A few weeks ago, Rev. Henry Peabody revisited the Buduburam Refugee Camp, located twenty-seven miles west of Accra, Ghana, where he spent several years of his life over 30 years ago.  Henry was one of the hundreds of thousands of Liberian refugees displaced by a 15-year Liberian civil war that killed one out of every twelve Liberians.

While there, he visited young men that were born in the camp and have lived there all their lives.  He visited with women that were refugees during the war and never left the camp.

Reflecting on his time there, Henry said he remembered “struggling for food.”  His routine was to wake up and go “hustle for food.”  There was nothing to do.  He had no hope for the future.   After all these years, this is still the plight of those who remain after all these years.  Henry said he “found it very challenging and emotional” to revisit the camp, “but not surprising at all.”

This is the story of how I was able to help Henry leave the refugee camp over thirty years ago.  He became one of the fortunate ones to get an education he never thought was possible and have his hope restored.

The Buduburam Refugee Camp was opened by the United Nations for refugees in 1990 as the Liberian Civil War broke out.  The war killed 150,000 Liberians and created a refugee crisis as hundreds of thousands fled the country trying to survive.

In 1995, amid the civil war, I traveled to Liberia with Olu Menjay, a Duke Seminary student at that time.  The U.S. Government had a travel warning issued for Liberia.  It was a dangerous place.  While I knew of the warnings, I didn’t think much about how things could have turned bad while I was in the country.

The international airport was closed and Olu and I flew into the capital city on a small 16-seat plane with little air-conditioning.  There was no terminal at the airport, just a paved runway and a crowd of people waiting, hoping to get a handout from whoever happened to be on the plane.

The population of Monrovia had swelled from 100,000 to over one million people.  United Nations peacekeeping forces from Ghana were keeping the rebels from entering Monrovia.  Our travel was greatly limited and military checkpoints were all over the city.

It was Olu’s first time back to his country since barely escaping death by rebel soldiers while crossing the border into Sierra Leone.  The border had been sealed off by rebel forces and everyone was stopped and checked.   After many days of hiding, Olu finally decided to take his chances and cross over through the military checkpoint.  A man in front of Olu was shot and killed.  Olu would have been killed too, had the rebel commander not recognized Olu’s last name.

The rebel commander asked Olu if he was related to Harrison Menjay.  When Olu said, “He is my father,“ the commander gave orders to let Olu go free.  Olu’s father was once the rebel commander’s school principal and the commander remembered him fondly.   Olu survived on his “father’s good name.”

Olu carried me to various places of importance during our time in Liberia.  We visited Ricks Institute, which had once been the premiere boarding school in the country run by the Liberian Baptist Missionary and Education Convention.  The United Nations had a Refugee Camp there which housed 25,000 refugees.  Ironically, Olu would return there 12 years later as its principal and reopen the school following the war.  I would return as one of the first Americans to reenter the country to assist him in his work.

We also went to the Liberian Baptist Theological Seminary and met with some students for a time of worship and prayer.  Like all schools, the school had closed, but word had spread that Olu and I had come from the States so about 25 people gathered at the seminary chapel to greet us.

Among those there that day was a 24-year-old named Henry Peabody.  I remember Henry standing that day, giving testimony saying that he never made it home from school the day the war broke out.  Like many people, he spent weeks moving around trying to survive.  Although saddened to be separated from family and friends, Henry decided to board a ship headed to Ghana.  He maintained his strength on a jar of mayonnaise on the three-day journey from Liberia.

He lived in the refugee camp for six years! He heard that there was a ceasefire and was hopeful that it would hold, so he made his way back to Libera, taking his chances, walking and hitchhiking across Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and through much of Liberia to get to Monrovia, about 950 miles.   Along the way, he had to find food and rest the best way he could.

Our contact that day was brief.  He asked for my contact information and I didn’t think much more about Henry.

In April of 1996, just four months after Olu and I left Monrovia, the peacekeeping troops from Ghana gave up their posts and Monrovia was overrun by rebel forces.  Henry decided to make the long trip back to Ghana, which he believed was his best chance at survival.

This time, there was no ship to take him.  Once again, he had to make the nearly 1000-mile dangerous journey across two countries until he arrived back in the camp.  When he got there, he met Hugo Menjay, the brother of Olu.  Henry and Hugo knew each other and became “roommates” in the modest living arrangements in the camp.

During this time, I was the pastor of Clarkesville Baptist Church in Clarkesville, Georgia.  One day I went to the post office and found a letter with a return address from the Buduburam Refugee Camp in Ghana.  That got my attention!  It’s not every day one gets a letter from someone in a refugee camp.

The letter was from Henry.  He was asking if I remembered him from our only encounter at the seminary and he told me his plight.  He asked for items like toothpaste, socks, underwear, and deodorant.   I fixed a box of care items.  The cost of mailing them was more than the worth of the contents.  I sent the box with a prayer that it would get to him.

A few months later, another letter came and this time Henry told me that because of some of Olu’s contacts in the States, Hugo was able to get a Visa from the U.S. Embassy in Liberia, get out of the country, travel to the United States, and enroll at Truett McConnell College, a two-year college just 15 miles from my church that Olu had attended before transferring to Mercer.

Olu and I had met because he sometimes attended worship at my church in Clarkesville when he was a student there, and would sometimes stop by my office for a conversation.

As a side note, Olu was able to get to the States because of Dr. John Mark Carpenter, a missionary that baptized Olu.  He saw great promise in him and help rescue him from the war-torn country.  He had spoken to the president of Truett McConnell College and help get Olu accepted to the school.  Olu was then able to apply for a Visa and Dr. Carpenter helped him get to the States for an education.

Olu was able to use some of the same contacts to help his brother Hugo.  Until Hugo left for the States, Henry had never thought getting an education was possible for him, certainly not in the United States.  But after it happened to Hugo, Henry believed it could happen to him if he had an advocate.  He asked me in his letter if I would help him come to the States to get an education because he said, “that is my only hope.”

Of course, Henry had no idea what he was asking.  The request was monumental, so monumental that my first thought was “No, that’s not going to happen because it’s not possible.  I can’t make it happen and I don’t know how to make it happen.  It would take too much time, money, effort, and clout that I don’t have.”

Meanwhile, I accepted a new position as pastor of Trinity Baptist in Moultrie, Georgia.  With my new calling came new responsibilities but also a new understanding of my blessings.

As I stayed in contact with Henry, I was unable to dismiss his request for help.  While I have been more like the priest and the Levite in Jesus’ parable on many occasions, passing by people in need, on this occasion, I was compelled to be more like the Samaritan who stopped to help the wounded man in the ditch.

I will compress into just a few sentences what was a very long and arduous process of phone calls, letters, prayers, and consults with people of wisdom I trusted.

I persisted and finally convinced those in power to grant Henry a waiver and he was admitted to Truett McConnell College.  He was allowed to attend college on reduced tuition thanks to a soccer scholarship.

But being accepted to college was just the first hurdle.  Getting him from a refugee camp back to Liberia and getting him a Visa during a time of war was another hurdle.

Money was sent and Henry made his first-ever flight from Ghana to Monrovia.  Once that was accomplished, he applied for a Visa.   After months of waiting, even as the war continued, he was given a chance to come to the United States to study!

Henry arrived in Atlanta, Georgia a very tired, thin, young man with nothing more than the clothes on his back.   He lived with us in Moultrie, Georgia until the fall semester. He worked in a local lumber yard that summer to earn some money.

When he arrived at Truett McConnel College for his freshman year, his roommate was who? Hugo, Menjay! Two men in a refugee camp in Ghana just a year before were now rooming together in college in the United States.  Wow!

Four years later, Henry graduated from Mercer University with a degree in social work.   We never missed a payment for Henry’s tuition.  Many people helped.  We didn’t do it alone.  There was just enough each semester.  God was faithful!

Today, Rev. Henry Peabody makes frequent trips to Liberia.  Through his foundation, Liberia Mission Outreach International, wells are dug, schools and churches are built, roofs are repaired, food is purchased, and the medical needs of people are met.  Henry works to give back to his native country.  I am grateful to God for Henry.  He has taught me a lot about gratitude, humility, and sacrifice.  Once his children are finished with school, he and his wife intend to return to Liberia to live.

Bringing Henry here was not an easy decision.  Scripture passages like Scripture verses like Hebrews 13:1-3 spoke to me: “Keep on loving each other ….  Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!  …  Remember also those being mistreated, as if you felt their pain in your own bodies.”

I know that every refugee cannot come to the United States.  We cannot open our doors to every person who needs political asylum or lives in a refugee camp, but we must help some.  As a nation, we must do our part.

Today, the issue of immigration is a hot political issue.  While both political parties have created a lot of noise to win votes regarding immigration, neither has led the way with any long-term policy that is compassionate, that is in keeping with the historical principles our country was founded on of welcoming the oppressed and the stranger while working to maintain the safety of those who already live here.

I’m convinced there are solutions, but they will only be found when political parties realize that the best way to create good policy is to find a way to treat people like we would like to be treated.

As long as we see immigration and those who are refugees as an issue of nameless and faceless people we see in mass on television, it’s easy not to care about them.

Because I knew Henry, because I knew his story, because I knew his name and I heard his voice calling out to me, I could not turn away from him.  Because of that, he changed my life.  Of course, I and many others changed his.  We are all better for it, and so is the world!

Perhaps that is the point.  We should all be working toward making the world a better place.  That includes helping those displaced by war and other evils humans continue to find to demean and destroy one another.

Every country needs laws and rules that those seeking to enter must abide by, but as long as Lady Liberty stands on Ellis Island and continues to say, “ Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” we must find ways to make sure these words are true about America.

If we cease to extend hospitality to strangers and have compassion in our hearts to those whose country of origin is different from ours, whose religion and language might be foreign to us, whose skin color is not the same as ours, whose traditions and customs are not those we grew up with, and if we build walls and refuse to help anyone we deem as a “Samaritan,” then I fear Lady Liberty’s light will eventually go out and the angels we had the chance to entertain will take their blessings somewhere else.

Dr. Michael Helms is a chaplain at Athens Piedmont Hospital.  He is a pastoral counselor and life coach.  Michael also is the President of Bricks for Ricks Liberia Housing Founding, Inc.  To donate to the foundation, cut and paste the link below:


Photo Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buduburam