Monthly Archives: April 2011

Same trophy, same winner

-By Handful Kollie

The Mission was louder than ever this morning as the kids celebrated the champion of the Easter Football tournament.

Zota Zeatemah, 17, has won the trophy of Liberia Mission two years in a row.

He won the tournament with two goals to one by Edwin G. Kollie, who played on the opposing team.

A great start to a Saturday morning.

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“Pride is the reservoir of sin.”

-Sirach 10:13

Confession:  I have a lot of pride. Thank God the kids at LMI are constantly teaching me how to swallow it…or wring it out.

The other day, I was hand-washing my clothes and enjoying the lazy method I chose to do it – let the clothes soak in the soapy water, scrub a little, toss them into the rinse bucket, squeeze out the water…repeat.  I was proud of my little system until one of the older girls approached me and timidly giggled at my “poor washing.”  She offered to help, but I smiled and told her I was doing just fine on my own.  Pride.

I was a little offended too – what was wrong with the way I wanted to do it?

Then, one of the older boys stood over my shoulder watching my weak attempt at washing.  He laughed aloud and said I needed help.  “You are not man, you need another person,” he suggested.  I let out an embarrassed chuckle.

“No, I’m fine, thanks.”

Pride.  I thought about asking him to help, but still sat over my four buckets admiring my hard work.

Finally, Sianneh came to me. “Let me help you.  I will show you,” she said.  Without hesitation, she plunged her hands into the murky suds, grabbed my dirty socks and started scrubbing the “right way” until all the dirt was gone.

“You see?” she said, stretching the toe of the sock.  Holding one end in her left hand, she wrapped the other end around her right hand and began rubbing it against her left knuckles.  She dunked the sock in the suds and continued in rhythm.

Gulp.  I did my best to mimic her. It takes a lot of practice, believe it or not!  But luckily, I learned from the best.

I slowly started to get the hang of it, feeling less embarrassed.  We laughed about how I was trying to do it beforehand and about the “lazy American” way to wash clothes with a machine.

Then, Rufus, probably the most playful boy on campus, sat patiently with me until I finished and showed me how to pre-dry my now truly clean clothes.

Grabbing one end of a soaked towel, he stood up and told me grab the other end.  Together, we twisted and twisted, laughing at how well we were wringing out the dirty water.

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“For true?”

The Liberian English translation for the American English phrase, “really?” 

At today’s meeting with the St. Anthony Press Club, seven of the “school journalists,” as I like to call them, listened attentively as I answered some of their intelligent questions: What is the best way to gather news?  If someone does not wish to be interviewed, is it ok to ask him or her to be interviewed in the future?  Is it good to interview people every day?

From bell  to  bell, the eighth and ninth grade journalists sat during their Friday recess time, soaking up each answer.  They are on a quest for the truth.

And in underdeveloped countries like Liberia, where deceit has often been the most powerful teacher, children’s eyes peer with a thirst for the truth – that 2+2=4, that they are loved and that they can.

And the kids are often searching for truth unintentionally; they are putting chapter six of Sirach into action without even knowing.

“If you wish, you can be taught” (v. 33). 

During her free time on Tuesday, Olena, second grade, asked me to help her with English homework.  We spent 30 minutes coming up with five words that end in “z” and then adding –es to the end of each.  Seems pretty simple – try it.  I was glad to have Darius help with his addition of the word “quizzes.”

“If you are willing to listen, you will learn” (v. 34).

Wednesday night during study hall, Gbassay asked me to help her pronounce her newest English spelling words.  After reciting some words to her, I was amazed to hear her articulate words like “epitomize” with no help at all.

“Then he will enlighten your mind and the wisdom you desire he will grant” (v.  37).

I never see the kids more satisfied than when they run home with “good marks.”  On Tuesday, it was Marcus, a sweet, enthusiastic 12 – year – old, who came to me with his quiz grade.

“Auntie Lindsay!  I did math today,” he said handing me a piece of paper covered with hand-drawn clocks.  A red “9/10” sat encircled at the bottom of the page.  Marcus smiled, big and beaming as usual, and ran to the dining hall after explaining to me that lunch is always at the time of “one o’clock.”

A truth: time is the most precious gift to these kids – not money, not new clothes, not even a new TV.  How do I know?  The boys’ TV broke a couple months ago, and they haven’t asked much about getting a new one.  They’d rather hang around the staff office asking questions, talking football or drawing pictures.

New clothes are nice, candy every now and then gets them somewhat excited, but give them some of your time, and you’ve struck gold.

For true!

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“Your hands that shape the world…

are holding me, they hold me still.  When my world is shaking, Heaven stands.  When my heart is breaking, I never leave your hands.” -JJ Heller

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Rejoice, and be glad.

To truly understand how to do this, you’d have to come to Liberia Mission and sit in on the Holy Week services yourself.

Thursday

Our four-day pilgrimage into the death and life of Christ began on Holy Thursday with a mass and authentic Washing of the Feet.  Tying a towel around his waist, 85-year-old Fr. Tikpor knelt before twelve of the mission’s disciples – leaders among our men – and carefully washed their feet while the congregation sang “Whatsoever you do, to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.”  The image stamped my heart with the obedience and humility of Christ.

Friday

On Good Friday, the children followed the Crucifix to each station in an outdoor version of Stations of the Cross, which was followed by a solemn scripture reading, communion service and mini-drama of the crucifixion story.  Then, Fr. introduced the Veneration of the Cross.  In Liberia, the custom is to touch the side where Christ was pierced and with the same fingers, touch your own heart, showing a desire to embrace Christ in his suffering.

Fr. said the Veneration is an expression of love “like a hug.”  The kids filed in line to “hug” Jesus almost as quickly as they gather for their “goodnight hugs” from the staff each night.

Saturday

Traditionally, Holy Saturday is to be mourned.  And although clouds hung low beneath a darkened sky, the LMI kids simply couldn’t be sad with such a fun-filled day planned – an intense football tournament in the morning and an Easter egg dying party before bed kept their energy going.  And this was before any Easter candy. Somehow, they still went to sleep, but probably dreamed about the number of eggs they would find in the morning.

Risen…

Easter mass sealed the weekend with the spirit of the Risen Lord.  And afterward, an endearing performance by the LMI Makra (all boys) choir sent the congregation into bouts of applause.

The rest of the kids, however, may have been cheering for something else…

Following mass, they raced outside to find the colorful, boiled eggs scattered throughout the surrounding field of the chapel.  You would have thought a million-dollar cash prize was allotted for the most successful egg snatcher.  But who’s to say a hard-boiled egg isn’t just as good?  The kids would probably argue this one.

Candy and juice were then passed out to the determined hunters, who walked around with an extra dose of pride.  And sugar.  Some of them immediately ran to the field to continue the football tournament while others enjoyed soda and homemade popsicles with the adults.

The sky finally opened mid-afternoon, dousing us with showers to introduce Liberia’s annual “rainy season.”  Here, Easter doesn’t exactly spring up in blooming flowers or hatching eggs.  But Liberians welcome the perpetual downpour after a long and hot “dry season.”

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Dona Nobis Pacem

Grant us peace. My third drive into the town of Monrovia rooted this prayer deep in my heart.

The city’s surrounding areas are filled with dilapidated homemade thatch huts.  Young, pregnant mothers and half-dressed children are gathered in the yards washing or carrying wheelbarrows of items to use or sell.  On the streets of Red Light, an outside area of Monrovia, billboards reading “Real Men Don’t Rape” stand tall among the chaotic markets. Of the 3.8 million people living in Liberia, over 50% are under the age of 15.

Cars dodge the thousands of pedestrians and dangerous motorcycle drivers along pot-holed dirt roads, which are inundated with people selling every item imaginable – from bread and bananas to bagged, “ice” water to underwear.  Adolescent boys swarm car windows bribing people to buy their stash.  Guards at various security “check points” stop cars, some times tricking naïve drivers into paying a fee in order to progress into town.  In fact, many street-Liberians make their living through bribes.

The average Liberian lives on $1 USD per day.  The price of gas here is now $4.50 per gallon, about 5-days worth of work for one gallon.  Poverty breeds desperation.

According to a mutual friend and long-time resident of Monrovia, people used to make money off the mutilated bodies that filled the main streets during the last war less than 10 years ago.  Young men profited by purposely placing dead bodies in front of people’s homes. The stench was so unbearable residents would then pay the same young men in the area to carry away the bodies.

For a while people of Liberia had forgotten the value of life.  And many are still trying to remember it.  Desperation breeds corruption. Corruption breeds suffering. But the right path taken through suffering brings us to eternal life.

Even in a place where a cyclone of violence and hatred plagued the nation with back-to-back civil wars, many people have endured through faith and a hope in God’s promise for peace and deliverance.  They have found peace, and they treasure it.  They don’t hold it back either.  This is especially evident during my favorite part of the Liberian Catholic mass when members, with heart-warming smiles, extend to one another the sign of peace.  Members walk outside the pews to shake hands with strangers and hug their neighbors while laughing and clapping to the music.  And this Holy Week’s readings are full of God’s fulfilled promises of peace through Christ.

“The spirit of God is upon me, and He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,” read the lector at Sacred Heart Cathedral’s Chrism mass yesterday (Isaiah 61:1).

Today’s Psalm re-commits this promise of God to the suffering.  “See, you lowly ones, and be glad; you who seek God, take heart!  For the Lord hears the poor, does not spurn those in bondage” (Psalm 69: 33-34).

The children at Liberia Mission are living proof of God’s kept promises.

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Prepare the Way

Palm Sunday at Liberia Mission, Inc. is a great example of how to prepare the Way for our Lord’s journey from Death into Life this Holy Week.

At 8:30 am, the kids and nearby parishioners, dressed in their Sunday best, assembled on the football field next to the mission’s campus.  The kids quietly bustled around awaiting the service as if they were anxious for a party to begin.

Fr. Tikpor introduced the Gospel reading under a homemade, palm archway before altar servers passed out reeds to the congregation.  Benjamin, also known as Big Brother, directed the party animals into two lines, which followed the Crucifix into the chapel.

The parade of Liberians waved their palms overhead as they processed into the chapel singing “Hosanna!” in a rhythmic, native melody.  The drum grew louder and the voices more jubilant as they re-enacted the Jews’ homecoming celebration for the King of Israel.

Echoes bounced off the empty chapel walls and quickly burgeoned into laughter, clapping and stomping, palm waving and – need I mention, singing – as the crowd filed into the church.  Packed in, shoulder-to-shoulder, the congregation shifted its praise toward the Crucifix.

Marching behind the stoic altar servers, the youngest girls performed a synchronized, cultural dance on their way to the outskirts of the altar, where they remained and performed throughout the Eucharistic celebration.

A slower drum signaled the song’s end.  The voices raised high and peaked at a harmony so overwhelmingly genuine, I had to close my eyes.

This is worship.”  Taking a deep breath, I let the resounding hymn fill my senses before quickly opening my eyes – a lame outsider’s attempt to rejoin the party.  I my voice quickly rose to meet my family in song.

And what better way to prepare the Way of our Lord’s passion with such a jubilee – to celebrate his homecoming, His death,His resurrection?

His Way is our Life.  And by preparing His Way – with a more traditional, solemn mass or a triumphant, Liberian celebration – we are reminded to live in Truth.

  

  Be open, believe, be love.

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Amazing Grace

At Liberia Mission, Inc., one awakes to a different type of alarm – the rooster’s perpetual crow, children’s feet shuffling as they finish morning chores, clapping and singing as they gather for morning prayer, a slow and steady “Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Aaaaa-men” before blessing their breakfast.

One morning, dawn greeted me with a different voice.  Mowholo, our driver, did not know I listening as he hummed a familiar tune.  Sitting on the porch of the staff house, God’s music rang through my ears.  “Amaaaze – ee-ing Graaace….” the voice started low and rich.

A light rain patted the zinc roofs of the houses that enclose our square where the water well sits next to the only tree in the center of the small compound.  The school kids’ distant voices trailed off into the background as they made their way to class.

“How sweet thuh-uh sound…”

God’s music is sweet…if we take the time to listen.  His life, His nature is all around us.  It is a gift…the one gift that has not been taken from the Liberia Mission kids.  And for this, I think they will always know where true peace abides.  Nature is their nurture.

“tha – at saved a-a wretch….like meeee…”  Random staccatos of pots and buckets clank from the kitchen as women clean the breakfast dishes and prepare for lunch.

At Sunday’s mass, a Liberian woman sat in the back row breastfeeding her child – showing no shame.  And surprisingly, neither did I.  If back in the US, I probably would have gasped. But, here, it actually made me smile.  There is a time and place for everything, but this time and place showed me the beauty in the miracle of life as God’s word was blanketed over the congregation.

That afternoon, at the older girls’ weekly meeting, the teenage ladies viewed a slide show of a baby developing inside the womb.  They were amazed to see – some of them for the first time – images of life’s earliest stages.

“We’ve no – o less days to si – ing God’s praaaaise, than when we-ee first be-eegun.  Hmmm, hmmm…”

Mowholo’s voice trailed away, leaving birds and crickets chirping among the last raindrops.

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Holiday, Saturday, Sunday

Last Friday, April 8, everyone in Liberia took off work and school – it was National Prayer and Fasting Day.  Perfect timing to conclude the kids’ long exam week!  They “slept in” – waking up at 6 am instead of 5 am – and filled the day with games and rest.  I led the girls in their first ballet class, and they shared with me their own cultural dances in return.

Then at 4 pm, we walked to St. Michael’s Chapel, the small church on campus, for Stations of the Cross.  Father Tikpor, the 87-year old and first-ever Liberian Catholic priest, led the solemn service and reminded the kids about the need for more priests and sisters.  After “night prayer,” the girls fell asleep to a movie while the boys talked “football” until their 10 pm bedtime.

Saturday morning, the girls taught Amy Spelz and I how to make African doughnuts – a very dense, lightly flakey biscuit.  A touch of cinnamon and glaze would have turned these twisted dough balls into tough, American cinnamon buns.  We had fun working out the dough and swirling them into different shapes.

Then, I met with Amy and the younger girls of the mission for “girl’s meeting,” which Amy leads each weekend.  She introduces each session with topics and pressures relevant to the young ladies.  We drew pictures of ourselves and wrote down they ways in which we feel loved.

Willamena, 11, shared her answers, saying she feels loved when “someone encourages” her.

Some of the boys spent the day anxiously awaiting the F.C. Barcelona match that night.  With no way to see the televised match, the boys stayed in tune with a community radio to keep up.  Football is very much engrained in these boys.  They do not get sick of it – ever.  And it does not get sick of them.

After enjoying their home-made doughnuts, the kids went to sleep ready for a Sunday to replenish.

The Catholic Mass at St. Michael’s Chapel is quite an experience.  The children arrived 30 minutes early, local parishioners trickling in behind them.  The girl’s choir led the congregation in song, which almost always involves clapping.  It is hard not to smile when you enter such a joyful celebration.

After mass, the boys met in three groups with Brian and Matt, two American staff leaders, to discuss moral issues prevalent in the lives of the young men.

The peace of the morning mass lingered throughout the day as many people washed clothes, cleaned rooms and took the day to rest.  After a third ballet class and an early dinner, the kids resumed their normal 9 pm bedtime to prepare for a full week of classes and activities.

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Missing Links

Under a rust orange, crescent moon, I sat on the concrete steps leading up to St. Martin, the boy’s house, chatting with a few of the young men.  George (not pictured), a 12 year old in the 6th grade, began asking about life in the US, which led us into a conversation about American opportunity and the lack thereof here, in their homeland of Liberia.

George is exceptionally smart for his age from what I can tell – his English is more understandable, and he is conceptualizing about some serious issues on his own – so, wanting desperately to encourage him, I reminded him of these strengths and the possibilities they can render.

“But even if you have a good mind, no opportunity (is) here for you anyway,” he responded.  “(It is) impossible to get good job.  Only some people have all the money.”

I struggled with my response.  It is true that most Liberians live on under 1 USD per day.  I would love to drop the opportunity of America on the doorstep of Liberia Mission – these kids deserve more than the blessed opportunities I have been given and too often take for granted.

But our Liberia Mission commitment is to help break the vicious cycle of poverty, corruption and inopportunity– not to break links in a new chain of positivism and peace. To encourage kids to flee to America would rob Liberia of the strongest, one-day leaders of this broken country. We believe that by cultivating the children’s education and spiritual growth, they will become nation builders and community leaders, and with patience and the grace of God, the cycle will break.

But still, how do you look a child like George in the face, and tell him to “keep trying, focus on your studies so more doors open for you, don’t give up, have faith?”  How do you encourage them to remain in Liberia, to re-build the nation and reform its people.  He lives in the opportunity gap.  He is the expert, not me.

But God continues to spring inside me a confidence in these children and in what they will be able to offer their country one day.  I told them these things and how much their country needs them.  Our conversation shifted to topics  like the pressures of sex and the corrupt acts of polygamy and rape.  We talked about staying on the path of righteousness in order to take care of themselves so one day they can take care of another human being, a wife, a family, a community…

The boys latched on to the words God spoke through me, and I saw in them the future leaders of Liberia.  They already are the missing links.

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