It was the refugee camps during Liberia's civil wars where the vision for pastoral leadership and LEADLiberia was born.
By April Merrick of Irving Bible Church, Chatter, June 2006, Liberian Pastor Survives War, Builds Leaders
In August 2003, a comprehensive peace agreement ended 14 years of civil war in Liberia. Domestic fighting with rebel groups, warlords and youth gangs along with government corruption led to the deaths of 250,000 citizens, an uncounted number of rapes and mutilations, and the displacement of three million people. Today, 15,000 UN soldiers maintain a fragile peace in Liberia while the country faces an 85% unemployment rate, a lack of electricity and running water and a 3.7 billion dollar debt.
Kokeh Kotee, a Liberian pastor and friend to Irving Bible Church, not only survived the atrocities of war but managed to plant 10 churches as well. Kokeh is the executive director for LEADLiberia, Inc., a non-denominational, non-profit ministry whose stated mission is "to systematically train gifted but untrained servant leaders, and to develop healthy churches in every community, beginning in Liberia, and extending to other English-speaking countries in West Africa."
Regarding religious affiliation, Liberia is 40% Christian, 40% indigenous beliefs and 20% Muslim. Kokeh, whose family believed in a central spirit and communing with the dead, first heard about Jesus as a child. "My father took a job as a dresser in a local hospital. That allowed me to attend a Methodist school nearby." However, it wasn't until 1983. the year his father died, that Kokeh truly discovered Christ. "A friend invited me to a Bible study after my father died," Kokeh recalled. "I read John 3 and learned for the first time about having a relationship with Jesus. My spiritual sojourn had begun."
Kokeh was so impassioned with the love of Christ that he decided he should attend a Bible college. He wanted to share the love and truth of Christ with others who didn't know Jesus. "I had no money at the time because all of the good jobs had been taken by the soldiers in Liberia. I couldn't afford to go to college," said Kokeh. "But I believed I would go and when a good, stable job in construction was offered to me, I turned it down so I could to college instead."
When Kokeh arrived at college, administrators asked him how he would pay his tuition and gain financial support. "I told them God would take care of it," Kokeh said, a big grin spreading across his face. And so he did. Kokeh received a basketball scholarship that paid for his tuition in full. Kokeh met his wife, Nancy, in college, and they married in 1989.
"On our honeymoon, the war broke out," he said. Due to the war, it took Kokeh eight years to complete his degree. In 1992, he and Nancy, along with their young daughter, were forced to flee to the Ivory Coast to a refugee camp in Danane. There, they depended on the UN for provision while continuing to teach others about Jesus.
It was in these camps that the burden for pastoral leadership in Liberia began, the fruit of which was LEADLiberia, Inc. “Many important things happened during that time,” said Kokeh. “We continued to pray and teach others about God, and the hope he brings. Nancy and I were blessed with two more daughters. And we planted seeds—10 churches—by the time we left the camp."
IRVING BIBLE CHURCH
In 1995, Kokeh met IBC's executive pastor, Steve Roese, while he was still living at the camp. A friendship began.
"We went to Danane to lead a pastoral training and encouragement conference for pastors living in the refugee camps," said Steve. "Kokeh stood out immediately as a man of deep heart, real-life wisdom and respected leadership. He trusts God, thinks practically and never gives up. On the front lines of the pastorate I know no one more courageous or faithful."
Steve talked with Kokeh about attending Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS). "When Steve told me about Dallas Theological Seminary, I had a great conviction to go but normally would never be able to," Kokeh said. Two years later, through the generosity of many IBC families and others in the Dallas area, Kokeh was able to attend DTS, one of only four full scholarships given by that institution that year. Kokeh summarized what he considered great lessons learned at DTS: servant leadership and living by example.
THE RETURN HOME
Although Kokeh had found new friends, and a safe and comfortable home in the United States, he remained focused on Liberia. During every break at DTS, families would pool their money and send Kokeh back to the despair and difficulty of Liberia to be with his family.
Immediately following his graduation from seminary, and in spite of renewed fighting, Koheh returned to Liberia. "I felt convicted to go back to Liberia and serve my people and the Lord there. I wanted to share their struggle."
So Kokeh returned to his war-torn country, ready once again to plant seeds with LEADLiberia, Inc. According to the organization, "Of the two million pastors in the world's underdeveloped countries, 1.9 million have no theological or pastoral training."
But Kokeh remains optimistic about his country and its economic, political and spiritual future. "Liberia is a Christian nation," said Kokeh. "The hope of the nation of Liberia is the Church."
International sanctions on the nations' main exports, timber and diamonds, may be lifted this summer. "Things are improving in Liberia—they are getting better," Kokeh added.
"My hope now is to train Christian leaders. I also pray that churches here in the United States will support us, that they'll get involved and not sit on the fence, but be part of rebuilding our community."
"Be our champions," he added. "You never know what it will bring."