Editor’s note: Those who respond to God’s call to be in mission often speak of the blessings they’ve received. Nelda Thomas of Natchez Jefferson Street United Methodist Church certainly would be among those, but in a unique way. This is her story in her words.
By Nelda Thomas
Special to the Advocate
In 2000, both of my daughters were grown and no longer needed me at home, so I decided it was time for me to fulfill a long time dream of going on an overseas mission.
I was living in Wisconsin and practicing my profession of physical therapy as an independent contractor. Naturally I wanted to go on a mission where I could use my therapy skills, and I wanted to get away from our cold Wisconsin winters. These factors and prayer led me to our Methodist Mission Station in Ganta, Liberia, Africa.
I did not, however, have enough money to be without income for three months and travel to Liberia and still pay bills for my home in Wisconsin. So I signed on with a staffing agency that sends medical personnel to various places around the United States in need of therapy services. They pay generously, as well as covering for travel and living expenses. They sent me to Natchez, Miss., in September 2000.
This is where I met Charlie. He had been on a previous mission to Africa. I, of course, was very excited about my upcoming adventure-mission, and wanted to hear all about missions in Africa. Our interest in each other grew from there.
In January 2001, I went to Liberia for three months. This experience was so awesome it is beyond my ability to even comprehend, let alone try to describe. Enlightening, enriching, invigorating, appalling, frustrating, joyous and saddening are a few adjectives that come to mind.
I also met one particularly special little girl named Yei Sahn, whom I truly hated to leave there in Liberia when I departed. I returned to Wisconsin in March, and Charlie and I were married in May 2001. We returned to Ganta together in July 2002. I continued with my work of physical therapy and Charlie worked on trying to restore the hospital's water system by building a water tower. Yei and I strengthened our bond and she also captured Charlie's heart.
In 2003 there was renewed fighting and our mission station was a primary target because that is where the government troops set up their headquarters. Not wanting to be catching bullets, Charlie and I stayed home that year. We returned to Ganta in September 2004 to find the mission station had been destroyed, but the people were slowly but surely making their way back, rebuilding the hospital, the schools and their lives.
Here is the story of one family. Their home has been destroyed by war for the third time in six years, but they have found a 15-foot x 15-foot, one-room mud hut which they may share with nine other people. They have no furniture, but is they are lucky there may be one or two mattresses on the floor with no bedding. They have no personal belongings, but if they are lucky one of their hut mates may have a cooking pot and spoon. Probably all they get to eat is one rice meal per day. Electricity, telephone, running water and sewer are luxuries that they don't consider possible even in their dreams.
This is life for most Liberians, not for two hours or two weeks or two years, but for 18 years. The threat of more war is virtually gone, but with a shattered infrastructure, hope for improved conditions is still very distant. There is evidence of progress with roads being repaired in some parts of Liberia, but it will be many years before Ganta feels the impact.
So where do these people find hope and help? It comes from the Lord, and the United Methodist Church is one of the resources the Lord uses to provide that help and hope.
Charlie and I — and many other mission minded-Methodists — do what little we can to help, but the appreciation and reward for our efforts far surpasses the little that we do.
Yei had survived the fighting and was happy to see us. Also it was becoming increasingly more difficult for us to leave her there in Liberia, knowing the future for her there would be filled with hardship and heartache and little if any opportunity for education and development of useful skills.
After that visit to Ganta in 2004, and after much discussion, debate and prayer, Charlie and I decided we wanted to bring Yei to the United States. We began the grueling process of adoption in November 2004, and, in October 2005, I was able to go to Liberia and bring our new daughter back to our home in Mississippi.
In 2006 Yei was too fearful of returning to Liberia. In 2007 we wanted to return, but found ourselves lacking cash and time due to other family obligations. Finally in August 2008, Yei and I were able to return. I was able to continue with physical therapy services for patients at the hospital as well as training for hospital staff.
Yei had a very positive reunion with her aunts, uncles and cousins, but three days in to the visit she was ready to return to the U.S.
Having had the opportunity to be in Liberia, I have seen the enormity of the need, and we have seen and heard and felt the tremendous blessing that comes with being able to give even just a little bit to diminish that need. It is truly an exceedingly greater blessing to give than to receive.
Mother Theresa once said, "There are no great deeds, only small ones done in love." In Liberia the United Methodist Church is performing multitudes of small deeds of love. It is my hope and prayer that you will be open to the work of the Holy Spirit in this great effort in Liberia and consider joining me as I travel to Liberia again in June or July.
Exact dates are yet to be determined. The cost in previous years for all expenses, (including travel, food and lodging, shots, malaria pills, passport, visas, insurance, photography supplies, etc.) has been approximately $5,000. If the spirit moves you to this exciting opportunity, please contact me, at 601-807-2855 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.