Many years ago a woman from our congregation and her late husband courageously shared the Gospel in their home village of Bettesue, Liberia, in the face of severe persecution. Today, their son is following in the steps of his Saviour by choosing to love the very people who persecuted his parents. He invited our church to join him in his efforts to return good for evil, and as a result we have been swept up into a Pentecost-like movement of the Spirit. This experience of love, generosity and forgiveness has taken our congregation by surprise. We have seen the Gospel’s power to save and to heal broken relationships and, in the process, our hearts have become deeply bound to a group of people who live on the other side of the world.
One couple’s courage
John was only three years old when he lay huddled under the bed where his father had hidden him. An angry mob of men from Bettesue and the surrounding villages had burst through the door of his home just moments before, and they were now savagely beating his parents. After narrowly escaping with their lives, John’s parents spent three months in hospital recovering from their wounds.
This eruption of anger was the result of a decision John’s mother, Hawa, had made years earlier when she was pregnant with John. Still grieving the loss of two daughters in infancy, she decided that she would go to the hospital to give birth to John – violating her village’s strong taboo against using the missionaries’ western medicine. She made a vow to God: “If you will make this baby a boy, and if he is born healthy, I will serve you all my life and will dedicate my son to you.” She quietly left the village and traveled to the hospital, a three hour walk.
Her baby boy was born healthy and, good to her word, she committed her life to God. She invited a missionary to name her baby. The name given him, John, was a tribute to the New Testament prophet by that name and also a very public sign that Hawa was now a Christian.
Her conversion met with deep hostility from the tribal leaders. She infuriated them by openly sharing the Gospel in her village while continuing to refuse their traditional medicine. She was ostracized by the leaders and, for a time, jailed. Finally, at a gathering of the combined leadership of over 10 villages she was publicly rebuked. Her husband was ordered to divorce her, send her away from the village and take a different wife from the tribe.
Hawa was astonished at what her husband did at this point – as were the tribunal and all the gathered witnesses. He declared that he would not obey the ruling of the leadership. Rather, he said that, as of that moment, he too was a Christian.
John’s father joined his wife in sharing the Gospel in the days that followed. It earned the couple the settled animosity of the area’s most powerful people, and led to the nighttime invasion of their home; nevertheless, even after the beating, they continued to witness with great impact and eventually erected the village’s first church building.
The outbreak of civil war brought everything to an abrupt end. The village was decimated. John’s father was killed, shot under suspicious circumstances while fleeing Bettesue – probably murdered by enemies of his faith under the cloak of war.
Transition to North America
Many years later, John emigrated to Edmonton, Alberta, and joined Bethel Church. Eventually he was followed by his wife, children and mother. It was there that John chose to become a benefactor to his former village, despite their treatment of his family. Working three jobs to make his efforts possible, he funded the renovation of the village’s church, which had been damaged in the war. He went on to purchase soccer uniforms and shoes for the village children and found other ways to enrich the villagers’ lives.
Then John committed himself to what seemed an impossible dream. He decided to fund the building of a school so that the parents of Bettesue village would not have to decide between withholding education for their children or sending them on a dangerous two-hour walk to the nearest school.
At a congregational meeting at our church, I shared their story. When I was finished, Hawa received a standing ovation – the first time in her life that her heroic actions were recognized for what they were. John shared his intention to build a school in Bettesue, and the congregation was invited to join in the effort.
Though Canadian tax law will not allow charitable receipts to be issued for a project like this, and though the congregation was given no further encouragement to donate, the money came in. It came in tens and hundreds and sometimes thousands, over a period of six months, until the total of $25,000 was reached.
Unfortunately, at this point we had a discouraging setback. We learned that unexpected construction costs, a loss in value of Canadian currency against the U.S. dollar (the currency of Liberia), and a simple miscalculation meant that the money raised was not enough. In fact, closer to twice the original amount would be required. This problem, however, became God’s opportunity to remind us that he was in charge. One of our members casually shared the story with some business friends seated around a table. One of the men surprised him by saying, “I’ll cover the rest,” and, instantly, the full cost of the school was met.
The school was built by the hard work of volunteers from the village, while John carefully stewarded all the funds. (So thorough were these volunteers that the government official who inspected the building upon its completion gave it a rating of 110 percent – an unheard of score.) Additionally, an “adopt a student” drive in our church ensured that all the school children would be equipped with uniforms, writing utensils and other basic school supplies for their first year. Heartwarmingly, the leaders of Bettesue have asked that two members of our congregation sit on the school board, even if it means using Skype to do so.
John continues to dream of ways to bless the village of his origin. He waits to see what God will make possible.
A miracle of reconciliation
As exciting as all this was, there is, in fact, much more to this story, and only the continuing work of that Spirit who was poured out at Pentecost could explain this deeper work that God is doing in Bettesue.
As a result of the efforts of Hawa and her husband, furthered by the work of missionaries after their departure, the Gospel continued to spread. So successful, as a matter of fact, was the dissemination of the Gospel, it is now estimated that over 90 percent of the village’s people consider themselves to be Christians!
Also, once hardened hearts have melted. Representatives of the village, touched by this family’s love and our church’s support, have asked Hawa for her forgiveness. The village leaders – some of them involved in the attack on the family – have further requested that John and his mother fly to Liberia so that the leaders can express their apologies and be reconciled in a public ceremony.
Though the start of the school’s first semester was delayed because of the Ebola crisis, the village children are now working hard at their studies in their new school. John and Hawa, with several members of our congregation acting as ambassadors for our church, will be taking a trip to Liberia as soon as circumstances permit. They will see the school in operation and will meet face to face these people we have come to love and who have so touched our lives.
It is with eager anticipation that we wait to see where the Spirit of God will lead next in this surprising adventure of grace.