Mercer professor gives heart, miles and years to serving Liberian church leaders
He also fulfills his assignments as chair of the religion department at Mercer University — where he will soon settle back into an administrative and teaching schedule that preceded his three-year commitment as “president on loan” for the Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary.
Traveling from Georgia to Monrovia, Liberia, is not easy — spending more than 30 hours in planes and airports going in either direction. But Wilson has made the journey 20 times since 2007.
The challenges in Liberia are far greater, however, than any inconvenience of travel as the West African nation still struggles to overcome the aftermath of a destructive civil war and an ongoing grapple for power.
Eleven of Wilson’s trips were part of his official service to the seminary that concludes the end of this year. However, his love for and investment in the Liberian people will long continue.
One of Wilson’s former students, Olu Menjay, president of the Liberia Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention, returned to his undergraduate alma mater a few years ago and visited with Mercer University President Bill Underwood.
When Underwood asked how the university might assist his ministry in Liberia, Menjay responded: “I am looking for a president of the Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary. Could you send me a president on loan?”
“My rationale for asking for a president for the LBTS has been that if we have great leadership of the LBTS and an outstanding seminary, our churches will definitely grow stronger,” said Menjay.
Menjay said he didn’t ask for Wilson, but was not surprised when Underwood turned to him as the first and obvious possibility. With the support of his wife, Lucy, and at the urging of Underwood and others, Wilson assumed the presidency of the struggling seminary.
“It has worked out well,” said Menjay of Wilson. “He is humble, tough and wise! He has learned so much about Liberia, more than the average Liberian.”
“I wish I knew,” said Wilson candidly, when asked why he would agree to such a demanding commitment. Then he put his larger response within historical context and personal experience.
He recounted the history of the West African nation as a colony for former slaves from America and the religious influences, including a strong Baptist presence. And he recalled his first visit to Liberia — for two weeks in February 2007 — at the urging of his friend Olu.
“It was shocking to me, absolutely shocking,” said Wilson of the destruction from the civil war that finally ended in 2003.
Destroyed roads and U.N. checkpoints slowed travel. The seminary was in shambles too. “After two days, I said, ‘Olu, this is too hard; this is hopeless.’”
His former student and native Liberian was “very pastoral,” said Wilson.
“Professor, maybe your eyes fall on the wrong things,” he recalled Menjay saying.
Olu pointed to some newly mowed grass and some smiling children — bright spots in an otherwise dismal scene.
“You need to decide what you choose to look at and then you’ll find hope,” said Menjay, who had returned to serve his Liberian Baptist people after completing a doctorate at Boston University.
Wilson confessed: “That was a conversion moment for me.”
Nearly a decade and additional trips later, Wilson committed to leading the seminary despite the many challenges. On Nov. 22, 2013, he was elected the fifth president of the Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary.
“It was, indeed, a Macedonian call,” said Wilson. “My Liberian colleagues used that language and, finally, I came to accept its relevance.”
Wilson said he was not naïve about the context there — having gone back and forth since 2007. He was familiar with the seminary as well.
“I knew the history of failed presidencies, corruption, and the political struggles of Liberian Baptists,” he said. “Nonetheless, I was compelled to join the fray.”
“Rick has offered a renewed spirit of mutual respect and dignity…” said Menjay. “The academic and fiscal integrity of the LBTS has been repaired under his leadership.”
He also credits Wilson with rebuilding “a contextual curriculum” and “relevant theological education” as well as improving campus facilities.
Aaron Marshall, chair of the seminary trustees, also affirmed Wilson’s leadership. He credited Wilson with stabilizing the administration, rebuilding the infrastructure and improving academics.
“On a personal level, Dr. Wilson has shown the entire Baptist community in Liberia how to live the life as a servant of the good Lord,” said Marshall.
“The history of the Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary straddles — pardon the Dickens allusion — the best of times and the worst of times,” said Wilson.
Influential Baptist leader William R. Tolbert Jr., who assumed the presidency of Liberia in 1971, was the first African president of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), serving from 1965-1970.
In 1969, while the nation’s vice president, Tolbert asserted his influence and pressed hard for a seminary that became a reality in 1976, said Wilson.
It was formed in partnership with Southern Baptists, said Wilson, but Tolbert was careful to ensure that the seminary would be Liberian. The first graduation took place in 1979.
In April of the next year Tolbert was assassinated in the executive mansion, said Wilson, allegedly by Samuel Kanyon Doe, a master sergeant in the Liberian Army.
“The horror that followed, including the deaths of many Baptists and the seizing of Baptist assets in the republic, still hangs in the air in Liberia,” said Wilson. “Now 36 years after Tolbert’s death, Liberian Baptists still yearn for the lost dream. In the midst of the yearning, however, we press forward.”
Wilson identified three lingering issues that make life in Liberia and at the seminary challenging. First, he said, the colonialists created dependency.
“There remains an expectation in Liberia that external influences are the primary hope for a better future,” said Wilson.
Second, he said, “missionaries, without malice, created a culture of entitlement.”
It was an era of deep pockets for mission agencies, willing and able to do for Liberians rather than with Liberians. “Every day I do battle with those realities,” said Wilson.
He finds it heartbreaking to tell Liberian Baptist leaders that he doesn’t have access to agency funding that they were once accustomed to receiving. “It is difficult to get people to believe that I’m not a money tree,” Wilson added.
Pervasive corruption in the republic is the third major challenge, said Wilson, noting that for years Liberia has been identified among the five most corrupt nations in the world.
“At the seminary we attempt to confront it, but are compelled to work with the system that is so deeply entrenched,” he said, adding that dozens of anecdotes could make this point stronger.
“Beyond such systemic evidence we struggle with grinding poverty, poor health care and a faltering economy,” said Wilson. Therefore, the seminary now practices “an aggressive work-study program that addresses the issues of dependency and entitlement.”
Gifts from supporters, primarily in the U.S., subsidize students who could not make it otherwise, he added. “We are making headway, but there is a long way to go.”
Wilson noted an increasing population of students from the interior who have commitments to return to their villages to plant churches and build schools.
The work of the seminary and Liberian Baptists in general is paying off, said Wilson, who has visited nine of the 15 counties in Liberia with his colleague and friend, Olu.
“Each time, we settle into the bush — in rural churches with unspeakable challenges — and conduct workshops and preaching events,” he said. “Every time, I return to my house exhausted and exhilarated.”
Such are the tensions with which Liberians live, he added.
“I don’t mean to be coy; I want to be honest,” said Wilson. “I have for decades adapted to the tension between high hopes and low expectations, yet my optimism always overshadows the reality of shortfalls.”
Wilson said his experiences over recent years have been filled with defeat and despair, but the resilience and perseverance of his colleagues and students inspire him.
“I have high hopes for Liberia and beyond.” NFJ
Story and Photos by John D. Pierce