Teaching Forgiveness: How one woman survived a coup in Liberia, endured being a refugee for 23 years, and learned to forgive
I love to meet people from Liberia and surprise them by singing their national anthem, “All Hail, Liberia, Hail!” Why do I know the song? When I was in college, missionary kid Ruth Bellinger taped the music above my bed and insisted I memorize the anthem. She grew up in West Africa and loved all things Liberian. She wanted to give her friends a taste of her homeland.
My love for West Africa began a few years earlier while serving in missions discipleship camps for Illinois WMU. While on stateside, Ruth’s family asked us to pray for their country, specifically the Tolbert family. Their friend, President William Tolbert, was assassinated April 12, 1980, during a coup that launched Liberia into a 14-year civil war.
Imagine my surprise when I had the opportunity to meet President Tolbert’s daughter, Christine Tolbert Norman, at the national WMU building last year. She was visiting one of our tenants. I was able to tell Christine how I prayed diligently for her family four decades earlier. Several family members and national leaders were killed during the coup. Christine was imprisoned and later placed under house arrest for months. She and her family became refugees until she could return to her beloved country in 2003.
Recently I talked with Christine by phone. I asked her how you get past the pain after experiencing something so horrendous. She told me before the coup she had an encounter with God. He told her clearly to take up her cross and follow Him. During that dark period, she had no fear because He promised He would be with her. God whispered to her, “If you survive, you must forgive.”
Forgiveness did not come immediately. While in exile in the Ivory Coast, Christine began teaching on forgiveness in 1995. She said, “You forgive for your own good. You forgive because God forgave you. When you withhold forgiveness, you are yoked to the person every moment of every day. Forgiveness releases you. Over the years I have been able to look at the experiences I’ve had and leave it quietly to God. He will work it all for good.”
Learning to forgive is a lifelong process. Christine said, “You are constantly reminded about forgiveness because people hurt you all along your life. It’s God’s will we forgive. It is obedience to Him.” Christine credits being a refugee with learning God’s truth. She grew spiritually as a refugee. She saw God provide and protect her.
Our conversation went on well past an hour. Near the end, she updated me on her health struggles. She’s been treated for breast cancer three times. Last year numbness in her left hand revealed brain cancer. She is in the process of chemotherapy. She says God gave her courage to face it.
When I hung up, I wept. Here is a woman who endured the murder of family members and being a refugee for 23 years and has fought cancer four times. Father, forgive me when I whine about insignificant things. Give me courage to make forgiveness my default.
Sandy Wisdom-Martin is executive director of national WMU.