Rev. Olu Menjay could have lived a comfortable life in America. As a refugee from the Liberian civil war, he was granted a green card. After graduating from Mercer and Duke Divinity School, he was in pursuit of a doctorate at Boston University when Rev. Emile Sam-Peal, general secretary of the Liberian Baptist Missionary and Education Convention, invited him to return to Liberia to become principal of Ricks Institute, a K-12 grade school about 12 miles outside Monrovia.
Menjay accepted the invitation to go to Liberia for a look. The visit to the school was very discouraging. The grass was taller than he was. The buildings were all damaged from the war. Some of the buildings were burned. Others had no windows and the ceilings were leaking in many more. Refugees occupied the boys’ and girls’ dorms.
The financial condition of the school was even more discouraging. There was less than $200 in the bank and the teachers were owed almost six months of salary. Realistically Menjay knew he shouldn’t take the position. His first reaction was to leave and return to the states.
But then he said to himself: “All I can do is try; just try one building at a time. If I am unsuccessful then at least I tried. If I think I am too good for this position, who is it for? If I don’t do it, who will do it?”
Rev. Olu Menjay’s middle name is “Quainty.” In his native Sarpo language, it means “humble.” Taking a job as the principal of Ricks Institute was a lesson in humility.
As word spread that Menjay had taken the job at Ricks, there was a mixed response. A cousin came to visit him and tried to persuade him to leave. “You can get a government position. It makes no sense to do what you are doing You need to fold it up.” All the cousin could say were negative things. “Everything he said about the school was right,” says Menjay.
Menjay believed he could make a difference. In making his decision to accept the job, he thought about the significance of people like Mother Theresa. She never served in significant places like Washington, D.C., or New York City. She stayed in Calcutta, India, and made a difference.
When Martin Luther King Jr. began his ministry, he left Boston University and had an opportunity to serve in Atlanta as co-pastor with his father, but instead he went to Montgomery, Ala., to serve a very impoverished, insignificant church. “That told me, listen, man, you can stay right here in Liberia and make a difference at Ricks,” says Menjay.
When Menjay arrived at Ricks in 2005, it changed his entire outlook on life. He let go of the American idea of success and replaced it with a desire to live a life of significance.
One of the first buildings to receive repairs after Menjay arrived was the auditorium. This room is large enough to hold the entire student population and faculty of over 400. It’s where the morning chapel service convenes and other meetings are held.
One day as workers were repairing the ceiling of the auditorium, news came that one of the skilled carpenter’s sons had taken a serious fall on the playground, causing a severe injury to the child’s spine. He was rushed to the hospital where the care is very poor and very basic.
A couple of days later, the man came back to the school in his work clothes and gave Menjay the terrible news. With tears coming out of his red eyes he said, “My son died.” Rev. Menjay replied: “I am so sorry, but what are you doing here? What can we do to help you?”
“I came to work so I can get paid. That’s why I am here,” the worker replied.
“No, no, no. You do not have to come to work. Please, please, you do not have to come to work.” Menjay had some money in his pocket and gave it to the man. The man needed the money to have the boy carried from the hospital to the morgue.
“When is the funeral?” Menjay asked. “I don’t know. I don’t have the means to move the body from the morgue to our village to bury him,” the father said. He did not own a vehicle so he could not move his son’s body from the morgue. Then Menjay told him he would see that the body was carried to the village for burial.
In America we don’t think much about the basic service we pay the funeral home for driving our deceased loved ones to the burial site. In Liberia, there’s no such service. Families are responsible for arranging this.
The next day when Olu came to the campus, the father and a group of his helpers were in the workshop building a casket from the discarded ceiling tiles of the auditorium. Olu could never have imagined that one of his first official duties as principal would be to pick up a deceased student in a casket made from discarded ceiling tiles and take him from the morgue to the grave site in the village where the deceased child’s family and friends awaited.
What did Olu do with this family that was successful? It’s not the most appropriate question, is it? How about this question: Was Rev. Menjay’s ministry to this deceased child’s family significant?
Every part of his ministry was significant! Rev. Menjay ceased being principal and became a pastor, a loving friend, a conduit of God’s Holy Spirit for this hurting family and the grieving village. He continues to live a significant life among the people at Ricks Institute.
Are you primarily focused on living a life of success or are you seeking to “store treasure in heaven” by living a life of significance?
Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. This column is an excerpt from Hoping Liberia, a book he plans on releasing in 2009. Visit Ricks Institute at www.ricksonline.org)
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Michael Helms is pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson, Georgia.