Scam Into Blessing – Part 9

Several voices were raised while the people just looked at me. I wondered if it was something that I had said, or if they had in some way been offended at the message. Up to that point, I had not noticed but Pastor Philemon was looking at me as well. From those who spoke Liberian English, I managed to catch the words “Pastor Mark” but little else. Asking what they had said, Pastor Philemon replied, “They are saying you left more meat on the table!”

My mind was racing trying to understand what this could possibly mean, so Pastor Philemon helped my lack of knowledge by stating, “The people say that you did not speak long enough. There is more meat on the table that you did not share. They want you to preach some more.” I was shocked and caught completely off-guard. To think 55 minutes was not enough for these people sitting there in a growing ever hotter concrete building was mind-boggling. It was obvious they had a hunger for God’s Word, and many of them were even illiterate. They were not able to read the Word for themselves.

This is one of the biggest problems facing Liberia. Churches are in abundance, but they do not preach the Word of God. When the congregation cannot go to the Scriptures and study to be a Berean believer, it is easy for them to be led astray.

Their words stunned me into the realization that such people did exist in Bible-believing churches, but obviously outside of the west where entertainment and feel-good messages dominate the church landscape. However, the blame cannot lie solely at the feet of the average church attendee. The biggest issue is that instead of standing firm and proclaiming “thus says the Lord”, pastors have waffled for far too long. They have chosen the easy path to the point where sermons are mere sermonettes because that is what the people want. All pastors know that if you do not give the people what they want, most will start leaving and will go somewhere else. Praise the Lord for those few who continue to faithfully minister no matter what the cost.

Being quite tired and still ill, my brain was not working well enough to speak extemporaneously, so I deferred to Pastor Philemon who after a few words concluded the service. Now, I know that in many western churches, there is a fair proportion of “drag-race” Christians. They will drag into church one time a week and then race out as soon as service is over. Well, Liberians are not that way. They enjoy fellowship. As I was speaking with several of the folks afterwards, I was unaware the food I smelled being cooked was being prepared to feed those in attendance.

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Scam Into Blessing – Part 8

Before retiring for the evening, another Liberian pastor whom I had met that week invited me to preach for the congregation known as Highland Hills Baptist Church. Pastor Philemon Gwelikporluhson, who has become a very dear friend, was the pastor and also the man whom God had used to start this little work in an outlying area of Monrovia.

Pastor Philemon and his dear wife, Dylin, have six beautiful girls ages 6-19. At the time of my visit, they had been living in a small house with other relatives. All 8 of them lived cramped in one single room that was about the size of one average American bedroom. For many years, Philemon has been involved in the work of church planting and has successfully (to the glory of God) been able to establish four previous works that are now being pastored by local men whom he has tried diligently to train.

Due to his faithful work in planting churches and trying to train disciples to the best of his ability, his sole means of income was what the church could offer or what he was able to receive from sources outside of Liberia. Income from the church might amount to $5 or $10 in a week, or others might bring them some food as their offering to the Lord.

Obviously, he was in no position to be able to obtain even a small home. While it is part of a different story, we are thankful that through the kind and generous offerings of God’s people in different parts of the world (USA, the UK, and Australia), they now have their own little two-bedroom home they are renting. Praise the Lord!

The next morning was beautiful and another early rising. Liberians tend to go to bed between 10-11pm and are up around 4:30-5:00 each morning. However, during the hottest part of the day, many take a rest and try to limit their activities so as to remain a little cooler. Walking outside, I sat down on Pastor Togba’s small porch and watched Liberians walking back and forth on the main road. Most of them would not be in church worshiping the Lord who made them, and would certainly not be giving the honor and glory to Him for His wonderful works among the children of men.

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Scam Into Blessing – Part 6

The trip had already been planned and Bro. Trexler asked if I would like to go with him and Pastor Togba up to Gbarnga. This town is located in Bong County and was the main headquarters for the rebel groups during the long civil war. To get there, you travel through the town of Kakata and then on up close to the border of Guinea. Being the adventurous type (LOL), I decided that I would tag along for what was to be a 2-3 day trip into the interior where the US State Department and the British Foreign Affairs Office had highly recommended white guys like me not travel!

So with a straw hat on my head, no machete or gun for the wild animals we might encounter, a Bible in one hand and a “fa-tow” (face towel for perspiration) in the other, off we went on our African safari! The first place we came to was a suburb of Monrovia called Red Light District, so called not for any nefarious or immoral reasons but because this was the first district to get a stoplight – thus Red Light.

At an already crowded intersection, we saw a large part of the crowd circled around somebody shouting at the group. Pulling over to the side of the road, we were finally able to discern what was transpiring. The gist of the street preacher along with his thugs was this, “How many of you want a $100 US dollars only blessing? If so, then come up here and give us $100 US dollars! If you want a $50 US dollars only blessing, then come up and give us $50! God will only give you a blessing based on the amount of money you give to us!”

Listening to this health, wealth, and prosperity huckster, I was ashamed that fellow British and American preachers had done a great done exporting the false religion of charismatic phenomenon. The shameless badgering of the people for their money was nothing more than a way for the false preachers to earn a very nice living off the backs of their own people.

Moving back into the flow of traffic, I listened to Pastor Togba share that what we had just heard is about all many Liberians know of Christianity. They have been duped into believing that some deity called “God” will give them all they could ever ask for simply by scrimping their hard earned cash and giving it to a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The desire of these people is to simply provide for their families and to strike it rich. Those who claim religion as their employment are doing well in Liberia. In the meantime, countless thousands were passing off into eternity because they had never heard that “Jesus paid it all, all to whom I owe, sin had left its crimson stain, He washed me white as snow!”

Continuing north, Bro. Trexler made a stop at the village of Cooper’s Farm. It was something right out of National Geographic. A small grouping of mud huts covered with thatch roofs stood in a line overlooking a valley just off the main road. Bro. Trexler informed me that two weeks earlier he had stopped by at this location and had the opportunity to provide medical assistance to the assistant chief of the village. Afterwards, he was granted the privilege of sharing the good news of the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Some of the villages expressed further interest in knowing more about the Bible talks (as they could not read) and some of these people testified that their faith was in the One Whom they had heard about for the first time.

Exiting the vehicle, Bro. Trexler (who is a Physician’s Assistant by training as well as a missionary) enquired about the health of the man he had helped two weeks prior. Some of the men pointed towards one of the larger huts and we headed in that direction. Brother Trexler whispered that it would be fine if I did not want to go in to the hut or feel that I could. I whispered back that I would follow him wherever he went that day. Stooping low we entered the entrance to the hut and found it was divided into four living areas. One of them was where the assistant chief and his family lived. It consisted of one room and with the exception of one very old rickety looking wooden chair had no furniture. The floor was dirt, flies were everywhere, and the smell of sickness permeated the air.

I watched as Bro. Trexler got on his knees beside the asst. chief as he lay on his filthy blanket and gave him a medical checkup. There was nothing pretentious with this brother in Christ as he sought first to minister to the health of the man and then reiterated the words of life shared two weeks prior. The man lying on the ground was not doing well, but indicated that he would ponder what Bro. Trexler had shared.

We went back outside and a couple of men were working building what looked like crude benches. Considering there were no other pieces of furniture to be seen in the village, we asked what this was for. One of the men spoke up, “We were told about Jesus two weeks ago and placed our faith in Him. We have told everybody in the valley that they need to hear about Him as well. Therefore, we are building these benches so they will come and sit down with us and listen when Dr. Steve (what they call Bro. Trexler) comes back!”

Bro. Trexler and I looked at each with amazement and no words were possible as we considered what we had just been told. They had heard once and knew what the life-changing news meant to them and they wanted their friends and family to hear before it was too late for them. This was especially poignant considering the average life expectancy for a Liberian is around 42-44 years old.

The missionary humbled even more by the events informed the villagers that he would be back to their village in another week or so to teach them more of the Bible. Many might have just continued down the road and overlooked this small, seemingly insignificant village. However, just as the good Samaritan saw the need of the one who was bruised, bleeding and beaten, Bro. Trexler was willing to stop and render assistance and when he did, the Lord provided a sovereignly appointed opportunity to bring the message of light into another very dark corner of West Africa.

Our next stop would be Gbarnga.

(…to be continued…)

Scam Into Blessing – Part 4

Leaving with Pastor Togba and Bro. Trexler, we headed across Monrovia. To understand a little better what I saw next, the reader should be aware that Liberia had been one of the most modern countries in West Africa, if not in the entire continent. Running water, sewage, and electricity was common place, particularly in the large cities. People turned on a light switches as if commonplace. Women washed and dried their clothes in Maytag and Whirlpool appliances, and people drove to and from work in newer vehicles on paved roads bathed in the glow of electric streetlights.

Liberia was certainly a country that had plenty and it appeared she had been blessed by God. Religious services were abundant with churches from many denominations dotting every other street corner. But then war struck – hard! In the end, estimates of over 250,000 were killed and more than 1 million were displaced from their homes. Sadly, much of the killing, rampaging, looting, raping, etc. was conducted by children soldiers fighting only because they would have been killed by the militia group that held them captive.

It is hard to describe the land of Liberia in mere words for every aspect of this beautiful land assaults every one of the senses. Driving through Monrovia, the first thing you feel is the oppressive heat and accompanying humidity. The perspiration pooling on your forehead is almost forgotten as your nose wrinkles at all the smells which include: food cooking in roadside cafes that in America would constitute nothing more than a run-down backyard shed, burning rubber, open raw sewage ditches, and the ever present odors from trash-filled streets. Dust carries the taste of Liberia as it settles into your pores mixing with perspiration.

The streets reverberate with the sound of clamoring voices in marketplaces, the myriad of car and motorbike horns (no matter the time of day or night), and the occasional street preaching huckster striving to con more people out of their money with empty promises of huge blessings from God. The health, wealth, and prosperity gospel has been fully assimilated into Liberian culture as its evil tentacles have enslaved many countries around the world. On another corner, one of 34 languages would ring out as the speaker hailed a fellow tribesman.

The sense that struggles the most is that of sight. Your other senses have learned to pinpoint a certain trigger like the smell of burning rubber or the sound of a car horn. The saying is true that a picture is worth a thousand words, but a picture in Liberia is probably worth more than that. It is impossible to take a snapshot of a town or city in Liberia and adequately convey to the viewer all that the picture means.

Having just spent a restless night and already quite tired, I struggled to understand what my eyes had never seen before. Burnt-out vehicles dotted the roads and filled disease-filled pools or rivers. Every house, wall, office, and church pockmarked with uncounted bullet holes. Rockets left their mark with the evidence being destroyed bridges and buildings. Concrete hulks or shells accommodated dozens, hundreds, and in some high-rises thousands of people with no place left to go.

People rushing to and from various locations, many dressed in colorful Liberian garb, were a constant distraction. Children who should have been in school sat on steps or played with a stick. The fortunate ones managed to find a football (soccer ball in the USA) to play with and many of those were patched or stitched in order to extend the life once again.

Along the river banks and on side streets, dumps filled with trash were being combed through meticulously by adults and children alike. Each person intent on finding something to eat or a small treasure that could be translated into a mere pittance to be used to help buy food so their family could eat that night. Babies cried while laying on dirt-encrusted mattresses and in vain a sibling would listlessly attempt to swat away the flies that tried endlessly to reach the orifices of each little bundle.

The streets were crowded not just with people walking but with vehicles, buses, trucks, hand-pushed carts, bicycles, and motorcycles all jockeying for position three, four, and even 5 abreast on two lanes. Yellow taxis were crowded with passengers as were buses and open cargo trucks. Often a pickup truck would pass with 15-20 people standing in the back holding on to each other.

Each intersection produced endless supplies of vendors of all ages running up to your vehicle hawking “i-wa” or “fa-tows.” “I-wa” is the term used for small plastic bags of ice water that was more like cool water, while “fa-tows” were the small washcloths used by many to wipe the perspiration from the face or to try and shelter the top of the head from the merciless sun. These were inevitably followed by children, some as young as 4 and 5, coming up begging for a small handout. Their families sat to the side encouraging this while others not so scrupulous made a living by the use of these little ones.

It was a lot to take in and I would see even more that left a permanent mark in my brain, but there was only so much I would be able to assimilate. Arriving at Pastor Togba’s house, his family welcomed me warmly. As I rested before lunch, I looked again through the pictures I had already taken and tried to fill in the blanks of the previous hours my eyes could not understand or had missed.

There was much and while each photo re-emphasized my being in a very strange world, one thing was constant – the people. The people were what I had come to this country to see. I was not there on a sight-seeing tour or a trip to enjoy paradise or even to take an African safari, I was there to see people for whom Christ died. I had a greater purpose and it would not be long before that became a reality because “people need the Lord.”

As they had promised, the “three pastors” showed up promptly at 9am on the Wednesday to speak with us again in regards to conducting the Pastors’ Conference and the “Crusade.” The previous evening though had seen much discussion mainly between myself, Pastor Togba, and Bro. Trexler. We discussed all of the circumstances surrounding the events that had transpired, the fact that these pastors were of a highly charismatic group of churches, and what our response should be to what were obviously individuals who were lost on their way to a Christ-less eternity.

Pastor Togba being the gracious host that he was offered the men a snack and something to drink – Liberian style coffee. Most of the coffee I was given was quite strong and then liberally sweetened with generous handfuls of sugar cubes. It was a taste that did not quite agree with me, unlike the food which I really enjoyed. However, that is for another part of the story.

The “three pastors” took some coffee and an uneasy silence ensued as they very slowly dropped sugar cubes into their cups and all the while keeping their eyes turned down. From the time I had walked into the room upon their arrival, they had refused to make eye contact with me. Once again, we sat at another table – Pastor Togba, Bro. Trexler, and myself on one side, and on the other – the “three pastors” and the deacon/night guard, Moses.

Pastor Togba and Bro. Trexler had agreed that I should be the one who would have to make the ultimate decision in regards to the conference and crusade. Therefore, it would be left to me to carry the conversation and they would just be there for moral support.

We waited until the silence was broken by the ringleader. Continuing to stir his sugar-thickened coffee, he acknowledged that they had made some mistakes in their misrepresentation of who they were and their part in the emails. Finally looking up, he said, there has already been monies spent for the printing and pastors/elders/deacons were expecting to be taught by myself on the following Monday. So, he concluded, we would like to ask once again if you would be willing to come and teach at the church.

Based on the previous evening’s long conversation, I first responded by sharing my own personal testimony about placing my faith in Christ. Second, I informed them that what I believed was not even close to their own doctrinal position (if they really even had one). I had already found out from speaking with Pastor Togba that many churches had sprung up all over Monrovia of the health, wealth, and prosperity persuasion and were leading people astray with a works-based salvation, if they spoke of salvation at all.

With those basics understood, I told them that the crusade was not an option. This had been fully agreed with me by Pastor Togba and Bro. Trexler. The problems involved in such an event would have posed many more issues, most of which I would not understand due to cultural differences. At this point, the “sullen” pastor interrupted me to try and get me to reconsider. However, I made it clear that this could not be an option and we would continue discussing the Pastors’ Conference only. One thing I had learned from Pastor Togba is that conducting such a crusade (even without the faith-healing charade attached to it) would have raised the status of these pastors and made them very important in their local communities. The last thing we wanted was to perpetuate the myths that they believed about themselves and that they spreading to their congregations.

I concluded that I would conduct the Pastors’ Conference with Pastor Togba beginning the following Monday. However, a few things needed to be understood. I told them that I would be setting the agenda for the meetings, as well as the teaching material, and we would not be involved in any of the music that preceded each morning session on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Continuing, I told them there would be no laying on of hands and certainly no speaking in tongues, etc. would be tolerated or the meetings would not continue. The ringleader and the sullen pastor wanted to argue with me over my guidelines, but finally realized that I was not going to budge and they all agreed to my conditions.

After just over two hours of conversation, they took their leave and once again the deacon, Moses, came up to me and gave me an embrace. “Thank you for deciding to come to my church. You will be made very welcome.” None of the other pastors expressed any words of thanks or appreciation, but simply said good-bye.

Pastor Togba believed that it was a great opportunity for churches of different groups or denominations did not mix in Liberia. He said that another chance to speak to this particular charismatic group might never present itself again and he considered it a God-given opportunity. It would not be a chance to merge any churches, nor to convince these people to become baptistic in their doctrine. This would be one open door to clearly express the gospel message of the Lord Jesus Christ to pastors who were dead in trespasses and sins.

I left the dining room and walked back to my little bedroom. Sitting down on my bed, I pulled out all the notes that I had brought and knew they would not be used. I had written for pastors and church leaders who professed faith in Christ alone. As Pastor Togba had shared, the vast majority of those who claimed to be pastors in Liberia had never even heard the truth of the law of God that condemned them, nor had they heard the full account of the glorious message of the cross.

Although the rates were high, I called my wife to tell her everything was good. I shared what would transpire the following Monday and for her to spread the word so that friends and family could pray that the Lord would prepare the hearts of those who would be in attendance. I must admit that one heart that still needed some work though was mine.

(…to be continued…)

Scam Into Blessing – Part 2

Prior to my departure for Liberia, my parents were obviously concerned about the possibility of their son being in West Africa, and had made contact on my behalf with ABWE (Association of Baptists for World Evangelization). The director passed on the details of a native Liberian, Pastor James Togba. Pastor Togba is the pastor of Maranatha Baptist Church and is one of the leaders with AFBM (African Fundamental Baptist Mission). AFBM is a loose organization of about 20 churches who hold to the baptistic faith and doctrine. I had made contact with Pastor Togba just briefly by email and informed me I was headed to his country. He invited me to visit them if I had the opportunity to do so.

Bro. Steve Trexler had come with Pastor Togba to help welcome me to Liberia and to see if there was anything that I might need assistance with. Their help was to become invaluable and quicker than any of us were anticipating.

Trying to adjust my eyes to the darkness with Bro. Trexler at my side, I managed to see a group of Liberians holding a large sign. There were about 12-15 in the group and they warmly welcomed me. Introductions were made, although I would not remember but a handful of the names later. There was a lot of chatter in Kpelle by the group and I merely stood in place trying to assimilate all the strange smells and sounds surrounding me. Pastor Togba came up to me and indicated that something was not quite right, but that he and Bro. Trexler would be taking me along with several of the group into Monrovia and the rest would follow in a couple of taxis.

Putting my luggage in the back of Bro. Trexler’s jeep, they escorted me to a place of honor – the front passenger seat. Before the door could be closed, two different members of the welcoming group tried to get me to scoot over enough for them to sit beside me on the SINGLE seat. Pastor Togba said something in Kpelle and they went and climbed in the back and somebody shut my door. By the time we were headed away from the airport, there were about 9 people sitting in a 5 seat vehicle! Welcome to Liberia! I would later learn that this was normal to squeeze as many people as possible into one vehicle thus making the trip worthwhile. There was more than once I rode in a yellow taxi (think old Toyota Camry) with the driver and at least two others in the front and 5 of us in the back!

The first sight I remember was very tall 8-12 foot high mounds on the sides of the road as we sought to avoid running over people walking down the middle and sides of the main highway headed in towards Monrovia. After about 40 minute hair-raising drive, I was NO LONGER tired but very wide awake as we pulled up to a compound with barbed wire and a gatehouse. Bro. Trexler informed me that this was formerly the Southern Baptist compound where they had a university and missionaries could stay here as they transitted the country and/or continent.

Now, before I continue, the reader should be aware that I was told by the man who was writing me in England that they would cover my hotel stay and a rental car during my stay. It never dawned on me until later that rental cars were not available at that time. Unpacking my bags, one of the young men who lived at the compound came up and asked me to go with him to settle the bill. It was at that moment that I began to feel something was starting to smell fishy about this operation.

I walked through the dark following very closely to my guide and wondered whether snakes slept at night in that part of Africa. I knew the mosquitoes sure didn’t for I had already left a trail of the depraved insects all the way from the airport. We walked into a little hut with a grass thatched roof and they shut the door behind me and invited me to sit on one of only two chairs in the room. It almost felt like something out of a movie where the good guy is about to get whooped up on. There was only a single small lamp casting eerie shadows on the walls as one of the men standing translated the words of the guy seated at a creaky wooden desk on the other chair.

I was politely informed that for my stay of the next two weeks, I owed them $700! I could not have been anymore surprised than if a snake had chosen that moment to crawl across my shoes. The cost per night was $50 (US Dollars) to stay at the compound. Wow! Very politely, I responded that the group I had come to visit had told me that they were covering the costs of my hotel and they would need to speak to Rev. S___________ as he had already made the arrangements and even told me that the bill had been paid the week before I arrived.

More chatter, and then the translator informed me that there was no such person who had come to see them. In fact, they had only just received word of my coming about 2-3 hours before my arrival into the country. It is now about 10:30pm and I am exhausted. My mind is not working straight, but the welcoming party and some of the names begin to float through my fuddled thoughts. Red flags and sirens are going off but I am not putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

Wanting to get to sleep, I went ahead and paid the man for two nights taking a chunk out of the money I had brought for spending and an offering for the work. I walked back to the guest house (again following closely to my guide and followed closely by the cousins of the critters I had killed on the way over to the hut who were out for revenge).

Sitting down with the men, I was finally able to discern that these men had not paid the bill and seemed to know nothing about the arrangements made by Rev. S_________. This was not making sense because I thought I was speaking with Rev. S__________, one of three who had introduced themselves to me at the airport as the pastors I had come to meet and conduct meetings with.

Not getting anywhere in the conversation, they finally left about 11:30pm after talking in circles. My guide from earlier walked back in about 10 minutes later and said the three pastors did not have any money to pay for a taxi ride home, could I provide them with some US Dollars for a taxi?? What was going on??!! I figured it would wait until morning as I gave a few dollars to the guide and headed to bed enjoying the air conditioner in my room.

Two hours later, the air conditioner and the fan suddenly went quiet waking me from a fairly deep sleep. Wondering what was going on, I finally remembered the guide had mentioned that the generator for the electricity was shut down every night about 2:30am and stayed off until the next day. The room got warm very quickly, and it was not just my rising body temperature that had feelings of discomfort. The next morning was going to prove interesting though and would reveal the truth of my trip.

(…to be continued…)

NOTE: Part 3 will be on-line Wednesday, April 21.