Liberia seminary installs interim president
Mercer University Professor Richard Wilson was installed March 13 as president of the Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary.
By Bob Allen
A Mercer University professor on loan for one year to the Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary was inducted March 13 as sixth president of a long-respected school attempting to rebuild after decades of civil war and recent controversy over leadership changes in Liberian Baptist life.
Richard Wilson, Columbus Roberts Professor of Theology and chair of the Roberts Department of Christianity at Mercer, assumed office in a two-hour service on the campus in Paynesville, Liberia, a suburb east of Monrovia.
Olu Menjay, president of the Liberia Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention, described the terms of Mercer President William Underwood’s offer of Wilson’s services.
“Free of charge!” Menjay, a Mercer graduate who teaches in the Roberts Department of Christianity, exclaimed. “Are you listening? Free of charge!”
“Liberia and this seminary are blessed to have a man like Richard F. Wilson with us for a year,” Menjay said. “We thank Mr. Bill Underwood and Mercer University for this valuable gift and demonstration of our friendship.”
In his inaugural address, Wilson, who joined the Mercer faculty in 1988 and succeeded Walter Shurden as Christianity department chair in 2001, spoke of a “dangerous memory” for Liberian Baptists. He made six pledges for the coming months: to listen, to learn, to respect, to collaborate, to plot a course and to move forward.
“Post-war Liberia continues to be a place of challenges and possibilities,” Wilson said in a news release.
Last year Business Insider ranked Liberia — with an economy emerging from a generation of civil war followed by 10 years of tenuous peace — the second-most miserable place on the planet, after Zimbabwe.
Wilson said Baptists in Liberia have borne the brunt of the misery. In 1980 the country’s president, William Tolbert, was a Baptist who served 22 years as president of the Liberia Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention and as president of the Baptist World Alliance from 1965-1970.
On April 11, 1980, Tolbert attended a gala celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Liberian Baptist convention. Early the next morning, April 12, Tolbert was assassinated at his residence.
“In that moment Baptist ascendancy and Liberian progress took a nosedive,” Wilson said. “Within days of the coup d’état many Baptist leaders had been detained and executed. Others languished in prisons, where more died. Baptists fled — along with many other Liberians. The new revolutionary government seized the wealth of the Baptist convention. And, so began the long slide into misery.”
According to a February 2013 feature in PUPN: Private University Magazine, Menjay grew up in a time when Liberian parents feared their children would be conscripted by warlords. With his parents’ encouragement, he left home, carrying letters to friends and family in Ivory Coast.
He was stopped by rebel soldiers, who saw the letters and believed him to be a spy. He was ordered to strip and prepare for execution.
Menjay watched as soldiers executed another man they had stopped before him. When he gave his name, one of the soldiers asked if he was related to Harrison Menjay. Knowing his answer would probably determine whether he would live or die and uncertain of the outcome, he told them Harrison Menjay was his father.
Shifting his tone, the soldier ordered the return of Menjay’s clothes. He told Menjay he could cross the border and offered him $10, explaining that years earlier Harrison Menjay had given the would-be executioner a scholarship to attend a Baptist school.
Menjay came to the United States as a refugee, and after attending junior college majored in sociology and Christianity at Mercer. He graduated in 1995 and went on to earn masters degrees from Duke University and Boston University and a Ph.D. from the University of Wales.
Following the end of the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003, Menjay returned to Liberia to become principle of Ricks Institute, a K-12 boarding school in Monrovia widely recognized as the premier secondary educational institution in the country.
Menjay invited his former professor to come see his work, and in 2007 Wilson made his first of nine visits to Liberia in seven years, five of them with the university’s Mercer On Mission program.
In 2012, Menjay was elected to a three-year term as president of the Liberia Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention, setting off controversy with a faction called “Concerned Baptists” that prompted a recent headline describing, “Liberia: Baptist Church in Crisis.”
During a meeting last year with Underwood, Menjay mentioned that the seminary needed to find a president. "Four days later, I was in the president's office, and he looked at me and said, ‘I think you need to go to Liberia and be president of the seminary,’” Wilson recalled in a press release announcing his appointment last November.
Wilson arrived in Liberia Jan. 4, but could not start work immediately because a judge ordered the seminary shut down in a labor dispute involving a former president removed from office in 2007. After negotiations, the shutdown was lifted, and Wilson entered his office for the first time Feb. 17.
The Liberia Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention, founded in 1880 for fellowship, cooperation and development of programs in Christian education, plans to resume the centennial celebration interrupted by Tolbert’s assassination 34 years ago March 23-30.
© 2014 Associated Baptist Press, Inc.