PAYNESVLLE CITY, Liberia – In a two-hour service of worship and celebration in the Bradley and Carolyn Brown Fellowship Chapel on the campus of the Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary (LBTS) on March 13, the Rev. Dr. Richard Francis Wilson became the school's sixth president since 1976.
Dr. Wilson, who is also Columbus Roberts Professor of Theology and chair of the Roberts Department of Christianity in the College of Liberal Arts at Mercer University, is on loan to the Liberian school. President William D. Underwood offered Wilson's services after receiving a plea for help from the president of the Liberia Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention (LBMEC), the Rev. Dr. Olu Q. Menjay.
Postwar Liberia continues to be a place of challenges and possibilities. A generation of Liberians have grown up in the face of war, now 10 years of tenuous peace, and economic woes that make the West African country the second-most miserable place on the planet, according to a 2013 analysis by Business Insider.
Baptists in Liberia have borne the brunt of the misery. In early 1980, Liberia was in ascendancy. Monrovia was a modern city with an electrical grid, potable water running from faucets, air-conditioned buildings, traffic signals, and well-kept and well-lit streets. President William R. Tolbert Jr. was also the president of the LBMEC and a past president of the Baptist World Alliance.
On April 11, 1980, Liberian Baptists were reveling in a centennial celebration of their founding. Tolbert arrived late to an evening gala of music and fellowship, but he was on time to join in the festivities and to offer reflective comments of hope and caution to the crowd. He challenged them to "give thanks to God," and, in the words of a grand old song, "If we never pass this way again, just remember how good it's been, lest we forget God, who made this possible, just remember that he's so wonderful." Indeed, they joined hands in the celebration hall and sang the song together.
Early the next morning, Tolbert was assassinated in his residence. In that moment, Baptist ascendancy and Liberian progress took a nosedive. 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.
Speakers at last week's installation service were somber as they recounted the challenges of the dark days of Liberian Baptists and enthusiastic as they welcomed the possibilities of brighter days on a near horizon.
The Rev. Gerald E. Thomas Jr., pastor of Lamberth Memorial Baptist Church in Roxboro, N.C., delivered the convocation sermon, "By Way of Hope." Weaving a tapestry from the story of Jacob and Esau's struggles and reconciliation, and putting in sharp relief Paul's exhortation "that suffering produces, endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us," Thomas announced to the students, faculty, staff and dignitaries, Dr. Wilson taught "us in that way that is truly his character; he didn't indoctrinate us, telling us what he thought we'd best know. He demanded we be true Baptists, putting our Bibles in our laps and being responsible for our own interpretations. Even better, he taught us that more important than our answers would be our questions. He encouraged us to ask better questions."
Following the sermon, Dr. Menjay began an introduction of the new president, emphasizing that the growing partnership between Mercer and the LBMEC is the reason Dr. Wilson is in Liberia. "Free of charge! Are you listening? Free of charge!," Menjay exclaimed. "Liberia and this seminary are blessed to have a man like Richard F. Wilson with us for a year. He is a scholar, a teacher and an administrator who has more than 30 years of experience in higher education. We thank Mr. Bill Underwood and Mercer University for this valuable gift and demonstration of our friendship."
The induction service was simple and brief. Deacon Aaron G. Marshall, chair of the Board of Trustees of the LBTS, read a charge and challenge, and then asked Dr. Wilson, "Do you accept these challenges as the president of the seminary?" Wilson responded, "Yes."
Under the theme, "Dreams Come with Many Cares," Dr. Wilson delivered a clear and compelling address that touched upon the history of "dangerous memory" for Liberian Baptists, the recent tribulations of the seminary and his pledges for the months to come. He elaborated upon six pledges: to listen, to learn, to respect, to collaborate, to plot a course and to move forward.
Following the address, Marshall and Dr. Menjay gave responses of gratitude and encouragement.