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Diamond In The Rough

A young African finds glimmers of hope after suffering tragedy.

  • Author: By Becky Thomton
  • Credits: Photographs by Tom Mills
  • Published: January 2, 2014
  • Ministry: JESUS Film
  • Location: Sierra Leone

The pastor is not sure of his own age, but he is younger than most of the members of his congregation. He assumes he’s around 20 or 21 years old, a necessary guess because he’s the only surviving member of his immediate family. His parents were murdered.

Today, Pastor Sahr preaches about life and hope at the Benduma village church, teaching confidently from the Bible. An outsider might never guess he still has two more years of high school to complete. And yet Sahr has been part of a team planting dozens of new churches across the northeast province of Sierra Leone, an unexpected role considering he was homeless just a few years ago.

His story of redemption began when he was 5 or 6 years old, as rebels attacked his village across the border in Liberia.

Sahr didn’t understand the complicated politics beginning Liberia’s second civil war, nor did he imagine that it would spread into Sierra Leone, fueled by child soldiers and blood diamonds. He did understand that his world was shattered the morning he found his parents’ bodies lying outside, beheaded.

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Sahr fled north to a refugee camp in Guinea with his father’s uncle’s family. They stayed there for about eight years.

But Sahr did not find refuge there, as his father’s uncle verbally abused him and did not provide for him as he grew into his teen years. Sahr didn’t go to school and sometimes had to scrounge for food.

After a peace agreement ended the war, they returned to Liberia, but Sahr’s uncle became angry at him, abusing him physically, choking him one night, and another day tying him up with ropes against a coffee tree. Sahr feared for his life, and so he fled again, this time completely on his own.

He walked for two days, crossing the border into Sierra Leone, where he hoped he could find acceptance with others from his clan, the Kissi tribe. The country borders drawn by Europeans make little difference here. Far from the capital cities, the villagers are still united first by tribe.

In the town of Buedu, shop owners paid Sahr to sweep the streets in front of their stalls, but that was barely enough to keep him alive. He slept on the streets and didn’t even have money for soap.

The natural resources of this country should have been enough to care for even orphans like Sahr, but although Sierra Leone is one of the world’s top 10 diamond producers, 66 percent of its people still live in poverty. Many villages have no schools, and people have to travel for many miles just to reach a health clinic.

Sahr swept streets for almost a year.

Then, a young high-school teacher named Fallah noticed Sahr. Fallah came from a large family where his father was a chief, and they often helped others. “At first, Sahr was afraid of me,” says Fallah. “He’d seen many horrible things, and he’d heard of people being kidnapped and sold. But eventually, he let me offer him food, and soap to wash himself.”

Even with some physical needs met, Sahr was still traumatized by everything that had happened in his life. He never wanted to speak to people, and would often sit in a room and just stare at the floor.

In the village of Makpadu, Sahr explains the gospel to two women and some children.

Fallah took Sahr to the Central Church in Buedu, where Fallah only attended occasionally. Fallah had a wavering faith. “I was in the pond and out of the pond,” he admits.

Nonetheless, they were both invited to a training session held by Cru, known as Great Commission Movement in Sierra Leone. They had no idea that this three-week training would change both their lives.

The training was about evangelism and how to plant new churches in the surrounding villages. All of the local churches were invited to send participants to the training, held by GCM staff member Simon, who lives in Freetown.

“We’ll train anyone,” says Simon. “We just want to make sure they’re from Bible-believing churches. Our responsibility is to train people; their responsibility is to find the area for a new church and a person to help them.”

Sahr listened as Simon talked about evangelism as a way of life, encouraging people to tell others the gospel message: Jesus died so that you could have eternal life. For a society where most people believe in Allah or worship gods in the trees or rivers, the simplicity of the message was something new. Many chiefs see no problems with new churches and think people should be able to believe whatever they choose.

Sahr and Fallah were both inspired by the Bible stories about Paul and his missionary journeys. “I learned how Paul was called to be a missionary,” says Sahr, “and how God could use me. I never knew this before.” For the first time in his life, Sahr felt like he had a purpose. He began to open up to others and talk about his story.

A bit of sparkle came back to Sahr’s life after that training.

Fallah grew quickly in his renewed faith and began mentoring Sahr. Every week, they talked about the Bible, and Sahr came with questions they would try to answer together. Because of what they learned in the training, they began to visit other villages and talk about their faith. Along with several others, they spread out to plant new churches and equip new believers to share their faith.

Today, churches are scattered across the hills of the whole Kissi region of Sierra Leone. The young boy who was traumatized by war and wouldn’t speak is now traversing the countryside to talk about Jesus. Sahr is still a little shy and seems unsure of himself at times, but when talking about his faith, he is confident.

Sahr meets with his mentor Fallah on a regular basis to discuss spiritual matters.

On a Sunday morning, Sahr smiles as 17 of his church members receive certificates in basic evangelism training from GCM. The church is filled with young and old, mostly country farmers, and they sing joyfully and powerfully, their voices echoing off the tin roof.

“Pra-a-a-ise the Lord!” Sahr shouts, and the congregation responds, “Amen!”

“The Bible says we should love one another,” he begins his sermon. “God has selected this church to be together, so let us all be united and focused on God’s Word. And for those who are not Christians, let us pray for them to come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.”

The members are praying for this and actively telling others about their faith. Many have invited families and neighbors and, although not everyone has come,
there are generations of people who came with a friend or relative and now are bringing others.

A few days later, Sahr is in the village of Makpadu, where he works with another GCM-trained pastor, 42-year-old Peter. He talks with two women using a booklet with pictures to explain the gospel. The women are interested to know more about Christ, and Sahr encourages them to attend Peter’s blossoming church.

The church is growing, but Sahr still faces many challenges. The church gave him a small field of potatoes to farm, but, to support his schooling, he has to rely on money from GCM. He lives with two friends in a rented room in a mud house where all three of them share a bed with a straw mattress. They usually eat only one meal a day and have meat only once a year.

But they are not alone in their vision to see a church in every village. Missionary teams from Nigeria, South Korea and the U.S. have come and helped GCM train church members and show the JESUS film, based on the Gospel of Luke and translated into the Kissi language. Teams bring a projector and a large sheet and show the film in the middle of a village. Afterward, one of the pastors, like Sahr, will begin meeting with the new believers. They are always encouraged to invite others, and when the group has at least 10 committed believers, they are considered a church. Members often begin donating time and money to construct a church building.

While businesses seek profit in Sierra Leone’s diamond mines, Sahr and others seek growth of a different kind. They want to see churches spread across their whole region, across borders, across tribes, creating something beautiful.

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