One by one, 35 pastors and church leaders lined up shoulder to shoulder behind me as they looked back out at the remaining seated congregants. As I turned to face the 35, I looked into the eyes of each individual and quickly realized that not included in the group who had walked forward were the three pastors who had been involved in the original attempt at duping me at the airport.
Seated behind the 35, Pastor Togba was looking at me and waiting for a response. His look seemed to be a mixture of surprise and an acknowledgement in the sure expectation that the Lord was doing great things in the country of Liberia.
My first response was, “Pastor Togba, I was not expecting this. What should I do now?”
Pastor Togba responded, “Pastor, do what you believe the Lord would have you to do!”
While I had been praying that people would respond and come afterwards to speak with either myself or Pastor Togba, I was not expecting in any way that they would of their own accord make such a public declaration before their peers. Up to that point, it had been my intention to conclude with a brief lesson that summed up the three days of teaching. Instead, I turned my attention to the 35.
The outside world blurred into insignificance along with all the problems that had brought me to this point. Facing away from the audience of on-lookers, I briefly summarized what had been heard from Paul Zawolo regarding his own faith and belief in the Lord Jesus Christ.
I asked them why they had come forward. Each of them responded that like Paul, they had been wrong and wanted to place their faith in the only One Who could bring salvation to their hearts. I continued my questioning by asking if they understood what it would cost to follow Christ. This was done because I did not want them to be coming forward thinking this was some way in which they could get on the good side of the missionary or even gain something from their decision.
Again, the response was immediate with some pastors speaking for others who were in agreement with them. Their decision to follow Christ had nothing to do with me, Pastor Togba, or even Paul Zawolo. They knew that there were some who would not understand why they were choosing this new path, but they had to do what was right no matter what it might cost them. This was a powerful statement to make as it could cost some of them their churches and status in the community.
Several of them were in tears at this point as they pondered their lost condition before a holy, righteous God. Sharing the truth of Scripture with them as I had done with Paul Zawolo the night before, I concluded in the same manner I had with him.
“You who are pastors and church leaders, the road to the cross is narrow and few find it! The only decision you can make is to plead to God for mercy that He will take you, forgive you of your sins, and make you one of His beloved adopted children! What will you do with Christ?”
Each one of them watched me with a great degree of intensity as I asked this question. It was almost like a light coming on as the Holy Spirit did a work that I could never have accomplished. Without conferring with one another or anybody else, some of them fell to their knees while others raised their hands and voices before their Creator.
All across the front in their own heart language, 35 individuals poured out their hearts before God. It was extremely humbling to be a listening ear to these men and women who were seeking forgiveness for their sins and for their sin of unbelief in the past. In some ways, it resembled pandemonium as the sea of voices rose and fell. There was no unison or coordination in the vocalizing, but there was a unity that came in the way they approached the throne of the Most High.
Listening to voices, some of which I could not understand, I felt I was watching a small vision of what Revelation 5:9, 10 will be about in heaven. “And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; and hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.”
One day we will stand before God, individuals from every tribe, people, and nation. We will worship God and praise Him forever for choosing us out from the children of men and then welcoming us into His forever family. Why He would choose us is beyond comprehension! As I watched these men and women praying, it was an encouragement to watch and listen as they sought for mercy.
I waited until each person had concluded their praying, and then asked them in turn what they would be able to say if they stood before God and He were to ask them why He should allow them into heaven. In a brief testimony, each one of them shared their new-found faith in the Person of Jesus Christ.
Looking back to the seated listeners, I could not help but notice two of the pastors who had sought to dupe me with angry expressions from towards the back of the congregation. If they had been true believers, there would be no doubt that they would have been rejoicing in the conversion of souls. Yet, sadly, the looks of anger only served to reveal the true condition of their own hearts. Even after having been caught in their own web of deceit and three days of ministry, their hearts remained hardened in sin to the message of the gospel.
After each had concluded with a brief testimony, I went on to explain the importance of living for the Lord Jesus Christ in a world that is hostile to believers. Tribulations may come and even severe trials merely for believing the truth of the Scriptures and expressing that faith to others.
Liberia is a country that is surrounded by predominantly Muslim countries. The civil wars that have devastated entire countries in West Africa have been fueled in many places by the anger bred by the religion of Islam. Many who stood that day had seen what happens to those whose faith is in Christ. They knew that the path they were on might not be easy, but they were prepared to go forward in the joy of the Lord as their strength.
Concluding my own thoughts, I asked Pastor Togba to close in prayer in what I had assumed would conclude the meeting apart from our gifts for the leaders present. However, a huge surprise had been prepared as an honor to their visitor.
The pastor of the church (one of the original three) stepped forward and said that they were glad I had come all the way from England to preach and teach to them from the Word of God. As a way of saying thank you, they had a special gift for me that was a custom in Liberia. With that said, he asked the other two preachers to come forward along with the night watchman, Moses.
The taller of the two preachers took my hand and gave what appeared to be a perfunctory handshake and mumbled his thanks, while the third sullen preacher completely ignored me! Moses stepped forward and just about crushed my hand as he thanked me again for coming, then embracing me just about did the same to my ribs.
Liberians appreciate ministers and do what they can afford to show that appreciation. The gift, which had been purchased from freewill offerings by the attendees was certainly not what I was expecting. After helping out some believers and a few pastors with much of what I had brought with me, I had just the day before shopped for a few small items to take back for the family. One of the items I would like to have purchased was a Liberian shirt for myself as I was getting one for each of my boys.
Stunned I watched as Moses and one of the other pastors unwrapped the gift to reveal a hand-stitched Liberian garment. It was not just a multi-colored shirt, but was a beautiful and intricately designed trouser and shirt/jacket set complete with a matching hat. The hat was a little on the smaller side, but they insisted that I put it on along with the shirt/jacket. In fact, they undid the buttons and helped me put it on and then buttoned it up for me. Moses was beaming as he gave me another embrace.
I was overwhelmed again by the generosity of these people. Pastor Togba shared with me later that the set was probably the equivalent of at least one month’s wages to a Liberian pastor. I knew many of them gave what they could ill afford in order to honor the minister who was nobody special, but was merely trying to be faithful to the Scriptures. The gift has been worn several times both in England and in the United States on the occasions that I have the privilege of speaking about Liberia and the needs of having the gospel taught throughout West Africa.
The pictures that were taken that day are on a slideshow that repeats both on my computer and in my mind. As I have shared earlier in my account, people in Liberia have a life expectancy of around 40-45. This number is provided by both government and non-government entities. So, one of the pictures in particular that is special is that of an older woman who had come every day. Dressed in a Liberian style skirt with a bright red shirt and headscarf, she walked up afterwards to thank me over and over for coming to share the truth with her and the other church leaders. She was also one of the first to step forward in the line of 35!
Another image is of a pair of young men who had sat on the front row every day and written copious notes. One of them had to leave right after the final message, but his friend Michael came forward to get a picture with me. They were both in the ministry, but had never heard the truth of the gospel message. Michael has written me several times since 2007 and each time thanked me for coming to Liberia. I know that no matter whether I ever see him again or not, my prayer remains that the Lord would count that young man faithful to Himself in the ministry throughout Liberia.
After being robed as an honorary chieftain of Liberia, the pastor of that charismatic congregation in Sinkor, Monrovia, turned to me and said they had a certificate hand printed for each person who had been in attendance. One by one, names were read and each stepped forward to receive the certificate. I shook their hands and told them I would seek to remember them in prayer often.
Once the certificates were all passed out, I was still standing in my Liberian garments and perspiring rather freely in the almost 100 degree heat complete with accompanying humidity. Correctly speaking, the inside of the building was probably several degrees hotter than outside as the sun mercilessly beat down on the tin covered roof.
The pastor asked me if I had anything else to share. Nodding yes, I took the microphone from him one last time and thanked the people for being so attentive. I thanked the ladies of the church for the three meals I had been blessed with and for preparing the food for all who had come. Finally, while they may not have been thankful, I thanked the three pastors for allowing me to come and preach the truth. I then reminded each attendee that as promised, we had a special gift for each of them.
The messages on cassette tape that I had brought from England, along with some reading material from Pastor Togba’s church were in about 125 bundles on the back tables. Included in the bundle was a Bible from the Liberian society for every church leader. Sharing this news, there were many surprised looks as some vocalized their own thanks for such a gift. I do not know whether they could all read or not, but I knew that a Bible would be held in high esteem in a land where many do not own even a single copy of the Scriptures.
Seeing the joy on the faces of several who would own their very first Bible made me wish that I had a greater appreciation for the things of God than I did. It humbling to realize that something so taken for granted was that precious, even among the ones who were not able to read their new gift.
Saying goodbye is never easy, and after the presentations many returned to the front to say thank you again and to say goodbye as they held their special little bundles. The entire time I stood at the front wearing my outfit, Moses had stood just off to my side. It was almost as if this older gentleman felt he had a duty to continue keeping me from any harm as long as he could. He only left my side long enough to get his own gift from the back table and was right back beside me.
Knowing Pastor Togba had another prior engagement that afternoon, I finally took my leave and there were more than one pair of eyes with tears as we walked to our vehicle. Moses and some of the other 35 followed me out continuing their goodbyes and wishing me safe travels back to England.
Some of the ladies reminded me that next time I came, I should bring my wife with me and they would make sure she knew how to dress Liberian style. It was a ways down the road before I could say anything again, but the surprises of Liberia had not yet ended.
(…to be continued…)