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.”