Johnnette Jallah, a teenager from Lofa County, Liberia, said her favorite thing about Passport Camp Liberia was making new friends.
Approximately 150 campers from across Liberia had such an opportunity when they traveled to Ricks Institute, a boarding school 16 miles outside of Monrovia, as they attended Passport’s first ever Liberian-staffed camp and ushered in the new year.
The importance of such a camp cannot be overstated in a country where century-long animosities that divided the country into warring factions still remain.
The camp’s theme, “Life Together,” was based on the Dietrich Bonhoeffer book of the same name. The camp’s subtheme was: “Empowering Students to Encounter Christ, Embrace Community and Extend Grace to the World.”
Camp director, James Blay, says they strived to reach these objectives during the camp because Bonhoeffer said, “God will not allow us to live in a dream world.”
“While everyone did not meet this goal,” Blay said, “I can confidently say that most campers left camp with a new attitude towards community and service to others.”
Through Bible study, recreation, missions and worship, campers were able to see that community doesn’t just happen. Community involves hard work.
Blay, who is the director of servant leadership at Ricks Institute and a recent graduate of Mercer University, is a four-year veteran of Passport camps.
He carried his Passport experience and passion for experiential learning back to his home country and poured it into a team of leaders, which he assembled from the Ricks’ community and from the Liberia Baptist Youth Fellowship.
There were obstacles. The demands of the holidays reduced training to a one-day intensive session, and all of the supplies for the camp that were sent in a container from the United States did not arrive in time to be used.
However, Liberians are used to challenges and to doing a lot with a little. Even with a short training time and limited resources, the staff did a superb job!
One of the staffers, Faliku S. Dukuly, a Ricks graduate and student at United Methodist University in Monrovia, said the biggest challenge about building community “is to extend God’s love to your neighbors without any limitation, especially to those who are your enemies.”
In a country where those who committed war crimes against their neighbors had now assimilated back into the general population, this obstacle, Dukuly pointed out, is a major stumbling block to community building in Liberia.
For Faliku, the way to bring about change is through servant leadership, a concept he has committed his life to. When people begin to see such examples lived before them, transformation is possible.
Faliku should know. He comes from a Muslim family, but became a Christian through the loving examples set for him by elementary school teachers like Jenneh Devine and the school principal, Dr. Olu Menjay.
Adrian Andrews, an 18-year-old camper from Maryland County, Liberia, said, “Camp was a reminder to him that Christ did not come to be served but to serve.” Thus, the model for community is Jesus.
It was a bit amusing and revealing when I asked a small group of teenagers if there was anything about the camp they would change?
Several of them were quick to say “The food! We would like to have Cream of Wheat instead of Quaker Oats, and chocolate milk instead of plain milk.”
As they talked, I noticed a couple of them were playing around with their cell phones, much like American teenagers would be doing. To me, both their response about the food and these cell phones were great signs of hope.
Six years ago, the parents of these teens were struggling to find enough food to give them a meal a day. Now, they have choices and can complain about what they eat, some of them have cell phones, and their families have enough money to send them to camp.
Liberia is still one of the poorest places in the world, but times are better.
As the people learn to live together, having enough to eat is not as big of a problem as it once was. But “man cannot live by bread alone,” and that’s the reason Passport Liberia showed up at Ricks Institute.
In order to live together, Liberia needs this generation to encounter Christ, embrace community, extend grace and empower others. If any of us are going to live together, this is a good road map to follow.
Michael Helms is pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson, Georgia.