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Return Flight

“Good mornin’!” My ears perked up at my first sound of southern hospitality as the pilot greeted passengers with his Texas drawl – a little different than my wake up call of roosters and “morning – oh’s!” from the kids as they stopped for a morning hugs. But still, music to my ears as I boarded my final connecting flight into DFW airport.

I groggily shuffled down the aisle to seat 31 D, my bulky carryon knocking most elbows in its path.  An empty seat 31 C was like finding water after a journey through the desert. On my previous 10-hour flight from Ghana, West Africa to US, I had a spotty five hours of sleep and a hard-hearted ‘merican man’s insults to deal with…

Rude Awakening

Soaking in the last drops of Liberia’s thick air, my heart grappled between angst and gladness as the jet ascended into a rainy sunset, palm trees rapidly shrinking below.  I was officially homeward bound.  Before I knew it, we landed in Accra, Ghana, where the second-half of passengers boarded Delta 135.  I sat gazing out the window of seat 28 A, pleading for my vivid mental images of the LMI kids to come to life.  Frustrated, I practiced holding on to the now figments of my imagination instead. My exercises were rudely interrupted when a pot-bellied man stumbled to row 28 – also knocking some fortunately forgiving people’s elbows with his carryon – and plopped into the empty seat next to me.

“And what brings you to Africa, miss?”  He slurred.

“I was doing some work at an orphanage and boarding school facility in Lib–”

“Don’t do that.”  He interrupted.  I was speechless.  “Why you wanna help these people?”  He asked daringly, motioning to the majority of African passengers. His face tightened as he proclaimed he “doesn’t like blacks.”

Talk about a rude awakening – from forming bonds with Liberians, to hearing this man, from my home state, take pride in his own prejudice.  The fire in my chest rose.  I changed the subject.

“Is this your first time to Africa?  What have you been doing here?”  I asked.

He laughed.  “No I been comin here a lot.  Oil,” he said and then explained, with contempt, his job of training and managing “stupid” African oilrig workers.

My retort straddled the line between utter disgust and sympathy.  Somewhere in his life, this man has missed a vital piece of information, or maybe, he has chosen, and for perhaps a valid reason, to ignore this data – that he is loved.  Whether this dissonance exists between himself and God, his own heart, or others, I will never know.  But listening to him mull over and detest the idea of helping a population of people he called “jungle monkeys,” I got the hunch that his habit of hatred must have started somewhere.

“Yea,” he said, “I been comin’ overseas 13 years.”   I don’t like it much but, ya know, I did it, I had to raise my children,” he said as if trying to convince himself.  “I raised my children.”  He repeated this and other desultory comments about his pet peeves and previous divorce when he wasn’t huffing and puffing about how I was trying to “save the world.” He emanated of alcohol and condescension, and it was about all I could stomach.

Assertively, and with all the patience I could muster, I asked him to please stop talking before offending me any further.  Then, of course, I took solace in my iPod and stared out the window holding back a floodgate of tears.

“Seriously?”  I thought to myself.  “This is the closure I get before my re-entry into America?”  Welcome home.

What makes the world go round?

Lips quivering, I wiped tears dangling from my chin.  I cried.  Right there on the plane, I cried.  I cried for the cycle of hatred – the dark dominion of one hateful person toward another, the pinnacle of power a hateful nation reaches and later uses to infect other nations and then, the generations of hate that transpire.  Hate breeds hate.  Prejudice breeds prejudice.  The cycle is very sad and very real – in a country picking up remnants from civil wars, or in a drunk man’s insensitivity toward a young woman’s innocent convictions.

I took a deep breath and pictured the loving community I had said goodbye to just seven hours before.  I thought of Serliae, a 15-year-old creative writer and beneficiary at Liberia Mission Inc.   She said she keeps writing because countless mentors and staff at LMI tell her to “never stop writing.”

I thought of Willimena, the genteel pre-teen who said she feels “loved when someone encourages” her.

I thought of Zota, the 17-year-old graduate, who said he is motivated by obedience, forgiveness and his passion for football (soccer).”

For them, the messages of love are not buried beneath the rubble of their city’s ruins because they have been swept up by a different cycle – a cycle that has been spiraling from within the small county of Careysburg, Liberia; a cycle that began ten years ago when one man answered God’s call, moved to Monrovia, received 21war-stricken, abandoned children, bought land and planted the seeds of change.

I thought of Darius, the 13-year-old aspiring doctor who exercised each day running countless laps around the uneven football (soccer) field in his sandals.  And I thought I was determined.   His father who lives on little more than $1 per day like most Liberian citizens, graduated from college the day before I left Liberia Mission.  Darius was able to attend the graduation.

Homeward Bound

“What about America?” My companion grumbled as if he could sense me ruminating.  “I see you young people all the time on these planes going to Africa to save the world.  But what about your own country?”

I pretended to be asleep and opened my eyes later to find him passed out with an empty mini Jack Daniel’s bottle on the plastic tray table above his lap.  The silence between us remained for the rest of our flight over the Atlantic.

Chilling air conditioning, a Starbucks Grande Soy Latte and a Time magazine about the death of Osama Bin Laden are witnesses to my instant immersion back into the US via Hartsfield-Jackson airport – Atlanta, GA.

On my last connecting flight to Dallas-Fortworth, TX, I mulled over the CSI and Navy tactics and possible Al-Qaeda repercussions to come, the tornadoes that devastated my friends in Alabama, the recent flooding of the Mississippi…and the pestering remarks of the last person I spoke to while still on African soil.

“What about America?”

And suddenly, I was sad that I would never be able to tell him thank you.

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“Better is one day in His courts…”

RefreshingTRUSTWORTHYrightRejoicingclearEnlightening    pure 

enduringTrueJUSTgoldsweetROCKredeemerdwellingask. speak.do.SEENglorified

WAYtruthLIFEbelieveknowAMEN

I can’t take credit for this collage of words.  They come from God Himself.  Pulled from today’s Psalm and Gospel readings, these words epitomize a life lived in Christ and in many ways, a life lived here at Liberia Mission Inc.

The love of the kids is refreshing.  They TRUST you, though they do not know you…

One of my closest friends here said, “I don’t TRUST a person if I do not know them.”  But I reminded the thirteen-year-old young lady about how quick she was to TRUST me, a stranger.  She remembered and smiled, letting the idea sink it.

They are learning what is right.

They are expert Rejoic-ers.

Time spent with them clears your mind, Enlightens you.  They are the     pure     essence of Christ.

They have endured lives of trial, change, abandonment…and they endure in God’s love for them.

They are learning what is True and JUST, what is gold.

When something tastes good in Liberia, “It is sweet!” And here, the Word of God is good.

Their prayer is firm like the Rock upon which Peter built the Church – it was and is and will always be.  Their redeemer never goes a day unnoticed.

They dwell in God’s house on Earth together, sharing the life of His family and creation.

They ask God to make them prosper.  God asks you to make it so.  He speaks through them in word and in deed.

They simply do – study, work and play – to the utmost. They have SEEN, they have been SEEN. And God is glorified here.

With Christ, they are the WAY, the truth and the LIFE.

They believe in God’s word.  They do not always know their worth.  But they know “AMEN.”

And through all these things, they are bringing to fruition what God desires for all of us – a fulfilling human life lived in relationship to God, to our individual selves, to each other and to the rest of Creation.

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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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