Passport exports camp concept to Liberia

There's nothing unusual about using an obstacle course at summer camp to build trust and teamwork -- but it has deeper meaning when the campers spent most of their childhood years growing up in a country torn by civil war.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (ABP) -- There's nothing unusual about using an obstacle course at summer camp to build trust and teamwork -- but it has deeper meaning when the campers spent most of their childhood years growing up in a country torn by civil war.

So say leaders of a weeklong camping experience underway in Liberia sponsored by Passport, a Baptist youth-camping ministry based in Birmingham, Ala. Nearly 100 campers gathered Jan. 10 on the campus of Rick's Institute, a K-12 boarding school located about 15 miles from the capital city of Monrovia. Led by a staff of six Americans and six Liberians, they began a weeklong adventure of worship, Bible study and discovery.

Founded in 1887, Rick's Institute -- named after a Liberian Baptist farmer who donated $500 to purchase part of the land now home to a 1,000-acre campus -- the coeducational residential school at one time enrolled about 500 students. That was before Christmas Eve of 1989, when 14 years of civil war broke out that killed about 250,000 Liberians and left the country in economic ruin.

During the war Rick's Institute became both a rebel headquarters and a camp for those displaced by fighting, leaving much of the campus broken and unable to sustain itself. Olu Menjay, a refugee of the civil war who once waded through land and water littered with dead bodies, returned to his homeland in 2005 to become principal of Rick's Institute and begin the process of rebuilding both the once-proud institution and the nation.

Menjay, a graduate of Mercer University with a Ph.D. earned through the International Baptist Theological Seminary, met David and Colleen Burroughs, who co-founded Passport, a partner ministry of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, at the CBF General Assembly in Atlanta in 2006. Upon learning about Passport, Menjay immediately invited leaders of the ministry to consider coming to Liberia for a youth camp in collaboration with the 270-church Liberia Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention. 

The first PassportLiberia youth camp was held over two weeks in December 2007 and January 2008, when six veteran Passport staffers trained 10 Liberians with an eye toward replicating the process with younger youth to create similar camping experences for years to come. Before that, in September 2007, two Passport administrators traveled to Liberia to help a group there build a ropes course, which was used both in the first camp and the camp in January 2010, and laid the groundwork for future camps.

This year the staff includes Ann Elizabeth McInvale and Holly Wegman, two Americans teaching this year at Rick's Institute as part of CBF's Student.Go summer and semester missionary program. Four other Americans traveled from the United States to serve as staff. They are Josh Brooks, associate pastor at St. Andrews United Methodist Church  in Cullman, Ala.; Josh Speight, associate missions coordinator for the Kentucky Baptist Fellowship; Walt Windley, ministry resident at First Baptist Church in Dalton, Ga.; and Mike Young, missions coordinator for Tennessee CBF. Team members posted updates on personal blogs and a Facebook event page with more than 250 guests.

McInvale and Wegman picked up the Americans Friday evening, Jan. 8, and headed back to campus to sort through supplies. Saturday was a long day of intense training for the entire staff. A sound system was set up on the front steps of the school building, and campers were greeted as they arrived by song and dance during Sunday afternoon and into the evening. Students received dorm and group assignments, and then things got formally underway with an opening celebration in the school's chapel Sunday night.

During recreation students learned how to build trust and teamwork. Bible study groups used part of the low-ropes course each day. "It has been a learning experience for the campers to work through frustration and cooperate with their peers," McInvale reported in her blog. "They are beginning to understand that good communication is necessary to complete the tasks before them."

Passport camps always include a component of hands-on mission work. The Liberia group had boys and girls building three incinerators around the campus to be used for burning trash, which until now was either thrown into bushes or piled on the ground.

"Very few of them have had experience laying bricks," McInvale said. "They are learning something new and giving something back to their community."

The partnership between Passport and Rick's Institute included commitment of Passport campers' 2008 summer missions offering, which amounted to more than $60,000. The money helped cover costs of the camp for Liberian youth and paid for purchase and installation of a solar-power system to provide electricity for the school auditorium, offices and classrooms.

Menjay says the partnership is important not only for efforts to rebuild Rick's Institute's infrastructure, but also for the lives of the nation's youth. "In today's Liberia a considerable number of our young people under 24 years of age spent the majority of their childhood in violence, sufferings, refugee camps, displacement camps, distrust and fear," he said in 2007. "PassportLiberia provides for our young people a forum for meaningful youth development and leadership."

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