A massive humanitarian tragedy is developing in Liberia and Sierra Leone. I’m not talking about the epidemiological tragedy, which will continue to unfold over the next several months. I’m talking about the inevitable state of these two nations after the virus has run its course and the epidemic comes to an end.
Between now and then, the United Nations projects that 10,000 new cases of Ebola will emerge weekly, mostly in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and that, at this phase of the epidemic, those numbers will increase exponentially. At present the fatality rate in this epidemic has been around 70%, so this nation of around four million people (far fewer than the population of the DFW Metroplex) will witness its disproportionate share of 7,000 Ebola deaths each week in coming weeks, with the possibility that those numbers will grow like a Texas brushfire. If, as some have estimated, 1.5 million people die from this disease, as many as one out of eight people in Liberia may be dead before this crisis ends.
How many of those dead will be parents of newly orphaned children? How many will be breadwinners for a dependent wife? Since epidemics spread as they do—not by randomly selecting people from the populace as a war might do, but through close contact—how many villages will lose their chiefs and virtually all of their leadership? Will the Liberian government fall? Will another bloody civil war ensue as the vacuum of population and power invites competitive claimants?
I’ll say it again: A massive humanitarian tragedy is developing in Liberia and Sierra Leone. And as it develops, a lot of people will ask another question:
How is any of this my problem?
It’s at least partially our problem because of the special relationship that Southern Baptists have with Liberia. I use the phrase “special relationship” deliberately, mimicking the way that those words have come to describe the relationship between the United States of America and Great Britain.
Has it struck you as odd that “Liberia” is not an African name? The names of so many other countries in Africa—Burkina Faso, Namibia, Lesotho, Guinea—arise etymologically out of native languages. “Liberia” is a Latin-derived name, roughly meaning “The land of the free” (sound familiar?). The capital city of Liberia is “Monroevia.” Hmmm…looks a lot like the last name of an American President, doesn’t it? The capital city of Sierra Leone (which is a Portuguese phrase meaning “Lion Mountain”) is “Freetown.” Now that right there, ladies and gentlemen, is a language we call “English.”
The nations of Sierra Leone and Liberia were founded by people who were trying to solve the conflict over slavery by repopulating slaves to Africa. Liberia was founded by the United States of America. A great many Southern Baptists in the years leading up to the founding of the SBC and down through the U.S. Civil War favored this solution. They were too Christian to support slavery but too racist to support living together with African slaves as peers. So, “send them back home” was their plan (the facts notwithstanding that South Carolina, not West Africa, had been the lifelong “home” for these men, women, and children).
Southern Baptists were in on this up to our necks. One of the most prominent founders of Liberia was also one of the missionaries that Baptists North and South supported together before our schism: Lott Carey. Carey was a Virginia slave who purchased his and his family’s freedom in order to move to Liberia as a politician-missionary. John Day, who served the SBC’s Foreign Mission Board after the split, was a signatory on the Liberian Declaration of Independence and a Justice of the Liberian Supreme Court.
Ongoing conflict and segregation emerged between African-American-Africans and native-born Liberians. For nearly two hundred years, our experiment has unfolded on the Liberian coast, mostly with tragic results. Ebola is so successful there because little else—government, medical infrastructure—has been successful at all. To the degree that such things can be true two centuries later, the Liberian mess is one of America’s making, with particular responsibility falling upon Southern Baptists.
So, when the epidemiological tides turn (we’re not at all qualified to combat viruses), I believe that Southern Baptists will be doing the honorable thing if we step up to the plate in a sacrificial and jaw-dropping, head-turning way to address the plight of Liberia’s survivors.