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It started with a hymnal


Joe Westbury/Index

John Toegbaye, a pastor from Liberia, West Africa, found help and support for his ministry from First Baptist Church in Nashville and Pastor Stanley Luke.

NASHVILLE — Almost three decades ago John Toegbaye was a young man who lived in Nimba, a county in the north-central portion of the west Africa nation of Liberia. Though underprivileged he longed to complete his high school education.

One day while working as a janitor in a church he picked up a hymnal and saw the address of a pastor and a church in Nashville, GA. Toegbaye recalled, “I was working to earn money to finish high school and I thought that if I contacted the Nashville church and pastor, they might help me.”

The pastor of the Nashville church at that time was Billy Southerland and through his recommendation, the church sent a gift of $400 to finance the young Liberian’s education. Toegbaye completed his high school education moving him one step closer to fulfilling his dream of becoming a pastor of a church in Liberia.

After high school the young Liberian traveled to Monrovia, the nation’s capitol, to take a test to see if he would be accepted as a student at the Liberian Baptist Theological Seminary.

At the same time Toegbaye was attempting to pursue his education rebel forces, known as the National Patriotic Front, led by Charles Taylor, were mobilizing to revolt against the Liberian government. Taylor, a Liberian who was educated in America and trained as a guerilla fighter in Libya, wanted to overthrow the regime of President Samuel Doe, claiming the government was corrupt.


Peace in a small room

Toegbaye recalled, “Rebels besieged the capital and I was trying to find a way to escape, but as I was trying to make my way out of the city a woman with the rebel forces brandishing an AK47 rifle stopped me.

“The people from Nimba were opposed to the revolution and when I told her where I was from she considered me an enemy and put me in a small room to detain me.

“In that small room I kept quoting the 23rd Psalm. It provided peace and assurance to my soul. Another woman with the resistance movement saw that I was being held against my wishes and said, ‘Release him or he will be killed.’”

Toegbaye continued, “I left the room and saw the bodies of those who had been slaughtered laying all over the streets. But only minutes after I had been released a truck carrying fighters with the National Patriotic Front came into the town and I am sure they would have killed me if I had still been in that room.”

During the 13-year civil war more than 200,000 people in Liberia were killed, leaving many children and youth homeless. President Doe was eventually executed and Taylor gained control of a large portion of the country and became one of the most prominent warlords in Africa.

Toegbaye added, “In 2003 President George W. Bush ordered 1,600 United States Marines, who were stationed in Italy, to position themselves off the Liberian coast. Mr. Bush then called Charles Taylor and told him to leave the country or the Marines would attack. Taylor resigned the presidency and left the country.”


On a quest

United Nation forces entered the country after the resignation of Taylor to demobilize the National Patriotic Front and provide stability to the nation. In 2006 Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected as president and the recent years have been free of war and conflict.

As the country struggled to rebuild after the war, Toegbaye continued his quest to become a pastor and graduated from the Baptist seminary. He and his wife Annette, whom he married in 2002, have a son, Titus, age 10.

Toegbaye now pastors two churches in Liberia and hopes to continue planting Baptist churches along the borders of the Ivory Coast in Liberia.

Toegbaye now pastors two churches in Liberia and hopes to continue planting Baptist churches along the borders of the Ivory Coast in Liberia.

Several months ago the quiet, humble Liberian pastor started a third church in his garage. Realizing his need for some assistance in his mission to reach his country for Christ, Toegbaye decided to contact the church that had helped him more than two decades earlier.

He communicated with Stanley Luke, current pastor of First Baptist in Nashville. He explained, “I kept connecting with the First Baptist Church in Nashville, TN, but I knew that was not the right church, but finally got in touch with Pastor Luke.”

Luke’s heart was warmed by the personality and passion of the Liberian pastor and thought at first about sending a mission team to Monrovia, but then concluded that a good first step would be to bring Toegbaye to Nashville. For more than two weeks Luke hosted Toegbaye and gave him the opportunity to preach on July 6 and share his vision with the people of First Baptist Church.

Pastor Luke and his church are helping Toegbaye build the church that started in his garage and which will be named in honor of his American benefactors.

The Nashville (GA) News stated, “The [Liberian] pastor has been gifted with almost 100 donated hymnals from area churches to be shipped back to his country. And as Toegbaye’s journey ends, it does so as it began – with a hymnal.”