The year was 1992, April 29th. You all remember it as the day of the LA riots. I remember it as the day of my youngest son’s 4th birthday and the day of the Freetown Military Coup in Sierra Leone, West Africa. We were Bible Translation missionaries for Lutheran Bible Translators (LBT) there during 1990-93. By orders of the US embassy, everyone hunkered down in their locations. We were up-country—that means living anywhere but Freetown, the capital city. Thus, we were fairly safe but it was a time to remember. I had the only VHF 2 meter radio rig up-country at that time with access to the repeater (retrans for you military folk) in Freetown, and could listen clearly to the Freetown radio net, and all the things that the missionaries were reporting to each other on that net. The Freetown missionaries had locked themselves in their compounds. Still, compounds and houses were being broken into by rogue soldiers and rebels, vehicles stolen, etc. Fear was clear in many voices. I lived in Bumban in the Limba language group and I had another missionary who had a Kachina or Stoner name brand High Frequency (HF) rig radio which bounced off the ionosphere. He could transmit to all the other Up-country rural missionaries and to me; He and I could transmit between all of them and the missionaries in Freetown, so we formed a net. I and he passed vital information and reports both ways for the next 5-7 days. We formed the backbone of Missionary communication in that country and formed a team. We monitored our radios almost 24/7. I won’t say we were a well-oiled machine but we were like a body, working together, toward a common cause. The flow of information was important to our missionary’s in-country. Speaking for myself, I know that it helped me to know what was going on. It can be a sense or normalcy and maybe even a false sense of control and security.
When it came time to evacuate out of country, we almost missed the convoy we were supposed to link up with. We did connect in Makeni 30 miles to the south, and caravanned to Freetown. In Freetown the convoy split up and we went solo to our meet-up points for our individual missions. With my wife and four children in the vehicle, we were held up by an event involving two Sierra Leone soldiers who were pointing their weapons at a bus driver. They looked up, saw us, and disbanded. We then moved on, had a tire go flat, and I engaged 4wD and we drove on the rim to our meet-up point. We pulled in at the same time as another missionary team with LBT did, only to see that they too had driven in on a flat. We spent the night in a locked compound in Freetown until we were evacuated by US Special Forces (SF/Green Beret) troops through the Lungi Airport on 5 May 1992.
The US Military made a difference for us in Sierra Leone back in 1992. That is part of why I went on to become an active duty Army Chaplain for 20 years and deployed on two combat tours in Iraq. To this day, when I share these experiences, I get choked up, and often tears come to my eyes. These were dire times and through them all I came to understand just how much I needed to trust in the Lord. The situation was totally out of our—out of my—control. All I had was God and His protection and providence.
With this said, what will be our memories and lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic of 2020? Will we get choked up? Will tears come to our eyes? Will the only emotion we remember be fear? Will our time cloistered in our homes and isolated at our jobs be a memory that haunts us, that we feel traumatized and scarred by; or will this pandemic be an experience that we grow from and that we are happy we went through because of how God worked in our lives. Because of how God used others to help us, or used us to help others? And so we remember Luther’s meaning to the 4th Commandment, “Thou Shalt not murder” where he says, “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.” Will we also remember how these times drove us to renewed faith and back to the Lord? Will we remember how the Lord grew us in our faith, watched over us, and brought us through (Romans 8:26-38)? Will we hunker down in fear or reach out in the confidence and peace that only the Lord gives? We read in Psalm 46:1-7;
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
6 The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
We lived again in Sierra Leone in 2017. Not only had they endured the 1992 military coupé, and the 10 year civil war that ensued, but also they have survived the Ebola virus of 2015. Yet, my experience is that today, Sierra Leone is a peace-loving country in which Christianity has grown and spread, as many more of the people also have turned to the God and to the cross of Christ, and Jesus the rock of their salvation. We sensed that the Christian churches had grown spiritually, and that the Christians in this country had also grown in their faith during our 23 years absence. It is my hope and prayer that in 23 years the same will be said for the United States of America, and the Christian churches and followers of Christ living here.
Sierra Leone is now a settled and peace-loving country, and there are many missionaries remaining there to carry on the work; As the Coronavirus spreads, I ask your prayers for their safety—along with ours in the USA–and that the Gospel may continue to be proclaimed both here and there.