In advance of the March 25-27 Franklin Graham Festival, we caught up with Nancy Sheppard, who shared her story of serving in Liberia since 1986 (three years before the start of their civil war). As a missionary in the war-torn country, she explains how the spiritual state of Liberia is linked with its history.
Liberia’s Early Beginnings
Uncertain about what to do with the growing number of freed slaves, in the early part of the 1800’s the American Colonization Society sent a group of 88 immigrants back to the homeland of their ancestors–Africa–to set up a new colony.
The new colony, named Liberia, took as its motto, “the love of liberty brought us here.” Monrovia, the capital city (and location of the All Liberia Life Festival), was named after James Monroe, fifth president of the United States and an avid supporter of the project.
The new “Americo-Liberians,” as they were called, did not embrace the indigenous people; rather, they saw them as strangers. They even enslaved some of the local population. This produced hard feelings, and the government was completely monopolized by these descendants of the freed slaves, some of whom became immensely wealthy.
Society members as well as the freed slaves assumed Christianity would be brought to the local population as the result of this reintegration into Africa. Beautiful churches, complete with stained glass and bells, were built.
However, instead of converting the tribal people from spiritism to Christianity, the coastal Americo-Liberians added the tribal people’s spiritism to the mixture of traditional Christianity and spiritism they had embraced before their reintegration to Africa. At the same time the tribal people wedded their traditional spiritism with this new spiritistic/Christian blend.
Emboldened by the government’s lack of response to the infamous “Rice Riots,” in 1980 17 men enlisted in the Armed Forces of Liberia, including Samuel Doe. They launched a successful coup, killing then-president William Tolbert. Doe declared himself head of state and a period of violence against the Americo-Liberians ensued as the indigenous people took power.
Nearly 10 years later, Charles Taylor launched his Libya-trained troops into a Liberian border town on Christmas Eve 1989. This launched Liberia into a civil war. Within months, the fighting reached Monrovia.
The Spiritual State of Liberia
Hundreds of missionaries had labored in Liberia, some for decades, bringing the message of the power of Christ to change lives. Tens of thousands of Liberians professed to be believers. With its Christian veneer–a mission, church, or ministry on almost every corner of Monrovia–a newcomer would assume nearly everyone must be a believer.
But this brand of Christianity lacked the power to produce any lasting change. Repentance of sin meant admitting you’d done it–although usually only if and when you were caught, and not turning from it. And people didn’t fear God enough to turn, much less flee, from even the most obvious sins. Their god was not holy, and everything, absolutely everything, was negotiable.
As horrible as Liberia’s spiritual condition was, and as impossible as it was to solve the problem with troops, guns and tanks, we knew it wasn’t hopeless. True, these people were totally alienated from God by their sin. But also true, according to 2 Corinthians 5:18, it was for reconciliation Jesus had come. “Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus.”
Be a Part of What God is Doing in Liberia
Now, several years after the official end of the Civil War in 2003, the country has stabilized and life has returned to a more normal state. Those years were spiritually trying for us. We saw many people trust Christ as Savior. We also saw many harden their hearts against Him. Today, many are spiritually apathetic.
There is a desperate need for true discipleship. A true revival is desperately needed–a revival that would cause the Liberian people to hunger and thirst for righteousness.
*Nancy Sheppard tells her story more elaborately in her newly published memoir, “Confessions of a Transformed Heart.”