In the middle of 2015, when the idea of traveling to Liberia, West Africa for a mission trip was first brought to my attention, it sounded like a great opportunity – for all the wrong reasons. I had wanted to visit a country outside the US for a while now, our good family friends had longstanding ties to the country already so it would be an easier transition and I could DEFINITELY use two weeks off of work at some point! Looking back on it, the idea that this would be a mission trip and not a vacation never really occurred to me. Sure, I knew that the point of the experience, or any mission for that matter, is to help other people. But at the time, I was so self consumed – so stuck in a cycle of endless indulgence that I only thought of the trip to Liberia in terms of how it might benefit myself. However, even back then, I remember feeling like I was being called to Liberia for some reason and I wasn’t completely sure why.
Thankfully, by the time February of 2016 – the month during which the trip would take place – rolled around, God had begun to enter my life in a profound and very real way. After years of being a relative prisoner to the bad habits I had formed through my life of impulsive selfishness, I finally reached a breaking point where I was mentally prepared to commit myself to making changes. In the course of three months, I had changed jobs, moved out of my apartment and the city I was living in, said goodbye to a lot of my old friends, formed a personal relationship with Jesus Christ – and now I was headed to Africa to put my newfound faith to the test. In my mind, the trip couldn’t have come at a better time and I knew that this divine coincidence was much more than just a product of fortunate planning. God was preparing my heart and mind for this to be a life changing experience and I couldn’t wait to embark on it.
After what seemed like a never ending journey, our team arrived at the International Airport in the capital city of Monrovia at around 9 on the evening of February 12th. Jet lagged and physically unnerved from a long plane ride, I was less than excited to now endure the circus known as Liberian baggage claim, essentially an unorganized whirlwind of people grabbing at bags that they hope to be theirs. You can imagine my additional excitement when I learned we still had an hour ride from the airport to where we were staying. For the entirety of the ride to the guest house, I looked silently out the window trying to make sense of where I was and what I was seeing on the unlit dirt roads taking us in and out of a seemingly endless collection of small huts and homes. When we finally made it onto ELWA property where we were staying for the entirety of our trip, I was seriously doubting the decision I had made to participate in this mission. As I lied down to go to sleep for the first time since we began the more than 24 hours of travel, I asked God to get me through the remainder of the trip. But, in the back of my mind, I had already accepted the fact that I had made a gigantic mistake by coming to Liberia and that I had a long 12 days ahead of me. Thankfully, God had a much different idea of how the trip would go.
I felt like a new person when I woke up the first day in Africa. The sun was out, the ocean looked beautiful and my regrets from the night before had completely disappeared. We began the day, as we did every day of the trip, with our daily devotions to God and then it was time to start the Mission part of the Mission trip. Driving through Monrovia during the day was entirely different than the evening car ride just a handful of hours earlier had been. My fear and anxiety quickly turned into awestruck curiosity. The buildings, the people, the community, the advertisements, the environment, the cars – I was soaking everything up and loving every minute of it. When we began working on the home we were building I didn’t even notice how tired and hot I was because I was so enamored with my new surroundings. I even loved the strangely curious looks I was continuously receiving from the Liberian people watching us work. Watching the children playing soccer, the street-side vendors working and the cars whizzing by the crowded, narrow road, I realized that this city was just like any urban city in America, if not better. Maybe these 12 days wouldn’t be so long after all.
Much of our remaining time in Liberia when we weren’t working on the homes, was spent visiting schools and churches or hanging out with the children living at the Susie Guenter Children’s Home. I have always had an unconditional love and connection to children. I love their zestful curiosity towards life and how they can find joy in anything. The Liberian children truly opened my eyes to what it means to be a child of God. Their possessions consisted solely of the clothes they were wearing. They lived and slept in dwellings unfit for the poorest of people in America. Yet they all were quick to flash toothy, unapologetic smiles. I began to ask myself, “how can these children be so happy? Are they not aware of how tough their situation is?” After spending enough time with the kids and getting to know some of them on a personal level, I learned that they were well aware of their situations. With some of the older kids, they were even aware of their situation in comparison to the United States. Solomon, a 13 year old orphan at Susie Guenter who I had the honor of establishing a friendship with, once asked me, “Uncle Sam, why are you here?”
I replied, “what do you mean why am I here? I’m here to spend time with you guys!” Solomon said, “ No, I mean why did you come to Liberia? I’ve heard that it’s very bad here. Why would you leave America to come somewhere that’s bad?”
Having never been asked a question like this in my entire life, it took me a while to figure out how to respond. So I mustered up a “it’s not so bad here Solomon. Let me tell you, I’ve been in America and now I’ve been here and you guys seem a LOT happier than most people in America – even though you might not have as many things as we do.” I wasn’t very satisfied with my answer and it didn’t seem like Solomon was either so we moved past it for the time being and went back to running around. But, for the rest of the trip, I couldn’t get his question out of my head and found myself wrestling with the idea of why the Liberian people seemed more content with life in general.
God continued to bless our time in Liberia. On countless occasions, He put situations in front of us where it was impossible to deny His presence. For someone in the early stages of their spiritual journey, these God moments, as our mission team began to call them, were monumental in transforming my belief. As humans, especially in today’s American culture, it can often be difficult to just believe in something. We need facts, evidence and visual proof if we are to consider something to be true. I was no different in my level of skepticism. For years, I held on to the acknowledgement that God existed, but I had nothing tangible to prove that the acknowledgment was true. Even though I don’t think that anyone should need a “God moment” necessarily to substantiate their faith, I completely understand the difficulty of believing things without seeing them. Thankfully, God was determined in his pursuit of me, as He is with all His children, and led me to experience things in Africa that were simply impossible to equate to mere coincidence. At times, it felt as though he was making a spectacle of his presence as if to say, “I dare you to ignore me when I place these miracles in front of you.”
While reflecting on the experience as a whole, it dawned on me that God’s constant intervention throughout our trip was the answer to Solomon’s question of why were we here? Sure, we were there to build homes for people who wouldn’t be able to afford them otherwise and sure we were there to bring clothes and other donations to the orphanage and schools. But, with God intervening in every facet of the trip, I finally realized that, above all, we were in Liberia to connect with people from a vastly different culture in the name of Jesus Christ. In a country whose inhabitants all live well below the poverty line, whose economy hosts an 86% unemployment rate and whose cultural framework had been recently devastated by the Ebola virus, there wasn’t much in the grand scheme of things that twelve missionaries could do to change that. However, what we could do is spread love and the desire to help to all the people we came in contact with. We could look into the eyes of every person that we spoke to and pass on the simple reminder that Jesus loves them. And we could make friendships that might provide hope and strength to people who hadn’t had any connections outside of their poverty stricken country. I’m proud to say that we did all of those things by the will of God.
I will forever be grateful for the country of Liberia and the people that live there. I will forever remember Liberia as the place that the new Sam Odishoo finally let go of the old Sam. Sometimes it takes this type of experience - where life literally flips your world upside down and changes you at your core. I guess what I’m saying is, if you feel God leading you to something, even something well outside your comfort zone, follow Him. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a trip to Africa. God might be calling you to help a friend in need or He might be asking you to work with children. Whatever the call might be- just answer it. I’m glad I did. Oh yeah, and if He does call you to Africa on a mission trip, I HIGHLY recommend Liberia! Thanks for listening.