The following article was originally printed in the November/December 2015 issue, "Hope in a child," of Presbyterians Today.

Isaac Monah’s formative years didn’t look like those of a school planter. Yet, this former refugee has become the passionate driving force behind Dougbe River Presbyterian School, the first school in the isolated region of Twarbo in post-war Liberia.

In 1989, civil war erupted. Monah’s home was destroyed, his younger brother killed. The following year, Monah fled to the Ivory Coast, where he helped an American anthropology student track monkeys in the jungle. When their conversation turned to faith, Monah shared that he hadn’t even heard of the word “Presbyterian.” But he memorized this new sound.

Monah moved to Ghana, earning a high school diploma at 27. In 2002, he immigrated to the United States, where he saw a church with the name long ago uttered in the Ivory Coast jungle: Presbyterian. He entered the church.

Members of Noble Road Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, welcomed Monah, who eventually became a ruling elder. In 2007, Monah returned to Liberia for the first time in 17 years, a bittersweet trip. Although Liberia is rich with natural beauty, the African country struggles with poverty, ranking 175 among 187 countries on the United Nations Development Index, with approximately 82 percent of its population living in deep poverty and 35 percent suffering from malnourishment.

Infectious disease takes a cruel toll, with approximately 4,800 recent Ebola deaths. Child mortality is high: 71 out of every 1,000 children die before the age of five. Moreover, the country has endured not one, but two, civil wars—the first from 1989 to 1996 and the second from 1999 to 2003. The average citizen receives 3.93 years of schooling.

After his trip, Monah felt a calling to help, so he took his pastor, Francis Miller, to breakfast. Miller quickly caught Monah’s enthusiasm, so they shared the school-sponsorship vision with the session, then the entire congregation.

The congregation could not provide the necessary financial resources, but they fueled Monah with energy and support as he sought out Liberian and US partnerships.  

For a while, not much happened.  

Then, Monah, who had become a nurse’s aide, cared for a man with brain cancer. The man’s parents attended Hopewell Presbyterian in Shreve, Ohio. They heard about Monah’s idea and believed in his vision, making Hopewell the project’s first partner church. Other Presbyterian congregations followed suit. A former pastor from Noble Road Presbyterian was working at the United Nations, and he gave Monah a letter of support. Momentum was building.

In November 2012, the school opened, supported by four other schools and 30 worshiping communities. Within a month, a parent-teacher organization formed and sponsored a student-parent volleyball game. By year’s end, six teachers were educating 104 students, including girls. Tribal elder Bayoungbo used this modernization to fight female circumcision and the marrying of young girls to elderly men, with circumcision huts being torn down.

German hunger-and-poverty-aid group Welthungerhilfe dug a well for the school campus and is repairing area bridges. A healthcare organization founded by a Presbyterian is helping the school with transportation and communication, and worship services are being held on a rotating basis in three locations. Additional farmland was donated, and parents are enthusiastically slashing through dense jungle to make way for more development.

Although Ebola caused the school to close for seven months, it reopened in March, with 152 elementary students enrolled and more than 130 attending on the first day. Ongoing needs include electricity, the construction of a cafeteria and dormitories, and agricultural improvements, but there is also much to celebrate. In fact, people in this region of Liberia are joyfully dreaming of a high school—and then a university.

Kelly Boyer Sagert is a Presbyterian ruling elder and freelance writer.