— In the bustling core of Rhode Island’s capital, Liberian immigrants crowd into a simple white building with “Providence Church of Christ” painted in fading red letters above the front door.
On a blue-sky Sunday, men clad in button-down shirts and women sporting colorful African headscarves greet each other in a concrete parking lot surrounded by a chain-link fence.
Tall trees adorned in bright green anchor a sprawling urban cemetery just beyond the fence, casting shadows over the church building as vehicles zip by an auto-parts store and appliance business across the street.
Giggling children — most born in the United States after their families fled two decades of civil war — scamper to the basement for Bible class.
More than 4,000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean separate the refugees from their west African homeland, where women were raped and children turned into “killing machines” in fighting and ethnic cleansing that claimed 250,000 lives.
Despite the fresh starts they have made in America, the hearts of these devoted Christians remain in Liberia — amid the orphans who wander the streets begging for scraps and the villagers still grappling with physical and psychological trauma.
“We don’t have that much, but the little that God gave us, we try to share it with the people there,” said church member John Kar, a social worker who lived in a refugee camp in Ivory Coast before coming to the U.S.
Its meager means aside, this thriving congregation has big dreams for bringing hope and healing to the men, women and children of the war-torn country.
Kar serves as board president for a nonprofit called Love Lights the Way,
which has taken the first steps toward building a missionary complex north of Monrovia, Liberia’s capital.
Those steps include buying 10 acres of land, cutting a road through dense forestland and digging a water well.
Church leaders liken the planned Lighthouse Village to Ghana’s Village of Hope.
Providence church members and other supporters intend to erect an orphanage, a medical clinic, schools, a minister training college, a church and a guesthouse for visiting mission teams.
“They’ve been through war. They’ve seen devastation. They want to reach out and help their people,” said Ron Burnett, minister for the Fall River Church of Christ in nearby Massachusetts and Love Lights the Way’s board treasurer. “It’s neat to see how far they’ve come in a short time.”
A CHURCH TAKES ROOT AND GROWS
Freed American slaves founded the Republic of Liberia in the 1800s and named the capital after James Monroe, the fifth U.S. president and a prominent supporter of colonization.
From 1979 to 2003, the small coastal nation with historic ties to America endured a bloody coup, years of military rule and two civil wars.
As many as 1.5 million Liberians were forced from their homes, according to a report issued
by the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2009.
In 1994, Burnett and his wife, Louise, were working as church planters in Cumberland, R.I., north of Providence, when they received a phone call from a Liberian refugee looking for a Church of Christ.
Before long, the Burnetts — who set out to minister to native New Englanders, not African war victims — were making a 30-minute drive to Providence each Sunday and bringing refugees to worship with the Blackstone Valley Church of Christ.
But eventually, the logistics of the weekly commute proved too much. It became clear to the Burnetts and their supporting congregation — the White Station Church of Christ in Memphis, Tenn. — that the Liberians needed their own church in the heart of Providence.
With a focus on Rhode Island’s roughly 15,000 Liberian residents, the new congregation began meeting in a storefront in 1999. The church moved to its stand-alone building the next year.
In 2002, a Liberian named William Horace finished two years of studies at Sunset International Bible Institute in Lubbock, Texas. He and his wife, Helena, intended to return home.
However, Sunset’s president, Truitt Adair, learned of the Providence church’s desire for a Liberian minister and encouraged the Horaces to stay in America — as missionaries to their own people.
In the decade since, the church — which started with 40 members — has experienced numerical and spiritual growth.
Membership has hit 250, and the congregation appointed three elders and four deacons last year. An associate minister and a youth minister help tend to the flock.
“The thing about church work is, you always want to have people ready — trained and prepared — before you can move on,” William Horace said. “We are not here to stay. Even though we already obtained citizenship here, we want to return home one day.”
The Horaces and several other Providence members dream of returning to Liberia to make Lighthouse Village a reality.
Some already have bought property near the planned missionary complex to build homes.
Helena Horace’s voice cracks as she describes orphans so hungry that they dug turkey bones out of her trash during one visit she made to her home country.
“Nobody cares. Nobody cares,” she said, repeating herself and fighting back tears. “Why must the little kids suffer?”
Besides Providence members, Love Lights the Way’s board includes representatives from the Blackstone Valley and Fall River churches, along with two medical professionals.
Board vice president Stephanie Ryan, who works with a home health-care agency, said she became involved after a Providence church member, Tony Witherstone, showed her a video depicting the plight of Liberian orphans.
“I just could not imagine not joining the crusade to help give these children a better life,” said Ryan, who has a Roman Catholic background.
CALLED TO SERVE THE VICTIMS OF WAR
Providence church member Caroline Phillips squeezes her eyes shut to keep from bursting into tears.
Phillips, 31, whose father died in the war, can’t help but become emotional as she recounts her refugee experience.
“I lost family members who are very dear to me,” said Phillips, who was 18 when she fled Liberia with her mother. “Thinking about the war is tough. It’s very challenging, even at this moment.
“I still have flashbacks … about fighting, killing people in person, gunshots and all that.”
In the U.S., Phillips has earned a master’s degree and launched a career in higher education.
However, she said she feels called to return to Liberia with the Love Lights the Way project and work to empower women and children.
During Liberia’s war, women were often brutally raped and kidnapped, forced to watch their husbands and children tortured and killed, or forcibly conscripted into various warring factions, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Thousands of children were forced to take drugs as a means to control their minds and teach them to kill, “making them virtual killing machines,” the commission reported.
Already, the Providence church has helped start one successful orphanage in Liberia.
Former refugees Fungbeh and Neyor Karmue operate Christ’s Children Home in Gbarnga, Liberia, providing food, shelter and education to 44 orphans.
The new plans aim to make a bigger impact closer to the nation’s capital.
This past winter, a group of Love Lights the Way board members traveled to Liberia to break ground on the missionary complex.
They drove through the cluttered streets of Monrovia — filled with cars, trucks, motorcycles, wheelbarrows, pedestrians, bicycles and vendors selling everything from food to necklaces to batteries — and made their way into the countryside.
In the tree-shrouded jungle, they passed a banana plantation and stopped occasionally to visit with villagers who live in huts made of sticks and clay.
Finally, they arrived at the top of a hill — the site of the planned Lighthouse Village.
“You would never, never believe that people live where we were,” said Ellen Jarry, wife of Providence church elder George Jarry.
“It was like a forest with trees, no road and nothing,” added Jarry, a nurse’s aide who worked seven years in Rhode Island before she could complete the process to bring her husband and the rest of her family to America. “But there were people living in the bushes.”
The people — about 250 of them — came out of the bushes to celebrate the plans for the missionary complex. The government sent a deputy minister to praise the development.
“We envision building a village that will make it easy for members of the church to come work in Liberia,” said board secretary Jim White, a member of the Blackstone Valley church. “God has already accomplished a lot through this work, but much needs to be done.”
BIG PRICE TAG, STRONG FAITH
Building the entire Lighthouse Village could cost between $3 million and $5 million, organizers estimate.
At a recent meeting, the board’s treasurer reported that the group had $1,325 in its bank account.
“It will take a lot of God, a lot of faith and a lot of dollars from the United States,” said Jim Hambrick, an elder for the White Station church, which supports William Horace and Bruce Bates, minister for the Blackstone Valley church.
But the seven-figure price tag won’t deter African Christians, said Hambrick, a businessman who has served on Village of Hope’s board and makes annual summer trips to help with the Ghana work.
“If they have to start with a dirt floor and a thatched roof, they’re happy to do that because their faith is so big and so strong,” Hambrick said. “They believe that God will bless it.”