“Hoping Liberia: Stories of Civil War from Africa’s First Republic” is the title of Michael Helms’ 2009 book on Liberia that came out of a mission trip to that country when he was pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga.
When Olu Menjay, principal of Ricks Institute, thanked the mission team for coming to “hope Liberia,” the phrase resonated with Helms. He recalled hearing his grandfather interchange the words “hope” and “help,” saying that a certain person had “hoped” him with his farm chores.
Used frequently in Liberia and still occasionally heard in some areas here, the phrase is central to not only the title, but the entire book. As Helms writes in his introduction: “When someone says, ‘Help me,’ it’s a way of saying, ‘Unless you help me, I am without hope.’ When someone says, ‘Hope me,’ it’s a way of saying, ‘The way you give me hope is by giving me some help.'”
“Hoping Liberia” weaves the history of the country through the story of the friendship and ministries of Menjay and Helms. The former was caught in the tragic civil war that wracked his country as the centuries-old tensions between Americo-Liberians and the indigenous Liberians boiled over into violence and destruction. Helms links those tensions to the slave trade and the decision by American abolitionists to resettle freed slaves back in Africa.
The book relates the amazing story of how Menjay was able to come to the United States and be educated at Truett McConnell College, Mercer University, Duke Divinity School, Boston University and later at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague, Czech Republic.
God led him back to Liberia to head up Ricks Institute, a school established by Baptists in the late 1800s, but which had suffered significant damage during the civil war.
In addition to detailing individual stories of horrors and atrocities, Helms includes stories of what he calls seeds of hope that were and are being sown from a number of sources. Some of those seeds are through the deep, abiding faith of the Liberian Christians as they struggle to survive and recover from the ravages of the war. Many other seeds have come from churches, organizations and individuals in the United States who have contributed time, talents and finances.
One of the most meaningful threads in the book is how God has used Helms to bring “hope,” in both senses of the word, to the people of Liberia and to his friend Menjay. The friendship began during Helms’ ministry at Clarkesville Baptist Church in Georgia, when the young Liberian was in school in nearby Cleveland.
The relationship deepened when the two traveled to Liberia in 1995. That introduction to Liberia touched Helms in a way that has deepened through the years. While at the church in Moultrie, Helms spent a sabbatical at the Ricks Institute in 2006. A work team from the church went back in 2007 to help supply water to the campus. In addition, Helms has personally contributed of his resources, sowing many seeds of hope.
During the war, the Ricks Institute could no longer function as a school. Its buildings suffered physical damage, supplies and equipment were either missing or damaged beyond repair, and the grounds became an immense displaced-persons camp for tens of thousands. Even after the end of the war, about a thousand refugees of the war have remained, living in huts fashioned from mud and sticks. These huts last for a few years before being eroded by wind and rain or decimated by termites.
During his sabbatical, Helms, now pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson, Ga., was moved to address the desperate need for more permanent housing. In prayer he made a commitment to “the least of these.” Through interactions with International Rotary, Helms learned about a compressed earth block-making machine, producing a dirt-and-cement brick that withstands the elements and is inexpensive.
In October 2008, the Bricks for Ricks Liberian Housing Foundation Inc. was formed as part of Helms’ commitment. All proceeds from the sale of the book will go to help purchase one of the machines.
Other goals of the foundation are to help relocate refugees, to add to the educational equipment needed by Ricks Institute and to plant additional seeds of hope in the young people of Liberia through equipping them spiritually and educationally.
Sara Powell is on the board of directors of the Baptist Center for Ethics, a freelance writer and former moderator of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia. She and her husband, Bill, live in Hartwell, Ga.