I first heard the names of SIM missionaries John Mark and Sara Sheppard at our weekly prayer meetings. They work amongst the Manya – an ethnic group of around 100,000 people, who live primarily in the northwest corner of Liberia and across the border in Guinea.
Intrigued to know more, I arranged to meet John Mark, Sara and their three children when they next visited Monrovia.
Sitting on the shaded porch, with waves crashing on the shore, an ocean breeze gives some relief from the humid afternoon heat. John Mark is quiet and thoughtful, but passionate in his love for the Manya people. Sara is vibrant and full of life. As they talked I couldn’t help but be inspired by their love and determination to keep on serving in Voinjama, such a remote place, in order that the Manya will know Jesus.
A burden for the Manya
John Mark first developed a burden for the Manya and began to learn their language ten years ago when he was working with another organisation doing Community Health Evangelism. He and Sara married in 2009 and after joining SIM moved to northern Liberia in 2013.
Traditionally an agricultural people, the Manya grow rice as their staple crop and live much as other groups in Liberia. They practice a form of folk Islam which combines traditional African beliefs with Islamic doctrine.
Many live in fear of powerful unseen forces and capricious spirits. Although they have lived in the region for hundreds of years, many of the neighbouring tribes see the Manya as invaders and outsiders. Ethnic tensions, prejudice or a general sense of apathy have prevented Liberian Christians of other ethnic groups from reaching out to the Manya with the message of the Gospel.
Before the Liberian civil war, a handful of missionaries worked among the Manya, but saw little fruit. Today, the Manya are more open to the Gospel than ever before. Many are interested to learn about Jesus.
'For new believers who make a bold decision to follow Jesus Christ, the future can be very uncertain'
Translating God's living Word
In order to share the Gospel, John Mark is working with native speakers to develop Scripture resources in the Manya language. To date they have translated the books of Genesis, Jonah and Matthew and these are now going to print.
While the Manya are proud of their language, it has never before been reduced to writing or printed in books. While they hope to start literacy programmes in the area, the Sheppards also know the importance of hearing the Word of God.
Before even going to print, they produce audio recordings of these books, which can be played on cell phones and broadcast over the radio. So far the recordings have been well received.
For those new believers who make a bold decision to follow Jesus Christ, the future can be very uncertain. They face the very real threat of persecution and isolation from their families and culture if they are open about their faith. John Mark and Sara do all they can to support these people physically and emotionally, to provide a listening ear and a safe haven for them in their home. Their numbers are small but John Mark and Sara are trusting God to see great things happen.
John Mark explains that their vision is to “see existing Manya believers meeting as a group to study God’s Word in their mother tongue and grow into vibrant churches, with believers who are growing in their relationship with God and sharing their faith with their family and neighbours”.
Serving the Sheppards
Prior to the arrival of MAF, John Mark and Sara had no choice but to travel by road from Monrovia to their home in the town of Voinjama. Even with a sturdy reliable vehicle the journey takes at least eight hours in dry season and up to two days in rainy season.
Sara recalls the many times when their car broke down, and the hours spent sitting by the roadsides with small children, or of travelling by taxi with a carsick child. 'It was so bad I did not want to make the trip if it could be avoided,' Sara tells me.
MAF now flies to their area every two weeks, with a journey time of one hour. 'The flights are a huge blessing. It is so wonderful to be able to receive groceries, familiar foods and other supplies we need. We can avoid the expense and disruption to our ministry and family life that a trip to Monrovia entails.'
MAF delivers what Sara and John Mark need, and therefore they stay in Voijema for up to nine months at a time, only coming to Monrovia as and when they need rest and relaxation.
MAF has enabled visitors to get to them more easily which breaks the loneliness, and allows friends and colleagues to pray for them in a more meaningful way.
Sara also tells me that she previously worried about her family’s health. What would happen if they had a medical emergency and were so far from adequate medical care? 'It has brought such peace of mind to know MAF is there; they would do all they could to help us if necessary.'
There was a time last year when Sara was struggling with the isolation and monotony of village life, with three young children. 'On my very worst day, MAF called to say, they had a flight coming to Voinjama and did I need anything? What a difference it made to have that little trip out of my house to the airstrip, to talk with someone who spoke my language, even for 15 minutes, and to receive some familiar things.'
She says, 'I want all MAF supporters to know, you are making a difference to our lives. You are keeping us going as we carry out our ministry. MAF makes living in this remote area much easier.'