“Pain and suffering have come into your life, but remember pain, sorrow, suffering are but the kiss of Jesus—a sign that you have come so close to Him that He can kiss you.” -Mother Teresa
This next story puts our lives and their challenges in perspective. It is a painful story for us to read. If we have any compassion, it should be.
It was written by a dear friend of ours, a pastor, who has the same heart as we do – to listen to the cries of the human soul and to extend grace and unconditional love as a healing balm for those cries.
The examples that Jeff shares, from his many visits to the war-torn nation of Sierra Leone, are of a nation filled with the unimaginable horrors of war, hatred and senseless destruction. They cause us to remember that so many of our own struggles are eminently trivial in comparisons to so many others who live in abject fear and poverty every day of their lives.
This story reminds us that we all suffer in some way in this world – we all hurt, we all have loss, we all fear, we all worry, we all die. But it also reminds us, we pray, that because we are in this life together, we have a responsibility for each other. Someone To Tell It To has a vision to grow to serve people around the world, in their own contexts, in their own cultures, in their own circumstances. Our friend is a marvelous example of one who feels the calling to serve God’s children in Africa – to listen to their stories, to help them process their pain and to offer them the loving safety to find healing from their deepest distress.
It is our hope and dream to equip and send many others out into this world – to every place – where people are and where they need to know that their lives have meaning and that they deserve to be loved.
Something was different. It could be seen in their sullen eyes. I had just arrived for my first visit since midway through the 10-year Blood Diamond War, in Sierra Leone (put description of the war). Having worked and visited many times since 1984, I was aware of the extreme poverty and difficulties experienced in day-to-day living.
But something was different this time. “What was it?” I wondered.
It was the look in their eyes.
As if the extreme, unimaginable poverty they were living in wasn’t enough, now I was looking into the faces of children and adults who had suffered a decade without as much as a glimmer of hope. Their eyes conveyed that utter hopelessness and despair, a sense of profound misery. I had not ever suffered anything in comparison to what I was witnessing, nor anything compared to the stories I was about to hear.
As I met friends I hadn’t seen in years I could see that their bodies paid the price for the pain and suffering they had endured. They had grown shockingly weak and thin from the lack of food and proper nutrition. Even though the war was now considered over, there was a huge cloud of doubt hanging over everyone I met. The pain and suffering in the air was so thick; my soul wept. Eyes that once danced with simple joys were set in a trance. Sorrow was prevalent from the unimaginable amount of losses of those they loved. Dreams were shattered; every face reflected the barrenness. I began to listen to old friends and new acquaintances as they shared their painful experiences. The atrocities were beyond belief. The world was silent.
Our team of workers began work on repairing a church center. Several local young adults chose to help us. One of them, a young woman, began to share the details of her hellish existence during six years of the war. Initially, she was captured to be a servant for the rebels. This alone was frightening enough. But it didn’t stop there. She carries the reminders of being brutally raped, week after week, for those six years. She bore several children, as many other young women did. Forever, she will relive her suffering as she looks at her children who were conceived through the rapes.
Each evening of our stay, our team would gather and reflect on the horrific stories we had heard as we worked during the day. Most of us were numb in response to the gruesome and shocking realties of those stories.
Brima, another young man in the village, whom I had known from a previous visit, told of children living with disabilities walking days and days to find safety. Some, who couldn’t walk, had to be carried on the backs of other children during those journeys. Nearly every person I met had a family member killed or members whose limbs were amputated by the rebels.
After the war, in an effort for a lasting peace, guns were to be turned into to peacekeeping forces. Forgiveness was expected to be granted to those who previously maimed, tortured and killed. Other than those at the very top of the warring leadership, rank and file rebels were simply to return home as if nothing had happened. This meant living next to the very people who had mutilated and murdered their family members. Everywhere we traveled, people were in desperate shock. It was the largest group of people I had ever witnessed where every single person had post-traumatic stress syndrome. And there was no place they had to turn.
During our time working side by side with these young people, I sensed that our taking time to listen was greatly appreciated. Everyone had a story, an anguished one. Everyone, from my perspective, needed to be affirmed. Telling their stories was just one way of pouring the pain and suffering from their souls and allowing healing to begin. While working together for nearly nine days, eyes that had once been filled with sadness began to fill with light, hope and possibilities.
Returning to the comforts of the United States, I continued to wonder how healing can pour down on this suffering nation. To this day, nearly 13 years later, there are still many who have a story to tell. If only more of us would take the time to listen.
In the early stages of the war, the fighting was contained to the diamond area of the country. We were able to take a team in 1992 and again in 1995. During the visit in 1995 I spent time alone and admit to quite a bit of fear from the stories I began to hear from the missionaries and other local friends. One night while having dinner with a native Sierra Leone family serving as missionaries, their prayers startled me. As we were preparing for rest, they prayed for safety for all of us and if the rebels were to find their way to our village, the prayer was for a quick departure from this world rather than to experience the suffering that so many had endured from the stories being told. Since I was coming from the United States and little if any news of the war had traveled to our news channels, the extent of the rebel warfare was basically unknown to me. This family quickly relayed story after story of horror that villagers up country had reported. Entering a village to burn it to the ground, killing parents of children or having teens kill their parents was the common event. Following this was the dismemberment of many individuals. To say the least, I was unable to sleep that night or the following several nights. I tried to block my doors, but then laughed at my actions one night when I thought how that would not help in such a wicked outpouring of evil.
I met Brima, my friend of many years, who was only a young man. Brima spent his teen years at the orphan camp where there were nearly 30 other children and teens who were abandoned because of polio or other issues. Their families had abandoned them as a piece of unnecessary luggage. One young lady, who still calls to check on me, was Anna, a young woman born with only one leg. All of these young children and teens suffered greatly in loss and now were suffering again as the war approached their living area. It is this group of children and teens who had to escape by foot and walk for days to safety as the war came to their village. Many of the children with disabilities were actually carried by the older children, for several days, to safety. The next time I would see any of this group would be in 2002 at the end of the war. All of these individuals were displaced and living in crowded facilities in the capital city of Freetown, where most of the masses retreated during the war. They hoped for the military to protect them from the approaching rebels. In 2002, I began to hear some of the stories. One that is most touching to me is that of a pastor friend, Joseph.
Joseph was a pastor who had worked with me as a young man. He had a strong work ethic, always trying to provide for his wife and children. They lived in a one-room home and shared whatever they could with others who had even less. Several times during the war I was able to receive a letter somehow carried to the United States and mailed to me. I believe at one time I even received a phone call. Throughout most of Sierra Leone, all such communication was gone, to my knowledge. Even to this day in 2015, the postal system is still out of service.
My heart was wrenched as I read Joseph’s letter telling me that they lost even the little they had. The family found safety under a river bridge, at least safe from the elements. But then thousands of people were heading for the city and it was impossible for everyone to travel that far. Many began the long walks to neighboring countries and still others attempted the dangerous small boats to travel off to neighboring shores. As we often see on the news, many drowned. The rebels were drawing near and Joseph wrote to ask for prayers. He and his family were literally starving. His last letter reported they had nothing to eat for days and were now eating leaves off of trees which they had never eaten before and were becoming sickly. (When I would next see Joseph at the end of the war, he was nothing but a bundle of bones.) Out of love for his family, he sent his wife and children out of the country on a boat not sure if he would ever see them again. This alone was beyond my imagination. Joseph then shared the horror that would come his way.
Joseph continued sharing God’s word and love to all he could in the rural community. However, as he was meeting with groups, confusion arose within the military ranks about his meetings. He was captured with a group of men thought to be rebels and taken to a place near the presidential palace for interrogation and possible execution. Most churches by this time were not meeting. People feared going anyplace. Cell phones, letters, transportation and all such means of communication and contact were simply not available. His village was over one hour from the capital city. No one was hearing anything about Joseph. Finally someone from the rural village got word to the Bishop regarding rumors that their pastor was being held at the presidential palace for treason and would be executed.
Because the Bishop had a variety of contacts in the city, a specific plea was made. The Bishop made contact and clarified the role of Joseph as a pastor and adequately satisfied the curiosity of the military, who released Joseph. The remaining men were all hung the following day. As Joseph shared their story time after time with our group, we listened intently and prayed with him earnestly, giving God glory for sparing his life. Listening to Joseph following our return to Sierra Leone was an eye opener to the three of us who first returned following the war. Even in 2002 on our return, we must admit we were a bit nervous from place to place as we traveled. The scars of war were found every place. The distrust and fear in the public was profound. I had heard similar reports of individuals, who had worked in the Eastern Europe block, of the fear and distrust. I now had a bit of understanding. No one knew who was a rebel or the military. Even more frightening was the fact that some of the military personnel were also corrupt and part of the rebel strong hold, at times. Sierra Leoneans were simply beaten down from 10 years of extreme suffering. They longed for peace at any cost. They longed for someone outside, someone in a world that had been far too silent, to open up and listen to the reality they had experienced during a decade of silence from the outside world. I was broken in heart and angry in my soul at a world that had forgotten these who had so little.
We visited the amputee camp where was saw hundreds of individuals whose lives would be forever changed. A teacher begged the rebels not to cut off his hands because he needed them to teach. So they cut off both hands and also his lips to hinder his speech. A young woman, feared that she would never find a man who would want her without a leg nor hands. We walked through the village and each story was worse than the one before. I saw a man placing glue onto prosthetic ears, since both ears had been cut off by the rebels. One woman had both legs amputated and her little child had a leg chopped off. We went back to our room and were silent for a long time. What could we say? Where was the hope? All we could do at this point was listen. And many were so glad that we did. Finally, someone cared. Someone would take time to listen.