Victims of Liberia’s civil war invited us to teach them realized a formula created in an air-conditioned study about reconciliation. We soon would not be enough.

Armed guards with machine guns in the ready position are everywhere. Five or six are high up on the airport control tower. Others form a wall in front of the terminal. Still others take positions around my plane and form a corridor into the terminal. As the few people on the plane begin to disembark, I feel a sudden urge to stay in my seat.

Why do I see so many armed soldiers? I am a veteran traveler and have been in many unusual situations. Yet I am unable to reconcile my briefing in the U.S. with the reality played out a few feet away. And I wonder: Has God really called me to Liberia to help lead a reconciliation workshop?

As I approach the small, simple terminal, a smiling face and outstretched hand appears out of the crowd: “Pastor Jimmy Dugbe is my name. Welcome to Liberia. I will help you.” Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, will be my home for the next eight days. I might get accustomed to the military check points every few miles, but I cannot keep from staring at the scars of the civil war etched on nearly every building and, it seems, on each face, a war that continues just beyond my visual horizon. I am seeing a traumatized city—once beautiful, peaceful, and free of fear.

Monrovia, named after former U.S. President James Monroe, was founded by freed slaves from the United States who sought a new home far away from slavery. The American Colonization Society facilitated the relocation beginning in 1821, when ex-slave Elijah Johnson took the first shipload to Providence Island, a peninsula of a land that, in light of the liberation it promised, would be called Liberia.

When England and the United States eventually outlawed slavery, ships laden with slaves were intercepted on the high seas and the human cargo deposited on Liberia’s shores. These people were called Congos after the region from which they had been taken. In the interior were tribes native to the soil: the Gios, the Krahns, the Manos, the Krus, the Kpelles, and others. A long history of warfare and deceptions, alliances and coalitions checkered their tribal history. In 1980, a new chapter would be written, which would eventually account for my arrival.

In April of that year an army sergeant, Samuel Doe, assumed the presidency by leading a violent coup against William Tolbert, a strong Christian. Tradition dictated that when the defeated wished to surrender to the victor, he would bring a white chicken as a sign of submission. The victor would then place the person under house arrest or send him into exile. Doe broke tradition by killing Tolbert and displaying his mutilated body parts around the president’s mansion and in the city. Blatant humiliation was heaped upon the defeated. The seeds of hate and revenge were sown in unprecedented ways.

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Reports say Doe violated other traditions. He killed pregnant women and old men and harassed tribal groups in their own designated lands. When the Gio tribe become a threat to Doe, a Khran, he began killing the Gio tribe’s educated leaders, business people, and men with military capacity. The Gios fled into exile to survive and plot revenge. In one way or another, all the tribes would be drawn into the conflict. The enemy walked everywhere, but most did not wear uniforms. What was one to do except be suspicious of everyone?

Into this charged situation came our team on a mission sponsored by World Relief Corporation. World Relief had drilled several fresh-water wells for the city some months earlier and then asked if they could be of further help. The stunning answer revealed the Liberian’s daily desperation: “Yes, but as much as we need more wells, we need someone to help us with reconciliation. What good is clean water if we keep hating and killing one another?”

At World Relief’s request, I designed a conference and assembled a multiracial team that would model our message of reconciliation. Our party included the executive director of the National Black Evangelical Association along with executives from World Relief and Elward Ellis of the Destiny Movement, an Atlanta-based organization that encourages Black people to enter missions work. A 21-member steering committee made up of Liberian Protestant groups laid the groundwork in Monrovia. The Conference on Peace, Prayer, and Reconciliation would bring together 500 people across denominations, government bodies, tribal groups, and religious sectors—a formidable task in the best of times, but now?

My reconciliation experiences in South Africa helped equip me for this moment of ambiguity, but I still wondered if I could make any difference. Would God be pleased to meet with us in a powerful and life-changing way?

Once beautiful and peaceful, Monrovia had been crippled by the war. Dismembered airplanes littered the airport. Sanitation was minimal; many people used the beaches as toilet facilities. Electricity was available only a few hours a day, sometimes less. Most buses, disabled by bullets and mortar shells, had been hauled to rest in fields. Soldiers cut communication lines in hundreds of places. Most buildings were pockmarked with bullet holes. Many places I could not walk two steps without stepping on spent machine gun shells. It was a fierce battle, I was told. Peacekeeping soldiers from neighboring countries were everywhere, heavily armed and suspicious.

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The night before the conference started there were no chairs and no private or public buses to bring the people. In a city ravaged by war, even chairs can be a precious commodity. Buses were a luxury. The mayor of the city, a youthful, bright-eyed dynamic Christian committed to the conference, somehow found 500 chairs. He convinced the university to work all night to get three buses running. By God’s grace, it all came together. The enormous work of two of God’s saints inspired us: Pastors Jimmy Dugbe, a sturdy older man whose deeply lined face suggested he had seen it all, and Jasper Ndaborlor, a thin young man with quiet determination and leadership.

But even more challenging—indeed, frightening—was the risk of bringing the tribal groups together. Three things gave us confidence: the conviction that God brought us here; the fact that the 21-member steering committee represented virtually all groups who would attend, and the awareness that everyone had experienced the anguish of war and wanted it to stop.

Two of the sessions became turning points for participants. I asked them to break into groups of three and to share their greatest pain or trauma in this past year. Frequently the mimicked sound of machine-gun fire was heard from someone’s lips as he or she recounted a story. Many wept. After each person shared, the other two would pray for God’s healing grace—healing from the nightmarish memories, from bitterness, and from the desire for vengeance.

The stories I heard underlined the grotesqueness of war. A husband and wife trying to flee from enemy soldiers are caught. The soldiers cut off the husband’s head and, while it is hemorrhaging on the ground, severed from the body, the wife is told to pick it up and kiss it. Then she is told to spit on the head and laugh at it in scorn and throw it down. Today she will be confronted with the severity of forgiveness.

Then there were the stories of rape, killings of sons and daughters while parents watched, betrayals costing one his job and often his home, tortures, and virtually every form of inhumanity. Unlike many wars where the enemy leaves your land, in this war the “enemy” may well be someone you will see regularly on the street, in the store, workplace, even at church.

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A second turning point came during a lengthy session on the meaning of forgiveness. It seems rather straightforward to most of us. You either forgive or you don’t. I realized, for the first time, that my ability to forgive had never been tested—not compared to what these people faced. Hearing some of their heart-wrenching stories, I could offer them nothing from my experience with forgiveness. Their suffering was too close to that of Christ’s to be reduced to a recipe created in someone’s air-conditioned study. It had to be something born deeply from within their Christian faith, and the midwife had to be the Holy Spirit.

I quickly realized that they longed for someone to stand before them who would know their suffering, identify with their struggle to forgive, and be a worthy pioneer for them to follow.

Their longing began to be satisfied when the discussion turned to Christ’s crucifixion. I asked them, “What did Jesus experience? How did he respond?” They sensed that Jesus had been in the place of their suffering and he understood. But even more imporant, he was with them in the place of their suffering now, asking that they draw upon his grace and strength.

Next their thoughts turned to the heavenly Father who loved his own Son. Most of them identified with the Father’s loss since they had lost close friends and family members. But here again they were confronted with the severity of forgiveness. The Father forgave his Son’s tormentors, and not just with a few spoken words. Forgiveness meant offering his enemies eternal life, all the benefits of sonship, and hope in this world and the next.

The group staggered at the implications of their discoveries. But the last discovery would cut to the marrow of their beings and violate deeply ingrained assumptions. God’s forgiveness was free. It required no exacting of penalty, no vengeance, no withholding of favor, no seeking of an eye for an eye. It was as though the Father had forgotten their enemy status. Forgiveness is treating enemies like friends. “But I say to you … love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27–28).

Would the demands of forgiveness be too severe, causing them to faint?

“Forgive and forget” said one member. “I’m sorry,” said another, “I cannot forget.” Everyone knew they could not just hit the “delete” key and erase their memories. Every day, hundreds of times a day, the painful memories invade the rare peaceful moment.

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Group silence suggested the answer would not be easy. Finally, one person said, “I cannot forget, but I can choose to disregard my memories. I do not have to let them linger in my thoughts. I do not have to act on my memories. I can choose to set them aside quickly, knowing that they are seeds of revenge Satan wishes to grow in my heart.”

I asked each participant to write down the wounds that would be hardest to forgive. Then they were to take the paper over to a candle, light the paper, and drop it into a container. The symbolism spoke volumes. Some dropped the burning paper quickly, eager to be rid of the painful past. Others held on to the paper until the flame touched their skin, perhaps pondering what this act would require of them tomorrow. Nearby was another paper they picked up with the words, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” They needed a word from God to replace what they had burned. Then a circle started, and as each burned his or her paper, that one would enter the circle and receive words of encouragement from those who had gone before. I saw hugging and weeping.

I wrote my own list of pains and burned it. Being with these beautiful people made me aware of wrongs I needed to forgive. They encouraged me and shared their strength with me.

Two Muslim leaders attended the conference. Except during prayer times, when they left for their own prayers, they participated fully. They were among the last to burn their papers, and as they entered the circle, they were hugged and blessed by the group. The work of a severe forgiveness had begun, but only begun.

At the closing plenary session, the audience was asked to share reactions. A well-dressed Muslim leader was the first one to the platform. He stood in silence, seemingly overtaken with all that had transpired. He expressed profound gratitude for the conference. His affirmations were interrupted by applause and enthusiastic “amens” and “hallelujahs.” Then, in a moment of somber reflection, the Muslim said, “I believe the Spirit of God is with us in this conference. You know that we Muslims do not talk about the Spirit of God, but I believe he is here.”

Sunday morning found a smaller group of Christians gathered to worship God in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. Our joy was short-lived as a few hours later we learned that during our worship service, nearly 500 people, mostly women and children, were massacred only 25 miles away.

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The resolve to forgive will be tested again, and again. It is indeed a severe forgiveness that God calls forth.

Only a couple of weeks after the conference, warring factions signed a peace accord. An interim government is being formed, and free elections are planned for this year. Christian leaders believe that the conference prayers and activities directly produced the peace accord.

Lately I have been wondering: Should we invite some of these beautiful Liberians to come and teach the American church about forgiveness? With our nation’s racial conflicts, church splits, gang rivalries, family violence, God knows we desperately could use their help.

Paul Brand is a world-renowned hand surgeon and leprosy specialist. Now in semiretirement, he serves as clinical professor emeritus, Department of Orthopedics, at the University of Washington and consults for the World Health Organization. His years of pioneering work among leprosy patients earned him many awards and honors.

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