By Erica Hale, VP of The Lulu Tree
He weeps as he speaks of the struggles his people face, and I can see the way he carries the weight of Sierra Leone on his broad shoulders—the way his heart breaks open a little wider every day, making room for the flock he shepherds there.
The word pastor means shepherd, and Pastor Sonnel is a shepherd in the truest sense. Wherever he goes, the people wave and cry out “Pastor,” and sometimes “Papa.” He slows the van when he sees them, rolls down the window and gives them his full attention as they pass along an update or prayer request. He knows their parents, their children, their struggles. He watches for them, asks after them. He knows them each by name.
“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)
I see Sonnel laying down his life as we pass from village to village. I see the way he shepherds like Jesus, laying down his comfortable life near the city to bump and jolt down hours of bad road to the bush, where he works alongside his flock in villages where life is full of hardship and suffering. I see him suffer alongside, entering into their struggles as he seeks out the wounded, the sick, the hungry and the lost.
In the village across the river, he stops to talk to a woman holding an infant. “Take a picture of this baby,” he calls to me, so I do. He touches the baby’s cheek, speaks earnestly in the melodious Limba language to the woman who holds her.
As we walk down the red, dusty trail to the boat that will take us back across the river—the “Little Scary” river whose waters isolate the villages on the far side, he tells us that the baby’s mother had given her to a neighbor to watch as she went into the jungle. She did not return, killed by a venomous snake—and the baby’s father ran away. “She is too pale,” Sonnel says. “She’s not getting enough nutrients. Tomorrow, I will send for someone to take her to the hospital.”
He had never set foot in the village across the river, nor had he ever set eyes on this child. But he would happily give from his own pockets to help this lamb now part of the flock; his heart has made room for those isolated by the deep water and he is already planning how to help them before his feet touch the shore on the other side.
Sonnel spends two weeks out of each month down these long roads, checking on farms and visiting people, preaching and seeking out those in need. And then he goes home to his own family, to Mommy Christiana and the children and the home that God built for them one floor at a time.
We stop at a roadside market not far from Bethel Home after a long ride from the villages, and Pastor Sonnel carefully chooses dried fruits from vendors to bring home to his children. There are ten of them, orphaned or abandoned but now being raised as a family by this pastor and his wife. They greet him joyfully, God has set the orphaned in a family and given the barren a house full of children.
At home, he will shepherd his family and check on his businesses, the lumber business and the developing welding business where he plans to bring boys from the village to earn a living while learning a trade. He will spend hours addressing the needs he’s seen and fine-tuning plans for development. His mind is always on his flock, always working on ways to provide and protect.
I see the way the church thrives, when it’s shepherded. The way the people of the villages wake at dawn to praise the Lord together in the still-dark church, the way the children laugh together and neighbors greet one another with jokes and wide smiles. They know Jesus, and they know the reflection of him in their pastors.
The example set by shepherding is contagious, and Pastor Sonnel is leaving a trail of shepherds in his wake. Pastor Ezekiel has followed in his footsteps, choosing to live with his wife and new baby in the village full-time. They have already taken in four orphans, and he’s mentoring young Dominique—a passionate pastor in training who shepherds the church in far-off Kakonky village, which meets beneath a thatched shelter as they await completion of their new church. And there are others, many pastors that Sonnel is working with throughout the region whose churches have united with The Lulu Tree.
“Then I will give you shepherds after My own heart, who will feed you on knowledge and understanding.” Jeremiah 3:15
Shepherding is so much more than leadership, so much more than a career or a degree or a job title. Shepherding is a calling, a laying down of one’s life for the sake of others, kneeling low to lift others high. The shepherds of Sierra Leone are a blessing and an example of the heart of God for His children.
Will you please join us in praying for them?
There are many flocks in the villages in need of a loving shepherd, will you join us in praying that the Lord will raise up men to tend them?