Mercer University professor Richard Wilson poses with students during one of his many trips to Liberia. (Photo provided by Richard Wilson)
Mercer University professor Richard Wilson poses with students during one of his many trips to Liberia. (Photo provided by Richard Wilson)

A passion to serve Liberian Baptists

Mercer University Christianity professor Richard Wilson will lead the Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary in 2014, a position that will require him to rebuild the infrastructure, faculty and image of the war-torn institution.  

By Jeff Brumley

Richard Wilson’s 10th journey to Liberia won’t be the usual Mercer on Mission trip that he’s used to. This time he’s going back as president of the Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary near Monrovia.

Wilson, chairman of Mercer University’s Christianity department, will be tasked with rebuilding the 37-year-old institution’s facilities, faculty and public image after years of horrific civil war. His one-year appointment begins Jan. 4.

The job also includes helping nurture far-flung Baptist congregations struggling with high unemployment and low literacy rates.

“The level of education among Liberian pastors is very low and we will be doing some intentional teaching to help pastors out in the bush — or out in the hinterland, as they call it in Liberia,” Wilson said. They will be instructed in “issues of congregational ministry, Bible study and we will help them with their finances. Some of these pastors in Liberia make $20 U.S. a month.”

richardwilson2Wilson was tapped for the position after a former student of his, a Liberian, convinced Mercer President William Underwood to cut him loose for a year, the university said in a news release.

That former student, Olu Menjay, eventually returned to Liberia and became the principle of the Ricks Institute, a K-12 boarding school in Monrovia that was founded by Baptists in 1887. It serves as the focal point for many Mercer on Mission trips to that nation.

One of Wilson’s tasks is to find a Liberian capable of becoming president of LBTS by the time his term ends in December 2014.

Wilson spoke with ABPnews about his upcoming year abroad and about how his initially skeptical attitude about traveling there quickly changed into a dedication to serve Baptist Christians in Liberia.

How did you get connected to Liberia in the first place?

My first trip was in 2007 and it was prompted by a former student of mine who is a native Liberian who came to the United States as a refugee from the war and graduated from Mercer in 1995. He returned to Liberia to be the principal of a boarding school that was nearly destroyed by the war. Olu Menjay is his name....  He was just persistent. He would say: "Professor come see my work in Liberia."

What did you see and experience on that trip that made you want to go back so many times?

The truth is, the first two or three days were absolutely horrible. The poverty was numbing, the destruction was numbing. There was a UN military presence that was frightening. There were 1,500 UN troops in tents on the camps of Ricks Institute. I said "how can you do this?" He (Menjay) said: “Professor, maybe your eyes fall on the wrong things. Did you notice that the grass has been cut? Do you see the smiles on the children’s faces?"

Frankly, I hadn’t seen any of that. The next day I got up determined to look at something else and what opened up was a community eager to make progress and to learn, and before I left I said I will be back next year and I will bring Mercer students with me....  I’ve just been drawn into it. The hungry minds of the students, the desire for the Liberian teachers to put the wars behind them and move forward, is infectious.

What’s the religious landscape like in Liberia?

The three most obvious religious presences are Christianity, Islam and African traditional religion. And sometimes all three of those reside in the same community and even the same person. There is a layer of traditional African religion that’s deeply tied to nature and the seasons – there’s a very active sense of the spirit. The freed slaves that came to Liberia in the 1820s were mostly Christian. There is a strong Catholic presence in Liberia. The Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists and Methodists make up most of the Christian population – also some Presbyterians.

What is the makeup of the Baptists in Liberia?

The Liberia Baptist Missionary Convention is a free-standing convention and they have in their past some influence from American Baptist and Southern Baptist churches, and from the Lott Carey Baptists. But they are all pretty much melded into this convention now.... They look similar to what we would find in most Baptist churches.... In Monrovia, the churches look a lot like the churches in Macon, with the signs out front and all the furnishings you would expect in a Baptist church.... Out in the bush a church may be a cinderblock structure with a tin roof, or it may just be a mud brick building with no windows. There’s a variety of structures and it depends on how sophisticated the town is.

How about theologically – have they been divided over issues like biblical inerrancy the way Baptists in the United States have been?

I would say Liberian preachers are narrative preachers, not doctrinal preachers. They are more interested in trying to understand what the scripture says in its narrative settings. There is lots of storytelling and lots of music. There aren’t the kinds of pushing matches and shoving matches that Baptist in the South have had in the past 30 years. It’s more a struggle between the haves and the have-nots and the power surrounding leadership and influence.

Will your role as seminary president extend beyond that institution into the churches in any way?

As seminary president it falls to me to promote the seminary (across the country), to try to restore the visibility of the seminary. The seminary, post-war, has had image problems, it’s had financial problems. They’ve lost faculty....  So my responsibility is to rebrand the seminary, promote the seminary publicly and try to restore the seminary’s integrity among Liberian Baptists. So I will be on the road every other weekend.

What are the challenges faced by Baptists in Liberia?

Post-war, there’s 80 percent unemployment. If the Baptist church is to survive long-term in Liberia, the seminary is going to have to provide bivocational options for ministers.... Lots of the Baptist churches outside of Monrovia aren’t going to be large enough to sustain a full-time pastor, so we are going to have to figure out better ways to equip pastors and church leaders outside Monrovia.