Helen Roberts-Evans grew up in the United States, in Chicago. But returning to the continent of Africa, to Liberia, where she was born, was a lifelong dream. Today, Helen is a United Methodist missionary, serving in Liberia. In this special Advent episode of “Get Your Spirit in Shape,” we chat with Helen and learn the story of how God weaved together a series of incidences that led her back to the country of her birth.
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This episode posted on December 10, 2021.
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Crystal Caviness, host: Helen Roberts Evans grew up in Chicago but returning to Liberia where she was born was a lifelong dream. Today Helen is a United Methodist missionary serving in Liberia. In this special Advent episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape, we chat with Helen and learn the story of how God weaved together a series of incidences that led her back to the country of her birth.
Crystal: Helen, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape. I’m so excited that you’re here today.
Helen Roberts Evans: Thank you. I’m happy to be here too.
Crystal: Helen, when I was reading your bio, I learned that although you grew up in Chicago you were actually born in Liberia and that returning to Liberia was a lifelong dream. Can you tell me all about that from being born in Liberia, to returning and serving as a missionary with The United Methodist Church there today?
Helen Roberts Evans: Yes. Actually it goes all the way back to my mother who was from Jamaica. She was born in Jamaica, as were her parents and grandparents and, probably, great-grandparents. And who knows how far back. She and her sister decided to go to Liberia actually to leave Jamaica and move to Liberia, and they did. And when they arrived they naturalized as Liberian citizens. And then President Tubman who was President of Liberia at the time was able to get a scholarship for my mother to go to the States and attend university. And she did. And she studied chemistry in undergrad and anthropology for graduate school. And my father who was also studying anthropology and when he got his PhD from the University of Chicago they came back to Liberia with my sister who was a year older. I was born in Liberia. My father was a professor at the University of Liberia, and an anthropologist in Liberia then.
So I was born there in Monrovia and we lived in the Sinkor area, which is where I’m living right now. So things have come full circle.
When I was only a year old, our family moved back to the States. We had been very sick a lot with malaria and there were other issues. But we went on a freighter. And there were only 2 families in this freighter. Took a week to cross the Atlantic. We were able to bring so many of our things from Liberia because my father was an anthropologist. So he collected as he traveled around Liberia. He also loved photography. He made lots of movies, took pictures. He had so many slides. And growing up I lived in a house where we had just so many things around us from Liberia. We had friends from Liberia also. My mother cooked Liberian food. And we watched movies and slides from Liberia and my father’s travels and our family. And I always wanted to return. Probably when I was 2 years old on the globe…. We had a globe in our house. …I could show you Liberia and say ‘this is where I was born.’ So it was always my desire to return and actually live in the place where I was born. I had to wait a long time for that to happen as I went to school and got a degree in education. When I got my certification it was the same time that there was the coup in Liberia in 1980. So I knew I would not go back at that time. And then afterwards I was rearing a family and simply working and taking care of the family and also going back to school and waiting for things to be okay in Liberia, because then on Christmas Eve 1989, the Civil War started. And there were 14 years of war.
Well, when everything settled down and my children were all grown and were on their own, I decided or I really felt called to go back to Liberia. I spent a year praying for the trip. I didn’t know about being a Global Ministries missionary. I was a member of a Methodist Church in Evanston, Illinois. And I knew that I could go back to Liberia and somehow be part of the Methodist Church. And it happened that at that time we had a student at Garrett Theological Seminary who was doing his field placement in my church, Sherman United Methodist Church in Evanston, Illinois. And he was from Liberia. I told him that I wanted to go back. I said, I need to get you to go back with me because I haven’t been there. And I said to my mother. Like, I talked with my mother about this over and over again. And my mother said to me, “Go back. Get back to your country. You’re going to work in an office. You’re going to be with your Godmother and when a scorpion bites you this is what you should do.”And my mother was a very spiritual person. And so I knew it was all right if my mother was saying this.
So I asked the Garrett student, who then went on to be a PhD student at Loyola, he said yes. He said, You could even work in the children’s ministry at the church in New Georgia just outside of Monrovia. And you could help. They want to build a school there. You’re in education. There’s an orphanage there. The orphans home at the church as well. So between the children’s ministry at the church, the orphanage and preparing the school, you would really have a lot to do. And so we came. He stayed for 2 weeks, had to, of course, go back to school. And I stayed. I’m still here.
So I was with the children’s ministry from July 2008. I’ve seen the children grow up in that ministry, and the first night I got there I asked about Renee Roberts, who was my godmother. And the first person I asked said, I have her number in my phone. I called her. She said, come on over. And I’ve been going to her house…if I’m in Monrovia, every week just about every week since then. She died a couple of years ago at age 97. I still go to Bible study with the children in the house and to be with my God-sister.
I really…worked in an office. When I came I was asked if I would volunteer at the mission actually to work in the education department, and volunteered there and I did. And over a year later I became a missionary. So I was in the office. I was with my godmother. And when I went to a mission station in Banki, a scorpion bit me. So I knew what to do because my mother told me. And I was fine. So everything my mother said really happened. And I thank God for this time. While I was here in Liberia, my mother died. And when I went back for the funeral, people had to come from all over—from Jamaica, from Canada, from France because her siblings were in different countries, because our family wasn’t from the States. So at the funeral her brother said that he was a runner in the Pan American games when they’re in the Caribbean. And I never knew that…that he was a relay runner. And when he passed at the time, and he said that my mother loved Liberia. And she was passing the baton to help. So, it’s really in the my heart to be here and to share God’s word here with the children…and adults, too.
Crystal: Helen, that is such a beautiful story. I mean, it’s brought tears to my eyes just hearing you tell it. And I love how God put that desire to be in Liberia in your heart even as a little child. God kept fanning the flame until the timing was right. And then all of the pieces that came together for you to be exactly where, you know, God wanted you at the right time for God’s plan, and for you. That is so wonderful.
One of the things you had said in your bio, too, was that you immediately felt at home when you arrived in Liberia. You shared some things about why that would happen. But were there some specific things that happened that made you feel immediately at home?
Immediately at home
Helen Roberts Evans: Yes. The year that I was preparing to go to Liberia I actually resigned from my job. And my mother had had a stroke and so I decided to take a year off and I sold my house. And I cared for my mother. And I dreamed at night when I would go to sleep. I was in Liberia in my dreams. So I saw Liberia the way it is now, not the way, which is very different than the way it is now in Monrovia. Monrovia was a small city when I was born in 1957. It may be at the most, before the war, had probably maybe 200,000 people. Now we have over a million people in that same space, which is very crowded because Monrovia has water from the Atlantic Ocean on 3 sides. So it’s a bay. You know, the water is all around it. So it cannot expand out. It’s densely populated, very densely populated. And we have almost 4 million people, now it’s 5 million people in Liberia. And over a million of them are in Monrovia. And we have lots of areas where it’s just rain forest. Liberia is mostly rain forest when you leave the coast.
So I would dream that I was here. And I saw things and at some point I would wake up and I would think, Oh, that was just a dream. It can’t be real. But it was real. So when I came I’d already seen what is really here because I dreamt it. And there was one dream that I had that was a progressive dream where there were children in the forest. And every dream they got closer and closer to water. And then in the last dream I was coming in a canoe towards the shore. And all the children…the children were lined up on the shore waiting for me. I thought it was just me wanting to go and be with the children. But when I went by canoe from Greenville the city in Sinoe County, to Williamstown. As the canoe went to the shore, all the children from 2 schools in that area came from the forest and lined up along the beach to receive me. Just like in my dream. It was so emotional.
When I went back there in December 2019, I was so emotional to be back again. And now I’m planning to go back in November for a training on reading the Bible in the local language. And I’m really looking forward to that. So I really did not feel strange when I came. Not only had I been with Liberian people, Liberian food growing up, but the dreams were really preparing me so that nothing seemed strange.
Crystal: Wow. That’s amazing. That’s really something. Tell me about your life in Liberia. You’re in Monrovia. But are you in a house? Are you in an apartment? What’s your daily life look like? We know you’re an educator. You’ve got the school. Tell me about that.
Helen Roberts Evans: Yes. Well here in Monrovia we have a section call Sinkor. And…which is a nice area and it’s on the beach. We live in the missionary compound. The United Methodist Church…. Actually I think it’s the women that own this property. But the compound is called… It says on the gate: GBGM United Methodist Missionaries Compound. And there are 5 houses, 5 buildings in the compound. And this is where missionaries and local mission fellows stay. When people come for different mission events, mission trips, they stay here also. We’re right on the beach. In fact we are so on the beach that obviously for us the waves came up, took down the wall that separates us from the beach. And we couldn’t even see the sand. The waves were up on the grass. And then the cement tables and chairs that were in the yard all went in the sea. The coconut trees went into the sea. So our yard is small right now. And the beach is…. I mean, we are literally on the beach.
Crystal: Beachfront property for sure.
Helen Roberts Evans: Yes. But it is getting very close to the water.
So the waves, the sound of the waves, so nice to be able to listen to that, to feel the breeze coming off of the ocean. When I come home from work just to stand on the beach a little while, just watching, just looking out on the Atlantic Ocean is wonderful. I feel so blessed. The coconut trees in the yard. It’s just a very nice yard in the middle of what is a very crowded and busy city. To be able to come in to this beautiful area is really great. I can walk down the street and cross a very busy street to get to my job which is at the Liberia Annual Conference central office here in Sinkor. And I work in the education department.
We have the Department of General Education and Ministry. And I am the Associate Director for Supervision for the United Methodist schools. We have Methodist schools in all 15 counties of Liberia, and also in Guinea. The part of Guinea that borders on Liberia is part of the Liberia Annual Conference. So we actually have a school, a clinic, churches in Guinea as well when you cross the border.
So I travel throughout the entire country. If there is a Methodist school there, I’ve been there. And I really enjoy seeing the beauty of Liberia because you have the beach on the coast and then we have the rain forest when you leave the coast. So it’s just beautiful. I really enjoy going around. The challenge is that when it rains most of the roads are not paved. So the roads turn to like rivers of mud. And it’s very difficult to pass. A trip that would take less than a day in dry season can take 3 or 4 days in rain season.
There is a plane that we can use that’s called…. A Mission Aviation Fellowship has a plane that missionaries can ride in. It can only take 9 passengers. It’s a Cessna. So I do fly in that. I went to an area the end of July. I came back the beginning of August, by plane both ways because the road was so bad. So I spend a lot of time just visiting schools, dealing with issues in the schools, teacher training issues, scholarship issues. Every school has a local school board. So I do local school board training, meet with the local school boards about the governance of the schools. We also have events for scholarship. And we have probably around between 600 and 700 students on scholarship. And I work with that, dealing with scholarship students every day, just putting my phone on silent because I’ve been getting calls at United Methodist University starting class next week, getting lots of calls in the interest to the university, dealing with the scholarship issues, building issues—like if a room comes off a building, or needs to be replaced. There’s just so many different issues with the schools. There are 60 schools and getting around to all the counties its takes a lot of time every day working on those issues.
Crystal: So, Helen, you’ve been in Liberia for 13 years. Is that correct?
Helen Roberts Evans: Yes. Thirteen years ago I came, 13 years ago in July. But I had a study leave for 1 year. So I’ve actually been here 12 years.
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A favorite story
Crystal: When you tell people what you do, what’s a favorite story that you share?
Helen Roberts Evans: Wow. There’s so many. When I volunteered for 2 years at sort of an English teacher, or a program that was through the U.S. embassy I was able to connect with students. One of our schools here, which is the J. J. Roberts United Methodist School, which is in Sinkor, was the venue for a U.S. embassy program to have students come. Students who were from low income families, not students who went to our private Methodist school, but students who went to government schools, or other schools who were identified by their principals as having a lot of potential. Needed really to learn, standard English and to have greater experiences with standard English. We have Liberian English.
So the U.S. Embassy Center was a 2-year program. And I was invited by the principal at my Methodist school to be one of the teachers in the program. And every week for 2 years I worked with this group of students. And it was such a wonderful experience. They were in junior high.
There was one in particular, one student in particular, who was there waiting every Saturday morning for me. He was there before class time. And he only missed, in 2 years, one class. And it was because one of his relatives died and he had to represent the family at the family meeting. Other than that he was there all the time. He participated in class. He asked questions. It was just a joy to have him in class.
I kept in touch with him and I’m still in touch with students from this class. In fact, the dress I’m wearing was made by the mother of one of the students. So this student really wanted to go to my Methodist school because it’s actually one of the best school in the Liberia. This particular school. And he was not having a good academic experience where he was. So he was able to come to our Methodist school without paying. He did well. He now is at a United Methodist university studying biology and is in his final semester before he does his thesis. His plan is to go on to medical school. We have one medical school in Liberia. And it’s free to go…a government medical school. So that is his plan.
He even took his opportunity here to take the SATs. He took them, did well and was even accepted into college in the States, but Covid came and he didn’t go. But he is so…it’s just so wonderful to have gotten to know his family, to meet with his father on issues to be here to talk with them when different things happen, when one of his sisters died. It has been wonderful to see how this junior high school student who is now a young man has been so committed to his desire to do well academically, morally, spiritually and to be able to be there for him from his junior high, senior high and now coming to the final year of college.
So having these experiences and there are several students, like, I’m just giving one story. So I’m looking forward to him being my doctor one day. So then seeing how he was able to go to the Methodist school and now to Methodist University has been really great. I thank God for it.
Crystal: That’s so exciting. You know, that’s an example, yes, definitely a life changed, but a whole family…you know, a whole family’s trajectory because of the opportunities there through the Methodist School. And that’s really exciting to hear about that.
Our connected church
It occurs to me, you’re a member of Sherman United Methodist Church in Evanston, Illinois, and in Liberia for a while now, I think you may have a really unique perspective on how the United Methodist Church is connected across the globe, you know, across the continents. How do you see connectionalism in action?
Helen Roberts Evans: I think that is something really important. I heard that the United Methodist Church is a connectional church. But coming here on a different continent and being part of the same global church, it just makes me think of the unity of Christ, that we are one body in Christ.
On Sundays when I read the common lectionary, I know that same lectionary is being read at Methodist churches all around the world. So that, whether I’m in Liberia, whether I’m in Evanston, whether if I was in The Philippines, if I was wherever, the same lectionary is being read. People are coming together and hearing the same gospel message, the same Old Testament message, reading the same psalm. We’re all united. All around the world, we are one in Christ. I thank God for that.
Christmas in Liberia
Crystal: Helen, we will share this episode during Advent. So I’d like to talk about Christmas for just a minute. Are there any unique ways that you celebrate Christmas in Liberia, or any favorite Liberian Christmas traditions?
Helen Roberts Evans: In Liberia we have two major holidays—Christmas and Independance Day, (our Independence Day is July 26). They’re both celebrated a lot the same. It’s really a time for families to come together, for children to get new clothes and walk about, for people to prepare lots of food. We go to church on Christmas morning and sing Christmas carols from our hymns, Christmas hymns, in the United Methodist Hymnal. Children perform a Christmas drama either on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, that day. Aat church, we have gathering with children. One year, we had like a hundred children come to someone’s yard for the drama and also to eat together, to sing together. So it’s a very special time.
It’s a time that people travel to see relatives here in Liberia. So it’s not just a day, Christmas Day. Schools have to close before Christmas and not open until after New Years to give people the chance to go to whichever county and on unpaved roads, getting to meet their relatives in other places. We say we’re going to ‘spend time with’ is the term that we use here. So people travel to meet relatives. It’s really a time of families coming together and for me being together with the children at church and from even the whole Advent season, every Sunday of Advent we light the Advent candle and in Sunday school class and we talk about the Christmas story leading up to Advent. But the children really enjoy dramatizing. And they really enjoy performing for a congregation and singing. And I think that’s more than giving gifts and it’s not the Christmas tree, the gifts under the tree as is common in the States, but more a time of gathering, visiting friends, the new clothes, all of the food together, some sort of link.
How Helen keeps her spirit in shape
Crystal: Helen, before we go there’s one question that we ask every guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape. How do you keep your spirit in shape?
Helen Roberts Evans: Well, I have a lot of practices. And they come from different people actually. One is to say from Psalm 118 every morning when I wake up, the first thing is to say: “This is the day the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it.” And I say that 3 times every morning when I wake up, the first thing. And then I put on my spiritual armor, from Ephesians, chapter 6. And I physically go through the motions of putting on the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the preparation, the gospel of peace on my feet. I’m holding up my shield of faith. I can stop all the fiery darts of the wicked one. I’m putting on my helmet of salvation and having my sword of the spirit which is the Word of God. So I go through that every morning. I know that we are not just battling against flesh and blood, but it’s a spiritual battle that we are engaged in.
Then I make a delicious cup of chai tea with fresh ginger that I boil, cinnamon sticks and cardamom. And I have that while I read the Bible. I start with Genesis and I go through to Revelation. Then I start again with Genesis and go through to Revelation. And I read through every day, every morning. Before I eat anything, I put the Word of God in me.
Then I have my prayer time. So that time I spend between 40 minutes to an hour reading the Bible and praying. After that at 12 noon, I send out a prayer which I read out loud for our Association of the Christian Mission School System in Liberia. So praying for our schools and praying for the people within our school. And that is a prayer that I send out on behalf of this Association. So I change it every day, the wording in it. And I read it out loud at noon every day, 7 days a week. Then the evening I have a WhatsApp Bible study group of people here in Liberia. And we come together every evening for an hour or an hour and a half…sometimes it goes 2 hours…of Bible study and prayer. We pray together, every evening. Unless I’m at an evening Bible service. In which case, I’m studying the Bible and praying there in the worship service. So literally… and
Then I have Bible study with children in our yard here, in the Methodist Missionary Compound. All the children come on the porch every Saturday afternoon for Bible study. The house, my governors house, a weekly visit there for Bible study, and then of course the children and church in New Georgia for Bible study with them as well.
I thank God that I have an opportunity every morning, every noontime and every evening just to stop and focus on God’s word, to be centered on God’s word. As the psalm says it’s sweeter than honey…sweeter than the honeycomb. I love God’s word.
Crystal: Helen, you are such a gift. You are a gift to the children of Liberia. I know everyone who knows you, you are a gift. And we just thank you for serving God and serving the United Methodist Church as a GBGM missionary. And we thank you for being a guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Helen Roberts Evans: Thank you. It was so good to talk with you.
Crystal: That was Helen Roberts Evans, a missionary serving in Liberia on behalf of the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Global Ministries. To learn more about Helen and the work she does, go to UMC.org/podcast and look for this episode. In addition to the helpful links and a transcript of our conversation you’ll find my email address so you can talk with me about Get Your Spirit in Shape. Thank you so much for joining us for today’s episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape. I look forward to the next time that we’re together. I’m Crystal Caviness.