Has your dream ever died? Have you ever lost the purpose and meaning of life because circumstances so disrupted your plans that you lost hope? That was surely the situation for Jesus’ disciples following his suffering, brutal death, and burial. Their dream of a savior that would liberate them from the Romans suddenly died with his death on the cross.
Then, suddenly, on the third day, Jesus miraculously appeared in their midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you” (John 20:18-20). Their dead dream was brought back to life and their lost hope revived at the sight of Jesus who revealed to them the marks in his nail-scarred hands and side.
As I look back upon my life’s journey, I can identify with the disciples’ despair. Mine too is a story of a dead dream and lost hope miraculously restored. Mine was a life torn apart by the Liberian Civil War fought from December 1989 to August 2003. And mine is a story of how amid my messy, disrupted and destitute life, Jesus rescued me, restored my dead dream and lost hope, and gave me a purpose for living a life different from the one I planned for myself.
I am one of 47 children born to a village chief who was married to five wives and several concubines. My mother, who lived with the chief’s senior wife, became one of his wives at age 15. She bore eleven of us; nine survived to adulthood. My father took no responsibility for bringing up his children. It was each mother’s responsibility. Amid poverty, each of us was left to face an uncertain future.
At about the age of six, one of my half-brothers took me from my village to the city of Monrovia; he gave me to a family so I could serve them. For thirteen years with them, I was subjected to a life of slavery and hardship. Whenever I thought of escaping back to my village, as others did, I would recall it to mind. All I could see was the poverty-stricken conditions in which my mother, siblings and the other wives lived. So I resolved that I would stay and suffer in the hope of acquiring some education. My dream was to earn some money that would eventually allow me to rescue my mother and help me support my siblings.
While in junior high school, Christ found me and saved me through a gospel message I heard from my Bible teacher. I later became very active in campus Christian fellowships and rose to become one of the key leaders. People encouraged me to consider pursuing seminary education to become a pastor. But I wanted to pursue a career that would earn a lot of money so I could rescue my mother and siblings. I saw so many pastors living in poverty that I thought God was broke. So I attended the University of Liberia, majoring in Mathematics and minoring in Physics.
Prior to my graduation, I had proposed to Ruth, my high school sweetheart to marry her. We met with both parents and set our wedding date for 14 April 1990. I graduated, got a teaching job with a public school and an administrative job with a government agency, and began to make some money. I felt my dream had come alive; it was time to go and get my mother and bring her to the city.
Prior to doing so, I received a one-month fellowship to study in Bavaria, Germany. But then hell broke loose in Liberia. A civil war between the government and a rebel group led by Mr. Charles McArthur Taylor started on Christmas Eve, 1989.
The nation was soon torn apart, precious lives lost, property destroyed. The blood bath that ensued claimed more than 250,000 lives and reduced Liberia to a failed state. My life became very messy, disrupted and wounded. My dream of rescuing my mother from poverty died. My dream to marry Ruth, my best friend, died. My plans were shattered, my hope was lost, and my life became empty and meaningless.
But during the peak of the war, God graciously spared my life on 16 August 1990. Due to severe hunger that threatened our survival, a couple of displaced friends and I dared to cross over from one part of the city for the Free Port of Monrovia in search of food. Trying to be smart, I wore six underwear briefs, track trousers, a pair of jeans and two shirts so wherever I might stay, I would have two sets of clothes. Little did I know how dangerous it was to dress in a way that made it look like I was concealing something.
While moving in a crowd, I was pulled out by an army general who claimed I was a rebel. I tried to prove my innocence, but to no avail; I was destined to be executed. The army general turned me over to another soldier to kill me while he moved on to kill other suspected rebels.
I was thrown behind some nearby concrete bricks to be killed. With an AK47 pointed in my chest, all that was left was for the soldier to pull the trigger and I would have been dead! But instead, he ordered me to take off my clothes. As I did, I kept praying for divine intervention; and kept saying, “I am not a rebel.” As I undressed, a plastic bag flew in front of the soldier, from where, I do not know. He then looked in the direction of the general who ordered him to kill me. The back of the general was turned to us as he was engrossed in harming others.
Suddenly, the soldier, with the gun still pointed in my chest, stooped down, took hold of the plastic bag, threw it at my chest and shouted, “Run for your life!” I was so terrified I could not move for fear that he might shoot me in the back. But he shouted again, “Run!” So I did, with my clothes and the plastic bag. I made it up a nearby hill without hearing a gun sound. Deeply traumatized and frightened, I thought I was in a dream world. But it was real. God had saved my life.
On 27 September 1990, I escaped to Nigeria on a gunboat. Upon my arrival, God confronted me with some deep, heart-searching questions; “Jerry, where is your mother you were desperate to rescue? Where is your fiancée you were set to marry? Where are the resources you were accumulating for yourself? I had no answer, except to say, “Lord, you are right, I am wrong.” At that moment, I re-dedicated my life and my all to the Lord. I soon began evangelistic activities among fellow refugees.
While in the Refugee camp, God opened doors for me to enroll at an evangelical seminary. Two years into my studies, Ruth joined me in Nigeria, and we were married on 11 July 1993. While we lived there, God graciously blessed us with two boys, Joshua and Jonathan. Once I completed my studies, we returned home in August of 1997, and I found my mother alive. After years of separation, I was able to care for and support her until she transitioned from this life to glory on 29 September 2014.
My experience of a dead dream resurrected taught me that God is not broke; he owns thousands of cattle upon the hill. God is enough for my every need. When I abandoned my plans and turned my entire life to him, God turned my life around from ashes to beauty.
The resurrection of Christ celebrates the restoration to life of a dream that had died. The power of Christ’s Resurrection sustains the church even amid persecutions across the ages. The recent murders of Sri Lankan Christians as they celebrated Resurrection Sunday in their churches break our hearts. We lift our voices to God in cries for justice, and yet even in our grief and despair, we believe the church will march on. Just as death could not hold Christ captive in the grave, so He will continue to sustain his church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail.
By Jerry Kulah
April 26, 2019
The Rev. Dr. Jerry P. Kulah is the Dean of the United Methodist University Graduate School of Theology in Monrovia, Liberia. He is also the Coordinator of the Africa Initiative.