JOHN Freeman’s recent ordination in Monrovia, Liberia was a joyous event, as it typically is in the life of any new deacon. What makes his story unusual is that he endured unimaginable hardship and great loss in the years leading up to that day. Along with his faith, the Anglican Church of Canada played a large part in his success.
I met John in 1993 in Sierra Leone at the Waterloo refugee camp, where I was serving as a volunteer. Three years previously, the United Nations camp had been established for the thousands of Liberians fleeing from Charles Taylor’s rebels who were attempting to overthrow the government. The coup had escalated quickly into a brutal civil war.
On a death list because of his career in espionage for the Liberian government, John had escaped the rampage by travelling at night through dense bush and swamps to the neighbouring country of Sierra Leone. His wife Josephine and their four children followed later, but tragedy struck when she was stopped at the border and beaten by the guards. Her baby boy was snatched from her arms and killed.
By the time I arrived in West Africa to organize an adult literacy program in the camp, it had evolved into a settled community of 7,000 people housed in tiny thatched huts on a Second World War air force base. Religious groups had already organized themselves into groups and were busy building simple mud block churches and mosques. John had gathered about 150 Anglicans and was serving as their lay leader in worship services. He spoke of his wish to become an Anglican priest, a seemingly impossible task for a refugee.
Knowing that he would need a sponsor to attend Sierra Leone Theological Hall, John asked me to deliver a letter to Anglican Church House in Toronto. Upon my return to Canada, I met with Canon John Rye, then mission co-ordinator for Africa, who was impressed with the Liberian’s determination in the face of great difficulties and recommended sponsorship. With the promise of a stipend for three years, John registered as a seminarian in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.
Josephine and the children remained 25 kilometres away at the refugee camp, where they received basic food, schooling and medical care. However, as the bus ride from Freetown was expensive, John saw them only rarely.
By early 1995, Charles Taylor had seized power in Liberia and restored a fragile stability. Many exiles began the long march home.
It wasn’t long before the Freemans were involved in another deadly conflict, this time in Sierra Leone. A simmering civil war suddenly heated up around Waterloo and insurgents stormed into the refugee camp. Once again, Josephine and the other terrified Liberians had to flee for their lives, leaving their meagre belongings behind. The family eventually made their way to Freetown, but soon found themselves living on the streets as John’s Canadian stipend was not sufficient to support them.
In a desperate letter, John wrote of his dilemma and I appealed to Rev. John Read of St. John’s Anglican Church, Port Hope, Ont. Would his congregation consider helping John Freeman’s family for the next two years until graduation? They agreed and, with their generous help, John was able to complete his seminarian training and house his family. Since his life was still in danger in Liberia, he looked forward to being ordained in Sierra Leone and serving a church there.
Meanwhile, the fighting in Sierra Leone turned into one of the bloodiest coups in modern history with terrible atrocities being inflicted on the civilian population. No one in the country was secure, so John and Josephine joined the flood of people who poured into neighbouring Guinea, where they were forced to stay for a few weeks.
In 1997, welcome news reached them that a general amnesty had been declared in Liberia. Finally, after seven years of exile, it was safe for John to go home. Near starving, the family made their way back through Guinea, only to find enormous devastation in Liberia caused by the civil war, and their own house razed to the ground.
Due to the hardship of starting life all over again in a post-war ravaged country, it would be another two years before John’s ordination took place on Sept. 29, 1999 in Trinity Cathedral, Monrovia.
Enclosing pictures of the ceremony in a letter, he ends with these words: “I beg to say don’t forget us, and thank you to all our friends in Canada for your prayers and help to us. God bless you.”
Pauline Carrick is a freelance writer in Port Hope, Ont.