Ten years ago I became friends with Olu Menjay, a college student from Liberia who had been brought to here to Georgia by Dr. John Mark Carpenter, a Southern Baptist missionary to Liberia for most of his career. Dr. Carpenter saw great promise in this young man. As the civil war erupted, Dr. Carpenter managed to get Olu out of the country and to the United States.

Olu entered Truett McConnell College and then transferred to Mercer University, where he excelled academically. Like his father, Olu felt the call to ministry. In December 1995, Olu was ordained to the gospel ministry by his home church in Monrovia, Liberia. In December of that year I accompanied Olu back to his war-torn country. I followed Olu through the streets of Monrovia as he retraced his escape route, pointing out to me where he saw his first dead bodies, the church where more than 600 women and children were massacred, and a city that had swelled in population and mostly been destroyed as rebels chased people from the country into the city.

Olu’s father died shortly after we left in December as did many of the other Liberians I met. According to one source, the average life span of a Liberian is 47 years, even without factoring in deaths from war. Over 200,000 Liberians were killed in the civil war. In a country of about 3.5 million people, everyone knows someone who was killed in the war. War, poverty and hunger affect everyone in Liberia. After 14 years of civil war, the country has no electricity and no running water. Not even the Presidential Palace has functioning toilets.

Liberia made news recently as it elected Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She is a survivor from the cabinet of President William R. Tolbert Jr., an ordained Baptist pastor and former president of the Baptist World Alliance. President Tolbert was assassinated in the Presidential Palace in 1980 in a bloody coup d’état that brought Liberia’s first tribal president, Master Sgt. Samuel Doe, to power. Later, Doe was overthrown by another dictator, Charles Taylor. A few years ago the U.S. helped broker a deal that sent Charles Taylor into exile in Nigeria. A transitional government was established and democratic elections were held last November.

It is within this political/economic system that the Christian church seeks a voice among the lives of the Liberian people. In spite of all the hardships her country has been through, President Sirleaf stated in her inaugural address that she believes in an Almighty God, the Arbiter of all affairs of humankind whose omnipotent Hand guides and steers their nation.

Although there has been great evil in this country and great atrocities have been committed, a large remnant of God-fearing Christians in Liberia have persevered and believe God’s hand rests upon them to bring better days to the suffering people of this nation.

Last year, Rev. Olu Menjay felt the call to return to his native Liberia. Few who find their way to America from third-world countries ever return home to invest in their people. The price is too high. The sacrifice is too great. Yet, this Mercer graduate, Duke Divinity School graduate, candidate for a doctorate from Boston University has returned to be the principal of Ricks Institute, a K-12th grade school with a 116-year-old tradition but very little resources.

Next month I plan to return to Liberia. My trip will have come full-circle as I will be reunited with Olu, the same person with whom my journey to Liberia began 10 years ago. While there I will represent the Moultrie Rotary Club, which will join with the Monrvia Rotary Club in an effort to get the water flowing again on the campus of Ricks Institute. More on that project next week.

I will open school each day with a brief chapel service for the children and interview Liberians to record their faith and survival stories. I will preach in Liberian churches and lecture at the Liberian Baptist Seminary. The time away is allowed through my church’s gift of a three-week sabbatical. Some of the money for this trip was made available through a Lilley Foundation grant given to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to fund sabbatical leaves for pastors who have served in a church setting for seven years or longer.

The word “sabbatical” comes from the same root as “sabbath,” a day of rest and a day of communing with God. Although I won’t be doing much resting, the work will be different, which will bring a type of rest for my soul. My time away will give me an opportunity to learn from Christians in another culture, to reflect on my ministry, to hear God’s voice afresh, and to come back and teach others what I’ve learned from God and from some of the world’s most impoverished people. It will give my church an opportunity to get a break from me, to hear a fresh voice, and to prepare to journey with me again in ministry.

Not many churches provide sabbaticals for their pastors. Of course, not many pastors stay long enough in one place to earn one. They can be of great benefit to both pastor and congregation — a win, win situation. In a job with this much responsibility, we need all the wins we can get.

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

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