Mercer on Mission transforms lives

Mercer on Mission team teaches, learns during trip to Liberia.

By Jeff Brumley

Teaching in Liberia for three-plus weeks convinced Catrina Stewart she can succeed in any American classroom, under any conditions.

mercerliberia1The Atlanta native and resident was one of a dozen Mercer University education students who participated in the 2012 Mercer on Mission project May 25 to June 19. They served as instructors to elementary school children and their local teachers.

The visiting education students were there to share their expertise, Stewart said, but working with malnourished, malaria-ravaged students in dark classrooms without electricity, indoor bathrooms and most teaching supplies transformed them into the ones being taught.

 “If I can do that, I can certainly teach in an (Atlanta area) school where the kids eat three meals a day and where I don’t have to make my own supplies,” said Stewart, 47, who’s working on a master’s in teaching at Mercer.

“That builds a certain kind of confidence in yourself,” she added.

Beyond working at the Baptist-founded Ricks Institute near Monrovia, the yearly trips also have a larger social impact on both the Liberians and Americans, said Mercer on Mission leader Richard Wilson, theology professor and chairman of the department of Christianity at Mercer.

The goal “is to foster broad and deep thinking about issues of culture and spiritual/religious purpose,” Wilson said in an e-mail from Santiago, Chile, where he attended the annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance.

In its fifth year, the 2012 Mercer on Mission program featured 10 graduate students and two undergraduates were accompanied by Wilson and two other faculty. All of their expenses are paid by the university.

In addition to their teaching duties, the group went on regular field trips into rural areas and also met with government leaders, including Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

mercerliberia2That encounter helped show the Liberian government how committed Mercer is to helping Ricks Institute and the nation recover from the civil wars that raged there from between 1989 and 2003, Wilson said.

Since 2009, Mercer has awarded full scholarships to nine Ricks Institute students, Wilson said, and he will spend three months in 2013 as theologian in residence at Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary.

“Each time, I see strong evidence that the Mercer on Mission experience has lasting impact upon most of the students,” he said.

The trip provides academic credit for the participating students from Mercer’s Tift College of Education, said Emilie Paille, associate professor of education and one of the faculty who attended this year’s mission.

“It’s good for our students because they were forced to teach in ways they might have taught before,” Paille said. “And the children got excited about what they were doing.”

Wilson said Mercer is considering opening the trips to other academic disciplines.

The continuing visits are beginning to forge friendships between the two nationalities, but arguably are having the biggest impact on the visitors, Paille said.

 “We receive so much more than we give in terms of understanding how somebody else lives,” she said.

Stewart said she was inspired by the spiritual and social bond she saw between Liberians. That was clear from the way they share resources, child-rearing duties, transportation and homes – even with strangers.

“This is a completely different way of thinking of how you are connected to your family and other people in your community,” Stewart said.