Today marks the 23rd Anniversary of the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church Massacre.
Usually words such as these bring heartbreaking, known, images instantly to mind. But in this case I suspect most people’s response, including myself up to a few weeks ago, would be to Google it.
It all started when a group of people boarded boats and sailed across the ocean to an unknown future. They left behind prejudices and a country who no longer wanted them. In this new land they would start afresh, tackle the wilderness, and build a society in uncharted land. But the year wasn’t 1607. It was 1822. And the country wasn’t the US. It was Liberia.
From the Latin, “Land of the Free” this small West African nation, founded by the American Colonization Society as a place to send freed slaves in the 19th century, is the focus of the next chapter of “Letters to Clio.” I was drawn to this particular story not only because of our two countries intricate intertwining but also because we had a sizable Liberian community in my hometown of Reston, Virginia. Growing up they were my friends at Youth Group. We laughed around campfires, went on mission trips to Appalachia, and organized school dances. I had no idea the past they had fled.
Through a series of military coups this once prosperous country descended into violence and chaos. From 1979 – 2005 Liberia suffered through two Civil Wars. Once boasting hotels, office buildings, and movie theaters, the capital, Monrovia (named for President James Monroe) was reduced to shelled out structures, its streets strewn with bodies. The Civil War players were comprised of child soldiers, American educated technocrats, cross dressing rebels, and ex-soldiers. In 2003 the Economist ranked Liberia the “worst place to live” and one of the most violent places on the planet. The St. Peter’s Lutheran Church Massacre was one such instance where 600 people were killed in Monrovia as they sought refuge in a church. They thought the rebels wouldn’t dare to enter a house of God. But they were wrong. When the dust finally settled in 2005, 1 out of every 17 people's lives were claimed and many communities were uprooted.
But that was then, and this is now. Today many of my friends have returned to rebuild the very country they once fled. In the face of adversity and destruction they are choosing hope and rebirth. My first question to them is always why – and the answers are too plentiful to include in a brief post.
Through the next several months I will continue to post findings of my research as well as video clips from interviews I conduct with members of the Liberian community – both here in the US and over in West Africa. Like other subject matters in the Letters to Clio project, theirs is a story that is not often heard. I think it needs to be told.