The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was still in its infancy in Liberia when civil war erupted in the West African nation, threatening members and branches, and devastating an entire country.
When the war broke out in late 1989, eight native Liberian missionaries were serving in the country. By July 1990, conditions were so bad that those missionaries were shuttered inside their homes, unable to preach the gospel and forced to risk possible death just to meet with members. There was little food to eat, and it was difficult and very costly to obtain fuel for cars.
With their work grinding nearly to a complete halt, Elders Marcus Menti and Joseph Myers, zone leaders in Monrovia, determined to go wherever they had to in order to complete their missions and serve as they had been called to do. That meant leaving Liberia, so together with the other four missionaries serving in Monrovia—Taylor Selli, Joseph Forkpah, Roverto Chanipo, and Dave Gonquoi—they devised a plan. With the help of Philip Abubakar, a counselor in the local branch presidency and the missionaries' driver, the elders planned to travel north to Sierra Leone, cross the border, then continue on to Freetown, where their mission presidency—not being native Liberians—had already been compelled to flee.1
With gasoline scarce and dozens of checkpoints between Monrovia and the border, the plan seemed like a long shot.
“Our driver himself was not really convinced we would make it,” Menti remembered. “He almost at the time said ‘We can’t make it.’ We encouraged and soften[ed] his heart over and over again and he finally realized that we are missionaries and that we were inspired to do what we had prayed and fasted about. We again recited 1 Nephi 3:7 and were convinced afterwards that we could make our journey.”2
Before they could leave, however, there was a crucial order of business to attend to—find and bring in the last set of elders in Liberia, Elders John Gaye and Prince Nyanforh, who were serving just outside Monrovia, in Paynesville.
Delivered from Death
The Liberian Civil War that erupted in late 1989 was fueled by a desire to oust a president whose preferential treatment of his own tribe, the Krahns, had fueled ethnic tensions and prompted unrest in the country. The rebels thus targeted members of the Krahn tribe and regularly killed civilians belonging to that group.
For Elder John Gaye, a Krahn, the threat was a very real one. He and Nyanforh were trapped in their home for some time when rebels descended on Paynesville, and Gaye didn't dare leave, instead coaxing Nyanforh out to find food.
“They were killing people, so I ask him, I say, ‘When I get out there and I die then you will let the ward know that this missionary die for this cause,’” Nyanforh later said. He managed to get the missionaries some sustenance and return home safely—but only just.
“I told him that I would not go out there again because they killed two or three men, and I’m afraid to go out so I can die,” he said. “Rebels were walking around, and people were in doom.”3
After several days, the missionaries' neighbors planned their exodus. They called for the elders to join them, and Gaye and Nyanforh did. But as the group was making its way out of the area, they were apprehended by the rebels.
“They came interrogating us—to know where we’re from,” Nyanforh said.4
Gaye remembered that the rebels appeared “as fierce as famished wolves” as they interrogated each person to determine their ethnic origin and other information. But before they had made it to the missionaries, darkness had fallen and the rebels decided to wait until daylight to continue their investigation.
“All night long I had been in communion with my Heavenly Father,” Gaye later wrote. “Though I was in an inextricable plight, I was confident of the Lord’s help.”
When morning came, the soldiers resumed their questioning. With just one more person to question before it would be Gaye's turn, the missionary remembered he “nodded [his] head and began to imagine paradise.”
With his companion urging him to “trust God,” Gaye waited for his fate. But before he was questioned, a familiar face arrived.
“It was a Saint who the Lord has sent to rescue me and my companion,” Gaye remembered. “He is a member of the Church who is fighting for the rebels. He knew that I was one of those been sought for, but he concealed my identity to his colleagues.”
Nyanforh said the rebel soldier was a clerk in their branch and recognized the missionaries. The LDS rebel told the soldiers that the men were brethren in his church, and without further question, the missionaries were released.5
The elders were taken to a refugee camp 13 miles from Monrovia, and it was during their brief stay there that the other missionaries in Monrovia were planning their escape. The elders sent someone in search of Gaye and Nyanforh, but by the time the searchers made it to Paynesville, the missionaries were already gone.
The six missionaries and their driver began searching for gasoline to make their journey and eventually traded half a bag of rice for four gallons—all the while knowing it would not be sufficient for the 370-mile journey on bad roads.
On July 15, 1990, the seven men prepared for their journey. They held a sacrament meeting first thing in the morning, then planned to leave for Freetown. But small delays kept pushing back the start of their journey.
It was after noon before they made it to the mission home to inform their acting mission president of their plans and bid farewell, and it was 2:00 p.m. before they left the mission home for Freetown. The timing turned out to be fortuitous.
“As soon as we were on our way down from the upstairs at the mission home we met our two missing elders on the steps,” Abubakar remembered.6
After a week in the refugee camp, Gaye and Nyanforh—after many days of fasting and prayer—had felt prompted that morning to leave for Monrovia. After eight hours on foot, they arrived at the mission home just in time to join their fellow missionaries in their escape to Sierra Leone.7
With nothing but a five-seat Toyota Corolla—which Abubakar had preserved from theft by removing the wheels and battery during the fighting—the eight missionaries and their driver set off on their journey. With the addition of the four gallons of gasoline they had bargained for, the tank held a total of five and a half gallons as they began their trip.
Menti recalled that most everyone—including their acting mission president—expressed reservations about the missionaries setting off with so little fuel and such dismal prospects of getting more along the way.
“Some said we would end up pushing the car many miles toward the border,” he wrote. “We did acknowledge their concerns and quoted 1 Nephi 3:7 and all of them were reasonable.”
It was less than a hundred miles to the border, but with nine adult men in a small sedan and more than fifty checkpoints at which they would be stopped along the way, the odds were solidly against them. However, they set off believing that “God [would] provide for His saints.”8
“En route,” Menti recalled, “brother Philip our driver observed with amazement the gas gauge making no change at all after having travelled 14-18 miles. He was very much astonished. We were not for we knew the Lord would provide a way.”9
The missionaries made it to Sierra Leone that evening with gasoline to spare, and were able to buy five more gallons at the border at the much-reduced price of $25 (Liberian) per gallon; the going rate then was $85 (Liberian) per gallon, when any gasoline could be found.
When they arrived at the border, the immigration checkpoint had already shut down for the night, so the missionaries spent the night taking turns sleeping in the car. The following morning, yet another obstacle arose.
Of the nine men in the Corolla, only three had passports. Of the remaining six, only two had national ID cards that would enable them to cross the border. After initially being told they would have to return to the embassy in Monrovia, they were later called in and told the immigration officers would help them because they were missionaries.10
Once across the border, the journey in some ways became more difficult, as the roads in Sierra Leone were far inferior to those in Liberia. At one checkpoint, the men were told that the next 14 miles of road were so bad that many cars had wrecked and were stranded along the way. At some points, there were gaps in the road that the car had to be pushed across or lifted over.
“In some places where the road is very bad I will order the elders to get down and run after me while I drive through the rough part of the road,” Abubakar wrote. “I was very careful with the exhaust pipe and the tyres.”
Menti recalled having to run after the car for stretches as long as two miles. Along the way, they passed several cars stuck on the road, including several models much more expensive than their Toyota. Thanks to Abubakar's care, the missionaries made it through without getting stuck. Later, as the faster, less-loaded cars freed themselves and passed the elders, they expressed their amazement.
“When the road got smoother later they passed by us at a certain checkpoint,” Menti said. “We think they were amazed to see a Toyota sedan going through the bad roads when the Mercedes could not. They then told us ‘you have a good driver' and they clapped for him.”11
Late that night, after 34 hours on the road, the eight missionaries and Abubakar arrived at the home of mission president Miles Cunningham in Freetown.
“After feeding the starved, dirty, tired corps of Liberian elders, they were taken to sleep their first safe, peaceful night in well over two months,” wrote Walter Stewart, a senior missionary from the United States who was also living in the Freetown mission home.
For the missionaries, the move was a monumental one. Most had never left Liberia before, but the desire to continue their work where they could was a powerful one. A month later, it was evident why. With the missionaries assigned to the three branches in Sierra Leone, the rate of baptisms rose and the number of branches quickly doubled.
“All that was seriously needed to open the branches was more priesthood,” recalled Stewart, who also credited the missionaries with being better able to communicate with the locals than the American couples had been, as well as better equipped to relate to members and investigators.
They “brought a powerful spirit of faith and devotion to this part of the mission, certainly bred out of the agonizing they have suffered in their beloved homeland,” Stewart said. “They are first to recognize the hand of the Lord in this modern miraculous exodus.”12
“We know that the Lord [had] more work for us here in Sierra Leone,” Menti said. “Many areas have been opened to the preaching of the gospel. Our journey, though as difficult as it was, the Lord provided a way.”13