Yesterday – Sunday – marked exactly one week since I arrived in Liberia. Sunday is also, of course, the day when good Christians attend church services, which reminded me of the first conversation I had upon arrival in Liberia.
It was in the car, driving to Monrovia from Liberia’s international airport, a single strip of cracked concrete in the middle of the bush, 40 kilometers outside of the city. As we bumped along the road, signs for churches whizzed by every few meters, advertising Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, and Baptist ministries with arrows pointing to the squat, concrete churches.
“See these houses?” my driver, Mark, asked, gesturing at the mud and brick huts that lined the street. “Since the war, Liberia is very, very poor. These people got no electricity, no water. But we’re trying. We believe that God is looking down at us, and He’s gonna help Liberia. Liberia is a Christian country. With God’s help, we’re gonna rebuild. I go to church every Sunday before I come to the airport to pick people up and pray for that.”
Mark picked up the bible off his dashboard to show me, and glanced back at me in the rearview mirror.
“Do you go to church?” he asked. I replied that I didn’t.
“Do you believe in Jesus Christ?”
I paused. I was exhausted after 20 hours of flights and airports, overwhelmed trying to take in my first glimpses of Liberia, and struggling with how to reply after hearing about the importance of God for the past ten kilometers. Mark kept looking at me. So I did something I’d never done before.
“Uhhh, yeah, I do,” I replied. It wasn’t the same as fudging exactly how Jewish I was to go on a free trip to Israel. And it wasn’t the same as attending church with my elementary school best friend after Saturday night sleepovers, bowing my head and pretending to pray. It was my first outright lie about my religion.
Liberia is perhaps the most religious place I’ve visited. All of the formal events I’ve attended here have begun and ended with prayers lead by a pastor. My hotel, like all of the budget accommodations in the city, is run by a religious group, and Lutheran hymns float down from the second floor every morning at eight. On the streets of Monrovia, many taxi drivers have painted religious sayings on the bumpers of their cars, and 18″ x 6″ “Jesus” bumper stickers adorn everything from cars to restaurant windows. Signs for churches are perhaps the only type of sign to outnumber those for NGOs. Alfred Sirleaf, the man I’m working with at The Daily Talk, carries a bible in his briefcase and has a sign on the wall of his office listing the reasons why Jesus died – number four says, “Because the Jews planned it.”
About 80% of Liberians are Christians (very, very staunch ones, I’ve realized), and another 15% are Muslims. The rest observe various tribal religions. Its not that I feel I would be persecuted for my religion, or more accurately, my lack thereof, but Liberians’ attitudes towards Atheist half-Jews is uncharted territory for me. In a new part of the world, where my daily struggles include trying to figure out when I’ll next have running water in my hotel room, I haven’t yet had the energy to test out the liberalness of attitudes towards religious diversity here. But I’ll keep you posted when I do.