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Thursday, Aug. 28, 2003 02:20 pm

The long road home

Reverend Roosevelt Sam Smith has returned to the land of his grandparents. Now if only it was safe to go back to Liberia.

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When Roosevelt Sam Smith became the pastor of New Salem United Methodist Church in New Berlin two years ago, he considered it a homecoming of sorts.

The 47-year-old Smith was born in Liberia's capital, Monrovia. But back in 1883 his great-grandparents had moved to the African nation from Jefferson County, Tennessee.

Settled in the early 19th century by American free-born blacks and former slaves, Liberia, or the "land of freedom," has long struggled with tensions between its native people and its colonizers, who built homes and churches and continued to speak English. These tensions would lead to civil war.

The first American blacks arrived in Liberia in 1822, funded by groups advocating the repatriation of former slaves. Over the next several decades, 19,000 African-Americans, later known as Americo-Liberians, settled in the new colony on the west coast of Africa (Monrovia was named after U.S. president James Monroe). In 1847 Liberia became an independent nation. A year later, Samuel S. Ball, a black 35-year-old barber and Baptist church leader from Springfield, made the trip overseas, returning as a strong advocate of repatriation. In 1851 Ball helped to craft a bill proposing that the State of Illinois provide financial assistance to any African-American wishing to emigrate.

The support of wealthy Americans gave the settlers the upper hand. "They claim to have bought the land in Liberia, though this matter is still disputed," Smith says. "There has always been a wedge between Americo-Liberians--also called Congo people--and the indigenous people. Many Congo people went into the villages and adopted children who later claimed to have been mistreated. There is still resentment. No matter how many intermarriages and how many interactions we had, the wedge was never removed."

Though an Americo-Liberian, Smith came from modest means. He was raised by a grandmother who washed and ironed clothes for a living. "My father had run away when mother was pregnant, and neither was in a position to help," he says. Still, "life was OK. When I was 11, I went to a Baptist boarding school, though we were born Methodist, and I visited grandmother and my mother during breaks."

At that time, Liberia's president was William V.S. Tubman, who initially advocated policies to bring indigenous people into society and rid the country of laws favoring Americo-Liberians. But Tubman became a dictator, ruling Liberia for 27 years. He was succeeded after his death in 1971 by his vice president of 19 years, William R. Tolbert, who then moved the pro-U.S. Liberia to being a nonaligned nation in the Cold War world.

Smith, meanwhile, graduated from the University of Liberia and went to work as a government economist. He did post-graduate studies in petroleum economics in Dublin, Ireland.

Then in 1980, Tolbert was killed in a coup led by a military officer of indigenous descent. "We got a master sergeant named Samuel K. Doe, who came to power by the force of the gun," says Smith. "They killed 13 government officials. They really didn't have the skills. Some of them were just high school graduates. The only things they knew were women, cars, and wine. We had Tolbert, who was very educated and knew government and couldn't get enough money from America. And here comes Samuel K. Doe, who I don't think ever graduated from high school, and he got millions from America. From that point, life had a different meaning."

Smith quit his government job in 1984. "The corruption was the main reason I left," he says. "We were tracking foreign investments in the country; I was the liaison with these investments. On some of these trips, the investors told me off the record that they would not be back. When I asked them why, they replied that they had been asked by my bosses for 10 percent of their investment. When I asked them why they didn't explain this to the government, they explained they were not allowed to say it, and they did not want to think about what would happen to them if they did. I decided the government was not the place for me, and that's when I went to work for the Methodist church."

Smith became an administrator for the United Methodist Church. But in 1989, civil war broke out, and troops led by Charles Taylor captured most of the country. Over the next decade, a quarter of a million Liberians would be killed. "After the civil war broke out, I had to leave," Smith says. "I had shrapnel in my arms from a bombing." He followed his wife, Gifty, to Sierra Leone, then she fled to the United States. In 1990 he arrived in New York City, where he lived with a sister-in-law. Then he moved to Cincinnati to manage a McDonald's.

He was the victim of two stick-ups. "After I was taken hostage twice at McDonald's, and I was saved only by locking myself in the walk-in freezer, I decided it was time to move on," he recalls.

"In Liberia, I had promised the Lord that if he would spare my life and that of my family, I would go to seminary. Once I moved to Cincinnati, I almost forgot the promise. My friends, the Howells--who had been missionaries in Liberia and helped me come to the United States--brought me to a hospital in Indianapolis, where I had the shrapnel removed from my arm. I returned to work in Cincinnati, and the same two gunmen who had held me up the first time returned. When they took a baseball bat and forced their way in after we had closed, most of us ran for the freezer. When I came out, I found my assistant manager on the floor. She told me she had been shot, but the gun must have misfired because there was no blood and, aside from being terribly frightened, she was not hurt. That was a wake-up call."

He and Gifty moved to Lafayette, Indiana, near the Howells, and he took a job at Wabash International, a trailer manufacturer. In another stroke of luck, he met someone who offered to pay his tuition at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

Given the turmoil back home in Liberia, Smith couldn't provide his academic transcripts, so he was admitted to the seminary on probation. "During my interview at Garrett, when they told me I would be accepted, I started to laugh, and they asked me why. I told them that I doubted my ability to move from being an economist to a theologian. The only theology I knew was what my grandmom had taught me, so how was it possible for me to go for my degree? They explained that was all they could do for me, and I decided to try."

At the end of his probationary period, Smith was called into the president's office and informed he could continue in his studies. How he had been accepted remains a mystery to him. "I didn't even think I was trying. I came out of class after the first week, and I really didn't think I understood a thing. As I was walking down the hall after that first week, I heard a voice say, 'Don't worry. You'll be fine.' I don't know where the voice came from. The voice said, 'Once you get home, take your Bible and just keep reading,' and that's what I did. . . . Everything in class started to make sense to me."

He graduated after three years, and served at a church in Danville before becoming pastor at Kumler United Methodist Church in Springfield. Today he's a U.S. citizen and the pastor of churches in Ashland and New Berlin. "I have an 8:45 a.m. start at Ashland, and I have to be finished by 10. I then drive to New Berlin, and by 10:30 I'm greeting parishioners." He gives distinct sermons to each congregation. "Ashland is at a different place than New Salem."

Back in 1980, when Samuel K. Doe took power, Smith and other Americo-Liberians hoped for the best. "We thought the takeover by the indigenous people would end the resentment, but it didn't." Native Liberians sought vengeance against Americo-Liberians.

When William Tolbert visited the United States just before his murder, a demonstration outside the Liberian mission in New York City was led by an Americo-Liberian student, Charles Taylor. Impressed by Taylor's ardor, Tolbert invited the student to return home. A political animal, Taylor later landed a job in Doe's government. But after a few years, he ended up back in the U.S., where he was imprisoned on charges of embezzlement. He escaped from jail and returned to Africa to topple Doe.

"Then there was another problem," Smith says. "Taylor represented the children of the Congo people, most of whom were indigenous, but that didn't stop the war. There were many factions who took sides and the insistence, even in American media, in connecting Taylor's name to Congo people kept the wedge alive.

"We Liberians have never sat down at a table to think about what we're fighting for after all is said and done," Smith says. The resentments go back a long time. "I could return to Liberia today, but my safety could not be assured. They are still fighting in the villages and forcing people to give them money and torturing people, even though Taylor has gone. The factions are the problem.

"There are no newspapers coming out of Liberia today. The mail may not even be delivered. Sometimes if you go to the post office they will not even take the money for postage because they know the mail is not going to get there.

"Liberia is a jewel, about the size of Louisiana with miles of scenic beaches and many resources. It is a jewel that is being fed to the swine. From the day we got our independence on July 26, 1847, we have never been really independent. The persons who bought the land really didn't know how valuable it was. By the time the country began to understand--with its gold, diamonds, and iron ore--who showed up? Firestone showed up in 1923, followed by more teams to mine the ore and provide the financial underpinnings of the country. Foreign investment has controlled the resources."

Who has the answer?

"God first," Smith replies. "Liberians have this mentality that somebody owes us something. We Liberians owe ourselves a brighter future. We are educated, we are a rational people, and we need to come together."

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