Something didn’t feel quite right to Joyce. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but she had a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach telling her to get out of Liberia, and to do it now. Kenneth and Joyce were planning to leave the country around the 15th of July in 1990 for a month of well-deserved R&R. Their plans were to see family and to spend some quality time with Joyce’s mother who was suffering with Alzheimer Disease. But for a then unknown reason, Joyce had a premonition that they needed to leave early. Yes, there were places in the surrounding area that were dangerous at this time, but they didn’t give their safety a second thought–the rebels had not advanced on their city, they were 40 or 50 miles away. The danger level had not reached the point where the missionaries in their area felt they needed to evacuate.
Like the climate, the politics in Liberia is hot and humid. In 1980, Master Sergeant Sammuel Doe staged a coup, assassinating President William Tolbert and established a military government. The Doe regime was brutal–executing thirteen officials in public. After some political maneuvering, Doe was elected president in October 1985. A few years later, government officials uncovered a plot to overthrow the government, and imprisoned 10 men for ten years. The next year, in 1989, the rebels began a military offensive to oust Doe from power. The fighting began in the Northeast of the country and slithered toward the capitol city as the rebel forces took one town after another. By July, they’d taken the capitol city and closed down the airport.
Because of the activity of the rebel forces, Kenneth and Joyce knew they couldn’t leave through Monrovia, the nation’s capitol, they would have to find another way out of the country. So Kenneth took their official papers to a government office to get their exit visas. All his paperwork was in order, but the bureaucrat told him to come back the next day to get his visas. An inconvenience, Kenneth thought, but it wasn’t a big deal. He went home and made plans to return the next day. When he returned at the appointed time, they still weren’t ready, but he opted to stay and wait, instead of go home and return later as they suggested. The wait paid off; a couple of hours later, he had all the paperwork in hand to begin their journey back home.
The next morning, the police, the fireman, the military and the emigration officials, the very people who had given him their exit visas had fled the country. Kenneth and Joyce were right behind them, making final preparations to leave. In the capital city, Doe’s troops turned on civilians, massacring 600 refugees that had found sanctuary in St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. The danger level had reached the boiling point, and as it turns out, they were just one step in front of the fire. The day they chose to evacuate was the day before the rebel forces entered their city. They were heading for Guinea, a neighboring West African country thirty miles away. I’m sure they gave a huge sigh of relief when they crossed the border, but it was short-lived. The river was flooded in front of them, and when they checked on the border crossing back into Liberia, it was closed. Remember–they didn’t know the severity of the threat level in Liberia. At this time, they didn’t know their city had been attacked, they didn’t know about the massacre in St. Peter’s Church–all they were working on was the prompting of the Holy Spirit to leave. So what would they do? It appears to me that they were one step ahead of falling dominoes, and they should go forward. But how? The bridge was washed out and the river was swollen. They had to feel a bit like Moses did as he stood in front of the Red Sea with sound of approaching thunder from Pharaoh’s army closing in on him.
There wasn’t a bridge, but there was a tree that had fallen across the river, leaving a big log–a way of escape for them. Some locals that were traveling with them put the missionaries’ suitcases on their heads and walked across the log. Then it was Kenneth & Joyce’s turn. If they slipped, they would have fallen into a watery grave. The swollen river formed dangerous rapids beneath their feet. With their feet on dry ground on the other side, they counted their blessings. When they discovered the extent of the danger they were in, they thanked God for his watch care over them and the prayers of His people on their behalf.
Not only did God protect them, but also the local, a Mandingo man that assisted them across the river. The next day when they arrived in Konacree, their destination in Guinea, he found out that all the men in his village had been shot and killed by the advancing forces. They spared the women, but the only man that survived was the one that carried the Missionaries’ luggage across the river.
Joyce says, “All this time we felt at peace. We experienced the peace that passes all understanding. We knew the people at home were praying for us, but we just didn’t realize the impact of prayer, that it can give you peace in the midst of chaos.”
--Soul Shaping: Disciplines that Conform you to the Image of Christ, Chapter 2. Illustration by Jim L. Wilson. For more information on Soul Shaping, go to www.soulshaping.net
Psalm 145:18 (HCSB) “The Lord is near all who call out to Him, all who call out to Him with integrity.”