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Where Are All These Liberian Baptists Going?

Liberian Baptists are moving. Literally.

Hundreds have gone on foot in the last 10 days. Hundreds more have crowded into cars and hit the roads during March.

In Liberia, the roads usually hit back. Fifty miles or so outside of Monrovia, paved roads become a memory to yearn for, replaced by dirt and sand spaces that wind through the bush, evoking cattle paths rather than traffic lanes.

Scores have filed onto un-air-conditioned buses that originated at Saint Simon Baptist Church in Monrovia and made stops at Oldest Congo Town Baptist Church, SKD junction, ELWA junction, Liberian Baptist Theological Seminary and Firestone.

Destinations? New Hope Baptist Church in Marshall City in Margibi County or First Baptist Church Edina in Grand Bassa County.

Then there were those braver souls who climbed into trucks and endured eight to 15 hours bound for Ricks Institute in Virginia, Liberia – starting in Yekepa in Nimba County, passing through Bong County, or starting in Greenville in Sinoe County, passing through River Cess County, Grand Bassa County and Margibi County, bound, too, for Ricks Institute.

The movement of nearly 2,000 people all over Liberia since March 9, 2014, is not a migration. Neither, thank God, is it a trail of refugees fleeing conflict.

Liberia has had enough of migrations and refugee movements caused by despair and threat. This time the movement has been a pilgrimage of memory and hope.

March 23 through March 30, 2014, marks the centennial celebration of the annual session of Baptist gatherings of the Liberia Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention (LBMEC).

Led by a dynamic and history-keen president, Olu Q. Menjay, the LBMEC has embraced its history, including the dangerous memory of the horrors of a military coup d’état on April 12, 1980, that ended the life of President William R. Tolbert Jr., who was the 19th president of the Republic of Liberia and the 13th president of the LBMEC.

The coup redefined Baptist life in Liberia. Overnight Liberian Baptists were besieged, jailed, executed and rendered penniless with the confiscation of their treasury.

Thirty-four years later, Liberians still are moved – emotionally and spiritually – by the memory of despair and threat from those dark and dangerous days.

In 2014, Liberian Baptists are moving along the paths of history, remembering their beginnings, visiting the founding sites of their convention and, more important, cultivating the lively memory of the cost of discipleship for the LBMEC.

The theme of the centennial annual session is “A Renewed Call to Follow Christ,” with a Gospel anchor in Matthew 16:24: “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.'”

The path trod by Liberian Baptists in their 134-year history is well-worn, but rarely has it been smooth.

When freed slaves and freedmen landed in Monrovia in 1822 under the auspices of the American Colonization Society, their story already was one of overcoming.

They knew about coming up the rough side of the mountain. They knew what Jesus meant when he introduced suffering as the core experience for understanding what life is like for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

The original Baptist church in Liberia – that once great church that had Lott Cary and John Day as pastors – was the Providence Baptist Church.

It was a church that honored freedom and labored for justice. John Day was, at the time of his death in 1859, both the pastor of Providence Baptist Church and the Chief Justice of Liberia’s Supreme Court.

The likes of Cary and Day created a memory and hope that burst forth in Grand Bassa and Margibi counties in 1880.

Joseph James Cheeseman, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Edina (est. 1832) convinced other Baptists that the work in Liberia would be stronger if they worked together in voluntary association.

And, so, the LBMEC was born with two birthrights: missions and education. The LBMEC was born in Edina in 1880, and the charter was signed the same year at New Hope Baptist Church (est. 1842) in Marshall City, Margibi County.

In March 2014, Liberian Baptists have been moving. Literally.

Between Marshall City on March 9 and Edina on March 22, they paused at Shiloh Baptist Church (est. 1864) as they followed their path of history that carried them to three counties – Margibi, Montserrado and Grand Bassa – on a pilgrimage of memory and hope.

As an exercise of freedom, on March 15, hundreds of Liberians marched from Congo Town to Paynesville City to the WMU Youth Camp where they sang, danced, played and ate, surrounded by their childhood friends with whom they learned the ways of Baptists over the years.

The freedom march was, too, an exercise in memory and hope.

The stop in Edina on March 22, 2014, shifted the movements of Liberian Baptists from literal to spiritual.

In Edina, the past became a renewed present, following Christ and following the examples of Liberian Baptists from years gone by.

After a service, delayed for three hours in order to accommodate Baptists who wanted to be present – more people wanted to get on the bus than the bus could hold; a second bus had to be hired on short notice – celebrants marched from the church to the graves of J.J. Cheeseman and his wife, Mary Ann.

Among the marchers was William R. Tolbert III. At the gravesite of the president of the Republic who died in office while also serving Liberian Baptists as LBMEC president in 1896, was the son of the second president of Liberia who died in office while also sitting as the LBMEC president.

Tolbert was murdered in 1980 amid the centennial celebration of the founding of the LBMEC. To see his son at Cheeseman’s grave on the eve of the centennial celebration of the annual session was sobering and hopeful.

Liberian Baptists know about and embody dangerous memory. In Edina on March 22, the old, dangerous memory of despair and threat was, once more, put in the perspective of hope.

Liberian Baptists are moving. Their literal pilgrimage throughout March 2014 has stirred the spiritual memory – a dangerous memory – from 34 years ago.

As a result, Liberian Baptists are moving forward toward a new day in post-war Liberia. The memory of what has been encourages reflection upon what is.

What was and what is propel Liberian Baptists toward what may be. With the 2014 centennial celebration of the annual session, Liberian Baptists are moving forward toward a new day with new challenges and possibilities. Memory and hope are their guides.

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., and, for 2014, the president of the Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary. He blogs at Revisiting Liberia.