Chapter 15. Evangelism
WE WILL do well to remind ourselves again that our main objective at Bolahun is to make, not rice-Christians looking just for a free meal, not hypocrites rendering lip service or a thin veneer of outward conformity to religion, but convinced, converted men and women. The price is great, but the results justify the outlay. The mission as it stands today in 1957 can show 35 years of hard, concentrated work in pursuit of our chief aim. As previously noted, the African native possesses a strong sense of the unseen world, a real grasp of what in these days is called "the numinous" in every day life. But every venture, no matter how noble, has to face and swallow jibes from unfriendly critics. So, let us try to set forth in condensed form some of the results of our avowed purpose of ministering to the whole man, body, soul and mind. Never let it be forgotten that what above all else we plan doing is to bring the people into the Christian fellowship through the saving Gospel of our Lord.
We have already mentioned Fathers Campbell and Hawkins [159/160] in the very first months of our residence here walking with phonograph and large, brightly colored Sunday School pictures to surrounding towns for simple evangelistic services. Just to make sure that we would not start the wrong approach to prospective converts we had read many books on the subject and had consulted and written to experienced missionaries, especially in Sierra Leone and in East Africa, where extensive hinterland work was being prosecuted. Every teacher knows that the very first thing necessary is the point of contact with his pupil. We had found the people among whom we lived a friendly lot, thus giving the first important opening. Just a passing "how-do," a brief chat, and exchange of small "dashes" as a token of "cold heart" (goodwill), all combined to produce the ultimate question, "Why has the White Man come to Bandiland?" Of course more questions would follow, indicating a growing interest. For our part we in turn always had questions to ask about native customs and beliefs, which we never failed to treat seriously and with respect. To borrow a term from the royal game of chess, that gave us our opening gambit; and it worked. Just making friends might be classed as poor missionary enterprise, yet we won the respect and confidence of the chieftains and the admiration of the local medicine-man and of the Moslems too. That was particularly the case when we could begin to speak and "hear" a bit of their language. Then it was that doors and windows to the minds and souls of our neighbors began to open. The wisdom of our approach has been shown amply by the fact that within a few years many of these men became earnest Christians, though many others are still just cordial and friendly. And, as the ancient Chinese proverb has it, "If a man lives for a thousand years he can never have too many friends."
The greatest obstacles to gathering all this corner of Liberia into the Church are the ancient, deeply rooted customs of polygamy and "country medicine." Neither of these can be [160/161] incorporated into any work upholding the standards of the Gospel. As in the history of Europe, religion and economic pressure will in time probably squeeze polygamy out of the picture. But in the so-called country medicine we meet with another basic custom altogether, for it applies to the mind and soul of man. This forms an elaborate system of charms, sacrifices to spirits both friendly and otherwise, and other superstitious practices. That some of these, their taboos for example, are relatively harmless we all agree. When a man says that he cannot eat monkey meat, we respect his sensibilities on the subject. His family never has and now cannot partake of any such food. Yet, the whole system plays such an integral part of tribal life, and of personal life too, we feel that it simply cannot be played with. How true it is we have no way of ascertaining, but we have heard that a native Anglican Bishop (not in Liberia) sent for a native medicine man in his last fatal illness. And other Christians of our acquaintance, after an exemplary and faithful career, have been known to do the very same thing. The old practices die hard.
More than anything else these temptations are ever present and furnish the source of most of our defections. Well over 1,000 persons have been baptized at Bolahun and about half that number confirmed. Allowing for deaths and removals, we can count now ('57) only about 350 communicants in good standing. Thus, despite our great care to admit to the fellowship of the saints none but those who show signs of being truly converted, our losses have been sufficient to give us pause. We would point out however that in certain areas in the United States the annual losses are reported to average about the same. These are the facts, small consolation though they offer. We mention this, not to disparage either the zeal of the missionaries or the character of our converts. We are trying merely to stress the incredible difficulties these new Christians have to face. When one begins to realize the force of social and family pressure upon converts to conform to the customs of the ancients we can but [161/162] sympathize with their problems. The acceptance of Christianity invites a revolution, peaceful but very real. True Christianity cannot be otherwise.
By the end of our first three years at Bolahun some 40 persons had been baptized. All of these were either school children or those in some way attached to the work. When Father Harrison became Prior in '25 he began preaching every Saturday at the market place, where there would always be a large crowd assembled, hundreds of them coming for social chatter as well as for barter and trade. Of all these, one woman from a neighboring village, Koihimba, was touched by the Word of God and quite openly announced her intention of being baptized. They laughed at her, scolded her and tried to dissuade her. But she persevered, even though on the very eve of baptism driven from town by the angry populace. There was nowhere to go except into the bush or to run to Bolahun, which she did. As in so many other parts of the world, while it would be quite all right to accept the gifts, the healing or the education the missionaries had to offer, religion must not be touched. Baptized she was, and with the good African name Monica added to her native Ma Tenne. She it was who started the procession of converts outside of Bolahun proper. Monica Ma Tenne remained faithful unto death, an exemplary Christian for all to admire.
In '27 Father Gorham initiated the outstation at Boawohun. Father Allen had been at Porluma among the Kisi people, but that was a far distance from the central station. Boawohun also seemed to present a peculiar challenge, for the people showed themselves not only well disposed but really eager to learn our "God-palaver." Beginning in May of that year regular visits were made every fortnight for many years. At the new station we placed William Morlu as catechist and teacher. The people built us a very attractive compound on the edge of town. At the far end of the open schoolhouse Father Gorham placed an altar under the dedication of St. Lawrence. This particular outstation [162/163] easily wins first prize for the quantity and quality of converts to the faith. But eventually we had to abandon the work. For this the two chief reasons were that the Christians had all left town and that the new chief and his followers were Mohammedans and not one bit friendly. We felt and still feel sorry to relinquish any one of our ventures but where, so to speak, the well has been pumped dry, it looks like wasted energy to keep on pumping. Other centers hitherto untouched were beckoning eagerly.
After a few years, when our evangelistic work began to form a pattern, it became increasingly obvious that we were making no headway whatever in interesting women and girls in our Christian message. A few, but very few had been baptized. On a previous page we have noted the reasons for this. In native society men and women have but small dealings with each other in public. We realized even more clearly with the passing months that women workers could give the only permanent solution to the problem. But where could they be found? It came surely as an answer to our prayers that Father Hughson was able to interest the Sisters of the Holy Name in England. Elsewhere we have related the story of their arrival and of their invaluable contribution to our entire programme. Suffice it to say that, thanks to the devoted zeal of the Sisters and their sanctified common sense and cooperation in each of the departments of the mission, women and girls by the score have been won for Christ. One particular point of the Sisters' helpfulness has been their learning so promptly to converse in one or other of the native dialects. As Bandi, Loma, Kisi and English are all spoken in Bolahun, the classes in religion, as well as sewing, could be held, and lessons in cooking and the care of babies became deservedly popular. The women could be instructed to a large extent in their own tongues. So far from resting on past efforts and thus growing stale, their ever fresh ideas and sensible plans make us wish for ten times the number of resident Sisters [163/164] and something like a half million dollars to translate thought into action.
Just as rapidly as they can be trained and prove themselves competent and trustworthy, we have always aimed to set Africans in responsible positions. By '35 our first group of evangelists was ready for active service, men carefully selected and trained. Consequently on August 11th of that year Father Baldwin, the Prior, presented a group of seven to the Bishop in church for formal commissioning and blessing. It is well worth the space to record the names of these original lay preachers, the first members of what has grown into a goodly company.
Stephen E. Manley, Headmaster of the school for boys.
George Lahai, who has been with the mission continuously since '22.
Zachariah Kpoto, who when converted was studying to become medicine "doctor" at Boawohun, is still active.
Cyprian Ambulay, a former school boy with us, who after years of most faithful service was accidentally killed early in 1956.
Abraham Bala, also one of our school boys, but now teaching in the Government School, Kolahun.
Frederick Kongoma, former school boy, but in Government Service in Monrovia for some years past.
James Tamba, a Kisi convert. He resigned from the mission in '46 and is now sub-chief in Glima, a village in his own country.
Thus of these seven men two have died, two are still active as catechists and evangelists. But the point is that each has made a real contribution to the work of publishing the Gospel message. After careful and detailed pointers for the subject and text of their sermons they would scatter to walk to their assigned stations carrying just a minimum of equipment--a Bible, a lantern and a few dry clothes. They knew exactly how to approach [164/165] their own countrymen, what to say and how to present the Christian message of repentance and of joy in the Lord. It made a great impression when people realized that Christianity was for them also, not just a peculiarity of the "white strangers." Our religion was something to be shared.
As one might expect, over the years there are and have been other men chosen for this preaching and teaching. Each of the five present outstations rates a resident catechist, who is sometimes the school teacher also. It is his duty to keep the little group of Christians together, instructing them in the faith of the Church as well as in moral precepts, thus preparing also the catechumens for Holy Baptism. As opportunity allows, he makes preaching tours to nearby villages. We have found that for effective evangelistic work some such group of men as these is indispensable. In due time also, there is no reason why with adequate training and education some of the evangelists should not be ordained in order to carry the sacraments to those waiting for them. That day has not yet dawned, though we pray that it may not tarry too long.
During the late '20's Father Whittemore started the Brotherhood of St. Joseph among the school boys. We all realized well what perfect little mimics these lads could be. We had no wish of meriting the taunt that we were producing merely an amusing troupe of ecclesiastical actors. While the externals of religion are necessary even in the barest meeting house, there must thrive also those moral and spiritual values which alone can vivify the soul. For the Brotherhood there was drawn up a simple rule of prayer and devotion calculated to lend force and meaning to Christian faith and conduct. Father Whittemore acted as chaplain to this group. Membership was never compulsory and material benefits few, but once admitted the boy found himself amidst an ardent "radio-active" band and thus, in the right sense of course, a Christian revolutionary. The Brotherhood has faded into history long since, chiefly because it accomplished its [165/166] immediate task. We have too many other calls upon us to fritter away our time oiling worn-out machinery and keeping it running. Be that as it may, it was no small triumph for Father Whittemore to make individuals realize that our religion is not just of a book and an external set of beneficial laws only, but also that in spirit and in truth we serve the Living God.
As one might expect, the twin powerhouses of the entire work are the monastery, dedicated to that great African Saint, Athanasius, and the convent dedicated to the Holy Name of Jesus. In both houses there flows heavenwards the daily torrent of prayer and thanksgiving in Mass, Offices, Meditation and Intercessions. The Fathers and Sisters live under the identical vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but these vows are expressed in rules differing according to the spirit of either community. To some minds, vows and rules may seem like a hindrance to the prosecution of the work in hand. But we find them a veritable and unfailing "armour of righteousness on the right hand and on the left," a help because by them we can keep first things first, finding thus a unity of purpose in God's service. The natives, incidentally, understand community life perfectly and respect it, for that is the basic principle of their own social structure in clan and village. Family customs and obligations are well known to them all and taboos of one sort or another fit in exactly with what they have always known and believed.
From the religious point of view, next to the harvest of souls claimed and sealed for our Lord we quite rightly consider the construction of St. Mary's Church one of our major triumphs. The outbreak of World War II in August '39, when Father Whitall had just gotten well started with the construction, nearly wrecked our plans. Father Kroll, the Prior, had none of those magic priorities which eased the path of some concerns. Our all-out offensive for God and against the unseen powers of darkness counted as nothing in such a struggle for the mastery in this world. There followed for us most vexatious [166/167] delays in getting the supplies needed. But workmen and people were most enthusiastic about the project, and we can well imagine the general rejoicing when on August 15, '42, Father Parsell blessed the new redwood (mahogany) high altar and sang the first solemn mass. We thank God that at any rate the church is here, a veritable center of sacrament and of prayer. This building, one of the largest edifices for public worship in all Liberia, was consecrated by Bishop Campbell on the 22nd of April, '52, while he was here on his official visitation as Superior of the Order of the Holy Cross, and of course by special license of the Bishop of the Missionary District.
It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this church. Physically, it dominates the entire mission settlement and puts into visible expression our avowed standard, "God First." It stands not merely as the very finest building in Bolahun, but as a convincing pledge of our sincere desire for the eternal welfare of the people under our care. Need we do more than mention how proud everyone is of this imposing witness to the "faith once delivered to the saints"? It is placed in a commanding location right on the high-road, with school compound to the east and the town proper to west and north. Many are the travellers who stand to admire it, for in this part of the hinterland never has such a magnificent structure been seen. Not too long ago a Liberian official asked one of the staff, "Why don't you build a modern up-to-date hospital, now that you can put up such a fine church?" That is a different story however.
It is worthy of notice that over the years the Fathers and Sisters have worked out a regular course of instruction for those applying for Holy Baptism and admission to the Christian fellowship. In another connection we have mentioned this, but it begins with the Hearers, men and women interested enough in our religion to attend informal evangelistic services at Bolahun or elsewhere. In these gatherings, rather than rely on scattered or emotional appeals we use catchetical methods requiring set [167/168] answers to be committed to memory, in their native speech of course, and with ample exposition of the meaning. These services are quite popular in most of our 40 preaching stations and in Bolahun itself. Even the Mohammedans attend, fascinated apparently by the message even though they refuse to move any further on the Christian Way. After a year or more as Hearer, the required moral tests having been met, the candidates may be promoted to the rank of Catechumen. For such a one, moral and religious instruction begins in earnest. In order to help him persevere he is given a small wooden cross to wear. This badge offers a public acknowledgment that he has agreed to follow Jesus and that all country medicine, sacrifices and "woman palaver" have been abandoned once and for all. We have known some heathen witch doctors and Moslem soothsayers to burn publicly their assorted charms and other paraphernalia when they decided for Christ. Then, if the individual man or woman perseveres for two or three years as a Catechumen, that person may be admitted to Holy Baptism, and thus to the company of the Faithful.
It is individual work, to be sure. By word of mouth we have been advised and in books we have read that the unit is the clan or the tribe and that the individual counts for nothing. We are urged therefore to convert the group, not wasting time over single persons. It is quite true that the clan is the social and political unit. Yet, except for a very few corporate sacrifices there is no tribal or clan religion. For every person there exists taboo, salika (sacrificial charms) and an animistic belief in spirits residing in rocks, trees or streams. All these bits of religion are quite general, not being confined to any one tribe or family. Most of these beliefs and practices have been absorbed by the Mohammedans. Because fewer ethical demands are made, Islam is more readily accepted than the Cross of Christ. In our assured judgment the method used by our Lord Himself cannot be improved upon; to claim souls for Him one by one.
 Once baptized, the neophyte receives further instruction in the Catholic Faith and devotional life, and in church membership. He is taught reverence in church and the necessity of contributing as he is able to the support of the church. He is prepared for the sacraments of Confirmation and Holy Communion.
Not because we like it but because it is necessary for the welfare of the body corporate, discipline has to be very real, and sometimes severe. Those living in sin are cut off from the altar until they repent and make amends. Those falling into polygamy or similar irregularities of a scandalous sort must rectify their conduct and make public confession before being admitted again to the Table of the Lord. In any event, attitudes and motives must be tested, for the pressure of heathen relatives and friends can be compelling. By reason of these attractive urges to return to the "good old days" quite a number of our most promising converts have lapsed. Yet, thank God, many of these have done penance and have returned to the fold. The effort to plant the Christian faith in the jungle requires heroic patience, to say the least. For the Christian to stand adamant in spite of personal considerations of popular opinion can and does produce some distressing situations, yet nothing can be gained in the end by watering down the Church's requirements. If we missionaries proclaim "Thus saith the Lord" as did the prophets of old, we must be prepared to accept the prophet's reward. If God approves, what matter goods or reputation or even life itself? And that applies to both preacher and those who hear.
The everlasting struggle, the exhausting battle is with the "bush." Rank growth surrounds us and ever tries to overrun everything. That is true in religion too. When space is cleared for a town, let us say, even after houses are built and people live in them the encroaching jungle has to be beaten back all the time. When a farm is cleared by chopping down the brush and [169/170] burning it, and when the rice is planted, the jungle begins to sprout again with the crop. Pulling up the fresh "weeds" as they are called, driving away voracious birds and animals must be attended to with diligence if there is to be anything left for people to eat. In like manner we have to face the cruelties, the dishonesty and superstition of the spiritual "bush" all about us. In time we may succeed in controlling this encroaching heathenism and all its disquieting atmosphere. But until then the war is on, with polygamy and "country medicine" as the chief agents of satan.