When disaster strikes

Last week mudslides in Freetown, Sierra Leone, killed 400 people, with 600 still missing. Homes in the hilltop community of Regent were covered after part of Sugar Loaf mountain collapsed following heavy rain. Many victims were asleep in bed when the disaster struck. August is the height of the rainy season when the average rainfall is 21”. A mass burial of 300 people has been held on the outskirts of Freetown. The cemetery is known as the Ebola cemetery because many of the 4000 people who died in 2014 are buried there.

Freetown, a city of 1 million people, is squeezed into a small space between heavily-forested mountains and the sea, in a country with the highest rainfall in Africa. It was first established in the late 1700s as a home for freed slaves from the US and UK. It has the world’s third largest natural harbour. The population of the city grew significantly during the brutal civil war between 1991 and 2002 in which 250,000 people died and many more were maimed. I visited Sierra Leone in 1998 and met some of the 18,000 refugees living in a camp at Hastings. Many men had lost hands, legs or ears, which the rebels had amputated with machetes.

Humanly speaking, the people of Sierra Leone have little hope for the future. They live in a desperately poor country with a dilapidated infrastructure. The wealthy nations of the world show little interest in helping them, even though the country is rich in natural resources. So where can the poor people of Sierra Leone, and the world, look for future hope? Many people in Sierra Leone are Christians and are sustained in the struggle of their daily lives, and as they face natural disasters, by their faith in Jesus.

The hymns of John Newton, who, before he came to faith in Jesus, visited Freetown as the captain of a slave ship, express the faith and hope in which Christians in Sierra Leone find real comfort. Newton wrote, “How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear! It soothes his sorrow, heals his wounds, and drives away his fear. It makes the wounded spirit whole, and calms the troubled breast; ‘tis manna to the hungry soul, and to the weary rest. Weak is the effort of my heart, and cold my warmest thought; but when I see you as you are, I’ll praise you as I ought. Till then I would your love proclaim with every fleeting breath; and may the music of your Name refresh my soul in death!”

Amazing Grace!

Amazing Grace is one of the best-known Christian hymns. It was written by John Newton and is a testimony of his own experience of God’s grace. John’s father was the captain of a merchant ship and, when he was just 11 years old, John made his first sea voyage with his father. His mother was a Christian and prayed that John would come to know Jesus as his Saviour. She died when John was still a child.

When he was 19 years old, John was forced into serving on a man-of-war ship. He found the conditions on board intolerable. He deserted, but was recaptured and publicly flogged. Later he volunteered to serve on a slave ship sailing to Sierra Leone, in West Africa. There he sank even deeper into degradation when he became the servant of a slave trader and was brutally abused. When he was 23 years old he was rescued by a friend of his father. He became the captain of his own ship and was involved in the slave trade.

On 10 March 1748 John’s ship encountered a severe storm off the coast of Donegal and almost sank. John woke in the middle of the night and, realising that the ship was filled with water, called out to God. He promised that if God would spare his life he would spend the rest of his life serving God. Amazingly the cargo shifted and sealed the hole in the ship which drifted to safety. John knew that God had heard his prayer and saved his life. Later he became an Anglican minister and collaborated with William Wilberforce in seeking the abolition of the slave trade.

John never stopped being amazed at God’s grace to him. He had lived a very wicked life, but God had not treated him as he deserved. God had watched over him and had saved “a wretch” like him. He was amazed that Jesus came not to call righteous people but sinners, like him, to repentance. He knew that God would always be with him and had given him a certain hope for the future. “Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home. The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures; He will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures. Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease; I shall possess, within the veil, a life of joy and peace.”

Pauline Cafferkey recovers from Ebola

The interview with nurse Pauline Cafferkey, now recovered from the Ebola which nearly took her life, was cause for great joy. This courageous lady went to Sierra Leone to help save lives amidst the deadly Ebola outbreak that continues to ravage that country and others nearby. Out of love for other people she put her own life at risk. There are, no doubt, people in Kerry Town, Sierra Leone, alive today because of the dedication of Pauline and her colleagues working with Save the Children.

On her return, soon after Christmas, she was unwell and was, eventually, diagnosed with Ebola. She was taken to a specialist isolation unit in the Royal Free Hospital in Barnet. There a highly skilled medical team used their skills and the available resources to save Pauline’s life. Having seen patients dying in Sierra Leone she said she was “definitely frightened.” She remembers one point, when she was critically ill and it seemed she might die, when she said, “That’s it, I’ve had enough.” But she came through that crisis and is now clear of Ebola. She is looking forward to going back to her family and her normal life and normal job.

Today good news stories are like oases in the desert. We are bombarded by accounts of the wicked deeds of evil people and the dreary preoccupations of our political leaders. It is no wonder that many suffer from some degree of depression. So the story of a Scottish lady who loves and cares for others at great personal cost is refreshing and heartwarming. We rejoice that her life has been spared and wish her well for the future.

The Christian message is good news. It tells us of Jesus who, motivated by a deep love, came into this world so that through him we might find abundant life. When he was unjustly sentenced to death and crucified his disciples were devastated. They felt as if there was no hope for the future. On the third day, however, everything changed when they saw their risen Lord and their hearts were filled with joy. Jesus had triumphed over sin and death and had given them a sure and certain hope. His promise to them was, “Because I live, you will also live.” He can also give us hope in the darkest experiences of life. One hymn says, “When all things seem against us, to drive us to despair, we know one gate is open, one ear will hear our prayer.”

Christian love in dangerous places

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is very serious and is causing real concern in other parts of the world. Ebola kills up to 90% of those infected. Most of those who survive receive early treatment. Already more than 700 people have died in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone and there have also been a few cases in other countries. Margaret Chan, the head of the World Health Organisation, has warned that the Ebola outbreak is spreading faster than efforts to control it.

A state of emergency has been declared in Sierra Leone. About 30 athletes from Sierra Leone who have been competing at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow have expressed concern about returning to their home country and have requested a visa extension. A number of relief agencies have evacuated their volunteer workers from Liberia as a precaution. A doctor working in Liberia with the Christian relief agency, Samaritan’s Purse, has contracted Ebola and has returned to the United States for treatment. He is one of the first people ever to be treated for Ebola in the States.

I have a friend who works in a Christian hospital near Kampala in Uganda. A few years ago there was an Ebola outbreak in Uganda which affected the area near the hospital. I asked her what she would do if the latest Ebola outbreak spread to Uganda and what the mission agency with which she works would advise her to do. She is a young, single person and she said that she felt it would be right for her to remain at the hospital and to try to help those who had the disease and those in danger of being infected. She said she would feel very uncomfortable if she thought only of her own safety and evacuated the country. She realises that families with children may, for good reasons, make a different decision.

Her selfless love and commitment to the people she cares for was very challenging in a world where many of us think only of ourselves. Jesus, the Son of God, came into the world to set us free from sin and death. He could only do this by putting himself in great danger and dying in our place. He said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.” One hymn says, “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God. He, to rescue me from danger interposed his precious blood.“

Becoming like little children

This week I have been visiting Sierra Leone in West Africa. In the 1990s the country suffered a very violent civil war. Many people were killed and thousands were maimed; losing hands and legs. The whole country was traumatised by these experiences. Many of the rebels were young boys who, under the influence of drink or drugs, were told to brutalise their friends and neighbours. Since 2002 there has been peace and the people have been able to begin rebuilding their lives.

It has been a great privilege for me to meet leaders from some of the churches in Sierra Leone. These men are working amongst people in some of the poorest communities, where people live on less than £1 per day. The pastors themselves receive very low salaries. One young man is working, with the help of some Christian ladies, amongst young girls in their early teens who work as prostitutes and live in appalling circumstances. They are seeing lives being transformed as these girls are helped to escape and find new hope and dignity in Jesus Christ.

Early this year one of the pastors was ministering to 7 families who each had a seriously ill child. All the children died. Shortly after his own 8 year old daughter, Efia, became very ill and, despite the best efforts of the doctors and nurses, she died. While she was ill Efia showed a bright faith in Jesus. She spoke to all who visited her of his love for her and her love for him. She brought comfort to many who were in the hospital with her. She seemed to know that she was going to die and she was ready to go to heaven to be with Jesus.

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In our affluent and, often, cynical society we can learn so much from the short life of little Efia. God often “chooses the poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised to those who love him.” I pray that the people of Sierra Leone will succeed in rebuilding their country and will escape grinding poverty. I also pray we will find that childlike faith which puts our trust in Jesus Christ for this life and the one to come.