Soon after I arrived in Liberia at Ricks Institute for the first time in February 2007, I learned “small, small.” The lesson still evokes my emotion.
When I arrived, the wars were fresh memories and evidence of the conflict was ubiquitous. The road from the airport through Monrovia over Bushrod Island and on to Ricks was a wreck.
On top of that, the United Nations had turned the road into an obstacle course. Five times, as I recall, we were either slowed by barbed-wire serpentine paths through checkpoints or detained for a document review.
I’m still chilled by the memory of the sandbag bunkers with U.N. peacekeepers peering at me down the barrels of 50mm machine guns.
After a few days at Ricks, where I was “campus pastor” with the task of delivering a morning devotional, I was awash in despair.
In addition to my “pastor” role, my host, Olu Menjay, also had asked me to observe classes from kindergarten through 12th grade.
He wanted me to see what was happening at Ricks, to offer observations and encouragements to the faculty and students, and to meet with 11th- and 12th-grade students to hear their hopes and dreams.
I had agreed to it all, but after a few days I was awash in despair. I told Olu that I needed to go home. Liberia was, I said, too hard for me.
I recounted what I saw – poverty, destruction, confusion, decay and more – and asked to truncate my stay and leave.
Olu listened carefully and did not argue with me. When I was done, he said, “Professor, maybe you need to look at different things.”
I asked him what he thought I should be looking at.
He said, “Did you notice this morning that there was paint on a wall that was not painted yesterday? Did you notice that the grass had been cut along the path? Did you see the excitement of the students in the classes?”
I was stunned. I had not seen any of those things. All I had seen was the horror.
Olu said, for the first time in my hearing, “Small, small. The little things we do lead us to believe in the big things we will someday do.”
It sounds cliché, but it’s true: “My life was changed.” I took to heart my former student’s gentle challenge and was glad he was there to become my teacher.
The next day I saw different things.
For example, instead of seeing a high school teacher carrying a broken piece of blackboard into class and propping it up on a pair of chairs, I saw his determination to teach students how to plot points on a graph as a way of solving a math problem.
He carried the broken piece of blackboard back and forth each day because in his office he was meticulously preparing the “graph paper” for his students.
Yes, day after day, Mr. Sherman drew and redrew the grids that he would carry into class.
When I met with the students in the 11th and 12th grades, I determined to listen more to what they hoped for.
Yes, I paid attention to their descriptions of what they had lost in the war – parents and siblings, now dead; dreams of medical school; security; daily bread – but I became mesmerized by the courage of their dreams to usher in a new generation of peace, to combat corruption and to restore Liberia to her pre-war glory.
At the end of my stay, I was able to hold up my head and heart as I reported to the faculty what I had seen and heard.
I remember saying, “And, I’ll be back.” They had no reason to believe me, but when I did return, we had a grand reunion.
Each subsequent return has strengthened the hopes we share and work toward for a new Liberia.
Two things happened recently that made me recall “small, small.”
The morning was cool, the students were gone, and I was not pressed to be anywhere. I knew that I could get a good Internet connection at the main building at Ricks, so I went about 8:30 a.m.
On the way, I saw a woman harvesting greens from a newly cultivated plot near the main building.
I went right instead of left and engaged the woman in conversation. She told me that the potato greens were ready to pick.
Potato greens are indescribably delicious and, I am told, nutritious. When in season, they are a staple in the Liberian diet.
A bowl of potato greens, seasoned with Liberian peppers, a Maggi cube, some palm oil and rice is a feast. Some add, when they can afford it, chicken or fish; with or without the meat, it is a meal to enjoy.
Ricks Institute covers 1,100 acres of mostly arable land. There are a number of banana, plantain and coconut trees on campus. There are oil palms, too. Some staff have grown cucumber, pineapples, tomatoes, peppers and more.
For several years, I had wondered why there has not been more intentional planting. Now that is becoming part of the institution, and it involves both staff and students.
Small, small. Some things take time.
Many weeks ago, the large plot near the main building was plowed up and planted with greens, corn, okra, eggplant and more.
Now the produce is coming in. My lunch today was fresh potato greens.
Small, small. I can see how one healthy plot of produce will lead to more and more and more.
The second thing involved cows, specifically Baptist bovines at Ricks.
A few years ago, the Liberian Baptist Convention implored Olu to take the cows that the convention had purchased without thinking through how they would sustain the herd.
Olu agreed, knowing that he would not be compensated for his husbandry. The herd was small, maybe 25 or fewer.
After my delicious lunch of home-grown potato greens, I headed back to my quarters only to find myself in the midst of a hungry herd of cattle, including a large number of recent additions-by-birth.
I stopped and allowed the cows to make their way around me. It was great fun – and quite satisfying – to see that the Baptist population in Liberia is healthy and growing.
I guess that the herd has at least doubled since it was established at Ricks.
Small, small at Ricks. Yet, in my heart and mind, it looks “large, large.”
Richard Wilson is the Columbus Roberts Professor of Theology and Chair of The Roberts Department of Christianity in the College of Liberal Arts at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. This column first appeared on his blog, Revisiting Liberia, and is used with permission.
Columbus Roberts professor of theology in the department of religion at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He served as chair of the department from 2000-2021.