Seeking frontiers prepared convert to be a pioneer

A fascination for frontiers served well for Milton Soares Jr., the pioneer member in northern Brazil.

Brother Soares, 79, has been an exemplary member since 1960 when he was the first person in vast northern Brazil to join the Church. He served as the first local president of the Recife Branch, first local president of the Recife District, and executive secretary to a mission president.While he is recognized as the first member in the area, he said, "There are many, many pioneers here. To be first was not difficult because all the attention was given to me." He added an insight: "It did not take courage to be the first member here; it took faith."

Today, as high priests group leader, he channels his pioneering spirit into magnifying his calling. He works closely with new converts to help them begin family history research and to submit family names for temple work.

He and his wife, Irene Bandeira Soares, live in a home filled with mementos. On shelves are relics from the Amazon Indian tribes, pictures of a prize catfish, a pilot's license, parachuting photos, boxing champion trophies, and company executive credentials. These items are from chapters of a remarkable life.

It was into this life that the gospel came, an unlikely contender against so much adventure. But today the gospel reigns supreme. The relics of adventure are pushed to the back to make room for Church books that now occupy most of the space.

His penchant for exploring frontiers began when he left home as a young man at 17. He asked for a ticket to the last station on the train track and never returned home for help in making his way in the world. He got a job helping complete the first railroad between Brazil and Bolivia. During this time, he became a proficient boxer and later was boxing champion of the state. He next became a private pilot and learned to fly when airplanes were a novelty. He became a private pilot for state government leaders. He also learned to skydive from airplanes. He became a farm manager, bought into a floor covering company, purchased a sailboat and became a scuba diver. He also caught a near-record giant ocean catfish weighing 520 lbs. He also became acquainted with five tribes indigenous to the Amazon area, bought trinkets from them and set up a business selling the trinkets at airports.

It was during his sailboat period in 1960 that the missionaries came.

His wife, Irene, was outside in her yard when she saw the pair of young men at a park in front of the Soares' home. They approached her, and she wondered who they were. "They identified themselves and when I invited them to come in, they said, `No. We prefer to come when your husband is home,' " she remembered. "That gave me great confidence in those young men. I trusted them right at first."

Elder Michael W. Norton, the senior companion, was assigned by Pres. Wm. Grant Bangerter, now General Authority emeritus, to open Recife. He and his companion, Elder Stanley W. Dunn, arrived in Recife April 2, 1960, and met the Soares family a short time later. The first sacrament meeting of the Recife Branch was held May 2.

In his journal, Elder Norton had written earlier that he felt he was being prepared for a great work.

"I was `crowded' in my progress, pushed to the limit, and learned very rapidly," he wrote.

After he met with Pres. Bangerter and learned he had been assigned to Recife, a city on the equator that was 900 miles from the nearest organized branch, he observed: "Naturally I'm a bit nervous. Our success or failure will determine whether or not half a nation [now] hears the gospel. It is our divine responsibility to succeed, as the first missionaries to Europe had to succeed."

After meeting Sister Soares, he wrote:

"To begin with, the woman's eyes lit up when we knocked on the gate." That evening the missionaries returned to meet with her husband, "who had no religion because none of them answered the mysteries. Excited, we explained the mystery of the Godhead - but he didn't get excited."

Further lessons also failed to excite Milton Soares. He did attend Sunday services along with some 25 others, including a few hecklers.

Brother Soares explained his feelings at the time: "I thought that if God wanted me to go to church, He would come to me and say, `Milton, you must be baptized in that church.' " When that didn't happen, he continued sailing his boat on Sunday, an activity he enjoyed very much. "I am close to God in my sailboat," he told the missionaries.

A month later, he asked the missionaries not to return. But before leaving, the missionaries asked their investigator to pray sincerely about the truthfulness of the gospel. Elder Norton's home ward, Centerville (Utah) 2nd, fasted and prayed that his efforts to found the Church in Recife would be successful.

Brother Soares recalled: "I prayed that afternoon, and at night before I went to bed, I decided to read a little from one of about 200 books on my bookshelves. I took the book How to Avoid Worries and Begin to Live, by Dale Carnegie. I read a passage stating that you `do not need to know how electricity works to use it to your benefit. . . . Why should anyone have to understand God to have faith in Him?'

"When I read it twice or three times, I realized this was advice for me."

The next time he met the missionaries, he asked to be baptized. On May 15, 1960, the missionaries told him of the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood; he asked to baptized that day.

Elder Norton wrote to his family, "Milton and his family may be the cornerstone for us to build on."

So on Sunday, May 15 at 7 a.m., Elder Norton walked out into the Atlantic surf and baptized Brother Soares beneath a wave. Northern Brazil's first convert was confirmed in Sunday School and even gave a 15-minute talk about his conversion in sacrament meeting that evening. Sister Soares was baptized shortly afterwards.

The first services were held in a rented hall made over from a ship; it was 10 feet wide and 50 feet long, windowless and very hot. Rickety chairs were rented and an old white towel was used to cover the sacrament.

One week Sister Soares crafted a beautiful cloth for the sacrament table with bright red and green flowers. The missionaries gently explained to her that only white coverings were used on the sacrament. The old white towel was used again that week. The branch gained a reputation as "a very poor" congregation.

The convert, undeterred by the fact that he was the only member, began to do missionary work.

"I told my friends that the true Church of Christ was here, and gave them the address. They asked how many members were in it. I told them, Just one,' and they said,How can it be the true Church if it has just one member?' "

When Pres. Bangerter visited the Recife Branch June 12, he was pleased with the progress of the Church. Although few people turned out for Sunday School, 31 attended sacrament meeting, including 12 members, and the prayers and talks were given by members. Elders Norton and Dunn were grateful for the attendance. They were particularly pleased to hear Pres. Bangerter remark that this was the fastest growing branch in the Church.

Soon a larger hall was rented and the facilities improved. By the time Elder Norton was transferred at the end of June, the branch numbered 20 members, all of whom were active.

Over the next decades, Brother Soares served faithfully, amid the paced growth of the Church. After the 1978 revelation on the priesthood, missionary work increased in northern Brazil. The Recife Brazil Stake was created on Oct. 31, 1981, with Brother and Sister Soares' son, Iraja B., called as the first stake president. On April 5, 1997, Iraja was sustained as an area authority and member of the new Fourth Quorum of the Seventy.

When a temple was announced for Recife in 1995, members throughout northern Brazil rejoiced. Among them were the Soares family.

"I think the temple will be very good for northern Brazil," said Brother Soares. "It is a very long way to go to Sao Paulo. Now we can go to the temple every week. We'll be there. And another thing: We'll work in the temple if it is possible."

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