By this time, most of us have had our fill of turkey and dressing and all the fixings. Few, if any of us have ever known what it’s like to be hungry. We know it’s not like this in every place in this world. We care but we try not to give it much thought. We are a lot like the boy who was told by his mother to eat everything on his plate. “You can’t waste food when there are starving children in China,” she’d say scoldingly. “Name one,” came the boy’s astute reply.
When we can name someone who’s hungry, we care a lot more. We become more involved. A trip to Liberia eight years ago changed the way I look at the world. I hope to return next May to give some assistance to my friend, Dr. Lincoln Brownell, president of the Liberian Baptist Theological Seminary.
Lincoln recently returned to Liberia to assume his role as president of the seminary. He found his country further depleted from the recent infighting among young rebel fighters, vying for power and taking anything of value.
Lincoln writes: “At the Samuel K. Doe Sports Complex, some 20,000 Internal Displaced Persons still sing choruses as they look for the preached word and manna (rice) from heaven. When 500 bags of relief supplies of rice and beans are being distributed, the crowds keep pressing in on the visiting mission team led by Pastor James Graham. A bag of rice bursts open. One helper sweeps the rice out of the pickup truck, as the driver slowly moves away from the hungry crowd. Some 12 children crawl on the ground, scoop up the raw rice, blow the sand away, and eat the raw rice. Some 15-20 feet across the track, another child suffering with diarrhea attends to nature quickly.”
It is in the midst of such poverty that Lincoln attempts to keep a seminary open and committed to training men and women to preach the Good News of Jesus. Indeed it is hard for people to receive the Good News on an empty stomach. In addition to a shortage of food, areas of Liberia are still under siege by gun-toting rebels causing mayhem and leaving destruction in their tracks. Liberians eagerly await the arrival and full deployment of peacekeepers throughout Liberia. These peacekeepers hope to arrive in January.
Even in the midst of their suffering, many of the Liberians maintain thankful hearts. In a recent email, Pastor Emile D.E. Sam-Peal quotes the Apostle Paul who wrote to the church at Thessalonica, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Emile writes, “(We are) thankful for our worldwide Baptist family and partners in ministry who have come to our aid and enabled us to reach out and be of service to fallen humanity. Indeed ‘we were hungry and you gave us something to eat, we were thirsty and you gave us something to drink…'” (Matt 25:35).
Emile reminds us that in Liberia, “there will be no tables spread out with turkey, ham, stuffing, pies, cranberry sauce and all the goodies. There will be no hot apple cider. On Thanksgiving Day in Liberia, many tables will be bare and many bowls and stomachs empty. But we are thankful for life, for the silence of guns in this part of the country, for freedom to move about, and for the moonlight shining bright, dispelling the ever-present darkness.”
Emile continues by listing other things for which he is thankful. He is thankful to God for seminary students who remain eager to learn and prepare for ministry amidst economic hardships. He is thankful for family and friendship. He is thankful for the presence of U.N. peacekeepers, who enable them to move about Monrovia freely. He is thankful for the care packages arriving from the U.S., which they distributed to the elderly and vulnerable folks.
We have suffering of our own in this country. Yet it’s not likely that any of us are suffering to the degree that these people are suffering. When we hear of the faith of those who have lived through war for more than 10 years; when we hear a spirit of thanksgiving coming from the lips of those who may not have eaten a full meal today and may not eat one tomorrow, it should move us to be a neighbor to these people, even though an ocean separates us.
“We can’t help them all,” you say. That is true. “We can’t force these people to live in peace,” you say. That is true, too. Still, if someone doesn’t reach out a hand, as small a gesture as it might seem, the problem will only get worse. Furthermore, we will not have been obedient to our Lord. We will be like the priest and the Levite who saw the wounded man in the ditch but chose to pass by on the other side. Only if we reach out and help people such as these and those around us in our own city and county, will we be like the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ story.
I know that many places in this world are like Liberia. But I know people in Liberia by name. That’s why they are the closest to my heart. Because of them, I will not sit down this year to my Thanksgiving meal and take it for granted. I will be thankful for my abundance and think of ways I can share it with others. How about you?
Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. A version of this column appears in The Moultrie Observer.
Michael Helms is pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson, Georgia.