A True Story of Faith and Civil War
by John & Bessie Gonleh with Bruce Beakley
In 1989, John and Bessie Gonleh found themselves living in the midst of a civil war in Liberia. They lived in Paynesville, a place that resembled suburban life in a small American town. They assumed that the war wouldn’t become a direct threat to their livelihood. But in 1990, John Gonleh was violently taken from his home in Paynesville, Monrovia, by rebel soldiers. His wife Bessie and their children hid in the closets and under their beds until the soldiers left their home. As soon as they felt enough time had passed, Bessie and the children emerged from their hiding places to flee to the nearest village. The only items they carried were a satchel of important papers and the clothes on their backs. As they were running away from their neighborhood, Bessie looked back to see a plume of black smoke rising from her home. Just moments after their escape, the soldiers had returned to burn it down. Thus began a nightmarish journey for the Gonlehs that would last for the next twenty years.
As they moved from village to village and refugee camp to refugee camp, God was with the Gonleh family. First, God miraculously preserved John’s life and reunited him with his family after a week of being held hostage by rebels. Almost everywhere they went, they found favor with the people. That is not to say that they did not face tremendous obstacles and times of suffering. As the years passed, the Gonlehs went without shelter, traveled several miles per day in search of refuge, suffered under corrupt governments and civil unrest, endured starvation, and mourned the deaths of friends and their children. The Gonlehs write about how God used all of their trials to teach them to trust Him, to put their faith in Him rather than a government or disaster-relief group.
One of the aspects of this story that I appreciate is how John and Bessie shepherded their children through the most difficult circumstances. It is not easy to answer a child’s questions in the best of circumstances, but as John and Bessie faced one atrocity after another with their children they did so with a firm belief in the sovereignty of God and in His goodness. Even as they moved from village to refugee camp, from Liberia to Cote D’Ivoire to Guinea, and, finally, to the USA, the Gonleh family developed and maintained daily traditions and patterns. For example, they kept regular family prayer times. They set an example for their children to pray without ceasing and to be content in plenty and in want. In addition to their family rituals and traditions, John and Bessie were careful to praise God even during their difficult times. They taught their children that God is sovereign over all the earth, but at the same time He is never guilty of the evil they saw around them everyday. Throughout their story, John and Bessie speak of the goodness of God to their children. Many parts of their story resemble the biblical accounts of Joseph and Job.
When the Gonlehs entered a new village or camp, they would ask permission to lead a worship service for the Christians already there. As a leader in the church, John would call for times of prayer and fasting. Whenever anyone voiced a need, they would persevere in prayer until an answer came. This adherence to the discipline of private and public prayer made a difference in their refugee group.
“Constantly taking our needs, concerns, and problems to the Lord in prayer may have been the prescription for our group’s health. Communal prayer throughout the day led us to an increased spirit of unity and a sense that we traveled under God’s protection. Each encounter with refugee groups that were falling apart reinforced this belief and gave us an acute sense of the spiritual nature of our physical struggles.“
John goes on,
“Again and again, as distress from our lips reached his ears, he heard and answered our prayers. We were as dependent on him as any human beings could possibly be.”
Though the Gonlehs sought refuge in camps and villages along the way, they knew their true refuge lay in God alone.
John and Bessie’s story has charismatic elements to it, which may concern some readers. John speaks several times of hearing God’s voice — an actual voice — and doing what he hears the voice tell him to do. Most of the time, what the voice told him to do worked to save John’s life, serve someone else, or give more glory to God. For example, in the case of the latter, John felt it necessary to begin using water (instead of oil) when anointing those who asked for prayers for healing because he wanted to make certain that the people knew that it was the work of God (not the oil and not John). The Gonlehs faced much opposition in the villages because witchcraft was so prevalent. Therefore, everything they did had to be different so that the people would know that the miracles, provision, safety, etc. was due to the power of God and not a special craft of the Gonlehs.
Refuge is not easy to read. The crimes committed against innocent people simply because of their tribal name or political allegiance are sickening. One frustrating element is the corruption in the organizations that are in place to help refugees. Even so, I am glad that I read it because believers all over the world are facing similar trials, and it is an incredible story.