Who am I?

My photo
Monrovia, Liberia
I live in Monrovia, Liberia, West Africa with my wife and youngest son. We are recently arrived in Liberia where we are serving as missionaries with Evangelical Church Missions working under the Liberia Evangelical Mission. For most of the last thirty years we have served under ECM in Bolivia, South America. We are the happy parents of four children and the proud grandparents of two grandchildren.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Wedding Bells (Again)

I know that I like to write about weddings and have done so in the past. But weddings are such an important part of life and have the full approval and blessing of God (A man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.), that I hate to overlook them. December is a big month for weddings in Liberia.  We recently were invited to attend the wedding of Alphanso and Nicketta, a young couple from the Mt. Zion Church.

The wedding was held in Virginia (a community on the outskirts of Monrovia) at the home of the bride's father. The sun was quite hot but we were given seats on the porch where we could both see and enjoy the wedding from a bit of shade.

The wedding was a mixture of a traditional Liberian wedding and a religious or Christian or Western marriage. The traditional part of the wedding began with both families sitting down (minus the bridal couple) together to hammer out the details of the marriage. While in reality these details  were already determined the wedding proceeded in the form of an impromptu drama. The uncle of the groom taking the role that Alphanso's deceased father would have played, announced that they were just passing by and happened to see something going on. . . . From there the conversation eventually wound around to the point of asking for Nicketta to become Alphonso's wife. The bride's family responded by asking about which Nicketta were they talking as they had several Nickettas. The first had to be brought from another country so the groom's family needed to pay for the expenses of bringing her. After money was exchanged Nicketta arrived on the scene covered with three or four layers of cloth on her head. As each cloth was taken off to reveal the young woman, the groom's family was expected to shell out money for each layer removed. Finally when her face was revealed it was the wrong Nicketta and she had to be sent back, which, of course, incurred more expense for the groom's family. Two more Nickettas were produced in like fashion and each one rejected but not without various payments from the other family. Finally the one true Nicketta was fetched and, after being uncovered, she consented to become the bride. Then the groom's family presented gifts of clothing to the bride's family and eventually the deal was sealed, all done with warm laughter and good feelings.

Next came the church part of the ceremony where the preacher gave a short message and then vows were exchanged. I was asked to participate in this part by giving the blessing of the rings. So the couple was married, food was served and general merriment broke out.

But this wedding represents what is a real challenge for the church in Liberia including the Liberia Evangelical Mission. Sexual immorality is rampant both in and outside of the church. Liberian men and women freely move in with each other, have babies, move out and on to another relationship with alarming frequency and seemingly without shame nor concern for the consequences. I have been told that it was not always so but that during the civil war years the moral fiber of the country was so destroyed that the current situation is the result.

Not only is there the challenge of sexual immorality but also the question of what constitutes a valid marriage. There appear to be four options in Liberia, as far as I am learning. One is to simply move in together. From the church's point of view that is not valid. I concur with that position. There is no document, no family agreement, no visible sign of commitment. The second and third options are traditional weddings, the difference being that in one case there is family agreement but no legal document. LEM has decided against recognizing that form. The third option is the traditional wedding but with a government issued and recognized document (much like a marriage license). LEM recognizes this option but with one stipulation: Both forms of traditional wedding allow the man to take additional wives. Needless to say, the church does not recognize that "right." The fourth option is the legally binding church wedding.

Another issue not yet fully answered by LEM is the question of the new convert who has multiple wives. While legal, it is not endorsed by Scripture, and the question is how to handle this situation. There is a consensus that a man under these conditions cannot take on any more wives but what is he to do with the "extra" wives and children that he already has? Several different approaches have been used in Africa across the years, perhaps none of them truly satisfactory, ranging between full acceptance of the all the wives to restricting the man to the first and requiring him to send the other wives away. Please pray with us as we come to a common understanding of the position that LEM needs to have on this very important issue.

In the meantime, I thank God for Alphanso and Nicketta and others like them who are taking the steps to regularize their situations before God, the church, the government and each other and their families. And I pray for lots of wisdom for LEM and its pastors as they grapple with these issues in the days to come.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Children, Children, Children

The past two weeks we had the pleasure of hosting a young couple, David and Kristine Briner, from the States who are interested in children's ministry and missions. Now that's a winning combination from my perspective, so we prepared some activities for them to participate in so that they could get a little bit of a feel as to what children's ministry in Liberia might look like.

We thought that the not so subtle approach would be the best so we asked the pastor at the Mt. Zion church if we could have a couple of days with a special children's activity at the church. He readily agreed so the announcement was made. Around 200 kids came each day. The activity was quite simple:


Mark played his guitar for some of the music.

a Bible story using flanelgraph and a memory verse,

a coloring page and a cookie.

Too shy to come in, these kids watched the program through the bars of a church window.
We then repeated the program at the Resurrection Faith Ministries church with around 75 kids or so each day. The first day was a bit more of a challenge because we were outside. While designed for the Sunday School kids (no outside publicity was done) neighborhood kids who saw what was taking place showed up as well. The second day we were in the church building. The same amount of kids, more or less, but with walls. (Walls are an amazing invention in children's work!)

Each of the two Fridays were spent at the World Christian Heritage Children's Home where we again used the same format using the kids' art and chapel time. There were around 50 kids there each day, the kids from the home plus a few community kids who attend the school at the home.

The last Saturday we were asked to hold one more session at the Mt. Zion church, which we did. Between 60 and 70 children came that day. Again it was songs, Bible story and verse, coloring and cookies.

All in all we had a total attendance of around 600 kids with probably nearly 300 individual children involved.

We were also able to gift each of the two churches with a complete set of flannel graph for use in their own children's program.

We thank David and Kristine for coming, we thank the two churches for providing us with the opportunity to minister and we thank the Lord for these precious kids into whose lives we had the privilege to speak about Jesus.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Shaping A Ministry

It has been some time since I have posted. I appreciate everyone who has patience with me and keeps coming back to see what I've written.

We have been in Liberia now for going on six months. In those six months we have participated in a variety of events and experiences. We have had "good" days and "bad." We have had times when we wanted to return to Bolivia where everything is normal and familiar. Other times Liberia is home.

I've decided that green isn't my color.
 We've met new food and new friends.

Palm Butter is a Liberian favorite.
New worship styles at church have lost their quaintness and now seem familiar and expected. We have experienced cultural stress and communication failure on one hand and love and acceptance on the other. So we are here, to stay, to serve, to live. But we have also been sent here to minister, to represent the Evangelical Church and, more importantly, to be living examples of Jesus' love and grace in our corner of Liberia. So how do we do that? How do we shape a ministry that will have lasting impact?

How to shape a ministry is a thought that has been on my mind since arriving. And how to shape it from scratch. Literally, the mission had nothing when we arrived, not even a pencil, so we have the responsibility of building a ministry that will outlive and outlast our time in Liberia, that will provide a solid foundation for those who will come after us.

One thing that I have learned during my experience in cross-cultural ministry is that people are more important than programs and equipping more important than buildings. That is not to say that neither programs nor buildings are important but is to recognize that unless we are able to impact people and equip them to serve others in ministry, programs and buildings are useless. But if they are used to build relationships and equip people for ministry, then they have a vital role to fulfill.

So far we have become involved in a couple of things to help build relationships and to equip. Niki invites the pastors' wives to our home each month for a time of fellowship, sharing and relationship building. The pastor's wife plays a very important and unique role in the Liberian church. She is considered the mother of the church. As such she fulfills a role of encouraging and welcoming the other members of the church. She may be actively involved in the teaching ministry of the church or as a part of the worship leadership team. Niki has the opportunity to encourage these women, to help foster relationships between the group of wives and to equip them with teaching and ministry ideas that they can use in their churches.

Niki watches as the ladies draw a picture illustrating the pastor's wife.
I host the pastors bi-monthly for the same basic purpose, fostering relationships between the pastors as well as encouraging them. When the pastors come it is a very informal time together. We serve them a light meal and share something from the Bible, but mostly just visit. This is the only time that these pastors get together for something besides a business meeting or church service. The hope is that these diverse men of God will begin to see and understand each other in a new way which will help them to effectively work together as they build the ministry of the Liberia Evangelical Mission (LEM).

We had one afternoon with both pastors and wives. Pastor Bill and Marthaline  are from the Careysburg church.
The first attempt at formal equipping has been a class on Christian education and children's ministry. The focus of this class has been to encourage the churches in the development of their Sunday Schools and to challenge them to a better organized outreach to the children in their neighborhoods. This four week class will be offered twice, each time being for a different group of churches. It has been an interesting experience for me to lead this class. There are so many cultural things that I need to learn from the brothers in order to effectively teach them. So we have been learning and exploring together. I have tried to not be the man with the answers but rather to be a facilitator to help those attending to determine what needs to be done in their own local churches.

Working on a class assignment.
My goal is that by fostering these relationships and beginning to equip others for more effective ministry we can develop a program that will help LEM to move forward in outreach and discipling. That will probably lead to the need for building. Each LEM congregation has its own building where services are held. At least three of them are involved in projects to expand the size of their meeting place. There is a need for some sort of central office where pastors can find resources and meet together. These needs will be met in time. Meanwhile we will continue to do what we can to build relationships and equip for ministry and by doing so hopefully shape a ministry that will last for years to come.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Annual Conference Time

The Fourth Annual Conference Session of the Liberia Evangelical Mission was held on August 12-16 at the Resurrection Faith Ministries Church. While not an overly large gathering, it was a good series of meetings. This year’s theme was Equipping For Kingdom Harvest. Each session was based on the theme with several speakers each giving their own contributions to the subject. I had the privilege of bringing the opening message as well as teaching one of the classes. Lots of lively music and prayer were a part of each session as well.

LEM is a small group at this point, so the need for business time is minimal. In fact, the business of the conference was confined to one meeting that only lasted about an hour and a half. I am tempted to say that my own Annual Conference could learn something from the Liberian brothers but I guess I had better let that subject pass. The two items that took up most of the business tie were the question of how new congregations can affiliate with LEM and the issue of marriage. Like in the United States these days, marriage is a bit of a hot button topic. However, the church in Liberia is not faced with the question of how to respond to homosexual unions (they are not permitted in Liberia) but what kind of marriage to accept, especially when considering the case of pastors/leaders who in a traditional and not civil marriage. When and how does marriage take place? I will have the opportunity to help address this and other issues as I have been placed on the committee to present a proposed Book of Discipline for LEM. It will be, to say the least, an interesting assignment and one that will need much divine wisdom.

The conference ended with a stirring message from Superintendent Roosevelt Kla-fleh challenging people to commitment themselves for service.

Niki and Mark waiting for the closing service to begin

Apart from the spiritual aspect of the conference, the food was also very good (who can argue with fish, crab legs and pork every lunch) 

Fish, crab legs, pork, greens and rice

Fish, crab legs, pork, palm butter and rice

Fish, french fries and onions

and I had a lot of fun with kids. Some of them are still afraid of the white man. It is fun quite entertaining to see how close I can get before they either start crying or run away. By the end of the conference I had at least coaxed a tentative smile and a long distance wave from the most scared of the bunch.

This young man was my friend from the beginning

Not afraid of the white man, she was on my lap the first day

Now the task begins for the churches to put into practice those things that they heard and were taught. My prayer is that next year at Annual Conference there will be evidence of progress and a deepening relationship with God and with each other. May it be so!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

He Who Finds A Wife . . .

This week Niki and I will be celebrating our 33rd wedding anniversary. Through the years Niki has been a huge asset in our ministry. I have written about her involvement in Bolivia elsewhere so will not go into that here, but I have come to appreciate her in a new way since coming to Liberia. When we arrived in Monrovia and were brought to where we are staying it was a somewhat disheartening experience. The ceiling was dripping, things were less than clean, it smelled musty and there was no one to welcome us with warm food or warm greeting. The brothers were with us and I don't mean to discount them but there was no one to help us get settled and be "at home." Now, before you accuse me of whining or complaining let me make my point. Niki had numerous times in Bolivia helped to welcome new, or returning, people, not only in our own mission but others as well. There is nothing like a plate of hot cinnamon rolls, fresh fruit and eggs and sausage, a hot cup of coffee to welcome you to your new home. I missed that. And it made me think how thoughtful Niki had been all those years. When you are new to a country you need to learn about shopping, food preparation, even house cleaning. Again, Niki was good at helping new people learn to do these basic things. Perhaps the biggest thing you need is a listening ear, a good laugh or cry at times, maybe a cutthroat game of Settlers - all things that Niki has done for newcomers. So, again I say, the lack of these things being done for us on our arrival has only increased my appreciation for Niki and her talents as hostess and caregiver.

Niki has been a trooper here. I, being the insensitive male that I am, thought that she (weak female) would have more difficulty in adjusting to Monrovia than me (strong male). Hah! She has amazed me at her flexibility and adjustment. She has run circles around me in that aspect. So things weren't the cleanest in the world and we had a cockroach playing on us while we slept, she rolled up her proverbial sleeves and attacked everything with gallons of bleach. Even the books in the guest house library were bathed. The house no longer stinks, the cockroaches have greatly diminished and the kitchen cupboards and what they contain are clean.

And then Niki has jumped in with both feet into the ministry here. She has already had the pastors' wives over for a tea and plans to have a monthly meeting with them.

She is spearheading the weekly art class at the children's home that we teach.

And she has been helping with the kids at the Mt. Zion Church when we have occasion to attend there.

I hope by now you get my point. The Bible says, "He who finds a wife finds a good thing." Thirty-three years ago I found a good thing (actually she found me but that's another story) and it's still  a good thing. Thank you for praying for us. Thank you for praying for Niki. We are eagerly looking forward to the future and, should you come visit us, well have the cinnamon rolls waiting!

Monday, June 1, 2015

Come To The Wedding(s)

During our first month in Liberia, we have had the privilege to attend two weddings, one in a rural setting and the other in the city. Both were weddings of pastors, both were joyous occasions, and both offered us a window into Liberian culture and customs.

The first couple had been living together without having had any kind of wedding ceremony. After the man began to sense God’s call on his life for ministry (he now serves as an assistant pastor in his church) he was counseled that he needed to separate for a time from the woman and then get formally married. Wanting to do the correct thing, they agreed to the separation and then to the wedding.

The wedding was held in Careysburg, a small town outside of Monrovia, where the Liberia Evangelical Mission (LEM) has a new church planted. To get to the wedding, we rode with some of the brothers and sisters and pastor from the Mt. Zion Church in a van contracted by the church. The Mt. Zion church had encouraged its people to attend if possible and to pay (yes, pay, as an obligation) whether or not they attended, 500 Liberian dollars ($5.95 US) as a contribution toward the wedding to show support for the couple but also to help pave the way for church support of future weddings in the congregation.

The wedding festivities began on Friday when the families of the couple formally gave their approval to the union and the bride price was paid. Saturday afternoon was then the church service and blessing of the wedding.

The wedding was held under this shelter which provided protection form the sun.

My bride.

Is this a commentary on the ceremony?
The service consisted of lots of music and movement, offering, a straight forward message on the Biblical expectations for marriage, the exchanging of vows and rings and much celebration.

The ring bearer.

The flower girl was followed by the candy girl who lovingly kissed each piece of candy before throwing it down among the flower petals. The candy girl got scared when she me and didn't want to continue her entrance.
Following the service the crowd went from the church to the reception where a delicious meal was served with more music and celebratory dancing all the while.
Fried chicken, jolif rice, macaroni salad, potato salad and cake.

The young couple.
 Our van was returning so we were not present for the rest of the reception, which included toasts from the families, giving of gifts and cutting the wedding cake.

The second wedding took place the following Saturday. This bridal couple was also a pastoral couple. Their story was a bit different. Five years earlier they had been married traditionally but wanted to celebrate their marriage again, this time with a church ceremony. This wedding was held in the city in a borrowed church sanctuary. 

Lots of music.
The basic elements of the wedding were the same; music, movement, offering, message and vows.

The flower girl kissed each petal before throwing it down.
Here comes the bride!
Following the service the reception was held in the sanctuary with a meal that was similar to the meal the week before. This time we were able to witness the toasts and the cutting of the cake.

Yummy, wedding cake!
I thank God for these two couples and their desire to honor him with, not just their service, but with their marriages and homes as well.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Further Observations On Life In Liberia

We are now in week three of our life in Liberia. Bolivia and the States seem like a long distant dream and our Liberian routine is beginning to feel normal. I want to share some more observations about life in Liberia and in contrast to Bolivia.

In Bolivia there was always an endless supply of fresh vegetables and fruit, all at reasonable prices. I sort of assumed in my mind that the case here would be similar. So far, however, it has not proven to be so. I understand that part of that may be that we have not yet ventured into the main market of the city. But that the variety is less is, I think, a fact. There is a young woman who is helping us some and has done some shopping for us. We discovered that certain vegetables, such as lettuce, green beans and carrots, must be purchased at the supermarket. A one pound bag of carrots was $8.00; four tomatoes, $8.00. Oranges and apples were less costly but still kind of high. Pineapples are high too, compared to Bolivia but really good. On the other hand, really good sweet potatoes, onions, green peppers, cassava greens and bananas can be had for not much more than a song. Even Irish potatoes are available at not too high a cost. I have also seen cabbage, mangos and cassava but we’ve not bought any of them yet. So we are learning to adjust accordingly.

The shops around town remind me a lot of the market area in Cochabamba. We have not seen any really large stores or department type stores, which is not to say that there are not any but only that we have not seen them. It is easier to get to town than in Bolivia, once you can find an empty spot in a taxi. Despite the heavy volume of traffic, drivers seem to have more patience here than in Santa Cruz. On the other hand, the volume of motorcycle traffic is huge and they seem to drive by their own rules. I am told that the police are, by and large, honest, an area that will prove to be a bit refreshing after Bolivia, if it proves to be true.

As for the two churches we have attended so far, they are lively, but in a different way than our Bolivian congregations were. They try to start on time, not that the people are all there on time. Last Sunday there were three offerings taken during the service, one for Sunday School, one for testimonies given and one for tithes and offerings. Afterwards the people were being encouraged to give an offering to help with a wedding at another church. Here, as in Bolivia, it seems that people are inclined to give even though they don’t have a lot of their own.

Finally, one other area worth mentioning is that of people asking for money on the street. I alluded to this in my last post. As a white person I really stick out on the streets. And my appearance sends out a signal that says that I have money. If you have read my post for quite some time, you are familiar with my struggles in this area. How do we respond to the need around us in a way that helps and doesn’t just ease my conscience or that doesn’t simply set up relationships all based on money? So far, the only people asking are people who see me on the street. In Bolivia it generally was never the church people who asked. The church seems to take care of its own.

We have committed ourselves to a house but it will not be ready at least until August. So until then we will continue to stay at the guest house where we are. While it is a bit hot and a bit noisy at night (lots of restaurants and music up the block) we are already thinking of it as home and are content to wait for the other to be ready for us.

So little by little Monrovia is becoming our new normal, our new home. I look forward to getting better acquainted to it each day.