Before retiring for the evening, another Liberian pastor whom I had met that week invited me to preach for the congregation known as Highland Hills Baptist Church. Pastor Philemon Gwelikporluhson, who has become a very dear friend, was the pastor and also the man whom God had used to start this little work in an outlying area of Monrovia.
Pastor Philemon and his dear wife, Dylin, have six beautiful girls ages 6-19. At the time of my visit, they had been living in a small house with other relatives. All 8 of them lived cramped in one single room that was about the size of one average American bedroom. For many years, Philemon has been involved in the work of church planting and has successfully (to the glory of God) been able to establish four previous works that are now being pastored by local men whom he has tried diligently to train.
Due to his faithful work in planting churches and trying to train disciples to the best of his ability, his sole means of income was what the church could offer or what he was able to receive from sources outside of Liberia. Income from the church might amount to $5 or $10 in a week, or others might bring them some food as their offering to the Lord.
Obviously, he was in no position to be able to obtain even a small home. While it is part of a different story, we are thankful that through the kind and generous offerings of God’s people in different parts of the world (USA, the UK, and Australia), they now have their own little two-bedroom home they are renting. Praise the Lord!
The next morning was beautiful and another early rising. Liberians tend to go to bed between 10-11pm and are up around 4:30-5:00 each morning. However, during the hottest part of the day, many take a rest and try to limit their activities so as to remain a little cooler. Walking outside, I sat down on Pastor Togba’s small porch and watched Liberians walking back and forth on the main road. Most of them would not be in church worshiping the Lord who made them, and would certainly not be giving the honor and glory to Him for His wonderful works among the children of men.
Some would argue, as did some Liberians I met, that God was not around during the atrocities that took place over the course of 14 blood-filled years. However, this is a fundamentally fatal thought process for God is right where He has always been – sitting in the heavens. He rules and reigns over all, and He has no need for His creatures to provide anything for Him that will make Him Lord. He is Lord whether we believe it or not. He is Lord just as much in Liberia as He is in Australia, the UK, or the USA. The problem is that the depravity of the hearts of mankind is so deceitful and the heart is so wicked, that it assumes that mankind can get along just fine without God. It is a problem that is total in its universality.
Recently, I was reminded of the words of the Lord Jesus Christ who asked His listeners found in Luke 13. Herod had killed a number of Galileans, and the Lord asked whether they were greater sinners than the other Galileans who had not participated in the uprising. He then asked about the eighteen who were killed when the tower in Siloam fell on them. Were they any less sinners than those who lived in Jerusalem and had escaped this tragedy? Jesus made it clear that this was not the case. Whether it is war or tragedy, the truth is that all sinners need to repent before a holy and righteous God. Those Liberians who were not killed during the civil war have much to be thankful for and it behooves those who are true believers to share the good news of the gospel before it is too late for those who remain.
These people were walking down the road past one place that spoke of the wrath of God, the holiness of God, the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love whereby He extends His grace to those whom He chooses despite anything we think we can offer. Yet, sadly, they walked by on their way to eternity trusting in everything to keep them safe but the One who alone makes the difference between hell and heaven.
Pastor Philemon was over early and Pastor Togba took us down to the main junction to catch a taxi. The main junction was a dusty corner filled with vendors hawking their wares – everything from fresh-baked bread to vegetables to the latest CD of African pop music to moneychangers offering to change US Dollars into Liberian dollars or vice-versa. The exchange rate at that time was $60 Liberian dollars to every $1 US Dollar, but is now about $69 to $1.
Pastor Philemon kept warning me about how bad the traffic was and how I needed to be careful. About that time, he darts across the road scooting between oncoming taxis, cars, motorcycles, and huge cargo carrying vehicles. Getting to the other side, he was looking back across the street for me, then noticed that I was standing immediately by his side. I figured the best way to stay safe was to just shadow him!
Hailing a taxi is a work of art complete with special hand gestures indicating the direction you will be taking at the next major crossroads. A form of gospel music blared from many of the taxis whose shocks and struts had seen better days, and each car’s occupants were crammed in resembling a wild coloring collage. A taxi would stop and ladies in wildly colored African dresses complete with hats jostled for a seat in an already filled to capacity vehicle.
Pastor Philemon and I finally caught a ride in a vehicle that had 3 people in the front of a Toyota Camry and 3 in the back. At the next stop, the two in front got out and two more got in accompanied by two children. So now, there were 10 of us in the taxi! Every bump in the road (of which there are many) was a lesson in Liberian transportation.
About 40 minutes and two taxi rides later, we arrived at another junction. Pastor Philemon motioned across the street to what looked like little more than a dirt track to me and said we would be going down that road to his church. Turning to a group of taxi and motorcycle drivers, he began a conversation with them in Kpelle. Complete with more hand gestures, he was looking more and more flustered. Getting his attention, I asked him what was wrong and he said that he could not get anybody that was prepared to take us in a taxi until they could get a full car load to go that direction.
Pastor Philemon then commented, “The only thing available is a motorcycle and that won’t work.” I replied, “Why not?” He stared at me for a few seconds and asked, “You would be willing to ride on the back of a motorcycle?!” I replied, “Sure, why not? I am in your country now and besides we need to get to church!”
Negotiating a set price for the ride with the drivers, we each climbed on the back of a motorcycle that had no bigger than a 250cc engine and headed off for a wild ride into the outback!
Pastor Philemon was on the back of the first motorcycle and he kept looking over his shoulder back in my direction. I am not sure whether he was trying to make sure that the second motorcycle driver was actually following or whether I was still managing to sit on the back without falling off! Looking back, the scene was more comical than anything if it was not for the discomfort I was feeling. Imagine watching a motocross sports event. Up and down hills, over big bumps, jumping the low places, and above all, driving at breakneck speeds. On top of that scene, imagine the looks of the villagers in each place we passed (some of whom had never seen a white man) as I am holding my Bible and notes in one hand and my straw hat in the other with nothing left to hold on to the motorcycle with except my knees! I am fairly certain given the smile of the driver when I got off that he had gained some pleasure in initiating the white missionary with his first wild ride through the African countryside!
We paid the drivers and thanked them. Personally, I was thanking the Lord for our safe arrival and wondering whether we would manage to find a taxi back home. Ten people in a Toyota Camry was somehow, if only mildly, preferable to another Liberian motocross event. It would not have been so bad if I had been in control of the bike, but it would probably have taken a lot longer to arrive!
Highland Hills Baptist Church was my second church to visit with the first being for the prayer meeting on the previous Wednesday. The building the congregation was using was a newer structure that had not even been completed. In reality, it was little more than a concrete shell with a tin or aluminum roofing to keep out some of the rain during the heavy tropical rain season. About 25-30 plastic chairs were set up in the biggest room filling it wall to wall.
There is a saying in missionary work that there are two types of time – the actual time and local time. In other words, the service may be scheduled on the sign to begin at 10:00am, but by the time the locals finish arriving, it might actually be 10:30 or 11:00 or even later! It is a wise missionary that just rolls with local custom and it probably would not hurt to throw away his watch!
Walking into the dirt yard, we were immediately surrounded by young children from the area who all wanted to chat with the white man. One of them brought a little kitten that he wanted to show me. He kept holding it up trying to get me to take it. He was so proud of his little pet. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I don’t like cats (more of a dog person actually).
A few adults were sitting under some of the trees and around the yard on boulders or on chairs, while two women preparing for a lunchtime meal and were bent over at the waist stirring some things into a cooking pot that was perched rather precariously over a small fire. The smell of the cooking rice and side dishes along with the smells of garbage-strewn dirt streets, unwashed bodies of some and highly perfumed bodies of others, and the general mélange of tropical smells was not sitting too well with my already topsy-turvy stomach. And the earlier ride had not really helped matters.
Breakfast normally consists of oatmeal which is one breakfast food I struggle to eat, but that morning I could only manage to keep down a small piece of the wonderful Liberian bread that tastes a lot like the King Hawaiian bread in the USA. My constitution had been doing fairly well with the new food products until that morning and it did not help that was feeling very nervous as is normally the case every time I stand to minister the Word of God.
The service began with a procession of young girls coming into the church singing in a mixture of Kpelle and Liberian English. By the time, they were finished, every seat was full with some chairs holding more than one individual. People starting coming in and sitting on the floor, while others stood outside and just stuck their heads in the window to listen and to sing along with the hymns they knew.
It was a blessing to listen to these brothers and sisters in Christ as they sang and gave testimony to the grace of God being worked out in their daily lives. Compared to the “rich” white man in their midst, they were extremely poor, but they were rich in Christ Jesus! Compared to the rich in Christ Liberians, the white man in their midst was extremely poor when it came to being thankful for the little things so easily taken for granted. Liberia was a well-learned lesson in so many ways that at times still brings encouragement and admonition to my own life even today some four years later.
Finally, it was time to speak. Standing at the front, everybody welcomed me with a spontaneous hand clapping. They felt honored and said so that I was willing to come and minister to them in their “humble” little church. They had no idea how I was feeling, and they would probably have disagreed with my own thoughts and assessments. However, the truth was that it was an honor for me to be there and that their pastor had graciously allowed me to stand in his place that morning to minister the Word of God was an honor never to be forgotten.
Every few words I would stop long enough for Pastor Philemon to translate what I had just said into Kpelle for those who were not bilingual. About ten minutes into my message, an elderly lady walked in and there was much shuffling to provide her a seat. However, it was quickly realized that she spoke neither English or Kpelle. So, the order of service soon evolved into me preaching in English, Pastor Philemon preaching in Kpelle, and then two who were present who knew this elderly lady’s language would translate what we had said for her.
Being familiar with the time constraints normally found in US and UK churches, I did not want to give any offense by preaching too long. After all, if I was in most US or UK churches, the average pastor who preaches longer than 25-30 minutes is spelling his own doom. The rare exception is the church where a sermon will last 45+ minutes of solid expositional ministry.
Having said that, I looked at my watch (an item nobody else seemed to be wearing or cared about) and noticed that I had been speaking for about 55 minutes. Concluding my prepared thoughts, I turned the service over to Pastor Philemon and sat down. I was exhausted and still trying to keep my stomach under control. My shirt was soaked with perspiration (translated sweat), and when I sat down I went ahead and loosened my tie.
There was silence for a few seconds and then a murmuring started.
(…to be continued…)