He steps out of the vehicle, and the children come. In cut-off shorts, in torn shirts, the village children come, from watering holes and from benches in front of their homes, they grab his legs, his hands, and he doesn’t push them away. This broad-shouldered man with the towel draped over one shoulder, a ballcap on his head, a smile on his face.
His name is Sonnel Kamara. God connected us in 2016, following a 40-day fast. A new acquaintance on Facebook reached out to me and told me there was a man in Sierra Leone that Lulu Tree needed to partner with. At the time, we were just two years into ministry in Uganda, and I had not even imagined we would go beyond, much less that we would expand to the eight different countries we’re in today.
In 2016, Sierra Leone was a dream and a daunting prayer. Now, I’m here for the fourth time, and we’re gathering in the farmhouse in the village of Masarallie. Sonnel’s father’s village. He’s been coming here for 30 years to help his people. He used to sleep in a grass hut, and “I was happy!” he says, sitting at the kitchen table and biting into an orange, the juice dripping down his chin. He wipes at it with his towel. “I was so happy, just to eat and sleep and help my people.”
He then proceeds to teach Steve and me how to eat an orange, Sierra Leone-style – peeling it with a knife, then biting into the top with your teeth, pulling it off, and sucking the contents dry until the orange is a deflated balloon. Sonnel’s Krio accent seasons all of his words, but his English is clear and precise. Mommy Christiana, his wife of 20 years, brings us plates of fried Snap Fish and couscous and coleslaw.
We eat until we are full, while outside the children play as dusk falls and the generator’s loud motor starts to run. Sonnel’s farmhouse is one of just two places in this village that has electricity. Later we gather on the front porch. I tend to a boil on a boy’s hand, and we swat mosquitos and swap stories from the past.
“Ma’am, we’ve been embarrassed by your goodness,” Sonnel says. And then, “Now it’s our turn to bless you.”
This man, whose every request for help has been to help others, now desires to help us? Over the years we’ve watched him use everything we’ve provided to help his people: the house to welcome 20 orphans; the birthing clinic to serve women from 18 villages; the tractors to feed 12 villages during the famine season; the cows, pigs, and goats to feed the orphans; the churches planted to serve also as schools so kids can receive Christian education; the Harvestime theological curriculum to graduate 45 church leaders.
And he has already been helping us, too. On this trip, Sonnel has driven us in his own car across borders and checkpoints, into Guinea and then back into Sierra Leone, enduring breakdowns and hours waiting by the side of the road, staying at guest houses while the car is being fixed, pitching in his own money to help with expenses. And after he has slaughtered one of his pigs to bring back to Freetown for a feast, the car finally quits for good, and instead of going home and sending us on our way, Sonnel insists he continue the journey with us, because he loves us, and we love him, too.
Steve and Sonnel mourn the passing of the ham dinner which the orphans will now enjoy instead, and we climb on motorbikes and find our way to Liberia, then into a taxi with Pastor Zawu joining us. And we spend hours together in the taxi, singing, laughing, and eating bananas. At one point, a boy hitches a ride on the roof of the car, so Sonnel offers him a banana and he takes it and eats it right there on the roof. This is Africa.
In Monrovia, Sonnel calls a friend of his who also cares for 20 orphans and asks if she would mind if we spend the night there. She feeds us and we wash and sleep and then are ready for another eight-hour trip into northern Liberia the next day.
Sonnel was the one we’d sent by faith into Guinea and into Liberia to find men for us to partner with, so it’s fitting that he would come with us now. Yet we know how much he’s giving up to be here. He’s always on his phone, checking up on the church plants, the rice harvest, the cows, his adopted children.
Yet he also wants to be here, and he fathers everyone he talks to. Everyone receives the wisdom of Sonnel, from the taxi drivers, to the young men at the garage fixing his car. And we are of one heart, this man and I – for at one point, he’d wanted to give a Bible to a boy, but hadn’t had one. And somehow the Spirit told me, and so I offered it to him, and he was able to sit down and share the gospel with this boy. When we left, he was reading the Scriptures.
This man has done so much more than we would have ever asked. But Sonnel’s biggest, most sacrificial gift of help is yet to come.
We had spent the night in a village in Liberia, and God had given me dreams of the future. Early the next morning, I step out to the porch and find Sonnel sitting there, reading his Bible. I pull up a chair beside him, my green shawl around my shoulders, the village alive with women carrying water, and charcoal fires smoking upwards.
I begin to tell Sonnel what God has shown me – how God wants us to focus on providing places for people to come and be trained in theology and practical skills, and then to go out, planting churches and reviving villages. It’s a big vision, one that overwhelms me, yet it’s been so clear.
And Sonnel turns to me and says, “Ma’am, do you remember that I’m building a big house in the village?”
I say, “Yes, but isn’t that your personal home?”
“No, ma’am, why would I need another home? You helped me build one for me and my family in Freetown. No, this one is for ministry. And I want you to use it for this purpose.”
I cannot speak. He goes on to tell me the house is situated on three acres of land, and that if we fix up the engine in one of the tractors, it can supply the rice needed to feed the students who come, and they can be self-sufficient while they sleep and train there in that house. He tells me that one room alone can fit eight beds in it. He’s saying we can equip the students to also be teachers, and they can use their church buildings to teach students, providing for the pastor and also for the village.
He’s so excited, he’s shaking. So am I.
When I finally manage to speak, I say, “OK, sir, thank you so much. Please let us know how much it will cost to finish the house, and Lulu Tree can help you.”
He pauses. “Ma’am, I don’t think I need your help in finishing it. I would like to finish it myself. Then you can save funds for when we send out the students and plant churches.”
When we first met this man, he asked us to help him build a house.
Now he is giving us a house.
The helped has become the helper. Oh, that God would raise up a thousand Sonnels, men whose hearts are purely to give. And this is what we believe God has called us to do, by His power, in His name, and for His glory.
The vision has just begun. Won’t you pray for us?