Suppose your house is on fire and you have the opportunity to run back inside to save one item from the flames. What will you bring out? A television? Doubtful. The deer mount over the mantle? I don’t think so, even though we do live in South Georgia.

A hundred years ago most people would have saved the family Bible. Tucked away in that Bible would have been important names, dates, and probably a photograph or two. Photographs! How many of you would choose photographs or possibly a computer because it contains, among other important things, irreplaceable photographs?

There’s real grief involved when photographs are lost. Natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina robbed many people of a lifetime of valuable photos. Sifting through the rubble, some families managed to find some photos to save. For many others, the water destroyed them all.

Recently I was in the room of a very sick patient at the hospital and I noticed the family had brought photographs from home and placed them in the window sill. The photos were there as a reminder of family members who could not be physically present. The photos were added to bring some measure of comfort to the patient, to remind her of the love of her family.

Whenever I make pastoral calls to people’s homes, I’m often introduced to the extended family by a gallery of photographs displayed in the home.

Pictures are important to us. They are visual reminders of bygone days, of important events, of family that have been lost, of family that still remain, who may be far away or as close as next door. Photographs help us connect with others when we are separated. They help us relive special moments. Photographs tell stories about tragic events and times of grief. They freeze-frame emotions and are capable of thawing out emotions in our hearts.

Before leaving for Liberia last month, it occurred to me that the school children of Ricks Institute might like to have a school photo taken. I found out that in the 118-year history of the school, no one had ever taken school pictures. In fact, many of the children had never had anyone take their photograph at all. Those who had, those whose family owned a few photographs, had lost them during the war. Most of these people were chased away from their homes and stayed away for months at a time. Rebels looted their homes, dumping most of their personal belonging outside. Things like photographs were ruined.

In anticipation of going to Liberia, I shipped my printer and printer ink over last year in the container that left the North Carolina port. This enabled me to print a school picture of every student at Ricks Institute. Each child from kindergarten through the 12th grade posed for a photograph in the school library. Having their pictures taken gave the students a special feeling of pride to be a Ricks Institute student.

Each day after the photos were taken, the pictures were posted on a board for all the students to see. At the end of the day they were allowed to take their pictures home. On days when the students were fed at school, they ran to the picture board before they went to the lunchroom to eat their meal. Principal Olu Menjay said that “the picture taking exercise brought back self-esteem and self-worth to the Ricks Campus; it made the students and staff feel special about themselves.”

I especially noted this the day I took the photographs of the senior class.

Seniors are a special group. Perhaps I was drawn to that class in particular because I have a son that is a senior. Maybe it was also because I knew some of the riveting and heart-breaking stories I learned about some of these seniors.

For example, during the war, Morris Kamara and his family were carried before a rebel named Kill the Bitch, who ordered that Morris’ mother be raped repeatedly while the family watched. Then the family was forced to laugh about it. Mrs. Kamara died from the repeated raping. Then Kill the Bitch ordered the rebels to shoot the family. All the family members were shot in the head, including Morris. He awoke some time later. The bullet had grazed his skull, knocking him out. He awoke to find the rebels gone and his entire family dead.

Then there was Mustafa Flomo (not his real name), a senior who was captured by the NPFL (National Patriotic Front of Liberia) on the Ricks Institute campus when he was 13 years old. This group was led by Charles Taylor, who later became president and is now jailed by the United Nations for war crimes.

Mustafa is representative of thousands of young boys who were forced into fighting during the war. More than 500 of his community’s inhabitants were killed, including family members. The commanders forced him to take drugs as a way to help him overcome the fear of being killed, as a way to overcome the shock of being on the battlefield and seeing death up close, and as a way to mask the stain that killing leaves on the human soul.

Soon Mustafa will graduate from the same school from which he was captured and forced into a war that could have taken his life. He wakes up some nights crying out in his sleep because he still sees those pictures in his dreams. But he is comforted by the belief that God has a purpose for his life.

“I know that God has something for me in this life and one day I believe that God will manifest it to me,” he says with confidence.

As the seniors took their senior pictures, a couple of the young men had a dark blue tie that matched their dark blue pants and their light blue long-sleeved-shirts, the colors of the school uniform. They took turns wearing the tie for their school pictures. After learning what these young men and young women had been through, I was honored to take their pictures. I was proud of them for the progress they had made. I was hopeful for what they might yet accomplish in spite of the many obstacles that lie ahead of them.

Principal Olu Menjay summed it up well when he said, “Taking the photographs made an important statement. It said, ‘We are no longer survivors but a people with a future; we can take pictures knowing that we have a future. One day the students will look back at the memory of being in grade school.’”

These seniors will look back at their senior pictures, remembering that they graduated from high school in spite of a war that took so much away from them, including missed opportunities to attend school, something our children take so much for granted.

o o o

The Rev. Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie.

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