Long-term commitment to mission in Liberia

June 28, 2010

When people ask me about mission, I have a simple answer: Go! It will change you. It will change the people around you.

Two years ago, I went on a mission trip with St. David's Episcopal Church in Ashburn, Virginia, a trip that altered not only my life, but my career, my world perspective and my attitude towards all the "simple" things I take as givens. As I expressed my concerns of going way outside of my comfort zone in traveling to Liberia, West Africa, to Bromley Episcopal Mission School, my son gifted me with the words by which I have come to live. He said, "God's work is never in our comfort zone, Mom."

Through my fortunate brush with Bromley these last two years, I continue to see that we have an invitation to be God's channels, his hands and mouth, and to contribute some of our resources, whether monetary, emotional or spiritual. I've found that when we hear the still, small voice and we respond by reaching out to others, it is so surprising what "so-called coincidences," as my priest, the Rev. John Ohmer refers to them, start pouring into our lives.

In January, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori visited Bromley. Along with Bishop of Liberia Jonathan B.B. Hart, she participated in the groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of phase one of the school's staff housing project, partially funded by a United Thank Offering grant obtained through St. James' Leesburg, Virginia, and the Diocese of Virginia. (Bromley is currently raising the final $8,000 for the staff housing project; $52,000 out of the $60,000 necessary has already been raised.)

Bromley, once a premier school in Liberia, was founded more than 100 years ago by Bishop Samuel David Ferguson, the second black person to be elected a bishop in the Episcopal Church. It was devastated by recent wars and forced to close during the most violent period.

When Kingsley Obaji and Maggie Johnson (who is Liberian) from St. David's rediscovered it, the school had recently reopened with orphans rescued from refugee camps and was struggling for survival and seeking support. They began taking mission teams to replace the leaking roof, bring much-needed supplies of food and clothing and to refurbish the library, among many other projects. The Obajis rallied support from local Episcopal churches and when they came to my church, St. James', Leesburg, with a Bromley presentation they also informed us that they had room on their upcoming mission to the school. Six weeks later, I was in Liberia.

During our mission, we accomplished much, not the least of which was developing relationships with the students and staff at Bromley. As Buck Blanchard, world mission coordinator for the Diocese of Virginia says of mission, "It's the people, not the project." All of us on that mission felt the same affirmation that we could never turn away from these girls.

I am now preparing for my seventh trip to Liberia, and looking back over the 21 weeks I have spent there in the past two years I can hardly believe how my life has been altered. I now work full time combining humanitarian endeavors for Liberia and writing and I have never been more fulfilled.

The longer I know the girls at Bromley and watch the school slowly improve, the more attached I become to this place and these people. It's really quite amazing to see the seniors graduate and move to college and to watch the little ones grow and learn. I, like all of the missioners who have visited Bromley, feel like these girls are my family.

The school is very far from financial freedom and stability, however. Although Bromley now accepts local students, they still must support the original girls and there is much work yet to be done. Education remains a luxury in Liberia, a country with staggering rates of illiteracy and unemployment, but Bromley's staff continues to fight for the education of Liberia's young women -- the very future of the country. Many Episcopalians have provided girls with scholarships to Bromley.

As Liberia begins to emerge from the ashes and carnage of past wars, the students and staff at Bromley have been granted a great gift of hope through their very own Episcopal Church community. What a tremendous comfort and reassurance it is to these girls to know that even across thousands of miles and through 100 years, the Episcopal Church continues to support and nurture its family and care for the schools they founded so long ago. Bromley is not forgotten.

An example of the benevolence extended to Bromley was evident when they recently faced an urgent financial crisis. Largely because of donor fatigue and rising rice and fuel prices, Bromley was unable to meet operational costs, a crisis so severe that the school was almost forced to close for the remainder of the year which would have had reverberating repercussions. Many friends and supporters of Bromley, as well as several Episcopal churches, raised almost all of the money to cover the budget deficit.

The school's administration knows it cannot rely on grants to fund operating costs and has a plan to establish an agricultural project that will help prevent further budget shortfalls. Bromley has more than 150 fertile, riverside acres and for decades operated a thriving farm. Re-cultivating the farm would generate revenue for the school and place it firmly on the path to self-sufficiency.

On my first day at Bromley in 2007, I was handed a letter from a small girl asking me to be her "playmother," which I soon learned was a great honor. Words seem to be more sacred in Liberia. When a person agrees to be someone's playmother or playfather or playsister, they not only agree to remember the girl but also to pray for her and to offer the support of friendship and love. Every time I return to Liberia, I take pen pal letters from many Episcopal churches, letters that offer hope and simple connection. These girls live in a harsh environment and they feel that if they are remembered, even from someone on another continent, they are never completely alone.

All of the Bromley girls take great pride in their country. Even in the center of what most of us would rank as insurmountable odds, these girls have a passion for life and a resolve that their families, their country and their lives will soon be great again.

In my opinion, they are already great. Through their shining spirits and their warm friendship and love, they have given me so much more than I have given them. They have overcome the traumas of rape, torture, homelessness, starvation, witnessing unspeakable crimes and murders and the feeling of being utterly lost.

When I become overwhelmed by the remaining and often daunting work still necessary at Bromley, I remember the words of a friend who when asked, "Where in the world do you start?" answered, "You just start."

Through this change in my life I have learned a simple truth: we all need each other. We can find the answer to our life questions by answering another: What can I do to offer someone else hope?

The Prayer of St. Francis always offers me strength in mission and I believe, as the people of Liberia, that the former horrors of war will be overcome, that God calls us all to build and plant and above all, to scatter joy.

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