Leaving with Pastor Togba and Bro. Trexler, we headed across Monrovia. To understand a little better what I saw next, the reader should be aware that Liberia had been one of the most modern countries in West Africa, if not in the entire continent. Running water, sewage, and electricity was common place, particularly in the large cities. People turned on a light switches as if commonplace. Women washed and dried their clothes in Maytag and Whirlpool appliances, and people drove to and from work in newer vehicles on paved roads bathed in the glow of electric streetlights.
Liberia was certainly a country that had plenty and it appeared she had been blessed by God. Religious services were abundant with churches from many denominations dotting every other street corner. But then war struck – hard! In the end, estimates of over 250,000 were killed and more than 1 million were displaced from their homes. Sadly, much of the killing, rampaging, looting, raping, etc. was conducted by children soldiers fighting only because they would have been killed by the militia group that held them captive.
It is hard to describe the land of Liberia in mere words for every aspect of this beautiful land assaults every one of the senses. Driving through Monrovia, the first thing you feel is the oppressive heat and accompanying humidity. The perspiration pooling on your forehead is almost forgotten as your nose wrinkles at all the smells which include: food cooking in roadside cafes that in America would constitute nothing more than a run-down backyard shed, burning rubber, open raw sewage ditches, and the ever present odors from trash-filled streets. Dust carries the taste of Liberia as it settles into your pores mixing with perspiration.
The streets reverberate with the sound of clamoring voices in marketplaces, the myriad of car and motorbike horns (no matter the time of day or night), and the occasional street preaching huckster striving to con more people out of their money with empty promises of huge blessings from God. The health, wealth, and prosperity gospel has been fully assimilated into Liberian culture as its evil tentacles have enslaved many countries around the world. On another corner, one of 34 languages would ring out as the speaker hailed a fellow tribesman.
The sense that struggles the most is that of sight. Your other senses have learned to pinpoint a certain trigger like the smell of burning rubber or the sound of a car horn. The saying is true that a picture is worth a thousand words, but a picture in Liberia is probably worth more than that. It is impossible to take a snapshot of a town or city in Liberia and adequately convey to the viewer all that the picture means.
Having just spent a restless night and already quite tired, I struggled to understand what my eyes had never seen before. Burnt-out vehicles dotted the roads and filled disease-filled pools or rivers. Every house, wall, office, and church pockmarked with uncounted bullet holes. Rockets left their mark with the evidence being destroyed bridges and buildings. Concrete hulks or shells accommodated dozens, hundreds, and in some high-rises thousands of people with no place left to go.
People rushing to and from various locations, many dressed in colorful Liberian garb, were a constant distraction. Children who should have been in school sat on steps or played with a stick. The fortunate ones managed to find a football (soccer ball in the USA) to play with and many of those were patched or stitched in order to extend the life once again.
Along the river banks and on side streets, dumps filled with trash were being combed through meticulously by adults and children alike. Each person intent on finding something to eat or a small treasure that could be translated into a mere pittance to be used to help buy food so their family could eat that night. Babies cried while laying on dirt-encrusted mattresses and in vain a sibling would listlessly attempt to swat away the flies that tried endlessly to reach the orifices of each little bundle.
The streets were crowded not just with people walking but with vehicles, buses, trucks, hand-pushed carts, bicycles, and motorcycles all jockeying for position three, four, and even 5 abreast on two lanes. Yellow taxis were crowded with passengers as were buses and open cargo trucks. Often a pickup truck would pass with 15-20 people standing in the back holding on to each other.
Each intersection produced endless supplies of vendors of all ages running up to your vehicle hawking “i-wa” or “fa-tows.” “I-wa” is the term used for small plastic bags of ice water that was more like cool water, while “fa-tows” were the small washcloths used by many to wipe the perspiration from the face or to try and shelter the top of the head from the merciless sun. These were inevitably followed by children, some as young as 4 and 5, coming up begging for a small handout. Their families sat to the side encouraging this while others not so scrupulous made a living by the use of these little ones.
It was a lot to take in and I would see even more that left a permanent mark in my brain, but there was only so much I would be able to assimilate. Arriving at Pastor Togba’s house, his family welcomed me warmly. As I rested before lunch, I looked again through the pictures I had already taken and tried to fill in the blanks of the previous hours my eyes could not understand or had missed.
There was much and while each photo re-emphasized my being in a very strange world, one thing was constant – the people. The people were what I had come to this country to see. I was not there on a sight-seeing tour or a trip to enjoy paradise or even to take an African safari, I was there to see people for whom Christ died. I had a greater purpose and it would not be long before that became a reality because “people need the Lord.”
As they had promised, the “three pastors” showed up promptly at 9am on the Wednesday to speak with us again in regards to conducting the Pastors’ Conference and the “Crusade.” The previous evening though had seen much discussion mainly between myself, Pastor Togba, and Bro. Trexler. We discussed all of the circumstances surrounding the events that had transpired, the fact that these pastors were of a highly charismatic group of churches, and what our response should be to what were obviously individuals who were lost on their way to a Christ-less eternity.
Pastor Togba being the gracious host that he was offered the men a snack and something to drink – Liberian style coffee. Most of the coffee I was given was quite strong and then liberally sweetened with generous handfuls of sugar cubes. It was a taste that did not quite agree with me, unlike the food which I really enjoyed. However, that is for another part of the story.
The “three pastors” took some coffee and an uneasy silence ensued as they very slowly dropped sugar cubes into their cups and all the while keeping their eyes turned down. From the time I had walked into the room upon their arrival, they had refused to make eye contact with me. Once again, we sat at another table – Pastor Togba, Bro. Trexler, and myself on one side, and on the other – the “three pastors” and the deacon/night guard, Moses.
Pastor Togba and Bro. Trexler had agreed that I should be the one who would have to make the ultimate decision in regards to the conference and crusade. Therefore, it would be left to me to carry the conversation and they would just be there for moral support.
We waited until the silence was broken by the ringleader. Continuing to stir his sugar-thickened coffee, he acknowledged that they had made some mistakes in their misrepresentation of who they were and their part in the emails. Finally looking up, he said, there has already been monies spent for the printing and pastors/elders/deacons were expecting to be taught by myself on the following Monday. So, he concluded, we would like to ask once again if you would be willing to come and teach at the church.
Based on the previous evening’s long conversation, I first responded by sharing my own personal testimony about placing my faith in Christ. Second, I informed them that what I believed was not even close to their own doctrinal position (if they really even had one). I had already found out from speaking with Pastor Togba that many churches had sprung up all over Monrovia of the health, wealth, and prosperity persuasion and were leading people astray with a works-based salvation, if they spoke of salvation at all.
With those basics understood, I told them that the crusade was not an option. This had been fully agreed with me by Pastor Togba and Bro. Trexler. The problems involved in such an event would have posed many more issues, most of which I would not understand due to cultural differences. At this point, the “sullen” pastor interrupted me to try and get me to reconsider. However, I made it clear that this could not be an option and we would continue discussing the Pastors’ Conference only. One thing I had learned from Pastor Togba is that conducting such a crusade (even without the faith-healing charade attached to it) would have raised the status of these pastors and made them very important in their local communities. The last thing we wanted was to perpetuate the myths that they believed about themselves and that they spreading to their congregations.
I concluded that I would conduct the Pastors’ Conference with Pastor Togba beginning the following Monday. However, a few things needed to be understood. I told them that I would be setting the agenda for the meetings, as well as the teaching material, and we would not be involved in any of the music that preceded each morning session on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Continuing, I told them there would be no laying on of hands and certainly no speaking in tongues, etc. would be tolerated or the meetings would not continue. The ringleader and the sullen pastor wanted to argue with me over my guidelines, but finally realized that I was not going to budge and they all agreed to my conditions.
After just over two hours of conversation, they took their leave and once again the deacon, Moses, came up to me and gave me an embrace. “Thank you for deciding to come to my church. You will be made very welcome.” None of the other pastors expressed any words of thanks or appreciation, but simply said good-bye.
Pastor Togba believed that it was a great opportunity for churches of different groups or denominations did not mix in Liberia. He said that another chance to speak to this particular charismatic group might never present itself again and he considered it a God-given opportunity. It would not be a chance to merge any churches, nor to convince these people to become baptistic in their doctrine. This would be one open door to clearly express the gospel message of the Lord Jesus Christ to pastors who were dead in trespasses and sins.
I left the dining room and walked back to my little bedroom. Sitting down on my bed, I pulled out all the notes that I had brought and knew they would not be used. I had written for pastors and church leaders who professed faith in Christ alone. As Pastor Togba had shared, the vast majority of those who claimed to be pastors in Liberia had never even heard the truth of the law of God that condemned them, nor had they heard the full account of the glorious message of the cross.
Although the rates were high, I called my wife to tell her everything was good. I shared what would transpire the following Monday and for her to spread the word so that friends and family could pray that the Lord would prepare the hearts of those who would be in attendance. I must admit that one heart that still needed some work though was mine.
(…to be continued…)