All in God’s Place and Time
An interview with Helen Roberts-Evans by Christie R. House*
In Liberia, I immediately felt at home. I saw people and met people from my dreams. At my home church in Evanston, Illinois, I heard that we are part of a connectional church, but I did not fully understand what that meant until I came to Liberia.
Helen Roberts-Evans, Missionary in Liberia
For seven years, Helen Roberts-Evans worked as the director for the Department of General Education and Ministry with the Liberia Annual Conference in Monrovia. She oversaw the administration of some 59 United Methodist schools in Liberia—schools that had survived the civil unrest in that country. Not only did she see to repairs of the buildings and the acquisition of supplies, she also acted as a conduit for conferences and churches in the United States, Norway, and Sweden who sought to assist Liberians in their recovery.
Helen Roberts-Evans from the cockpit, flying from Maryland County in Southeast Liberia to Monrovia in Montserrado County. Helen (not the pilot) is a missionary with the Department of General Education and Ministry of the Liberia Annual Conference in Monrovia. PHOTO: COURTESY HELEN ROBERTS-EVANS
In 2016, a Liberian educator, the Rev. Dr. Sampson Nyanti, was appointed as director of the Department of General Education and Ministry. Helen assumed the position of associate director for supervision. But this doesn’t mean that her missionary work has concluded—this step gave her time to reflect on her ministry and apply for a study leave.
“After serving as the education director for seven years, I know that teachers in many of our Liberian schools need more guidance in how to teach,” she wrote in a recent newsletter. “I feel called to teach teachers and I have taken a one-year study leave to focus on the art of teaching.” Helen returned to Boston to attend Emmanuel College for a Master of Arts in Teaching, which the college renamed as the Masters in Education while she was there.
Helen had studied at Boston University for a bachelor’s degree in Special Education. Yet, returning to places and activities to close the circle of earlier life pursuits—across her lifetime, and across her parents’ lifetime—has become a theme in her missionary experience.
The Journey Begins
Helen’s mother and aunt left Jamaica in 1948 to emigrate to Liberia, where they became naturalized citizens. Helen’s mother married an American anthropologist, a college professor at the University of Liberia, and Helen was born in Liberia.
But her family left Liberia to travel to the United States when she was still a toddler. They traveled by freighter, which had a lot of space for them to bring “a lot of Liberian stuff,” she says. Helen grew up surrounded by Liberian art and traditional things at home in Chicago. Their house was always full of people—foreign students, relatives, visitors, US students. When she was in 6th grade, her family moved to Egypt, and she was there through middle school. By her high school years, they had moved to Evanston, Illinois. She was accepted at Boston University for undergraduate work. While at Boston University, she spent her junior year in Bogota, Colombia.
A Calling to Go “Home”
Helen’s first job in education was with a school in the Boston area for children with language impairments, including children who were Deaf. Yet, she yearned to return to Liberia as a teacher, like her mom and dad and aunt before her. Unfortunately, that was during the time of Samuel Doe and Liberia’s civil war. By 2006, the conflict had ended, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a United Methodist laywoman, was elected president, and 15,000 United Nations peacekeepers arrived in the country. Helen decided it was time to make the trip to Liberia.
Her mother said: “Go back to your country. You will be with your godmother and work in an office.”
Helen traveled to Liberia in 2008 to the place where her family had lived. Everyone she met knew her godmother, Mae Roberts, even though Helen couldn’t remember her. After Sunday school, where Helen taught a lot of children, she had Sunday dinner at her godmother’s house every week.
The Hope for the Deaf Ministry at the United Methodist Liberia Annual Conference Compound in Sinkor, Monrovia. PHOTO: COURTESY HELEN ROBERTS-EVANS
Liberia needed teachers. Schools had been closed during the civil unrest. The church wanted to reopen its schools. Helen volunteered as director for the Department of General Education and Ministry. “Since I was a little girl, I wanted to teach in Liberia,”
Then in 2009, Helen was officially commissioned as a United Methodist missionary to work with the Liberian UMC’s education department. After the civil war, the major task of the education department was to get the schools up and running. Her job description included supervising the building and renovating of schools, training teachers, and scholarships for students. As the buildings were renovated, her work shifted.
The Department of General Education and Ministry of the Liberian UMC now oversees 59 schools in Liberia and one in Guinea. Helen has traveled to all 15 counties of Liberia visiting Methodist schools. Every school has its own local school board, and she worked as a liaison with the schools and the government’s Ministry of Education.
Another Shift in Mission
With the schools in better shape and a new director in place, Helen sought further education in the area of teacher training—“because,” she said, “school is more than the buildings. What are the children learning? Bricks don’t teach.”
She has spent the last year refreshing her thinking and discovering new ideas in education. Emmanuel is a small Christian college where she took 12 courses in 12 months—always with a focus, in her case, on Liberia and on “Mother-tongue” education. She has also circled back to her original interest in teaching the Deaf, taking a directed research course for Deaf children. In Liberia, there are few educational facilities to meet the needs of Deaf children, and those only teach to the sixth grade. She felt led to be part of the Deaf ministry, Hope for the Deaf, in Monrovia—and her coursework at Emmanuel College encompassed educational programs for the Deaf in several different countries—programs that look at how the teachers are educated, different teaching methods, and how Deaf students learn. She is part of a group at the Ministry of Education in Liberia to develop awareness for special needs and inclusive education, as well as for early childhood development.
When Helen returns to Liberia, she plans to work with the teachers to help them understand individual differences in the children. The next step is to differentiate programs that will work for their needs, particularly for Deaf children.
*Helen Roberts-Evans (Advance #3021129) has worked in Liberia as a United Methodist missionary for eight years. Her deep roots extend to the Chicago area, the Boston area, Jamaica, and Liberia.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of New World Outlook magazine, General Board of Global Ministries. Used by permission.
SUPPORT EDUCATION IN LIBERIA
Several Advance projects support education in Liberia in different ways.
• Advance #15125B
Scholarships for Elementary, Secondary, College & Seminary Education
• Advance #3020670
for Construction of New School Buildings
• Advance #3021654
for Sheltering the Children of John Dean Town (dormitory project)
• Advance #14488A
Swords Turned into Plowshares (carpentry program at Gbarnga Mission Station)