MACON, Ga. – Mercer University's Dr. Richard F. Wilson, Columbus Roberts Professor of Theology and chair of the Roberts Department of Christianity in the College of Liberal Arts, has been named interim president of the Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary. His appointment by the seminary's board of trustees will run from Jan. 1-Dec. 31, 2014.
"Dr. Wilson is an outstanding teacher and administrator, and I am certain that his work will strengthen the seminary and the Baptist churches of Liberia," said Dr. Lake Lambert, dean of the College of Liberal Arts. "I am also hopeful that his time in Liberia will open new opportunities for partnership between Liberian institutions and Mercer's College of Liberal Arts. Mercer is very proud of Dr. Wilson and thankful that he has answered this call."
Dr. Wilson is no stranger to the West African country that was established in 1822 by the American Colonization Society. He has traveled to Liberia nine times in the past seven years, five of which were with the University's Mercer On Mission program. His connection to Liberia, its people and their efforts to rebuild Africa's oldest republic following two devastating civil wars that killed more than 200,000 and displaced a million others from 1989-2003 began with just a single student.
"This opportunity wouldn't have to come to me if it hadn't been for a Mercer graduate, his persistence to get his professor to come to visit him, and (Mercer) President (William D.) Underwood's dedication to Mercer On Mission," Dr. Wilson said.
Olu Q. Menjay came to Mercer in 1993, a refugee of the First Liberian Civil War who had arrived in the United States and earned his associate's degree at a junior college. Menjay majored in sociology and Christianity at Mercer and graduated from the College of Liberal Arts in 1995. He went on to earn master's 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, Dr. Menjay went back to Liberia and became the principal of Ricks Institute, a K-12 boarding school in Monrovia that was founded in 1887 and is the premier secondary institution in the country. He soon asked his former professor to come see his work. Dr. Wilson made his first trip to Ricks – which has grown to serve 650 students in four dormitories on 1,100 acres – in 2007.
"It has a similar history to Mercer as a boarding, agricultural school," Dr. Wilson said of the Institute. "It was the first school to welcome indigenous Liberians, and its charter included mention of girls. From its beginning, it has been an edgy place in a good way."
In 2009, President Underwood appointed Dr. Menjay an assistant professor in the Department of Christianity, with the expectation that he would remain in Liberia as principal of Ricks and coordinate Mercer On Mission activities in the country. President Underwood also agreed to begin a scholarship program for students from Ricks, with the expectation that they would return to Liberia upon graduation and put to use what they had learned at Mercer. Dr. Wilson and his wife, Lucy, who serves as the University's registrar, have welcomed these students into their home, and they have come to call him "APP," or "American Papa." Currently, there are nine such undergraduate students and one graduate student on Mercer's campuses.
Later, in 2012, Dr. Menjay was elected president of the Liberian Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention. He was in a meeting with President Underwood earlier this year when the topic of the seminary needing a president arose.
"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,'" Dr. Wilson recalled.
After discussing the possibility with his wife, the board of trustees of the Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary and his colleagues at Mercer, Dr. Wilson accepted the position.
"The Liberia Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention is excited and eternally grateful to President Underwood for this extraordinary contribution to Baptist work in Liberia. Dr. Wilson's exceptional and consistent commitment to teaching and leadership is a valuable gift to the Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary. He will bring renewed urgency in our task to offer sound theological education to pastors and church leaders in Liberia," said Dr. Menjay.
The seminary was founded in 1976 and currently serves 110 students with 15 faculty members. Compared to Ricks Institute, for example, the seminary mostly survived the horrors of war, despite the two schools being separated by fewer than 50 miles. Still, many of the buildings constructed under the presidencies of two Georgians, the Rev. Bradley Brown and the Rev. John Mark Carpenter, in the 1970s and 1980s, including the largest library in the country, need extensive repairs. Some are in disrepair. There is no electricity, except for large diesel-powered generators, and no running water throughout the country. And so much more of the work to be done is not just physical in nature.
Dr. Wilson will be called upon to provide strong leadership on the heels of recent crucial leadership crises. He does not plan to teach students during his first semester. Instead, he will conduct faculty workshops, travel the country in an attempt to rebrand the seminary, which he says has become a little-known opportunity among Liberians, and analyze its academic programs. He will also work to identify and cultivate indigenous leadership for the future of the school.
"The wars disrupted everything," said Dr. Wilson. "It's almost like someone tore a 14-year-wide hole in public and private education."
With an 80-percent unemployment rate and an equally high illiteracy rate among Liberians, they are eager for education. But a lack of enforceable educational standards postwar has resulted in a dearth of qualified teachers and a low ceiling for what students can learn from their teachers.
"Before the wars, the level of preparedness of students at Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary was such that they could apply for and get accepted to Baptist seminaries across the U.S.," Dr. Wilson said. "It will be 10 to 15 years before that level of academic expectation can be restored."
But as Dr. Wilson prepares to take on these challenges and others, he keeps in mind a saying that he has picked up from his Liberian friends: "small, small."
"The only way you can do something big is small, small," he said. "Fresh paint on a freshly plastered wall is small, but it's also the promise that we can do something more."