In the past three years, Richard Wilson did a job in which he lived on one meal a day, dodged arrest and fled an Ebola outbreak, but he is grateful for the experience.
Wilson is chairman of Mercer University’s Christianity Department. In 2014 he agreed to serve as president of the Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary in Paynesville, Liberia, near the capital of Monrovia.
Liberia, on the west coast of Africa, is one of the poorest countries in the world. There is no running water and no electricity except from generators. Wilson’s tenure ended Dec. 31, and he already misses it.
Despite living in a manner that most Middle Georgia residents could hardly imagine, Wilson found something intriguing about it.
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“Living and working in Liberia is to be always conscious of the challenge,” he said as he sat in his office at Mercer. “There’s a demand for a sharper focus to be both reflective and decisive in what you do. There’s the obvious presence of need. There’s the obvious demand to be prudent.”
He cited going to the restroom as just one thing most people here do without a thought that in Liberia takes a good bit of effort. With no running water, a toilet is flushed by manually pouring water into it. And that’s for those lucky enough to have a toilet, which most Liberians do not. They usually don’t even have an outhouse.
“They have a bush,” he said. “Public urination is rampant.”
Although his visits varied, he usually stayed in Liberia about a month at a time, with about four trips a year.
He lived like a Liberian
Aaron Marshall, a Liberian who chairs the seminary’s board of trustees, said Wilson left the school better than he found it. Wilson has put the school on a better financial footing, improved the curriculum and improved the infrastructure, he said.
Marshall also was impressed with how Wilson lived. He said most missionaries who come to the country seek out better accommodations and food. Wilson, however, lived and ate just like everyone else.
“He was very humble,” Marshall said. “He was more Liberian than the Liberians. Anybody who came in contact with him remembers that.”
Wilson has done work in Liberia since 2007. He coordinated the Mercer on Mission program in which Mercer education students taught at Ricks Institute, a K-12 boarding school in Monrovia. The Ebola outbreak ended that outreach, but Wilson hopes to bring it back.
In 2012 he contracted malaria while working in Liberia. Then in 2014, eight months into his tenure as president of the seminary, he was forced to flee the country due to the Ebola outbreak. Although about 4,800 people ultimately died in Liberia as a result, according to the World Health Organization, it was not as bad as many people had initially feared.
Wilson said a lot of credit for that goes to the seminary and Ricks Institute, which he said set a model for hygiene and disease prevention. He set up a fund-raising drive to feed the approximately 100 staff members and students living at the seminary so that they would not have to venture out into the community.
The drive ended up raising $70,000. At the peak of the Ebola crisis, the program was feeding 1,000 people a day at several schools with compounds.
“If I had to make a list of what I feel best about, our response to the Ebola crisis was a model of local and global cooperation,” he said.
Then last year, he faced another crisis. For a couple of weeks, Wilson was a wanted man in Liberia. He could not go to the seminary or his home there for fear of arrest.
A warrant had been issued because the seminary was alleged not to have paid $33,000 it owed to Wilson’s predecessor, Lincoln Brownell. Brownell was fired, then sued the school and won a $240,000 judgment. The arrest warrant was quashed after the school produced a cleared check showing that it had paid the money.
Wilson said he feels good about the future of the seminary and that highly educated, honest Liberians are running it. The new president is Terry Henry, a black minister from North Carolina who will act primarily as a fundraiser liaison with black churches in the U.S., while the Liberians run the school.
When Bill Underwood, Mercer University’s president, first asked Wilson to serve as president of the seminary, Wilson’s response was not enthusiastic.
“I cussed him,” Wilson recalled.
But looking back on it, he said the experience changed him for the better.
“It’s made me more reflective, more compassionate and more determined to help Mercer students and people I live with understand better our responsibilities,” he said. “It’s made me more appreciative of what I need and what I want. I have fewer wants than I had when I started going back and forth to Liberia.”