From Extreme Poverty to the Greatest of Riches
AS TOLD BY MANUEL DE JESUS ALMEIDA
I was born in October 1916, the youngest of 17 children. Nine of my older brothers and sisters had died of sickness and malnutrition, so I never knew them. The remaining eight of us lived with our parents in a small village near Porto, Portugal.
OUR humble home consisted of a small living room and one bedroom. Drinking water was obtained from a well nearly a quarter of a mile [about half a kilometer] away, and our cooking facilities were primitive.
As soon as my older brothers were physically able, they started working in the cornfields. Their earnings helped provide some food for the family. With their help I became the only child to receive a little schooling. Although our life was hard, we were extremely faithful to the Catholic Church, hoping that in some way this would help our lives.
During the month of May, the church had what was called the novena. For nine consecutive days, we walked to the church early in the morning while it was still dark. There we prayed, believing that this would bring a blessing from God. We also thought that the priest was a holy man, God’s representative. But, in time, our view changed.
Searching for Something Better
When we failed to pay the church tax, the priest made no allowances for our extreme financial difficulties. This discouraged us. My impression of the church changed radically, so when I was 18, I decided to leave my family to find out if there was not something better in life than working in the fields and disputing with the church. In 1936, I arrived in Lisbon, Portugal’s capital city.
There I met Edminia. Although I felt deceived by religion, we followed custom and got married in the Catholic Church. Then in 1939, World War II began. During the war, I was in charge of 18 warehouses, and we would send off up to 125 truckloads of war materials in a single day.
The horrors of the war along with the deep involvement of the Catholic Church affected me greatly. I wondered, ‘Does God truly care about mankind? How should we worship him?’ Years later in 1954, an elderly gentleman, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, spoke to me regarding questions that I had. This conversation changed my whole life.
Thrilled by the Bible’s Hope
This kind man, Joshua, explained to me that God’s Kingdom is the only solution to the world’s problems and that peace and security will be realized only by means of the Kingdom’s rule. (Matthew 6:9, 10; 24:14) What he said delighted me, but I was reluctant to accept his explanations because of my former experience with religion. When he offered to study the Bible with me, I accepted on the condition that he not ask for money and that he not talk about politics. He agreed, assuring me that what he offered was free.—Revelation 22:17.
My confidence in Joshua grew quickly. So I asked him for something that I had desired since my youth. “Would it be possible to have my own personal copy of the Bible?” After receiving it, how delighted I was to read for the first time from our Creator’s own Word such promises as: “God himself will be with [mankind]. And he will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away”!—Revelation 21:3, 4.
In particular, the Bible promises about the elimination of poverty and sickness were comforting to me. The faithful man Elihu said of God: “He gives food in abundance.” (Job 36:31) And under the righteous rule of God’s Kingdom, the Bible says, “no resident will say: ‘I am sick.’” (Isaiah 33:24) What loving interest Jehovah God has in mankind! How my interest in his promises grew!
I attended my first meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses on April 17, 1954. It was a special meeting—the Memorial celebration of Christ’s death. From that time on, I was very regular at meetings. Soon I began sharing the good things that I was learning with others. In those days in Portugal, we had a picnic every month near the beach, and then we had a baptism. Seven months after Joshua first spoke with me, I made my dedication to Jehovah God and symbolized it by water baptism in the ocean.
Early in 1954 there were only about a hundred Witnesses in all of Portugal. Thus, there was a great need for men to take the lead in the preaching work. I made rapid spiritual progress, and I was soon given responsibilities within the congregation. In 1956, I was appointed congregation servant, as the presiding overseer was then called, in the second congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Lisbon. Today, there are more than a hundred congregations in this city and its suburbs.
Benefited by Showing Hospitality
Even though Edminia and I were limited financially, our door was always open to our Christian brothers. In 1955 a pioneer, as full-time evangelizers of Jehovah’s Witnesses are called, stopped in Portugal while en route from his home in Brazil to the international “Triumphant Kingdom” Assembly in Germany. Because of transportation problems, he stayed in our home for a month, and how we benefited spiritually from his visit!
Other visitors to our home at that time included members of the headquarters family of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York, such as Hugo Riemer and his roommate Charles Eicher. They had dinner with us and gave talks to the Portuguese brothers. Like newly hatched chicks with opened beaks, we waited for the juicy spiritual tidbits that such ones provided.
Traveling overseers of Jehovah’s Witnesses also stayed in our home during their visits. A memorable visitor in 1957 was Álvaro Berecochea, branch overseer of Morocco, who was assigned to visit Portugal to encourage the brothers. He attended the book study in our home, and we insisted that he stay with us for the rest of his time in Portugal. We were deeply blessed and fattened spiritually during his month-long visit, while Álvaro put on weight in a physical way as a result of the good cooking of my dear Edminia.
Extreme poverty, such as I experienced in childhood, can leave a deep impression on a person. Yet, I came to appreciate that the more we give to Jehovah and to his faithful servants, the more he blesses us. Time and again this fact was impressed upon me as we showed hospitality to all we could.
At our convention in Porto in 1955, an announcement was made about the international convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses that was to be held at Yankee Stadium in New York City in 1958. A contribution box was put in each Kingdom Hall in the country—which then were very few—to help finance sending Portuguese delegates to the convention. Can you imagine our rejoicing when my wife and I were selected to be among these delegates? What a joy it was to visit the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn while we were in the United States for the convention!
In 1962 the preaching work of Jehovah’s Witnesses was banned in Portugal, and the missionaries—including Eric Britten, Domenick Piccone, Eric Beveridge, and their wives—were expelled. Afterward, we weren’t permitted to hold our meetings in Kingdom Halls, so we held them secretly in private homes; nor was it possible anymore to have large conventions in Portugal. So it became my responsibility to arrange transportation for our Christian brothers and sisters to attend such conventions in other countries.
To arrange for large numbers of Witnesses to travel to other countries was not easy. Yet, the effort was well worth it, considering the marvelous spiritual benefits that the Portuguese brothers received. What an upbuilding experience it was for them to be in attendance at conventions in Switzerland, England, Italy, and France! Such conventions also provided an opportunity for them to bring back literature into the country. During those years, we made numerous requests to be registered as a religious organization in Portugal, but all these requests were refused.
After the missionaries were expelled early in 1962, the secret police began to intensify its campaign to stop our preaching work. Scores of our brothers and sisters were arrested and brought to court. Documented reports about a number of these events were published in this journal and in its companion magazine, Awake!*
Among those imprisoned for preaching was a pioneer to whom I had introduced the good news of God’s Kingdom. Since the police found my address among his belongings, I was summoned and interrogated.
Later, two police agents visited my home. They confiscated my Bible study aids as well as 13 copies of the Bible. They kept up their harassment, returning a total of seven different times to search our premises. Each time, they barraged us with questions.
Several times I was called upon to testify in behalf of fellow Witnesses in court cases. Though I did not have much secular education, Jehovah gave me ‘wisdom that all opposers together were unable to resist or dispute.’ (Luke 21:15) On one occasion the judge was so amazed by my testimony that he asked what education I had had. All in the courtroom laughed when I said that I had gone only as far as the fourth grade.
As the persecution increased, so did the number of those who responded to the Kingdom message. Thus, the fewer than 1,300 Witnesses in Portugal in 1962 grew to over 13,000 by 1974! In the meantime, in May 1967, I was invited to serve as a traveling overseer. In this work I visited congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses to strengthen them spiritually.
Enjoying the Greatest of Riches
In December 1974, I was privileged to be involved in the registration that legalized the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Portugal. The following year my wife and I became members of the Bethel family of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Estoril. I was also appointed to serve as a member of the Portugal Branch Committee.
What a joy it has been to see the preaching work prosper in Portugal and in the territories under the supervision of our branch! These include Angola, the Azores, Cape Verde, Madeira, and São Tomé and Príncipe. Over the years it has been thrilling to see missionaries from Portugal sent out to serve in these lands, where tremendous interest in the Kingdom message has been shown. Imagine our rejoicing now to have more than 88,000 Kingdom proclaimers in these places, including more than 47,000 in Portugal! The Memorial attendance in these countries in 1998 topped 245,000, compared with less than 200 when I became a Witness in 1954.
Edminia and I concur wholeheartedly with the Bible psalmist who said that “a day in [Jehovah’s] courtyards is better than a thousand elsewhere.” (Psalm 84:10) When I think back to my humble beginnings and compare them with the spiritual riches that I have since enjoyed, I feel as did the prophet Isaiah: “O Jehovah, you are my God. I exalt you, I laud your name, for you have done wonderful things . . . For you have become a stronghold to the lowly one, a stronghold to the poor one.”—Isaiah 25:1, 4.
See Awake! of May 22, 1964, pages 8-16, and The Watchtower of October 1, 1966, pages 581-92.
[Pictures on page 24]
Top: Brother Almeida in Lisbon announcing the arrangement to send delegates to the 1958 New York convention
Middle: Conducting a model servants’ meeting at the “Peace on Earth” International Assembly in Paris
Bottom: Chartered buses getting ready for a district convention in France
[Picture on page 25]
Conducting morning worship at Portugal branch
[Picture on page 25]
Portugal branch, dedicated in 1988
[Picture on page 26]
Brother Hugo Riemer’s talks encouraged us when he visited from Brooklyn Bethel
[Picture on page 26]
With my wife