In modern America, poor Internet or cell phone service are sometimes considered hardships. Sometimes it’s something as inane as discovering unwanted onions on a juicy bacon burger.
Annoying, yes, but not true hardships.
Try living in a remote village in western Africa with no clean water, where getting malaria from mosquitoes is a constant threat.
A group of Christians from the Glen Rose area first reached out in 2012 to make contact with residents of a village in Sierra Leone on a mission trip to spread the message of the Gospel.
Somervell County Fire Chief Mark Crawford, former Glen Rose ISD speech pathologist Shelley McFadin and four others made their fourth mission trip to Sierra Leone in June.
They are connected with SPARK Worldwide, a nondenominational 501(c)(3) mission group based in Burleson, headed by pastor Troy Brewer and his wife Leanna, who live in Glen Rose. SPARK is an acronym for Serve, Protect, And, Raise, Kids.
“The first couple of years, we did a lot of humanitarian work to build trust,” Crawford said. “Then we started showing them ‘The Jesus Film Project.’"
This year’s group also included Aaron Judkins, Jay Light, McFadin's daughter Shilah, plus Crawford’s wife Teena, their daughter Bree and son Trevor. Judkins is a biblical archaeologist who lives in Glen Rose.
“We usually take a team of seven or eight,” Crawford said. “One met us there this year. Several of the people on the team can speak some Mende. We’ve also done medical humanitarian work.
“Shelley and I are the organizers of the Sierra Leone mission team that operates under SPARK, that has orphanages all over the world. They have a church now in the village.”
About 1,100 people live in the village, Crawford said.
The group members were unable to go the past two years because airline connections to Sierra Leone were suspended because of the ebola virus outbreak there.
The group usually stays in Sierra Leone seven to 10 days. They fly out of Dallas, to either Brussels, Belgium or Paris. From where the plane lands, in the city of Freetown in western Sierra Leone, they still have a day and a half of travel on the ground.
But Crawford said that in the four years the group’s members have journeyed to the village of Sendumei in eastern Sierra Leone, a total of as many as 600 residents have been converted from either Islam or various tribal religions to Christianity.
The group brought along solar-powered audio Bibles to give out. The recordings are in their tribal language, which is Mende.
Crawford noted that Sierra Leone is the third-poorest country in the world.
Brewer noted that donations (through sparkworldwide.org) mean that “a little bit goes such a long ways,” and added said that $100 in the U.S. is equivalent to about $100,000 in some parts of Africa.
Brewer, who just returned home from a mission trip to Belize, said that the impact being made by the Glen Rose-based group is “profound.”
“The village was full of people who were starving and had no aid,” said Brewer, who went with them to Sierra Leone on their first trip there in 2012. “These guys have been so faithful and committed to feeding people and clothing people.
Don’t drink the water
McFadin noted that the water used in the village “is not even fit for bathing.”
McFadin added, “Even our travel agent says nobody goes there. That’s why we feel called to go there.”
Because of that, the Americans had food, clean water and other supplies shipped in ahead of time to pick up when they arrived. They brought gifts such as soap, soccer balls, chalk — and Frisbees bearing Bible verses.
“It’s very humbling,” Crawford said. “We take for granted having clean water, health care and police. Because it’s so hard to get there and so hard to operate once there, this is why we keep going back. Glen Rose has a personal tie to this village.”
Gina and Sannoh
That personal tie with Glen Rose came in the form of a set of twin girls, Gina and Sao Sannoh, who were born in Sendumei. They settled in the U.S. as refugees at about age 11 after their mother enrolled them in a lottery-based system through UNICEF. The story of Gina and Sao was previously told in a 2012 Glen Rose Reporter article about the group’s first mission trip.
The twins first made it to a refugee camp in Freetown. From there Gina and Sannoh were brought to New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina struck there they came to Glen Rose, and attended school at GRHS. They both ran on the Lady Tigers cross country team, and Gina was voted Homecoming Queen her senior year.
Their wish to return home led to the local connection with the village.
“The girls had a strong desire to go back to find their family,” Crawford said. “So, in 2012 the group agreed to take them back.”
The twins are now living in Dallas, McFadin said.
“One finished beauty school and one is going to nursing school,” McFadin said. “Their mom is with them on a visa. They were always thankful for having the opportunity (to be in America). They were always happy, and worked very hard. They were so well-respected by their peers.”
Crawford said the average life expectancy in Sierra Leone is only 48 years of age. The infamous mosquito problem prompted the visitors to bring mosquito nets used while sleeping at night. Crawford’s son, now age 21, caught malaria there last year.
“It’s very overwhelming. These conditions are still going on,” McFadin said. “You feel a lot of compassion. There were two infants we tried to help that died.”
The villagers have varying reactions to seeing the visitors from Texas. The children who can afford to buy uniforms to attend school learn some English — sometimes from teachers who can be as young as 16.
Some of the villages have never seen a white person before, and some older folks there show distrust for the visitors. Some offer smiles, while others show nothing but a blank stare to the strangers.
“They are happy people,” McFadin said. “They sit on the porch and talk. They’re not distracted by all the things we are. That’s one of the things I take away. I need to get back to that. One woman’s brother was converted, and she sang the rest of the day. The children are more receptive, I think.”
McFadin said she was impacted by remarkable changes she saw from a bus driver who had reacted with a sour attitude to just about everything that happened. He seemed to ignore their message through most of their stay, McFadin said, but converted to Christianity before they left.
“He really saw Jesus through us,” McFadin said. “It humbles me that maybe they did see a little of Jesus through me. We see people convert that there’s no way, other than God converting them, that they would have ever converted.”
Sierra Leone’s hardships have also included being one of the nations affected by the African Blood Diamond conflict and civil wars in years past. Also referred to as Conflict Diamond mining, the wars over illegal diamond trade resulted in about three million deaths, according to statistics posted online late last year by Statisticbrain.com.
Crawford noted that, as the Bible story of Paul described his travels in spreading the Gospel, it’s time for the mission group to do likewise.
“This next year we plan on moving on to other villages,” Crawford said. “Sendumei taught us how to do mission work in West Africa.”
McFadin noted, “I go to see if I can bless people, and I’m more blessed by what I see. It’s tough, but very rewarding.”