A Liberian proverb says, “A bird is in the air, but its mind is on the ground.” I’m with the birds on this one. After two days of air travel including a cross continental flight and four airports, I was just ready to get on the ground. Having landed at the Monrovia airport, we cleared customs and made our way outside the terminal for our first fresh air in two days. Immediately we were hit by a wall of heat and humidity. The tropical climate of Liberia is not for the faint of heart. I am accustomed to heat and humidity living in the Southern United States. However, we have places to go to escape the heat. Those places are few and far between in Liberia.
Additionally, it’s the rainy season. So, five or six times a day there is a downpour that lasts for about 20-30 minutes, which seems to make the heat angry and the conditions even more unbearable. After a good night’s sleep, we were up and ready to drive across the country to our training location in Karnplay, which is just a few miles from the Ivory Coast border, a six-hour drive. Fortunately, the morning downpour relented just as our car pulled in to pick us up.
I’ve always been amazed by African ingenuity. Often it is the result of poor planning, but it is ingenuity, nonetheless. This ingenuity was on display once again the morning of our departure. Our team this week consists of three members from the U.S., our local coordinator, and the driver along with all our luggage and two boxes of Bibles. The car we are using is a mid-size sedan. When the driver opened the trunk to load our luggage, we chuckled as we discovered an extra spare tire, a rather bulky hub cap of some sort, and a large plastic gas container. One of our team members wryly commented there was no way were they getting four suitcases and two boxes of Bibles in that trunk. Oh, did I mention that our coordinator also needed to bring along his printer? But I’ve seen this movie before. So, I just made myself comfortable and waited for the magic show to begin.
I was not disappointed. After twenty minutes of jostling and tugging and grunting and rearranging, the impossible became possible, as the trunk was able to close. However, we would be required to carry the printer and our backpacks on our laps. While I found the packing of the trunk quite amusing, the packing of five adults into a mid-size sedan, with one wearing a size fourteen shoe, was not so amusing. I’ve been traveling in the majority world long enough to know that personal space is not a cultural value. Therefore, I was prepared to be cramped, but shoulder to shoulder and thigh to thigh with your lap filled for six hours is a test of endurance and friendship.
As we made our way from Monrovia, I was privileged to be summoned to a meeting with the executive leadership team of the United Liberian Inland Church (ULIC), a fellowship of some 300 churches in Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. It was a joy to meet these brothers and to share with them the vision of International Training and Equipping Ministries (ITEM). When I concluded my presentation, I was overwhelmed with their response. The leadership team asked us to partner with them in providing training for all their pastors.
Each time I come to Africa I am blown away by the many exceptional Christian leaders that God has raised up for such a time as this. The ULIC leadership are among this number.
As our journey continued eastward, it became more fraught with discomfort. Situated at each county line was a makeshift immigration office along with a road barrier manned by plainclothes immigration officers who forced us to pull over and get out of the car and present ourselves to the immigration chief of the county. The questions were always the same. “Who are you? Where are you from? What are you doing here? Where are you going?” When we told them we were American missionaries going to train pastors, their tune changed. “Welcome, welcome.” They told us. Then they began to speak in the tribal dialect to our coordinator. He told us later that because he was with three white men, the immigration officers pressured him to share some of the money he was undoubtedly receiving from us. Of course, he is not benefitting financially from his relationship with us. However, this is Africa, and we must play by African rules. Therefore, we started calling the immigration stops, the white man tax.
Finally, we made our way to Karnplay where we checked into our guest house and prepared for training to begin the next morning. That night we experienced a downpour of epic proportions. I have never heard rain pound as hard as it did during this storm. It continued to build in intensity until it sounded as if we were next to Niagara Falls. It seemed as if the roof would collapse at any moment. Then, as quickly as the storm arose, it subsided.
We were excited to awaken for our first day of training. As we made our journey to the training site, we drove past miles of rice fields and palm trees, along dirt roads where deep caverns formed by downpours created driving hazards of every kind. As we drove deeper and deeper into the bush, civilization seemed to recede into the distance.
Having arrived at the training site, a simple concrete rectangular building set amid the thick foliage of the jungle, we were greeted by a host of smiling pastors who had traveled on foot and motor bikes to attend the training. While the urban areas may have more amenities, the villages have more charm. Besides, it’s in the villages where the need for training is the greatest and the spiritual hunger is more intense.
By the end of the first training session, my clothes were already soaked with sweat, as the presence of sixty-seven adults in a confined space with little air movement combined with the sweltering heat and humidity made the conditions challenging, to say the least. Nevertheless, by God’s grace we were able to carry on throughout the day and the training was received with great joy and gratitude.
At the conclusion of the day, I noticed that several pastors did not have a Bible with them. Since I had brought a box of study Bibles with me from the U.S., I thought it would be a good idea to give them to those pastors who didn’t have one. This is where my American naivety comes in. Our coordinator consented and when he told the crowd that those who didn’t have a Bible would receive a new study Bible, suddenly the number of those who didn’t have a Bible multiplied!
When the last study Bible was given away, a clamor arose from the pastors. Some demanded to receive a new Bible. Others kept asking why they weren’t worthy to be given a new Bible. What did we have against them? Some pleaded with us to give them a new Bible, even though we had no more to give. The scene was heartbreaking and a little unnerving. Here we are teaching pastors about the centrality of God’s Word in their lives and ministries, and many of those present did not even have adequate Bibles. I think about how many Bibles I have on my shelf and packed away in boxes. Yet so many around the world do not even own one. For those who do have a Bible, it often consists of the New Testament only or it is written in such small print it is impossible to see clearly. I am humbled by the hunger for God’s Word that I see, not just in Liberia but around the world. Nevertheless, I am troubled that so many who hunger do not have access to the bread of life. May we rise to the occasion and bring a quick end to this famine.
Until next time, good night from Liberia!