Sunday, 16 February 2014

Nicodemus, William James, and the God of Abraham

Ricks Institute
Virginia, Liberia
Established 1887
Recently I watched and listened as a visiting missionary stood in front of more than one hundred Liberian pastors during a Q & A session at the end of a three-day conference for rural pastors at Ricks Institute.
From a Tuesday morning until noon on Thursday the pastors were invited to participate in four different experiences. During the days there were consecutive sessions of Bible Study (Philippians), a workshop on preaching, and lectures on apologetics. On Tuesday and Wednesday evenings the pastors and others from the Ricks Institute community joined in worship.
"Allah" in Arabic
After a series of questions about the content of the teaching sessions, a pastor stood to ask a question about an issue that had not been broached in any presentation: “Is the God of Mohammed the God of Christianity?” 
In the context of West Africa—especially in many communities in Liberia—the question is more than an intellectual exercise. Both Islam and Christianity are foreign religions in sub-Saharan Africa. They came with missionaries from Arab lands in the Middle East and Christian lands in the West. The pastor’s question was at least about a theological assertion, often couched in exclusivist terms. But, the question had (and has) a broader horizon. Christians and Muslims in Liberia share land, government, economy, hopes and dreams, as well as sorrows. Beneath the apparently simple appeal for a “yes” or “no” about the God of Mohammed, there remains the larger and more critical question: “How can Christians and Muslims live together in peace?”
The missionary on that Thursday morning was adamant in his denial of any relationship between Allah and the God Christians claim is made known in history through Jesus of Nazareth, confessed to be the Christ. His denial began and ended with a doctrine of exclusion and never moved from that sharp center into the equally important questions of worship, prayer, attention to the poor, alms, and the quest for spiritual maturity.
The Liberian pastor deserved more. He needed more. I am confident, too, that he wanted more. At least he needed some guidance toward a way to reflect upon how Christians and Muslims strive to live out their convictions in Liberia with the integrity of their faiths.
 That need is my impetus as I explore Nicodemus, William James, and the God of Abraham. 
Representation of Nicodemus
and Jesus (John 3)
The Gospel of John is rife with misunderstandings, both those embedded intentionally in the narratives by a creative author and those carried away from the narratives—also often intentionally—by equally less-creative interpreters. In the first of seven dialogs in John, Nicodemus carries the burden of misunderstanding and, too, becomes the standard bearer for those whose intention is to perpetuate the error instead of, like Jesus in the narrative, to shed light on Nicodemus’ confusion.
Take a moment to read John 3:1-21, but do yourself a favor and don’t read the version you usually read. Avoid the King James Version [KJV] or the New International Version [NIV]. Try the American Standard Version [ASV] or either the Revised Standard Version [RSV] or the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV]. Try The Message, too!
The phrase “born again” found in KJV and NIV does not appear in ASV, RSV, NRSV, or The Message. Instead, a comparison reader will find “anew” [ASV] or “from above” [RSV], [NRSV], and The Message.
In John 3:4 Nicodemus misunderstood “anew” or “from above”; it was Nicodemus, not Jesus, who thought about returning the womb to be born again. Jesus gently chides Nicodemus for the misunderstanding, but uses the error to shed light upon an insight larger than physical birth, symbolized by “water” (v. 5), and that is of “spirit birth” (v. 6).
Alas, characteristic of the Gospel of John, Jesus’ gentle chide adds to the confusion! Before Nicodemus can ponder the differences between “again” and “from above,” Jesus uses the word, pneuma, which can mean one of three things: wind, spirit, or breath. Poor Nick. He concedes to the confusion and exclaims, “How can these things be?!” Never again in the passage does he speak. Instead he listens as Jesus elaborates upon “heavenly things” (v. 12).
“Born againism springs from John 3. At best it is a phenomenon that owes allegiance to Nicodemus’ confusion. At worst it is a quip mined from the ore of “heavenly things” that fails miserably at retaining the context of demand and responsibility that come “from above” when one is “born anew.”
Edward Wilmot Blyden
In early February 2013 I was in Freetown, Sierra Leone with my colleague, Olu Q. Menjay. We had crossed into Sierra Leone from Liberia and travelled the bush roads to Freetown on a pilgrimage, of sorts. Olu and I have shared interest in Edward Wilmot Blyden, a nineteenth century giant whose contributions to education, diplomacy, African identity, and religion continue to demand attention. We were excited in our journey because in Freetown we were to meet Isa Blyden, the great-granddaughter of Edward Wilmot Blyden.
Our day with Isa Blyden was full of challenges and discoveries. The highlight was a visit to a mosque in Freetown in the Foulah district where Blyden lived the last years of his life, creating an educational system for Muslim children that still is a model program a century later.
Blyden was a Christian (Presbyterian) missionary who was a pioneer in Christian-Muslim relations in West Africa. He understood that Christianity and Islam could contribute to the betterment of colonial and post-colonial West Africa. He lived and died forging mutual respect and understanding among Africans whose traditional religions had been challenged and transformed by the foreign religions (Christianity and Islam) in their midst.
After our visit to the mosque, which included some rich conversation with the imam and some men who had gathered for afternoon prayers, Isa was telling me and Olu about new tensions in the Foulah Town area. “There are too many ‘born agains,’” she said. I pressed her clarity. “The ‘born agains’ are Muslims from the Arab world and Christians from the West who want to politicize their religions and make them rivals rather than partners.” Then and now I see her point. It is further evidence that “the born agains” are not interested in “heavenly things.”
William James
William James, pioneer in psychology and personality, offers a different way of describing and understanding the phenomena of what he termed “once-born” and “twice-born” personalities. And, yes, they are personalities. In his now-classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (the 1902 Gifford Lectures), James organized his observations and analyses of experiences and responses to the divine and/or religious teachings. The “once-born” and the “twice-born” occupied his attention in four of the lectures.
The once-born, by James' description, live in a box of sorts. He writes:
In the religion of the once-born the world is a sort of rectilinear or one-storied affair, whose accounts are kept in one denomination, whose parts have just the values which naturally they appear to have, and of which a simple algebraic sum of pluses and minuses will give the total worth. Happiness and religious peace consist in living on the plus side of the account (Modern Library edition, 163).
By contrast James describes the twice-born:
In the religion of the twice-born, on the other hand, the world is a double-storied mystery. Peace cannot be reached by the simple addition of pluses and elimination of minuses from life. Natural good is not simply insufficient in amount and transient, there lurks a falsity in its very being. Cancelled as it all is by death if not by earlier enemies, it gives no final balance, and can never be the thing intended for our lasting worship. It keeps us from our real good, rather; and renunciation and despair of it are our first step in the direction of the truth. There are two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose the one before we can participate in the other (Ibid.).
Of the two types James observes that the first tends to be happier with life while the second tends to bend under the burdens of life’s ambiguities. In the end, however, James observes that the twice-born are healthier once they make or find peace with life’s mysterious multivalences.
Applying James’ observations and analyses to the narrative about Nicodemus in John 3, it appears that the born-agains are once-born; the born anew (or from above) are twice-born. Born-agains—as the term is used in this post—live in a world of pluses and minuses, all of which are clear (to them). The born anews, however continue to live in the midst of an ambiguous world. As twice-born the face daily the tasks of personal and corporate integration of multiple values, all ordered from a “higher” perspective.
Head of Paul
Rembrandt
Paul must have been twice-born (but his term was “new creation” [2 Cor 5:17]), especially with regard to the God of Abraham. He finally was able to reconcile the pluses and minuses that his background gave him. As a once-born Pharisee who could not have any compassion for the Gentiles,  he emerged twice-born, a new creation, who was able to see that the God of Abraham was the God of the Gentiles, too. Then, wonder of wonders, he chided the Gentiles (more forcefully than Jesus chided Nicodemus in the Gospel of John) for their arrogant disdain for all things Jewish. Paul’s chide of the Gentiles in Rome fills three chapters (see Rom 9–11).
Romans manuscript
To the Romans Paul wrote: “The gifts and callings of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their [the Jews] disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercer shown to you, they too may receive mercy. So God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Rom 11:29-32).
Although Paul knew nothing (of course) about the God of Mohammed, he did pause to reflect upon Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, the son of Abraham. In Galatians Paul offers a midrash on Hagar and Sarah and their sons, Ishmael and Isaac. He says that the two women (and their sons) “are two covenants” (Gal 4:24), one a covenant of slavery and the other a covenant of freedom.
Hagar, Ishmael, and the Angel
Genesis 21
Indeed, the narratives in Genesis about Hagar (see Gen 17 and 21) are couched in the God of Abraham making promises to Hagar regarding the son she bore Abraham. And, too, Ishmael, Hagar and Abraham’s son, bears the mark of the covenant with Abraham—circumcision—before Isaac.

That Liberian pastor deserved more than he got from the missionary. He needed more. I think he wanted more. Perhaps . . . another missionary in the future will do better with the question. Better yet, perhaps . . . a Liberian pastor/teacher will offer a more reflective response to a question that presses hard upon all Liberians, Christian or Muslim.

Monday, 10 February 2014

My Morning of Discontent

Rick and the Reverend
Al William Green
With apologies to Shakespeare and Steinbeck, 5 February 2014 was my morning of discontent, made glorious by the Reverend Al Green.

Late on the evening of 4 February I had an email and a call from one of my seminary colleagues. He wanted me to know that some LBTS Alumni were meeting in Monrovia on the next day; they had invited me to join them to meet and greet and receive encouragement. I said I would come, but knew that we could not meet at the seminary because we are under temporary court order not to be open (long story).

The Reverend Al William Green is a Liberian pastor. He was at Ricks for a rural pastors’ conference (Green is the pastor of the founding church of the Liberia Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention [1880] at Edina in Grand Bassa County; it certainly meets the descriptor “rural.”) Al offered to ride along with me. Thank God.

Logantown
We made our way toward Monrovia in “my” diesel-powered Pajero, taking the shortcut through Logantown to avoid the congestion in Duala (see the post from 14 January, “The Economy at Work”). The ten minutes were better than the 40 or more it takes to get through Duala.

As we arrived in Monrovia and turned left at Broad Street it was about 10:30a. An officer waved us to the side and the discontent began to unfold. I made two errors that I regret and will not make again.

The usual banter began: “May I see your vehicle registration?” I produced it. May I see your driver’s license?” MISTAKE! I handed it to him, knowing better. THE DIE WAS CAST!!

The paper work was in order, but the insurance sticker was not on the windshield. Hint, hint. The officer was looking for a bribe. My seatbelt was not fastened. Hint, hint. I requested my license. The officer put it in his pocket and walked away.

Al Green got out of the car and began the arguments. Yes, a crowd began to form. The officer said there would be a ticket. I said, “Fine. Write it, give me my license, and I will go.”

Green went with the officer to the podium and then down the street for a conversation with the police commander of the district. I wanted to see what I could, so I made my second MISTAKE. I took my camera and used the telephoto lens to see better. Uh-oh!

The commander assumed I had taken his photo and became enraged. He stormed down the street shouting, “He took my photo! He took my photo!” with a small crowd following him. He tried to reach into the car and take my camera, but I avoided him.

Now there were three or four officers and a crowd behind the car. A large citizen intervened and tried to calm down the officer. I got out of the car—with my camera—and showed the large man that there was no photo. I showed him how I had used the telephoto to get a better view of the conversation. He declared, “There is no photo.” The first officer verified that there was no photo.

But, the die was cast. I had missed my several opportunities to bribe the “servant of the people” and now I would have to pay. Two hundred Liberia dollars would have ended the drama, but I wouldn’t pay (less than $3 US).

the bank receipt
the release document
the court document
For the next four hours (!!) Green led me through the mazes of Liberian bureaucracy. I counted nine steps: (a) to the Minister of Finance to register to pay the $20 US ticket; (b) to a business center to get a photocopy of the ticket; (c) back to MoF to receive a deposit slip for the bank; (d) to the bank to pay the fee and get a receipt; (e) to traffic court to receive judgment; [lunch break]; (f) back to traffic court to receive paper work; back to the podium on Broad Street to retrieve my license; (g) to police headquarters to get a “release” notification; (h) back to Broad Street to haggle, again, with the police to get the license and to refuse to pay the bribe; (i) received my license.

Al Green at Mary's
I never made it the meeting (probably should not have agreed to go, anyway). I had a great Liberian lunch of dumboy.

Dumboy is common Liberian meal (please read common two ways). It is a thick clump of pounded cassava root, mixed with water, and allowed to proof. Fu-fu, too, is pounded cassava root, but it is less thick. Both are served with some kind of soup and spices. I enjoy it; it is exotic (see the fish head and chicken foot) and quite tasty. Liberians are generally amazed that I eat it.


I got to spend time with Al Green and listen to his rants about “the criminals” in the blue uniforms who were trying to “make some morning money” by stopping “the white man.” Facts are facts. My offense was being a white American. I know that. See right: "American" and "White." And, so I am.

What did I learn? I will avoid the podium at Broad Street in the mornings. I will not use my camera carelessly. The police are greedy, but harmless. Many Liberians on the street are ashamed of the way the police act. Dumboy is quite tasty (I’ve had it several times, but the ambiance of the cook shop was great).

The Reverend Al Green is a good friend and companion. It was he who made my morning of discontent glorious.

Don't misunderstand me. I am not complaining about being a white American. What I know is that the years of colonial rule in Africa contributes to the challenges we all face in Liberia. I will write about that another time.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Power of Song

Each morning the students of Ricks Institute gather at the flag pole, standing in rank by class, for the start of a new day. At 7:30 the day is young and the promise of dawn is fresh. 
With the exception of the Pledge to the Flag of the Republic of Liberia—to which we will turn in a future post—the daily ceremony is sung. Every day six hundred or so voices fill the air with “the school ode!” as the leader of the ritual announces it. 
Most days the same choir successfully completes a rather difficult anthem, “All Hail, Liberia, Hail.” It is difficult because of the range required for voices of all ages. It is made more difficult by a dramatic pause mid-way through (sometimes I see the younger children counting to four to be sure not to jump in too soon).
A few days the fading dawn is greeted with “The Lone Star Forever,” with the memorable and apt words 
When freedom raised her glowing form
on Montserrado's verdant height,
She set within the doom of night,
'midst low’ring stars and thunderstorms
the star of liberty—and seizing from the waking morn,
its burnished shield of golden flame,
she lifted in her proud name
and raised a nation long forlorn
to noble destiny.
18th President of Liberia
1930-1944
The patriotic hymn was written by Edwin James Barclay (1882–1955), Liberia’s eighteenth President. His administration was born in scandal and rested in the glory of Liberia taking her place on the global stage with the Allies in World War II. The immediate predecessors (President C. D. B. King and Vice President Allen Yancey) of Barclay’s administration were swept away when their complicity in a later-day slave trade was exposed (King and Yancey allegedly benefited from corvĂ©e associated with the domestic workforce and outright slave trading with the Spanish). Secretary of State at the time, Barclay was selected to finish King’s term; he was elected in 1931.
Presidents Barclay and Roosevelt
in 1943
 During the fourteen years of his administration, Barclay restored international respect for Liberia, greatly improved the economy, and became a trusted ally of U. S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Barclay was instrumental in the construction of Robertsfield—with runways long enough to welcome Allied Forces planes; perhaps Barclay’s legacy is negotiating with Pan American Airlines to make Monrovia a destination for international travelers. In 1943 FDR visited Liberia en route to a summit in Morocco; later that year Barclay was welcomed in Washington, D. C. and was the first black person to stand at the rostrum in the U. S. Capital as an honored head of state.
Barclay’s patriotic hymn focused upon the dawn of Liberia in the 1820s, but the song’s power is in part that it also touches upon so many new dawns that Liberia has greeted in her troubled history.
 Each time I hear the Ricks students sing, “When freedom raised her glowing form on Montserrado's verdant height, she set within the doom of night, the star of liberty—and seizing from the waking morn, she lifted in her proud name and raised a nation long forlorn to noble destiny,” I rehearse the recent horrors of war and know, for sure, that the Ricks students understand “a nation long forlorn.”
Daniel Bashiel Warner
Liberia's 3rd President
1864-1868
Liberia’s third President, Daniel B. Warner [image] wrote “All Hail, Liberia, Hail.” It is a song that captures the Zeitgeist of mid-nineteenth century for the hope of the end of slavery and the greater hope of a land of freedom for “a race benighted race”: 
All Hail, Liberia, Hail!
All Hail, Liberia, Hail!
This glorious land of liberty shall long be ours.
Though new her name green be her fame
And mighty be her power
In joy and gladness with our hearts united
We'll shout the freedom of a race benighted
A home of glorious liberty by God's command. 
Liberia was the focus of hope for abolitionists, slaves in “the new world,” and free people of color for whom freedom already being compromised by political and economic realities in the Americas that were determined to establish a two-tiered society based upon race. And, for most of the hopeful, it was “God’s command” that would bring their hopes to fruition.
“And mighty be her power. And mighty be her power.”
In the midst of persistent challenges, Liberians hold to the claim that Liberia is blessed by Providence with “mighty . . . power.” When I hear the children sing those lines I know that they believe in the power (pun intended) of the song. I know it because, even in the midst of confusion and poverty and struggle, the children and their teachers and their public leaders refuse to capitulate to the despair that lurks in every shadow. 
All Hail, Liberia, Hail!
All Hail, Liberia, Hail!
In union strong, success is sure
We cannot fail
With God above our rights to prove
We will over all prevail
With hearts and hands, our country's cause defending
We'll meet the foe with valor unpretending.
 The theme of Providence appears, again: “With God above our rights to prove / We will over all prevail.”
 These same themes of hope and divine guidance permeate the Ricks Ode, too, written in the mid-twentieth century by Baromi Morris, well-known Liberian jurist and musician.


Stella Polaris, O, Ricks Institute,
Thy way to greatness and prosperity;
Ye we point to glorious Ricks for fame and victory.
With God before us, success we are sure,
Upward and forward the victor we go;
Therefore with uplifted eyes
We are sure to win the prize.


On the days when the students sing the Ricks Ode and The Lone Star Forever, I am always struck by how the songs carry the singers and listeners from the dark of night—the invocation of the North Star in the Ode—to the dawn of perpetual new days—“and seizing from the waking morn' . . . [Freedom] lifted in her proud name and raised a nation long forlorn to noble destiny” from Lone Star.
Taken together, these three songs have a power that, I hope, will sustain the students, faculty at Ricks, and any other who has the opportunity to be present for the morning flag ceremony.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Rhianna's Stage


She doesn't need of all of both hands to count to her age. With only part of one hand she can let you know she is in grade 4. This is the first year she has had classes in the main school building, which means this year is the first year she gets buffeted by the bigger, louder, and more savvy students at Ricks Institute.
Today, however, Rhianna Musa stepped onto the biggest stage any nine-year old could imagine, short of discovering super powers and saving the planet.
It is exam week at Ricks Institute, the last days of the first semester. With characteristic gravity, Principal Olu Q. Menjay has been warning the students this week: “The last days are dangerous days,” he says. “You must be careful; these are dangerous days.”
The danger has nothing to with “the end times” associated with the lore of popular Christian science fiction. These last days at Ricks are fraught with the threat of failing an exam, or a grade, or getting expelled for “spying,” the by-word at Ricks for cheating.
All week Menjay has been warning the older students to review their lessons. “We are behind in Liberia,” he says. “If a ninth-grader can do grade 7 work, fine. But we have to catch up.” Today he put it to the test and set the stage for Rhianna Musa, grade 4, nine-years old.

Out-of-the-blue, the Menjay Way, in the middle of something else, he asked, “Who knows the ‘times tables’?” A number of fourth-graders shot their skinny arms in the air in the way that fourth-graders around the world must. Randomly, Menjay called a girl to the front of the auditorium to face more than 600 students. 
Then Menjay saw a drowsy student in one of the upper grades: “Hey!” he said, pointing, “you sleeping?” Soon, the offending lad was on his feet, squared off in a times table competition—with a fourth-grade girl half his size.
“Times five,” Menjay said. The lad began barely in a whisper. “Speak up! They need to hear you in the back!” As Menjay slowly walked toward the back of the hall, the boy faltered, “Five times seven equals forty.”
The auditorium erupted in nervous glee because more than 600 students had been spared, they thought, the very public oral exam.
Menjay turned to the waif: “Times five,” he said.
Rhianna Musa stood up straight, spoke in a loud voice—suitable for out-of-doors—and rattled off the “fives” from one to twelve.
Menjay called up another upper-class student. “Times six,” he ordered, and slowly walked away. (I turned my attention to Rhianna and noticed her softly doing the “sixes” in her own way, warming up in case the bigger, now quieter, student stumbled.) And, he did: “Six times three equals twenty-four.” The hall howled. Menjay pointed to Rhianna and she executed the “sixes” in the same strong voice and rhythm as she had completed the “fives.”

She showed no pride or excitement, but she did gently cross herself (yes, there are Liberian Catholics). 
The game was on! Seventh-graders, tenth-graders, twelfth graders, eighth-graders, and ninth-graders all had the chance to boast of the chance of defeating the Fourth Grade Wonder: Rhianna Musa. Eight tried and eight failed. Each time Rhianna made it through whatever Menjay asked. And each time she crossed herself in a gentle way.
Then Menjay made his point, standing next to a high school student who failed and wept. “We are behind in Liberia. But, we can catch up.” As Menjay made his speech about catching up and what hard work it is, I motioned for Rhianna. I asked her name and told her I was proud of her courage and excellent recitation. Then I slid a Liberian $50 bill across the desk where I was sitting. For the first time I saw her smile.
When Menjay was done, the assembly was dismissed. The other fourth-graders mobbed Rhianna as if she had scored the winning goal of a football match, and shared with her the day she took the stage.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The Economy at Work

Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. 
Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! 
On the side of their oppressors there was power
with no one to comfort them.  ~ Qoheleth 4.1 ~

Last Saturday I had the luxury of passing through Duala as a passenger instead of the driver. Usually I am at the wheel with 12-15 passengers on the way to an appointment in Monrovia, or by myself making a grocery run.
As a driver I see a lot in Duala. As a passenger I saw even more.
Duala is about half-way between Ricks Institute and Monrovia. That puts it near the heart of Bushrod Island, which has a high population of struggling Liberians and small population of economically stable—even comfortable—international business people.
Unemployment in Liberia is about 85%. What jobs are available usually are passed out in accord with a patronage system that has endured since the 1940s. If you get a job and get some influence you make sure that your family and friends are next in line for a job, no matter how small.
That leaves a growing population of poor and uneducated people crowded together in squalid housing, if you can call an abandoned shipping container, or four walls of woven palm-frond with a plastic tarp roof, housing.

Duala bustles every day  the under the sun. It is a picture of the economy at work.
Here is how it works: International business people, most from the Middle East, own the traditional business like supermarkets and hardware/building materials stores that dot both sides of the road that cuts through Bushrod Island. Duala is the place the indigent and eager gather day-after-day. The lucky ones find something like a job as a porter or as a vendor.
There are wheelbarrows everywhere—thus, the porters. The contents of those barrows range from fresh produce to grains to bread, to various meets, to palm oil, to clothing. The porters carry disposable goods to the vendors who sit under the sun, or, perhaps, under a large umbrella advertising  beer or a cell phone company.
Where do these disposable good come from? One hundred feet, or so, back from the road there are modest warehouses, some nothing more than abandoned shipping containers (there are a lot of them in Liberia), stacked full of 50 kg bags of rice (from China), or tires, or plastics, or recycled clothing, or knock-off sports shoes, and the like.
The international merchants buy in bulk and break down, for example, a 50 kg bag of rice into zipper bags of a few ounces, or a wheelbarrow full of rice will be delivered to a vendor who, in turn, measures out rice in a rusty can, according to her customer’s desire. And, yes, “her” is right.
Duala is the place one can buy one tablespoon of mayonnaise.
Here is the economy at work: The international merchants own the merchandise and the wheelbarrows. Porters and vendors are consignment workers. They pay up front for what they carry and/or hope to sell. With each transaction the price goes up, of course. Everyone needs to turn a profit, no matter how small (except for the international merchants who always  get their money up front). And, yes, the international merchants collect rent on the wheelbarrow.
There have been efforts to supply porters with a personal wheelbarrow, but the efforts have failed. Unless a porter pays the rental fee, no merchandise is available to move around Duala to the vendors.
So, what I see in Duala are the tears of the oppressed. The tears are not always literal, but the pained expressions, the blank expressions, and the occasional angry outburst between porters and vendors, all are tears, literal or symbolic.
And what of the merchants—the international merchants? They endure the scorn of Liberians who lack economic power. “Lebanese” is a four-letter word in the mouth of many Liberians. They have (economic) power, but there is no one to comfort them.
Liberia is the only country in the world that refuses citizenship to all except those who can document a shred of African ancestry. I understand that, given Liberia’s beginnings as a colony—and then a republic—for freed slaves.
My point is not about Liberia citizenship. (Perhaps I’ll address that later.) My point is that the power of the oppressors excludes them from comfort in the same way that the oppressed are not comforted.
Both the oppressed and the oppressor yearn for liberation. That, for ill, is how the economy works.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Settling In

Written on 5 January 2014
   I’ve been in Liberia, this time, less than twenty-four hours. That is less time than it took me to get here. Lucy and I left Macon around 2p on 3 January. My plane touched down in Monrovia at 7:30p, local time (with a four hour time difference that was 24.5 hours from Macon to Monrovia). It was nearly 11p, however, before I was in my place at Ricks Institute.
   
leaving Charles de Gaulle
West African sunset @ 35K feet
 Between Macon and Monrovia I saw the ATL skyline from above; the lights of Dublin, Ireland, predawn; the grey, blustery morning in Dublin as I walked to the commuter plane that would take me to Paris; Charles de-Gaulle airport in mid-morning fog; a well-defined Iberian peninsula; the reddish sands of the Sahara; and, finally, the coast of West
Africa at sunset.
   Each time I arrive in Monrovia (this was the tenth time) I see evidence of changes for the better. The arrival process, including baggage claim, was so much better this time than the last. I’ll not begin to compare it to my first adventure in 2007.
   The havoc I had come to expect was gone. There was order and efficiency with the baggage handling. There were fewer folks in line filing “lost bags” paperwork. AND, the air-conditioning was working well.
six of my new colleagues from LBTS
   I was pleased to Olu Menjay waiting for me. I was surprised to learn that Rev. Toby Gbeh and six of the seminary staff were also there to greet the plane.
   Olu and I navigated the less-than-usual press of porters in the parking lot. (At times there have been a dozen or more men and teenagers, or younger, eager to claim the right of carrying a bag in return for a US dollar.)
   I learned that my house on the Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary (LBTS) campus was not ready, and that I would be at Ricks for a week. That is fine. It will give me a chance to see folks AND get some work done in the quiet of the guest house.
   The trip was tiring. I did not sleep at all on the first leg to Dublin. My mind was too busy and I had to get it focused. The first step was to find some background music, so I could test the noise-cancelling headphones Lucy gave me for Christmas. I had Beethoven piano and Vivaldi cello. The headphones worked wonderfully well.
   Reading has a way to quell my often too-active mind. I picked up a dense and technical essay by Harnack (turn of the twentieth century German historian of the church) on the origins of the Apostles’ Creed. In addition to learning more about the Creed, Harnack forced me to call up my Greek and Latin—in the style of his era, he assumed readers could navigate basic passage and, therefore, no translations offered. I had to make a short list of vocabulary that failed me, but in the end I managed to work through the 100 pages with the desired result of quieting my mind.

   
Rowan Williams
Alas, then I was keyed up in another way! So, I picked up Rowan Williams’ (former Archbishop of Canterbury) 2001 revised edition of his 1987, Arius: Heresy and Tradition. I previously had read the 1987 work, but had saved the revision—which Williams merely added as appendices—for later.
   By then I was in Dublin.
   Fearing that I would fall asleep and miss my connection to Paris, I found a hard chair at the gate and picked up a third book: Raimon Panikkar’s Christophany. I’ve been reading Panikkar for 35 years, but this book was/is a challenge.
   As a brief aside, these disparate readings are related to some projects I have before me. One is an attempt to sort out what “heresy” is, and the other is an independent reading course I agreed to do in 2014 with my student, Bandon Brock.
   While I was waiting to board the plane to Monrovia I found myself sitting next to an older man who looked, to me, to be Liberian. We struck up a conversation, in the end, what may become a friendship. Turns out that, in the end, I was sitting with Dr. Eugene Sawyer, a Liberian physician who for the last 30 years (that would have been early in the Doe administration in Liberia) has lived and worked in Michigan. Our time was rich and promising. We will meet, again, in the days ahead before he returns to the US.
Amos Sawyer
   Dr. Sawyer is the brother of Amos Sawyer. Wow. In Liberia’s darkest days in the 1980s and beyond, Amos Sawyer was one of the few who stuck it out and held high the dim light of liberty, hope, and justice.
   My mind was, again, racing when I boarded the plane in Paris. I found Bach on the system, picked up, again, Christophany, read until lunch was served, had two glasses of wine, and slept for five hours.
   Now, I am in Liberia. I am content. My mind is not racing. I am well rested after 10+ hours of sleep since I arrived.
   Today I have seen two of my Liberian sons, Faliku and Edmond. In them I see the success of Mercer’s partnership with Ricks and beyond. In them I see the beginnings of hope realized.
   The days, weeks, and months ahead will be full, I am sure.
   Now, I am in Liberia. I did not plan to be here this year, but I am. I am eager to meet the calling that brought me here. I miss home, already, too.
   To have two rich lives in two places at the same time is a gift. I know that. I am grateful for it.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

A New Horizon

   I'm returning to Liberia.
   The return was not in my plan. It bubbled up. It surprised me. Indeed, it confounded me.
When I went to Liberia--returned to Liberia--in January 2013, it was as a researcher. I went looking for Edward Wilmot Blyden, an under-appreciated giant of nineteenth century intellectual history who changed Liberia through his passion for education and promoted Liberia as a diplomat with stunning successes.
   For the last year I have lived with the legacy of Blyden: Linguist. Scholar. Journalist. Educator. Statesman. Pioneer. Explorer. Bridge builder between Christian, Muslim, and traditional West-African religions.
   Along the way I began to see Blyden as a potential key for a future, not only in West Africa, but more broadly in Christian-Muslim engagements.
   A subtext emerged. I was "theologian in residence" at Ricks Institute from January 2013 until early March. I gladly embraced that role. In addition to doing research on Blyden--including an enlightening trip to Freetown, Sierra Leone--I tried to learn more about Liberian Baptists.

   I went to Greenville in Sinoe County, which is 150 miles from Monrovia. I went to Edina in Grand Bassa County, where the Liberia Baptist Missionary and Education Convention (LBMEC) was formed. I visited the grave of Joseph James Cheeseman, founder of the LBMEC (1880) and President of Liberia (1892-1896).
   In late May I was back in Liberia, this time with a group of Mercer University students from the Tift College of Education. Since 2008 Mercer on Mission has had groups of students at Ricks Institute, a K-12 boarding school near Monrovia.
    Mercer has a growing partnership with Ricks and, by implication, with Liberia.
Bradley Brown Chapel at the Liberia Baptist Seminary
      In early June I was in the company of Rev. Dr. Olu Q. Menjay, Principal at Ricks and President of the LBMEC and Rev. Dr. Craig McMahan, Director of the Mercer on Mission project at Mercer. We took a break from the adventure of our Mercer on Mission students and made our way to the Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary in Paynesville City (I had been there several times before). I was the preacher of the hour for the seminary's chapel program. The service was at the Bradley Brown Chapel (named for the first President of the seminary in 1976).
   In mid-June I returned to Macon, GA and began the process of re-entering my life as a teaching theologian.
   One of the projects Menjay and I worked on while I was in Liberia was ways to expand Mercer's partnership beyond Ricks Institute. We talked about many options. In the end we wrote a paper, "What Liberia Needs," and submitted it to Mercer admin.
   By July conversations were afoot and we were beginning to open conversations on many of our campuses.
   In late August I visited with President Underwood to give an update.  He surprised me with a different agenda: "I think you need to go to Liberia as the President of the seminary." I was floored. I protested on various grounds: marital status (with profound desire to have it stay the same!), age, university policies, etc. Each time he had a response that kept things going. "At least think about it," he said. "Talk to Lucy." The conversations were frequent and focused.
Olu Q. Mejay and William "Bill" Underwood
   I accused Menjay of asking for me to come to Liberia. He was adamant in his denial. "I did not ask for you, professor. I only asked the President to help us find someone to bring some stability to our seminary." I believe him. He and President Underwood have, after all, become friends these last many years.
   President Underwood has deep commitments to the developing world. Mercer on Mission is evidence enough to support the claim, but the commitments run deeper than programs.
   Since 2009 Mercer, under President Under-wood's leadership and support, has made it possible for a dozen Liberians to come to Mercer on scholarships--with the proviso that they return to Liberia upon the completion of their undergraduate degrees. Slowly we (the Mercer/Liberia partnership) are laying a foundation for a brighter future for Liberia.
Richard F. Wilson and Olu Q. Menjay
   Tomorrow I leave for an adventure larger than any I ever imagined. Nearly 20 years ago Menjay was a war refugee sitting in my class (Introduction to Christian Theology). Now he is historian of missions and the church (Ph.D, University of Wales), a force for good in the education of children in post-war Liberia (as the Principal at Ricks Institute), and the sitting President of the Liberia Baptist Missionary and Education Convention.
   And, I must add: he will be one of my supervisors as I take up the task as President of the Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary next week.