Portland, Maine — In last month’s column, Mrs. Patricia Silver, director of the 1977 Andrews University Concert Band led an effort to take Romanian language bibles with us on our concert tour in Romania.
The effort originated with a phone call I received from Howard Burbank, who was connected to an underground bible distribution network in Romania, where bibles and religious material were illegal due to the government's strong anti-religious liberty position.
For my safety, I was only told the name of the person (Michael), who would contact me during the trip to arrange the transfer. Michael would give the password, Howard Burbank, a signal that it would be safe to turn the "inventory" over to him.
My naiveté and well-meaning intentions came crashing down quickly when we discovered at the Bucharest airport that our bibles and related religious literature (squirreled away in luggage and instrument cases) were considered "contraband" and strictly illegal in Romania. As I have mentioned in last month’s column, we escaped the airport peril through “an angel in Bucharest.”
With the start of our tour, I needed to get these bibles out of our hands as quickly as possible.
Our guides worked hard and developed rapport with us. Trumpeter Jim Closser had his suitcase damaged and Andre loaned him his own suitcase for Jim to use.
However, we couldn't trust our guides with our bible project as they were employed by the state, whose goal was to obscure and denigrate Christianity. So, we created a code for the "contraband,” referring to the bibles as "candy" or “sweets."
After our concert in Cluj, we were mobbed by the concert goers and besieged by young Romanians seeking our autographs. I had signed half a dozen autographs when Merywn, one of our trumpet players, pushed through the crowd around me holding the arm of a young man in his 30s. "Ted, this guy is asking for you.”
OK, this is it. We quickly went to a corner away from the crowd and Michael, in broken English, asked me to meet him in our hotel lobby in an hour. I told band members that we needed to invoke "the plan" and I needed all their "candy" in my hotel room within 45 minutes. Everyone was prepared and acted as normally as possible. Sub-management of the inventory took place with some members collecting sweets from others and bringing them to my room. As the "contraband" was collected and stacked up on my bed, it became clear I would need help transporting the inventory down to the lobby.
A couple of my band mates helped me carry four suitcases and two boxes all filled with “contraband” down to the lobby. I spotted Michael and he took us out to his car, a Romanian Dacia parked in a far dark corner.
Michael quickly unloaded the boxes and contents of one of the suitcases into the trunk.
Then he unloaded the second suitcase onto the floor of the back seat. Michael suddenly looked up, threw the two remaining suitcases in the back seat over to the right and said with urgency: "Ted, get in; must leave now!"
There was barely room for me in the back seat, where I was sandwiched between the suitcases on both sides. I had to place my feet on the hump in the middle of the floor.
Michael introduced me to his 12-year-old daughter sitting in the front passenger seat, and then high tailed it out of the parking lot.
For the next 20 minutes, we were driving very fast, zigzagging down the streets toward an unknown direction.
Since we left the hotel, Michael and his daughter had been conversing in Romanian. Neither had said one word to me and being left out made me feel uncomfortable. So, I decided to break the ice. "Did you get any damage from the earthquake here?" I asked, referring to a major earthquake that hit Romania in March that year.
Michael responded: “Danger? Yes, we have danger!"
We were being tailed from the hotel and Michael was trying to lose them.
I did not correct him regarding my question as the reality of the situation sank in with me. I began to comprehend the stakes for me if we were apprehended in this car full of "contraband.”
After about 10 more minutes of erratic driving, we finally turned into the driveway of a house on a dark street without lights.
Michael got out, opened my side door. “Safe now,” he said.
Some adults came out of the house and took the inventory from the car into the house. Then they had me sit down in their kitchen where they served me some fresh strawberries and told me what a huge boost our gift would be to them.
As Michael drove me back to the hotel, he instructed me to walk in the lobby and up to my room pretending the suitcases were still full and heavy, which I tried to do.
The tour of the country was a wonderful experience. The Romanians have a beautiful land, and even though their people lived with real hardships, they were some of the warmest and friendliest people I've ever met.
The most popular piece we performed at each concert was "The Battle Hymn of The Republic," with the audience giving us a standing ovation.
Toward the end of our last concert, Mrs. Silver picked up the conductor's copy of "Battle Hymn" and showed it to us, which was our cue that it was our next song.
As we played the first stanza, the audience rose, giving respect as they were aware of the song’s representation of freedom to them.
Toward the end of the song, my part had a rest for a few bars and before the final chorus, I looked out to the audience at Michael who was standing with his daughter.
There were tears streaming down his face.
The truth is marching on
“Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
“His truth is marching on.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.