“Christian Extension Services has helped our communities like no other organization,” said a resident of Seriah-Karawani village in Sierra Leone, “We’ve learned not to look at our differences anymore, but what do we have in common and work for a common goal together. Unity is important.”
In fact, unity is at the heart of the Christian Reformed Church’s (CRC) ministry in this war-torn country. In the 1970’s, the CRC wanted to know if one denomination could make a meaningful difference in the world. While CRWRC had been responding to disasters and crisis situations around the world for more than a decade, members of the CRC wanted to do more about the global crisis of chronic hunger and poverty. They wondered - if they worked together, could they really have an impact?
In 1976, Synod, the CRC decision-making body, appointed a taskforce to consider how the denomination could best get involved. In 1978, that taskforce recommended that CRWRC work with Christian Reformed World Missions (CRWM) to select one country in which to build an integrated development program. This country should have significant physical and spiritual needs, but be small enough that the CRC to be able to have an impact. They selected Sierra Leone.
The 1978 synodical committee also recommended that CRWRC begin a hunger education program for North American churches as part of its ministry. This should include an annual day of prayer and fasting that would be observed by all CRC churches on the first Sunday in November. In addition, Synod asked CRC families to consider giving an additional one per cent of their income to support CRWRC’s hunger relief work. 1979, CRWRC began its annual World Hunger campaign, with funds directed specifically for the work in Sierra Leone.
CRWRC and CRWM began the joint ministry in Sierra Leone under the local name of Christian Extension Services (CES) in 1979. By late 1980, the first team of CRC staff had arrived. It included a field director, a community developer, an agriculturist, a health nutritionist, a literacy worker, and two church developers. A second team of staff arrived in 1981.
“Sierra Leone is the poorest country in the world,” CRWRC reported in 1981. “Among its three million people, average annual income is $167 per person. In rural areas, it is only $60. Half of the country’s children die before the age of five. The government is committed to development and the potential for food production is excellent. Foreign relief agencies are well accepted and the culture is open to evangelism. The country is small and our help can make a difference.”
Initially, CES worked in nine villages among the Kuranko people in the Koinadugu District in the northern part of the country, with the intention of helping 2,000 families increase their food production, learn to read, improve their health, and increase their family income so that they could become self sufficient. North American personnel hired local staff and trained them extensively to assist and eventually replace them in carrying out the work.
This team of North American and Sierra Leonean staff was committed to completely integrating its word and deed ministry. They also demonstrated in their own lives the type of compassionate ministry that Jesus had told us to imitate. As a result, their neighbors were drawn to CES and there was success in evangelism efforts as well as community improvements.
For example, from 1981 through 1991, farmers in northern Kuranko planted 5,124 oil palm trees. Each tree had the potential of producing $10-$15 worth of cooking oil every year for thirty years.
The local church was also growing.
“The church conducts weekly worship services in 14 villages. Average attendance is 1,000,” wrote Saion Karoma, a CES staff member in 1992. “We also preach, teach, and offer some materials in five other villages. The number of people baptized this year is 112. We continue to encourage new Christians to grow in the Spirit.”
In the late 1980’s, plans began to be made to transition CES from a North American non-government organization operating in Sierra Leone, to a Sierra Leone non-government organization with its own board of directors.
When civil war broke out in Sierra Leone in the early 1990’s, this transition as well as community programs were set back. The violence began in 1991 and lasted for the next 11 years. Over these 11 years, tens of thousands of people died and over 2 million people were displaced – about one third of the population.
By 1994, fighting had reached the communities where CRC staff were located. The rebels wiped out CES homes, offices and most of the physical infrastructure in the Kuranko project, yet the staff remained in the country.
After this rampage through the North, CRWRC provided emergency food aid to families affected by the violence. The rebels left the area and returned to their bases in the South, and it looked like programs could continue. However, by 1996, violence had returned and CRC staff were forced to evacuate the area for their own safety.
“Buildings were burned and some lives were lost, but during the war the church grew and communities behind rebel lines continued to use the literacy, health, agriculture and community development skills they had learned,” said former CRWRC-Sierra Leone staff member, Jan Disselkoen.
By the end of the war, Sierra Leone was devastated. The agriculture and health programs initiated by CES were no longer functioning, the water systems in the villages were damaged, numerous villages had been burnt to the ground, and people were scattered throughout the bush.
The war forced many religious and charitable organizations to flee the country, but CES stayed. During the war, CES staff worked with Medicine Sans Frontiers and the local government hospital to treat the wounded and help managed two refugee camps in Freetown. In 1998, they also began a program for women from the Kuranko area who had been displaced by the violence and were now living in Freetown. Because CES continued to minister to people throughout the war, their reputation among the people of Sierra Leone was deepened.
The war officially ended in 2001, and CES conducted a needs assessment and began to develop programs to meet the post-war needs in its target communities.
“During the war, we fled to Guinea,” recalls one survivor. “There was really nothing to eat, nothing! We gathered wild foods in the bush to survive. After the war, everything was destroyed. Help came from CES—we received rice seed, oxen, goats and sheep. Other organizations helped as well. CES intervened in time. CES changes lives in this district.”
At the same time as they were carrying out these post-war activities, CES, CRWRC, and CRWM also continued to implement their plan to nationalize CES and turn over ownership to Sierra Leonean staff. In 2002, CES received its final certification from the government of Sierra Leone and Robert Jawara became the first national director. While CRWRC and CRWM continued to provide consultation and financial support to CES, ownership of the programs and decisions about its priorities were made by local staff not North Americans.
As CES continued its ministry, they began to focus on micro-credit programs that would provide small loans to people to start businesses. They continued their focus on literacy and education, and even started a Christian school for elementary students. They also continued agricultural programs that included projects for food storage, seed banks, and initiatives that would add value to crops through milling or processing before food is sold.
Because CES worked with men and women in each of their target villages by forming village development committees, they built up local leadership, and encouraged community cooperation. As a result, women began to be treated with greater respect in their communities and abuses such as domestic violence, forced marriage, and stealing the inheritance of widows decreased. Men and women also became more aware of their rights, and began to advocate on their own behalf.
“We get to participate and the men listen to us,” said a woman in Seriah village. “The role of the village development committee is to talk about health, sanitation, the recovery of micro-loans, and the need for unity in the village. We women used to talk only at home. Now we can speak in public. There has been no problem having a committee with men and women together.”
In 2006, the Sierra Leonean local believers and the CES staff asked the Christian Reformed Church in North America to help with church development. This resulted in CRWM supporting a new initiative called Seeing It Through (SIT), which later became the Christian Reformed Church of Sierra Leone (CRCSL). This initiative focused on church planting, discipleship, and evangelism. While CES continued to work in close partnership with SIT/CRCSL, it now focused its attention on addressing the needs of impoverished communities who were still recovering from the war.
According to Rev. John Phiri, who is coordinating church development for the CRCSL, 62 worshipping communities are now in operation in the Koinadugu, Tonkolili, Bombali, Bo and Western area districts of Sierra Leone.
Over the years, CES has successfully worked with over 40 villages which are now independently continuing their development trajectory. Currently, the organization, staffed with a second generation of employees, is working in 15 new communities to improve lives in lasting ways. Many of these communities now also have worshipping groups, through collaboration with SIT/CRCSL.
“Although the CRCSL began among the Kuranko people, the church has expanded to the Mende and Limba people, and now with Rochen Mara, to the Temne people too,” said former CRWM staff member Paul Kortenhoven. “The church now has more than 5,500 believers.”
“CES has also moved forward with new staff, a renewed vision and energy for development work that is in the hands of the communities themselves,” added CRWRC West Africa staff member, Wyva Hasselblad. “One of the striking things now is that people have moved forward from the war and it is not the pre-occupation that it was three to ten years ago. The people who were kids during the war are now adults. They are eager to get an education, get jobs, and discover the new world of communications technology. “
Similarly, the staff at CES are growing and developing. Three of the staff have enrolled in evening classes to learn more about development, the fourth is working on her Master’s degree. In addition, in the last six years, over 65 Sierra Leonean leaders from the CRCSL have been trained through CRWM and the Timothy Leadership Institute.
The Christian Reformed Church in North America and Sierra Leone should be proud of what God has been able to do through them and CES over the past 33 years. Through God’s blessings, despite a horrific war, the country of Sierra Leone is well on its way to achieving the God-given potential that CRWRC and CRWM originally identified.