This past week, I traveled to Monrovia, Liberia and was reminded of a profound truth while sitting at the feet of a septuagenarian Liberian pastor named Walter Richards. The occasion was the graduation ceremonies of Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary (LBTS), where I was delivering the graduation address. After the ceremonies, I had the opportunity to spend time with Richards, who is currently the chairman of the Board of Trustees for LBTS. From him, I learned a lesson about the prophetic calling of a pastor who cherished the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ in the midst of imprisonment, floggings, attempted assassinations, and house burnings.
But first, a brief summary of the recent and brutal history of Liberia: The Republic of Liberia was founded in 1847 by 300 African-American families from the United States who settled among the indigenous tribes. Liberia was governed by a one-party system, the True Whig Party, for 103 years. The settler families developed a lifestyle similar to that of the antebellum South, marked by southern English, top hats, and even Masonic lodges (!). The last in the line of Americo-Liberian presidents was William Tolbert, who also was a Baptist pastor. Although Tolbert’s term was marked by reform, it was also marked by nepotism and corruption, as he appointed his family members to nearly all of the top governmental posts and amassed a personal fortune.
During the night of April 12, 1980, a 28 year old master Sargeant named Samuel Doe, along with sixteen dissident soldiers, scaled the wall of the president’s mansion and killed Tolbert, disemboweling him and gouging out his right eye. Doe (also a Baptist) became the youngest person in Africa to achieve such power. He immediately suspended the constitution, declared martial law, and banned political dissent. Within the space of a year, Doe went from being a slender and impoverished sergeant to being a fat-jowled president dressed in chic suits and topped off by a truly remarkable Afro. Doe was corrupt and nepotistic like his predecessor, but managed also to be a ruthless tyrant. At various points during his reign, his soldiers opened fire on college students, raped female protestors, shut down newspapers and eliminated free speech. Doe enjoyed the support of the United States government.
Less than a decade later, however, a band of insurgents crossed over from Cote d’Ivoire to Liberia, led by a Liberian exile named Charles Taylor (also a Baptist). Taylor gained control of the country, from which position he turned Monrovia into a major center for diamond-laundering and geurilla-warfare training. Eventually, Taylor was forced out of power, but was offered asylum in Nigeria where he was given a beautiful estate and a comfortable retirement.
During the two decades stretching from Tolbert to Taylor, approximately 250,000 Liberians died from civil war, assassination, or starvation, stemming directly from the irresponsible and immoral rule of two Baptist despots, Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor.
But God did not leave himself without prophetic voices, the foremost of which was Pastor Walter D. Richards. Richards was (and remains) the pastor of two Baptist churches. Richards was a prominent young pastor during the Tolbert presidency, and even served as Tolbert’s Deputy Minister of Education for Liberia. Richards had always been known for preaching against social ills such as child abuse, sexual abuse, female genital mutilation, but during the presidencies of Tolbert, Doe, and Taylor, he also publicly called these presidents to the carpet for their nepotism, financial corruption, and brutality. During Doe’s term, he was arrested and flogged, the marks of which he still bears on his body today. Doe’s national guard burned his house to the ground and attempted to assassinate him (accidentally killing his younger brother Van).
At one point, Richards called together the leaders of various denominations to form a unified front against Doe’s crimes. Richards was appointed the chairman of the “Interface Committee” who confronted Doe in person. As a result, Doe went on national television and announced the Liberian church was far more corrupt than the government and had no right to challenge him or his power. Doe referred to himself as “God’s elect,” accused the committee of being populated by promiscuous and power-hungry pastors, and threatened to “expose” all of them publicly for their “corruption.” The only pastor to reply publicly was Richards, who took to the pulpit and challenged the president. His students report that Richards declared from the pulpit that Doe would not stop them from preaching the gospel and that he feared no man but God alone. This sermon reverberated around Liberia and even in neighboring states in West Africa.
By God’s grace, Richards was spared and has continued as pastor of two churches until this day (he is seventy-eight years old). As I shared several meals with him and listened to students, faculty, and pastors tell the story of his life, I was reminded of several truths. First, I was reminded that the pastorate is a high calling. With it comes the responsibility to declare the entire counsel of God even one might suffer because of it. Second, and closely related, I was reminded once again of the supreme value and worth of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the greatest treasure of all, greater than any wealth, fame, comfort, or sense of earthly security. He is better than anything life could give us, and better than anything that floggings, imprisonments, or house burnings could take away from us.
Pastor Walter Richard’s life is a prescient reminder of Paul’s declaration in Phil. 3:8: “Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ….”