The Autobiography of Elder Helvecio Martins
Mark Grover, Helvecio Martins
Aspen Books , 1994.
Suggested retail price: $12.95 (US)
Believers of any faith or creed generally look to their leaders for inspiration and guidance. For this same reason many LDS people look to the biographies of great LDS men and women to find the magic ingredient to leading an exemplary and, hopefully, celestial life. I am no different. When I first saw the biography of Elder Helvecio Martins sitting on the shelf I felt a desire to learn a bit more about this most extraordinary man. He is a native of Brazil, where I spent two years trying to share with his countrymen the message that as a General Authority of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints he is sharing with the entire world. And on a personal level, not only was he from Brazil but, I once had the opportunity to speak with him. (No big deal, I saw him at Deseret Books in the ZCMI Center near the Salt Lake Temple). Oh yeah, he was also the first Black General Authority, an item of interest for many people, myself included. So, it was with these thoughts I read his autobiography, all the while hoping to have my testimony strengthened and my understanding of endurance increased.
The book itself is small, 131 pages plus an introductory preface. I read it in a matter of hours. My first impression was that I was reading not an academic study of a great man but the stories of a Grandfather to his grandchildren. The book is actually a translation from Portuguese of conversations between a bedridden Martins (he was recovering from back surgery) and a BYU librarian named Mark Grover. I found myself a bit disappointed with the somewhat disjointed nature of the story and the lack of detail in many of the stories Elder Martins relates. For example, Elder Martins, in sharing a pivotal conversation between himself and the Missionaries that taught him, asks the following question: "...how does your religion treat blacks? Are they allowed into the church?" (Remember, this is 1972 -- six years before President Kimball's revelation and announcement.) Instead of giving the Elder's response he tells the reader that the Elders offered a prayer and then engaged in a question and answer session with the Martins family. In the book Elder Martins says "During that four-and-a-half-hour discussion, we dealt with the issue of blacks and the priesthood. The missionaries' explanation seemed clear to me and, more important, I accepted the practice as the will of the Lord." This drought of information left me more than dry, it left me frustrated. I was reading the book in order to feel the absolute devotion of this man to his conviction and to the will of the Lord. And here, in the moment of conversion, the apex of personal integrity I learn nothing more than the Elders answered well whatever questions Helvecio Martins asked of them.
After days of stewing in my frustration I found a certain level of solace. Does the Book of Mormon give us the details of Alma's repentance? Or, of Enos's conversion? No. Has Moroni ever hand-delivered the answers to my prayers? Again, no. Whether this was the authors' intention or not, I learned a lesson here: Helvecio Martins and his family believed, they believed and they acted accordingly. Here was the pearl of wisdom I was searching for when I picked up the book. Yes, I have a problem with Elder Martins claim that he, with only one minor exception, has never experience racism in the Church. But, more importantly I learn that whatever racism he has seen it has not become the focus of his attention. The simplicity of form and prose in his biography, I feel, merely mirror the path of his life. As a pseudo-academician, I throw this work out as less than academic. As a Latter-Day Saint who daily struggles with mostly self-imposed barriers to a truly Celestial life, I embrace this work as a reminder of the simplicity of the faith that guides my life. In the end the value of this book is dependant upon the intention of the reader.
© 1995 Jim Maxwell