Monday, August 29th, 2011
By: Christopher Greco
“In my father’s house, there are no slaves, only servants and sons…”
The story version of Prodigal God traveled to Liberia with my 17-year-old son and me this summer. One of the most memorable sounds from our trip was the raised voices of more than 50 young men who took part in the Joseph project, a 3-day retreat at the ELWA (Eternal Love Winning Africa) campus. During the day we studied the life of Joseph, another bible story with a lot of brotherly animosity, and the guys played football (soccer, that is, if you’re North American), basketball, and volleyball. In the evening, we gathered together to sing and to listen to the story and songs about two brothers and one wastefully extravagant father.
I told the story live – slowing down my speech and adjusting my vocabulary to help account for the language barrier. (English is the primary language spoken in Liberia, but my American English, especially as represented in the story script, is much broader and more convoluted than that of the average uneducated young Liberian man.) I projected the lyrics for the songs, hoping it would help the guys follow the story better.
I wish I could convey to you the magic of the moment when I first detected, two or three songs in, the voices of my newfound Liberian brothers singing along in the dark night. Maybe not so surprising when you consider Brian’s gift, to create singable songs for gathered communities of faith throughout the world. What made this moment remarkable is that these guys were hearing these songs for the very first time. And they were singing along as if they knew them!
Lest you misunderstand my wonder – I’m not describing how awesome these songs are, I’m describing how responsive and open-hearted these young men are, most of whom haven’t yet finished high school though well into their 20’s. Civil war in Liberia raged for more than a decade before its dramatic end in 2003 when Liberia’s criminal president, Charles Taylor, was exiled. Throughout that period young boys were recruited and even kidnapped, and armed with guns and drugs. These young combatants wreaked havoc on their homeland, “killing their fathers and raping their mothers”, according to some reports. Those boy soldiers were the peers of these young men at the retreat, some of whom were “ex-combatants” themselves.
Here’s what brings tears to my eyes as I write this: For all the brutality and evil unleashed in that country, which is now considered the 3rd poorest in the world, fragile hope remains. The sound of the young men’s voices had more than a trace of innocence and awe. These guys chose to hang out with us for a few days to consider how they, like Joseph, might have some role to play in saving the lives of their families and fellow countrymen in a time of peril. Liberia is rebuilding and here are some of her laborers.
On our last day together, we interviewed a couple of the young men about their experiences with us. One young man described how much anger he felt toward the Younger Son in our story. At one level, this is not a surprising reaction to the Younger Son’s choice to squander his great inheritance. But this young Liberian man was not playing the morally superior Elder Brother in his anger. What he said is, if I had a father like that, I would never do such a thing. He said this because he doesn’t have a father. He has no one in his family with enough resource to help him finish school. He has no father waiting for him should he wander far afield. He has no father holding out hope against hope that the wrongs will be made right, and that he’ll find himself home at last one day on this earth.
There is a character in Prodigal God whom you have not met. He doesn’t appear on the recording. He is not mentioned in the story version. But he is in the stage script and will have a memorable role in the film. We’ve called him the Beggar Boy, and he represents a third type of lost son. We know the first two sons well – the one who loses himself in a distant land and the one who gets lost “in the house”, as it were – because their story, for most of us, is our own.
The third son is also lost. The third son is the one without a father. My Liberian friends remind me that these third sons are also full members of the household with a great inheritance and all the benefits. How painful to live in a world in which their great lostness persists without remedy.
For some of you who are reading this, I’m aware this is your story. Brian and I know you’re there. You’re the reason we wrote this play in the first place.
To learn more about the ongoing work in Liberia, check out www.rebuildafrica.org.