In May 2007, Chris Hindal, the Director of International Ministries for the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, and his wife, Deb, visited Liberia, West Africa. Here is Chris’s report.
Liberia’s topography of rolling hills and distant mountains is blanketed with the lush green flora typical of equatorial West Africa. Monrovia, the capital city, is one of the country’s three major ports. Though the port is large and capable of receiving many ocean-going vessels, only a few per week enter its harbor because of the republic’s economically depressed nature.
History and culture
Liberia was birthed as an American colony in the late 1800s when America deported its freed slaves to Africa, the place of their roots. In spite of the moral questions surrounding that action, Liberians feel a kinship to America. At times in its history, Liberia has been known as the African America, with similarities in its flag and official language, English. Liberian English, however, is a cacophony of slurred sounds and incomplete sentences and is generally difficult for other English speakers to understand.
The entire country of Liberia shows devastating signs of suffering from more than ten years of civil strife. Political coups and powerful warlords have plundered the countryside of anything and everything of value. They committed atrocities of murder and torture on thousands of Liberian citizens. Thousands upon thousands temporarily fled the country or hid in the bush for months, surviving only on the vegetation they could scavenge. Almost every Liberian can recount stories of his or her personal and family horrors.
A typical Liberian family has at least five children and lives in a home of mud blocks with a roof of either palm fronds or zinc-coated corrugated metal. The family has no regular income, plants a garden, and sells fruits or vegetables alongside the road or at the market. In the cities people are colorfully clothed with many indications of American donated T-shirts. In the countryside, the smaller children are less apt to be fully clothed, with some playing naked.
Verses painted on the sides of taxis and Christian slogans written on business signs indicate that Liberia is a Christian nation. Churches of various Christian persuasions and Christian schools and orphanages have been built virtually in every village of substantial size. Of course, the word “Christian” is used in the broadest sense, including many Pentecostal and charismatic groups, as well as Roman Catholic. Most of the 90–100 Baptist churches akin to the GARBC can trace their roots to decades of faithful missionaries serving with Baptist Mid-Missions. On January 12, 1954, Dr. Joseph Stowell, the national representative of the GARBC at that time, visited Liberia and inaugurated the formation of the GARBC of Liberia. Today the churches in that association fellowship in several smaller associations with various names.
The impetus for our visit was an invitation I received from the African Fundamental Baptist Mission (AFBM) to speak at its annual conference of churches. The AFBM is one of the Liberian partners in the International Partnership of Fundamental Baptist Ministries.
On Friday evening, May 18, 2007, Deb and I arrived at Roberts International Airport in Monrovia, Liberia. Given the facts that Monrovia is located just north of the equator and is a port city on the Atlantic Ocean and that May is the beginning of the rainy season, stepping off the plane onto the tarmac, a visitor is immediately hit with the heat and high humidity. Airports in developing nations have become known to Deb and me for their lack of air conditioning, absence of technology, and general confusion, yet we are always on edge, not exactly sure what the local questions and requirements might be. Once we stepped out of the airport, we were warmly greeted by a dozen pastors and church leaders. They had come just to extend their welcoming words to Liberia, driving to the airport located about 35 miles outside the city, an hour-and-a-half drive.
For the first 10 of the 13 days, we stayed at the guesthouse of Pastor James and Lydia Togba, pastor of the Maranatha Baptist Church that hosted the conference.
These accommodations were quite comfortable, even though we had to deal with the typical third-world challenges. We had running water a few hours, though it was not suitable for drinking. The generator-powered fan helped with the oppressive heat, though sleeping was still a bit uncomfortable. Lydia and her family cooked us some great meals of typical African cuisine.
On our first morning, Pastor Togba decided that we needed to rest from our long journey and to prepare for our first day of ministry. He dropped us off for several hours on an Atlantic beach, which proved to be a great idea.
Ten churches and ten Bible fellowships were represented at the second annual, post-war conference of the AFBM; 179 registered, with 391 attending. The leaders had chosen for the conference theme “Planning with God,” taken from James 4:13 and 14. The program included a workshop session for each of the three days. I led the men’s sessions, Deb led the women’s, and two ABWE missionaries led the youth. I dealt with issues of the nature and attributes of God. Deb ministered to about 50 ladies each day. They asked many questions that were both Biblically and culturally sensitive. I developed the conference theme through six preaching sessions, expounding on the epistle of James. Both the teaching and preaching were translated into the Kpelle language. Three choirs wonderfully accented the program, two in Liberian English and one in Kpelle, using traditional African chants.
We praise the Lord that with the exception of the first service, many responded to the invitations. From our perspective, the most significant decisions were made by 12 young people who committed themselves to enroll in Bible school to prepare for ministry.
Children and orphans work
During the course of our 13-day visit, we had the opportunity to visit six facilities for children. Maranatha Baptist Church, the host church for the conference, conducts a Christian day school, K–12. Pastor Peter Flomo serves as the country director of the Abandoned Children Care Foundation (ACCF), a ministry of AFBM, and also partners with Baptist Children’s Home, Valparaiso, Indiana. Peter houses 15 orphans and facilitates the care of many others in private Christian homes. With the help of our donors, GLS will send Peter $500 to purchase a pump for a well for the ACCF.
After driving down many muddy lanes, we arrived at the school directed by Pastor James Burnette. The school administrators honored us by renaming it the Chris and Deb Hindal Foundation Academy. They also presented each of us with some traditional African apparel. One hundred twenty-one children are being trained by dedicated teachers meeting in a facility with mud floors, an inadequate roof, and primitive conditions.
Also partnering with Baptist Children’s Home, Jefferson Zeon directs the Jahzjet Children Outreach Mission. This ministry cares for 67 children on a nice piece of property on the main road from Monrovia to the airport. These children are housed and educated right there by the Zeons and their staff.
On the Wednesday after the conference, we left at 6:00 a.m. and toured the Jahzjet home and school, and then Brother Zeon drove us to a new work in Buchanan. The road to Buchanan was the worst road I have ever traveled. It took us five and one-half hours to drive 88 miles! We were welcomed by a group of approximately 140 people, half adults and half children, meeting in a makeshift shelter with plastic over the top and palm branches to cover the sides. They had prepared a special program for us that included singing and a presentation of two live roosters.
The AFBM presently has three Bible training schools, Berean Baptist School meets in two classrooms in a day school in Monrovia. Brother David Quina is the president. We were unable to visit the two other schools, Doro Thea and Centra.
The Liberian ABWE missionary team (LABWE) consists of two couples and two singles stationed in Gbarnga, about four hours east of Monrovia. We were able to spend two days with the team, seeing their homes and discussing with them their mission for Liberia.
Carolyn Sharp, a single missionary nurse, the veteran on the team, assists the nationals in many ways. Along with training ladies for Sunday School teaching in a local church, she ministers at the AFBM medical clinic. This clinic, directed by Brother Aaron, treats 100–125 patients per week. I had the opportunity to lead the Tuesday morning evangelistic outreach for the patients. The other single missionary, Steve Trexler, a physician’s assistant, also serves at the clinic, though he was home for a brief visit.
Keith and Michelle Lippy, along with their six children, have enlarged a home on AFBM property. Keith serves as the team leader. He and his family travel one hour to a church plant where Keith preaches and the whole family is involved in ministry.
Stephan and Regula Elser, a Swiss couple, and their three children have a heart for the unreached people in the bush. They travel every Sunday to village churches where Stephan preaches. Regula and Michelle Lippy share the burden for reaching the ladies who almost exclusively speak the Kpelle language. They see the great need for adult literacy, and Regula is disciplining herself to learn that language. Stephan, a helicopter pilot, envisions using the helicopter to fly church planters into the vast unreached areas of northwest Liberia. What a joy to meet with these dedicated servants of the Lord who make daily sacrifices to reach people who desperately need to hear of Christ.
GARBC of Liberia
Upon our arrival on the first Sunday, I preached to a full auditorium of about 350 people, plus their radio audience, at the Calvary Baptist Church of Monrovia. Pastor G. Larque Vaye shepherds the first church organized by Baptist Mid-Missions in Monrovia. He is a key leader in the local fellowship and facilitated a meeting for me with several pastors and church leaders.
At that meeting I learned that most of the known fundamental Baptist churches were started by Baptist Mid-Missions missionaries. The pastors also reported that prior to the war, 46 churches affiliated with their association. During the war years and up to the present, the GARBC of Liberia, though organizationally intact, has remained inactive.
Currently 18 churches identify themselves with this association. The pastors and leaders talked of reigniting their fellowship by convening a conference, perhaps in January 2008.
On Friday I was invited to speak in chapel at the Jake Memorial Baptist College, which has 36 students, with 15 enrolled in this semester’s classes. The school has sent in its documentation in anticipation of receiving accreditation of its associate of arts degree. The staff are also working on expanding their program to offer a full four-year bachelor’s degree.
Some of the leadership of the GARBC of Liberia also serve on the board of the Fundamental Baptist National Mission Agency (FBNMA). I had the privilege of meeting with its board, which is chaired by Brother William M. Kolaglaye. Among other ministries the FBNMA sponsors crusades to help jump-start church plants.
Not too far from Gbarnga, we visited the property that prior to the war was the hub of Baptist Mid-Missions missionary activity. The now-grown-over airstrip and the roofless walls of buildings are reminders of more productive days past. Presently Pastor Gballe directs a small day school of 18 students in a war-ravaged shell of a building, and on Sundays he conducts worship services.
We left Liberia with an overwhelming sense of a nation in economic, social, moral, and spiritual crisis. Though there is much superficial evidence of Christian influence, there are only a few well-trained pastors. Most of the congregations are filled with professing believers with a minimum of education, a majority of which are illiterate. The task of discipleship and leadership training presents a formidable challenge. Some of the pastors would greatly benefit from additional schooling, but they would need an American sponsor. I explored with both associations the potential for Gospel Literature Services to supply Sunday School materials to some of their churches. Though the literacy challenge is great, GLS may still be able to help with some children’s teacher manuals and visual packets. Deb and I greatly appreciate your continued prayers as we visit our international partners and GLS recipients. God is doing a great work around the world, and we stand amazed as He sovereignly builds His church.