My name is Phil Eckart. I live in southern Indiana. I have been a resident of Indiana all my life except for two years in the military. I have been married since 1969 to Karen Eckart. We have two children and one grandchild. I became involved in church work in 1977 after many years of running from God. Our church had a retreat for the weekend at a church campground in the next county. The director invited me to Liberia for a pastor’s conference in February of 2004. He had been there in February of 2003. The war was still raging as he made the trip. After some hesitation I agreed to go.
I had no idea that this trip would have such a profound affect on my life. Within two days I realized that the Lord wanted me to spend the rest of life on helping the churches in Liberia. The conference organizer and I became fast friends. His name was Peter Gebeor. By the end of the week we had made many plans about how to help the churches in Liberia recover from the war. Peter had started his church just five years ago and had already established 14 more. I left for home a changed man. I had no idea how to help but I knew that I had to do something.
Many things happened when I got home that were very unexpected. Almost everyone I talked to seemed to want to help somehow with this cause. I showed the video I had Peter make when we were there. Mark Parmenter was touched at once. This happened to other folks also. Mark immediately became my partner in this endeavor. In a most unusual way I found out that the former President of Liberia was living just 17 miles from me! We have become friends and talk regularly.
I invited Peter to come live with me last year. We pulled all the strings we had to get him a visa granted. This included a letter from Dr. Amos Sawyer ( the former president ) and a senator and congressman from Indiana. On the day of Peter’s appointment the 17 people ahead of him were turned down but Peter was granted a visa. He stayed with me for two months last fall. This was his first visit outside Africa. We made lots of progress in fund raising and making folks aware of the plight of the Liberians.
My church fell in love with Peter. They donated two vehicles and many other items including two generators, five new chain saws and much more to pack onto a shipping container. Then the money came to ship the container. Eighty computers were also donated by a small business that exchanges them at large corporations. The container arrived on Peter’s compound just last week.
Mark and I have plans to go to Liberia yet this year. Peter has gotten a plane ticket for an AIDS symposium in New York later this year. We hope to have him for a month this fall after the symposium. Mark and I are making plans to speak at several churches soon concerning this work. We are also planning a second container for Peter’s work in Africa. We are excited about what the Lord has in store!
The flight to Monrovia was uneventful. Once we disembarked the action started. The terminal was very small, crowded, and loud. There seemed to be much confusion everywhere. Suddenly some men approached us and Richard recognized them, it was Peter, our host, and his friends. From this point on I was to be treated as if I were visiting royalty. I reached for my baggage and was blocked by a gentleman with the kindest eyes I think I have ever seen. He insisted on carrying my bags.There was something strangely familiar about him. I knew that I had never met him before but it seemed I had. Richard was busy talking to someone he obviously knew. Our new friends helped us through the required paperwork processes.
We were escorted to two cars. Suddenly a man approached me and said,” You are already rich.” That was all he said. Before I entered the car I noticed a large empty building. I asked what it was. I was informed that it was the main airport terminal that had been shot up during the war. The one in use now was much smaller. I sat in the back of a Toyota Camry with one of the young men. His name was Jason, we were both the extrovert types. We were to have lots of laughs together. Peter rode in the front passenger spot.
Once we left the airport I noticed that we were in somewhat open country. The highway was in pretty good shape. The landscape was flat. Some trees were here and there, mostly small and of the palm type. There was brush everywhere but not very thick. Small huts and housed made of block were scattered about. People were walking up and down the highway, but not in large numbers. We traveled for several miles and the scenery didn’t change much. I had gotten used to the temperature in Africa by now. It was like my native Indiana in June or July. I was expecting it to be much hotter, but it was their winter.
Suddenly I noticed something very strange. Two hundred yards or so off to my right were lots of large tents. There were also many large trucks and various other military type vehicles. I had first seen the white painted U.N. military equipment in Sierra Leone at the Freetown airport. That was where those two young missionaries had left us. I knew therefore that this was a U.N. outpost but it seemed to have a special purpose. Jason and I had spoken a little bit to Peter about things we had observed along the way. I had noticed since I had been in west Africa that the English spoken there was hard for me to understand. I had learned to listen very carefully. I asked Peter about those tents. He told me it was a place for the rebels to turn in their weapons.
Our driver seemed to be in a hurry. We caught up with a slow moving truck and began to pass it. I looked up to see soldiers staring at me. It was a U.N. troop transport truck. The soldiers looked to be from India or Pakistan and were as surprised to see me as I was to see them. Things were rapidly becoming more crowded. Small block homes and bamboo huts were everywhere. The streets were crowded with pedestrians. Suddenly I saw a familiar sight. It was the national stadium . I remembered it from the television news reels. I felt as if I were observing history, like when I first saw the Berlin wall. It looked so empty now. I remember thousands or people entering it.
We quickly found ourselves in bustling Monrovia. The streets were full or cars and vans, all filled beyond capacity. People were crowding over into the road and horns were blowing constantly. I noticed that there were many outdoor businesses of all kinds everywhere. These had a sort of organization to them. There were areas where only food was sold, or clothing, or even building materials. This could consist of from three or four “shops” to as many as fifty or so. As we would slow down, people would stare, really stare, at these white men from America.
I noticed trash along side the roads everywhere. I had to remind myself that this country had been at civil war for 14 years. This also meant no trash collection for that long. Soon we turned onto a side street. All or a sudden the cars were surrounded by dozens of people singing and clapping. I have never felt so important in all my life. Everyone was all smiles as the cars advanced slowly into the church compound. The women were dressed in these beautiful matching outfits that I soon discovered were choir robes. Once we stopped the celebration continued. From that point onward I was hardly allowed to open a door or pull up a chair on my own. These folks were genuinely touched that we would come to visit their nation at such a time as this.
As the men unloaded our bags I looked around. There were several buildings built out of what appeared to me to be bamboo. I asked about this later. They called it reed. A fence surrounded this compound made of the same material, it appeared to be about 7 feet high. The largest building, I discovered, was the church. In the middle of the compound was a small very well built building made of block and covered with stucco. It had a nice porch and windows all around. The windows in most African houses that I saw did not shut as I knew. It was so hard to realize that it never was cold there.
We had been delayed six days from our original schedule. Therefore Peter wasted no time in getting started. Service was started immediately.
We sat in front of the church on a elevated platform behind the pulpit. I knew how my father felt now, looking out on the crowd. There were two choirs, one called the English choir and one called the Basa choir. The English choir sang some songs I was familiar with, but with an African flair. The Basa choir sang songs I could not understand ,but sounded beautiful to me from the start. This was my first real experience with their local dialect. It sounded to me almost like French, a language I considered most pleasant to here. Someone in the choir would recite long narratives ( I found out later these were scripture quotes ). The rest of the choir would sort of chant and clap in a rhythmic manner. This was one of the many examples I found of a fascinating blend of American and African cultures.
Everyone seemed to look so distinguished. The women wore the most beautiful dresses I have ever seen. Their hair was fashioned in many different styles and looked so elegant. Most of the women wore bright gold looking necklaces and earrings to match. Most of the men wore dress clothes, with ties. Others wore African shirts that were most appealing. I scanned the crowd just to get familiar with them. They did the same to us. The four of us had drawn straws to see who would speak first and I was it. My sermon was on the Love of God. There was an interrupter for those who only knew Basa. His name was Bob. He was most intelligent and friendly. At the end of the sermon Peter stood up and gave and invitation and twelve people came forward. I found this most humbling, that I came 5000 miles to give the message of God’s love and it was readily accepted.
After the service we ate lunch. Our cook Joseph owned an international restaurant before the civil war. I was to meet many folks like him. These were people who had owned small businesses before the war. We were fed mostly American food. This was somewhat of a disappointment to me. Our hosts were trying to accommodate our tastes and dietary routines as best they could. I was so looking forward to feasting on fine African cuisine. In time I would get my wish.
After lunch many people introduced themselves to me. For the first few days I had a hard time understanding the African English accent they used. As time went on I got better at it. Peter’s wife was my best teacher in this. Peter told me she was from the country. She was like so many others in that her patience with me was inspiring. Sometimes I would have to ask her three times what she was saying. After the first day I began to see what a special people this was. Not only were they patient with my elementary translation skills ( in my own language! ), but I began to notice many other attributes of their character. They walked with such purpose and dignity. Their dress was so proper and elegant. They shook hands regularly. They seemed to know just when to dismiss themselves from a conversation. Their demeanor was one of happiness. There was a bright look in there eyes and always laughter and smiles. I watched them interacting amongst themselves and observed all this. I thought that a people who just gone through fourteen years or civil war would be beaten down and distraught in their souls. What I found was quite the opposite. This was the first or many pleasant surprises I was to experience in Liberia.
That afternoon I walked to the far side of the compound. I was looking through the reed fence when a gentleman about sixty years old approached me. He introduced himself as Paul. He seemed very good at the Liberian handshake. I asked him about the large abandoned building about 500 yards across the field.
Paul calmly explained that the building I was looking at had been a glass factory. He then had me look in the opposite direction. I could not see the other factory he referred to but he wanted me to look that way anyway. It had been a biscuit making facility. It was hard for me to understand, but I think that’s what he said. He then pointed out the power line just behind us and across the reed fence. It stood like a silent witness to a nation gone mad. Even the wires were stripped off between the towers. This gave me an eerie feeling. I had one of these power towers on my property. It traveled from the coal mines in southern Indiana to customers in Indianapolis. It would hum when it rained. I was beginning to understand the sheer horror of the recent past here.
Paul’s calm, quite demeanor suddenly changed. He went on a passionate tirade about the utter futility of destroying the very infrastructure of his nation. He mentioned no names. But with the zeal of a man cheated out of his whole life he proceeded to tell me of his sorrow. It was as if he were a spokesman for all the civilized people of this once proud land. His speech went on and on. I could understand very little of it as his passion grew. But I understood all of the message. I felt so helpless. He spoke of one hundred years to heal this devastated land. Who knows what he had seen, or what he had lost. Perhaps I was the first outsider to witch he could vent his frustration. I remember him asking again and again what good did it do to destroy all this. After a while he ran out or steam. Once he had started I stopped him just a couple or times. I realized that this conversation was not meant for me to understand every word, but to feel the meaning of it.
After the evening service several of us sat around and chatted. We were quite tired from the travel and so retired early. I slept well. I wondered however, how the rest of folks slept. It was apparent to me by now that they had no beds as I knew. I noticed that small reed mats were rolled out on the church floor. There seemed to be no padding at all on these and yet they had to be beds. Many new concepts of life as I had always known it were changing. In between the lesson sessions and the services I would get to know people. I noticed that as soon as I would walk away from one person another would quickly approach. I have always been interested in the life story of people. After just a short time most of these folk seemed very comfortable with telling me their story. I did not have to prompt them. They were eager to tell me what they had been through. It was as if I had become a place to express the frustration and horror of the last 14 years. Over and over again I would here how it was the Lord who had enabled them to survive. I felt so inadequate in attempting to teach a people who had to live their faith to just survive. I was so humbled by this that I even mentioned it from the pulpit. I was also struck by the gratefulness of everyone that we had come. Peter led the charge in this. Wherever we went he would always emphasize his peoples gratefulness for our coming.
After dinner the four of us sat down and organized who would speak when for the rest of the week. There were to be two full worship services every day, one midday and one evening, and two lesson sessions, one morning and one afternoon. Once this was settled, I walked out to look around.
I wandered toward the back of the compound. I looked through the reed fence and noticed a large building several hundred yards away. People were walking on a small road just outside the fence. Suddenly a man appeared next to me and started up a conversation. He appeared to be about sixty or so years old. He introduced himself as Samuel. I found this part of Liberian culture fascinating. Many people I was to meet had Biblical or English names. It became easy for me to memorize many names. By the time I left I knew lots of these folks by name. There were some people with African first names and English last names. Others had it reversed. The African first names were short, like Jaimba. I wish now that I had worked more on learning them.
By the end of the second day I had heard many stories and had spent time with several people. I began to feel something I had never experienced. This whole trip had not been by accident. I knew somewhere God had a work for me. I had tried to get involved in several very worthwhile ministries but nothing seemed to fit. Now there was no mistake, this was the work I was to do for the rest of my life. It was not a superficial feeling or a momentary emotional phase but I knew this was it. I felt a connection to these people that I had experienced only with my extended family. There was the man with kind eyes, he reminded me of my dads brother. There was a lady who reminded me of my dads sister. Then I met a woman who was like my mother’s sister. I was fortunate to be born in a family of good reputation and closeness. I had spent much time with my aunts and uncles as a child. I was close to them all. It had to be a supernatural thing for me to have this same connection to black folk 5000 miles away. It was undeniable. This was to be the work that I was to be about for the rest of my life. That night I stayed up talking with some of my new friends until about 1 or 2 am. After that I went to bed but could not sleep. It must have been 4 o `clock of so before I finally went to sleep. I felt so sorry for those folks who do not believe in God. Everything to them is a series of accidents and coincidences. How I knew better! What a feeling, that the maker of all things had picked me to help with something. I knew I would never be the same.
Every morning we sat down to a good hot breakfast. Afterwards we would plan the day and study. Following the morning session we would sometimes move around the city. Peter was a volunteer for Christian Aid Ministries. As time went on I found this man fascinating. He had started his church five years ago. There were now seventeen branch churches off of it. All this was done in the middle of a civil war. He also had three lovely and very well behaved children and a very contented wife. As if this were not enough he was a volunteer for this charity. It was run by the Mennonites. There was a man in charge of operations for Liberia from Nigeria named Accean. He had loaned Peter his car to haul us around. One evening he came over to visit. This man was tall, handsome, and very distinguished. He had on what I thought to be a traditional African suit, buttoned up front all the way. His manner was confident and his mind very keen. He spoke of the many overwhelming problems of this people. His love of these folks and God was so clear. He talked of the refugee camps. I finally began to understand what visitors to this continent had tried to express to me many times. These African folks will get to you. Accean had loaned Peter his car to haul us around. It was a very used Toyota Camary.
One day we were out driving around town. We had gone to downtown Monrovia to check on our return airline tickets. Afterwards we went by Christian Aid Ministries to meet the director and see Acheen. On the way back to Peter’s church compound we went through the neighborhood of international embassies. This was close to the ocean. As we tried to climb up a hill the driveshaft on our car broke. This was a small piece but the car was useless without it. We turned the car around and headed it downhill. After a few yards Peter and Mike, the driver, told us we had to get out and hide. The mechanic was at the bottom of the hill. They said if he saw Americans the price would automatically double or triple.
We walked a little ways and saw a house with a large porch on the front. We were still halfway up the hill and so this house overlooked the ocean. It was the best view I had seen yet. The house was once a grand place. It looked about forty or fifty years old. Like so many things I had seen here it had not been maintained properly. No one was there so we walked up to get out of the sun. A young man approached and I asked if we could sit down. There were old wooden chairs and some plastic chairs there. He told us it was not his house and that the owner was not there. He acted as it the owner would not care. We made ourselves comfortable not knowing how long this would last.
After a few minutes an older man walked up the stairs on the porch. He looked pleasantly surprised that he had guests. I was closest to him and stood up. I asked if he was the owner of the house. He acknowledged that he was. I then asked if it were all right if we rested there for a bit. “You are Americans,” he exclaimed “I don’t care if you stay here fifty years!” This man had seven children, all of them living in the states. He had owned this house for forty or so years. He was 79 years old and full of life. He was a practicing Roman Catholic and made no attempt to hide his faith.
I introduced myself. He told me his name but sadly I have forgotten his. I asked him what he had done before the war. He had been something on the order of our Postmaster General as far as I could tell. I wanted to know about his past and how his life had been before the war. As I listened to him it was becoming clear to me that this was once a land of plenty. It had been a comfortable and prosperous place to live. I asked him about the water pipes on the ground just off the porch. He told me that they had been shut off since the late 1980s. It fascinated me that the water system had been laid right on top of the ground. At home we had just had temperatures of 20 below zero. My pipes had frozen and caused me great problems, and here were pipes laying right on the ground! I also wanted to know about current politics. He them taught me an old Liberian wise saying. “If you are bitten by a snake the next time you see a lizard you will run away!” That, he said, is how many people felt about current politics.
Within an hour of so Peter and Mike came back. We were on our merry way. As we said good by I told my new friend that I would visit him on my next trip to Liberia. The door handle jammed and I pulled it to free it up. Richard warned me that I was pulling it to hard but I didn’t listen. It finally broke and I felt really bad. We were in a different part of the city by now. Mike stopped at a place to have a mechanic look at it. It was the ultimate “shade tree mechanic” experience. This guy came out from under a large tree to look at the door handle. I knew it was hopeless but he tried. I apologized to Peter and Accean (later). They were both very polite but I still felt like a creep. Now there was only one way in and out of the back of the car. You had to reach out the window of the other door to open it. The handle had broken on the inside of it some time ago. Such are things in Liberia.
Richard had told me that we might visit a refugee camp. He had seen one on his previous trip. I was very eager to do this. About the third day Peter set it up. We were on route to it when I asked if I could get a picture of some U.N. soldiers. We stopped at a machine gun emplacement and asked. The soldier said he had to check. Peter and I then had to go up a hill to a tent where some military police were and ask them. They had to radio to headquarters to ask. There superior was in a meeting and we had to wait. I did not know it would be such a big deal. Peter was very patient with this but I am not so sure about the other guys. After all, it was hot and they were sitting in the car. While we were waiting I told these fellows that I had been an M.P. also. They were from Nigeria and spoke this wonderful West African English well. I made sure we all had a good time by telling them a couple of my old army stories. It came over me there that people the world over are so similar. Here I was, halfway across the world relating stories to two men about things I had in common with them. We laughed and enjoyed the moment. Finally the word came back on the phone, no pictures. It might seem to some that it had been a waste of time, but I had made two new friends.
Peter and I returned to the car and off we went. A truck full of white U.N. soldiers passed us. I asked where they were from. Peter said they were from Ireland. We soon arrived at the refugee camp. We drove down the dirt road into the center of the camp. Peter had told us there were 34000 people in this place. All the little houses were made of sticks and mud. The roofs were constructed of a sort of thatch and had tarps form the U.N. attached to them. The people all stared as we drove past.
Once we entered the middle of the camp, I noticed two big tents with lots of bags of some sort of food in them. We opened the car doors and before we could get out a man charged up and began yelling at us. He was almost out of control. He could hardly even contain his anger enough to tell us what awful thing we had done. After a bit he calmed down enough for us to at least understand him. It was the bags of grain he was upset about. They had little U.S. flags on them. I read the labels and it was a sort of cornmeal mixture. The man was shouting that it was making everybody sick. He was telling us that rice was there stable and this corn was causing stomach problems all over the place. He obviously thought that we were some sort of government officials of something. How powerless I felt. They also had cooking oil with European labels on them. That was all. Just bags of cornmeal and oil to feed all these people. It had always upset me when people sent their steak back to be thrown out because the color wasn’t pink enough in the middle. Now it was in my face. Could anyone say “It is because of some great thing I did that I was born in a land of plenty” ? It could have been anyone there.
Please help us to rebuild this country and help these wonderful people. Our work is ongoing. We need your help. The second conference was an even larger success