Early on Saturday morning, a crowd began to gather just outside of Pastor Togba’s property. Some music was being played and I recognized a couple of what sounded like gospel tunes. It was not long before a crowd gathered to listen to something being said over a loudspeaker. I had been watching people stop to listen and I counted well over 200 before I stopped. With my curiosity getting the better of me, I decided to walk a little closer and see what was going on.
A man and his female were working up the crowd in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. After a number of songs and with absolutely no Bible in sight, the man began to speak to the crowds. Just like the huckster I had heard in the marketplace shortly after I arrived, this fellow seemed to have been trained in the same school of “How to Con People using God’s Name in Vain!”
Passing a bucket around, he cajoled the listeners by telling them that they were in great need of having a blessing from God. He continued by stating that they would always remain poor unless they honored God’s preacher first, he continued with his harangue by starting with an offer of $100 blessings. When that didn’t work, he worked his way down to $50, $20, $10, and finally $5 before resorting to pleading for Liberian dollars. However, he did warn the people that Liberian dollar blessings were not as powerful as blessings which come from giving US dollar bills.
After all, one US dollar ($1) was worth about sixty Liberian dollars ($60), and the value on the open market was just not worth the time of these circus clowns. I was dismayed that so many were willing to listen to this man who was an obvious fraud. Yet, many did and even gave of some of their money with the blind hope that they would be able to have a better future.
Pastor Togba informed me that some people would save up just to give to one of these preachers, and they would do so by doing without. They would walk miles to save on taxi fares or do without meals just so they could try for a bigger US dollar blessing. Many have the goal that if they can give a larger gift that God will allow them to move to a better place in Monrovia or maybe even be able to get out of the country and start a great life in England or America.
After milking the crowd out of as much as he could get, his brief sermon consisted of how God would be sending blessings to them in the very near future, and off he walked to his next con job! There was no sermon extolling the living God. He never mentioned hell or judgment. He said not a word about the fact that eternity was soon coming. His words contained only false hopes. Yet, the people knew of nothing else for there are millions throughout Africa who have never heard the truth even once.
The heat grew more oppressive as we had some coffee and Pastor Togba told us he would have a special outing after taking time to go visiting in the outlying areas. We walked from the church over the railroad tracks and out into the bush. Part of the time was spent speaking with members of his congregation while other times, we stopped to speak and invite people to the service the next morning at Maranatha Baptist Church in Cauldwell, New Georgia District.
During this time, we encountered situations that were heartbreaking. At one stop, a man sat alone on a pile of stones. His face was painted with white clay as he hoped to ward off the evil spirits. At a home just a short ways down another dirt track, a very young man and woman were tending to a little garden on the edge of their small property. A beautiful newborn baby lay on a dirty blanket with her head on an equally dirty piece of foam for a pillow. She was but one among thousands in similar situations. Most would grow up with very little, struggling for a meager existence, and with no hope either in this life or eternity without somebody to share the gospel with them.
Each place we visited, one thing stood out – the faces of the people. Having survived the 14 year civil war, many of the children had seen more actual bloodshed and atrocities than any person should have to see. In many instances as they played, there seemed to be a grown-up air about them. Older teens, some of whom had actually been forced to be involved in the atrocities struggled to understand their roles in life. And at all ages, there was a hopelessness that pervaded faces. Laughter seemed to be as hollow as the eyes that looked out to a world that rarely showed care and compassion.
Out in the bush near where we were visiting, one place, in particular, held a special attachment for Pastor Togba. About five years earlier as the civil war escalated around him and his family, he had gone out on visitation. Parents to a newborn approached him and asked him if he was a pastor. He responded in the affirmative and they promptly placed the little boy in his arms and walked off into the bush again.
Little James Jr. was one of the children blessed with a loving, godly home. However, it is estimated that the war not only killed 250,000-300,000, and displaced over 400,000, but also left over 100,000-150,000 children with no parents. These children were either abandoned or were left as orphans due to the atrocities. Today, Liberia is a country with a population that is almost 50% under the age of 15.
After visiting a number of people, Pastor Togba took us to a deserted beach area just to the northwest of Monrovia where we watched the waves of the Atlantic Ocean crash against the rocks. It was a blessing to feel the ocean breezes after dealing with the oppressive heat. While looking out to sea, we were surrounded by the remnants of a beach resort that was no longer in existence due to the war. Small huts with straw roofs dotted the pristine shoreline. With a little effort, it was easy to put aside all the heartbreak and scenes of devastation that was found just a few miles away.
However, the picture of paradise was not what it seemed. The need was great and growing greater every day. The need was not represented by what the United Nations portrayed as Liberia’s issues. Yes, malnourished children needed good food. Yes, people of all ages needed a healthcare that would enable them to live longer and healthier. Yes, the infrastructure that had been destroyed needed to be rebuilt allowing for new jobs to be created.
Sitting at the beach, these issues were easy to talk about and seek to provide solutions. The greatest need and most pressing issue though was the one that would not go away no matter how beautiful the scene. It was the realization that Liberia’s overwhelmingly young population along with its few aging citizens were headed for a destination that would not be changed by providing good food, healthcare, and a revitalized economy and infrastructure.
Pastors needed to be taught how to teach their people the Word of God. Church members needed to be addressed with the aspects of the law and grace of God. They needed to realize that eternity is forever. Biblical churches need to be established with biblical leadership where the Scriptures are faithfully taught and where the High King of Heaven is glorified and exalted. Churches were needed where purity is upheld as biblical and where the desire to see neighbors and friends brought to Christ is at the forefront of each member’s heart and mind.
The next morning, I would have one more opportunity to exalt the Savior and share the truth of the Scriptures. There would be one more surprise that I was definitely not expecting.
Sunday morning dawned and in one sense I was dreading the day, but only because it was to be my last full day in Liberia. It was hard to remember two weeks prior I had a strong desire to get on the first plane back out of West Africa, now I was wishing the trip could last much longer. The changes I had seen and the changes I had undergone flooded my mind once again as I prepared for the day. Looking out my bedroom window, I saw the plantain tree with its still unripe fruit and wondered what it would be like to be able to eat some fresh.
Walking into the dining room, I once again enjoyed the fellowship of Pastor Togba and Pastor Femi. Pastor Philemon was preaching at his own church and Dr. Steve Trexler was ministering in the small upcountry town of Gboimue (pronounced Boy-moo) and Cooper’s Farm. While I appreciated the opportunity to minister at Maranatha on my final Sunday, I also had a strong desire to travel with Dr. Steve up into the interior. One day, my prayer is that my desire will become a reality in the grace and providence of God.
We left the home and headed the short distance to the church building. Men and women lined up to say hello to their pastors and to the missionary. Sunday wearings (clothes) were the best that each had and it produced a cacophony of bright, bold colors that brought some life to the dilapidated building with its bullet and rocket holes lining the walls.
Going into Pastor Togba’s study with two elders and a couple of the deacons, I was introduced once again to Keith Lippy, missionary with ABWE. They were down from Gbarnga for the day with Michelle’s parents who were flying back to the United States on a flight later that afternoon. After a time of prayer for the service, Pastor Togba placed me in a long line that started at the door to where almost 200 were seated or standing, and headed out the front door. Most of the congregation had nothing to sit on but the floor, but they did not seem to mind. The line I was in started with the choir and ended at the front door with the pastors and myself.
This only served as another reminder that I was no longer in the west. In many places in America and England, if the church building is heated to exactly 72 in the winter and cooled to 69 in the summer, or if the pews or chairs have enough thick padding, and if the praise and worship band is cool enough and the preacher’s sermons short enough, then we will go to worship God. In Liberia, for many of these people they had watched their pastor come close to being martyred. They came although they had to sit on the floor in their best clothes. They came despite the soaring temperatures that were already sending beads of perspiration down my face and back. These precious people had not come with preconceived notions of what the church should offer them in order to keep them. They came together to collectively worship the Sovereign God of the Universe.
The small keyboard that was operating off of battery power struck a chord and in unique West African style, the choir began to clap to the cadence and began the procession. As the pastors came through the main doors, the rest of the congregation joined in the singing of praises to the Lord. We proceeded to the front where the choir moved to one side and the pastors sat on the platform.
Part way through the second song, I felt I was doing fairly well keeping the beat considering it was a ¾ time. Pastor Togba walked over and said, “Pastor, you are doing it all wrong, it is like this in Liberia!” He proceeded to show me the clapping rhythm – clap 1, clap 2, clap 3, and pause. So, the reality was actually all songs in Liberian churches are sung to the correct meter, but are clapped to a 4/4 time! I eventually got it.
The singing was almost finished with Pastor Femi sitting beside me. All of a sudden, he leaned toward me and made a comment while nodding at the congregation. I was not sure what he meant, so he tried again with no further success. Speaking slowly, he said, “Prince is here!”
Sure enough, almost at the back of the congregation, Prince had come in and taken a seat. Dressed in a nice outfit, he looked like he could have fit right in at a business function. However, I knew that his heart was not right with God, but I was very thankful that the Lord had brought him to service that final Sunday in Liberia.
During the meeting, the people stand to greet each other in Christian love. I was trying to work my way down to greet him, but was stopped by several people. By the time, the singing started again I needed to get back to my seat. Looking to the back of the crowd, Prince was gone. After the last congregational hymn, the choir offered a beautiful hymn of worship and then Pastor Togba stood to introduce me as the speaker. There was still no Prince.
Giving my introduction, I heard a commotion on my right. Prince walked in the side door, right across the front and took the only open seat left available. I continued with my message as I was grateful the Lord had brought him to service especially as this was the first time he had been in church service for about fourteen years.
Ministering on the subject of heaven, I shared the truths of Scripture about the sovereignty and the holiness of God, the sinfulness of man, and the complete of absence of sin from that perfect abode. As I shared, I noticed Prince paying very close attention to the message. At the end of the message, Pastor Togba invited any who wanted to learn more about the Savior to speak with us after the service. After the service, Prince spoke with the other missionary who was there, Keith Lippy. Together they walked into the pastor’s office, and about twenty minutes later walked back out.
Prince: “Pastor, I wanted to share with you that I have placed my faith in the Lord Jesus Christ! I have confessed and repented of my sins. I do not know why He would allow me to go to the heaven you preached about today; however, as I listened to you I finally understood what you were sharing with me when we first talked.”
I spoke with Prince for quite awhile before he had to leave. He said he was headed back home to share the good news with his mother. Embracing me before he left, he thanked me again for telling him the truth about sin and his lost condition.
Prince: “Pastor, I have one request for you.”
Knowing Prince struggled to get work in part due to his role in the devastating war, I wondered if it would be a request for some tangible item.
Prince: “I will always remember you. Please keep me in prayer that the Lord would allow me to learn to be faithful. Pray that I will learn to be like the Lord Jesus Christ no matter what it costs me!”
I was stunned and overwhelmed as I struggled to respond to his request. Assuring him of my prayers, I watched as Prince, a former rebel both in actions against man and God, walked away down one of the dusty trails. While only time will reveal whether a conversion is real by the fruit produced, it is also true that the grace of God abounds to sinners. It had been a privilege to minister in Liberia, and from the first unsaved pastor, Paul Zawolo, who had confessed Christ to the former rebel, Prince, I knew that God was still in the business of saving people. He chose whom He would from among the children of men and one day the Bride would be complete.
Going back to the house for lunch, I was to receive one last visit before leaving on the Monday to go to the airport.
(…to be concluded next week, Lord willing…)