise and I declared our belief in Baha’u’llah on this date, March 19, 1973, in our home on Lajes Air Force Base, Terceira, Azores, Portugal. It’s our 36th anniversary as Baha’is.
Tomorrow at sunset an annual celebration begins with the NawRuz Holy Day, the first day of the New Year in the Baha’i calendar. Three more Holy Days will be celebrated beginning at sunset on April 20, a twelve day festival called Ridvan, which ends on May 2nd.
We each made our declaration independently, although we were about ten feet apart and could hear each other in conversation with our Baha’i friends, Gary and Maddie Papermaster. It was about 2:30 AM. Gary asked me whether I had thought about becoming a Baha’i. I’ve learned since in similar circumstances that it takes guts to ask that question. It’s that personal. I made the decision that moment. It was a born-again experience in which my spirit soared, while my mind and body were anchored, unable to resist.
Many circumstances of the moment were unique. Gary and Maddie were nearing the end of the annual 19 Day Baha’i Fast. Up in the middle of the night, they might as well have stayed up until sunrise, when daily fasting begins. (No food or drink sunrise to sunset). We observed our first Fast for only 36 hours. In hindsight it seemed like cheating to put off our declaration until the end of the Fast, but the timing of our declaration had nothing to do with our fasting. If Maddie and Gary’s visit was a planned teaching opportunity, only they knew it. Our study of the Baha’i scriptures, prayerful reflection, and ongoing discussions had lasted over a year before the decision. The fact that we were so isolated in the Azores from any negative influence, or anyone from our strong Lutheran and Roman Catholic familes and churches to talk us out of it, was a major contibuting factor. It was the essence of the Baha’i principle of independent investigation of Truth. Denise had made her decision weeks before, but said nothing to me or the Papermasters until that night.
The Papermasters visited our home many times in the village of Praia, where they lived a short distance up the street from our flat. They lived in relative poverty compared to what we could get, because I was an Air Force officer. Off-base housing in Praia was excellent. We could buy American food at the base commissary, and had excellent medical care at the base hospital. We could receive Baha’i literature through our APO mail, while such materials were prohibited through the Portuguese post office. We learned from them the best of what Azorean cuisine and culture had to offer. Some of our Air Force friends were afraid to buy food at local outdoor markets. Health concerns were justified. Denise made sure fresh baked chocolate chip cookies were always on hand. Hot dogs were a treat. Things you could not get at a village market. Gary brought us the fresh catch of the day directly from the fishermen.
The late night visit on March 19 was normal. I worked shifts at the weather office on base. The swing shift was over at 11 PM. Maddie and Gary came over to play cards, usually canasta, to help me unwind, but Maddie always got wound up, and we all stayed up too late. If there was a long discussion about religion before our declaration, I don’t remember it, but it was often my questions from my studies of the Baha’i Writings that started about the time they got up to leave.
We had only occupied on-base housing for a few weeks before the night of our declaration. The house was an exceptionally nice upgrade from what we had in town. Baha’i teaching often involves a “fireside” informal presentation or discussion. We hosted our own firesides before we became Baha’is. On base we had a real fireplace, and a man who delivered half a cord of wood for $5. Many things fell into place to make our declaration a memorable experience, and it usually is a sacred moment.
Baha’i Pioneers go to many countries specifically to teach the Baha’i Faith. The expectation is that you have the economic means to get there, set up housing, and provide for yourself by getting a job locally. The Papermasters quickly exhausted their meager life savings. The Portuguese government at the time was a Fascist dictatorship; Caitano was President. The local Catholic priest in Praia was strict about what would happen if you did business with or hired a Baha’i. It’s not unusual in our own neighborhood in Northeast Minnesota to hear someone, even a friend who wonders if it’s ok to ask, speaking misinformation of the same kind about our religion, but we don’t get outright persecution. Maddie and Gary were lucky to get part time jobs from locals who didn’t care what the priest said. Like our community here, it was a small town culture scattered over the whole 19 x 12 mile island, and everybody knew what was going on.
We, in fact, had unknowingly performed as Baha’i pioneers should for about a year and a half, but only for three months at the end of my tour of duty were we declared believers. We returned to Minnesota in July 1973, when I was honorably discharged from the Air Force. Eight year commitment reduced to six years, because of the rapid draw down of forces at the end of the Vietnam War.
Shortly after we left the Azores, there was a Communist revolution in Portugal. A newspaper reporter from the neighboring Island of San Miguel came to interview a Baha’i jeweler in Praia, because his was the largest file found in the office of the secret police. We didn’t meet him until 1995. He had complied with the government restrictions on religion. The police files had all the best Baha’i pamphlets, and some opposing religious views. Conclusion: idealists, not a threat.