By Theodore Lewis
An angel in Bucharest
Portland, Maine — My participation as part of a musical group began in my high school band days at Adelphian Academy in Holly, Michigan, under the guidance of our beloved director, Dan Shultz.
This musical experience continued into my college days, and in 1977 I was a bass trombonist and proud member of the Andrews University Concert Band in Berrien Springs, Michigan, under the direction of Patricia Silver.
Our band was invited to tour the country of Romania and perform concerts in eight of their cities between May 26 and June 16, 1977, representing the organization Friendship Ambassadors, whose mission was to improve relations and understanding between culturally diverse groups of people through mediums such as music.
A few weeks before our departure, I received a phone call from Howard Burbank, an individual I met earlier. He was the head of an international relief organization. Howard explained to me that Romania was one of the worst countries for religious freedom in the world at that time and there was an acute shortage of Bibles there. He asked me to approach our director to see whether she would be willing to take Bibles and related material into the country with us.
Pat gave her consent, and Howard put me in touch with The American Bible Society who would ship Bibles in the Romanian language to us at little cost.
Howard told me I would be contacted some time during the trip by a "Michael" who would mention Howard Burbank's name. We could then turn the Bibles over to him.
On the date of our final band practice before departure, I brought the more than 200 Bibles and other related books and some materials for children, and set them on tables in our rehearsal room.
Most every member took home several Bibles to pack in their luggage and instrument cases. This was a significant commitment as we were only allowed one personal checked bag for two people because of all the band instruments.
Our flight was on Tarom, the Romanian Airline, flying from New York's JFK to Bucharest with a stop in Amsterdam. Most of the space on the flight was taken up by three groups representing Friendship Ambassadors. Besides our 50-plus member Andrews University band, there was the Kilgore (Texas) College Rangerette Drill Team and a brass choir from Walla Walla College in the state of Washington.
As our flight broke through the fog just prior to touchdown in Bucharest, our first glimpse of Romania really stunned us. There were anti-aircraft guns and soldiers with machine guns surrounding the entire airport.
Whatever our expectations of the official entrance and welcome, we were all taken back by the large dark and drab room that served as baggage claim and immigration authorization into the country.
As our band gathered, we were introduced to our two official guides and escorts for the trip, Andre and Mirela. Andre was in his 30s, had a mustache and was very mild mannered. Mirela was in her 20s, tall and slim and not so mild mannered. During her introduction, she informed us proudly that she was an official member of the communist party.
After retrieving our bags and instruments from the conveyor belt, we, along with the Kilgore and Walla Walla groups, were herded into three separate crowds at one end of the room. In the middle of the room were four long tables that had military personnel at each table.
The Kilgore group went first and then the Walla Walla group. Every member of each group had to place their personal bags and instrument cases on the tables, where every bag and instrument case was opened and inspected.
As the Walla Walla group was having their bags and instruments scrutinized, I asked our guide Mirela, who was standing between Mrs. Silver and myself, why the bags and instruments were being so thoroughly searched.
Her response: "They are looking for contraband.”
Mrs. Silver then asked Mirela what the definition of contraband was. Mirela replied, "Drugs, pornography and religious literature such as Bibles."
What? Bibles? Contraband?
Neither Mrs. Silver nor myself said anything, but I could see a lump forming in her throat, and I could feel the same happening to me.
Time seemed to stand still as we watched each Walla Walla member's bag and instrument case rummaged through as if the crown jewels were missing.
Mrs. Silver and I dared not talk, but we were both wondering what would happen to us. We could explain our personal Bibles, but multiple Bibles in each bag and instrument case, and all in the Romanian language?
What was the penalty for trying to smuggle contraband? Would we be sent back to the U.S.? Would we be arrested and thrown into jail?
All we could do was pray that God would deliver us from this incredibly precarious situation.
All of the Walla Walla bags were inspected and they were finally ushered into the main part of the airport.
Mirela instructed us to pick up our bags and instruments and get in line behind one of the inspection tables.
As I picked up my suitcase in one hand that had several Romanian Bibles, my heart was beating very rapidly. Then, as I picked up my trombone case in the other hand that had some Bibles and dozens of children Bible memory verse cards, our attention was diverted by an official looking woman who has just entered the room from a side door.
In a very authoritarian tone, she instructed our guides and group to follow her. We were led in single file past the inspection tables and directly to an exit that we proceed through to the outside where our buses were waiting and not one of our bags or instrument cases were opened.
As we set our belongings down by the buses, where Andre and Mirela started discussing boarding arrangements with the drivers, Mrs. Silver and I looked to speak with the official who had just led us out of the airport.
She had been there, but disappeared, nowhere to be seen. She could not have walked back to the airport without us seeing her.
She evaporated into thin air.
Although we do not know her name, we know that we have just seen An Angel in Bucharest.
Theodore Lewis is former CEO of Guam Memorial Hospital and has a health care consulting business based out of Portland, Maine. He is collecting stories about lessons learned in life and can be reached at email@example.com.