A Village Turns from Witchcraft to Christ with Help From COTN in Sierra Leone

12/23/10

The crowd raised banners high in celebration as it paraded through the village toward the river. Singing voices and bits of clapping could be heard from the moving assembly of people. It was a day of excitement in the Banta Mokelleh chiefdom of Sierra Leone—it was the day of baptisms. “We had a service, prayer, and song,” says Eric Nachtrieb, COTN–USA Senior Director of Field Services who was part of the recent baptism ceremony in Sierra Leone. “We went down to the riverbank and we baptized everyone. It was good, very good. The whole village was there; probably fifty people on the shoreline watching.”

Every year when COTN founder Chris Clark visits Sierra Leone he has the honor of baptizing a new group of people. Usually the people being baptized are new Christians evangelized through one of the COTN churches that are located in more than ten of the surrounding villages near COTN’s ministry center in Sierra Leone. This year, Eric Nachtrieb and COTN–USA Area Community Representative in Oregon, Matt Payne, had the opportunity to baptize while visiting Sierra Leone with Chris.

The experience was especially extraordinary because involved in the baptism ceremony were people from a village called Hemabu, known throughout the chiefdom as being the center of witchcraft. “Witchcraft in a West African context is the belief that spiritual forces and beings can be appealed to, usually with the involvement of some kind of intermediary, to either help people or hurt them,” says Mark Drennan, COTN–International Sierra Leone Liaison. “There are different types of ‘intermediaries’ and so there are many different names for them. For example, juju-men, morimen, witches. Typically someone may tie a ‘juju’ charm around the wrists of their child to protect them from illness or someone may be told to sacrifice a chicken to ensure their success at work. Sometimes group actions are prescribed. In Hemabu, the traditional belief has been that everyone must remove their shoes before entering the village.”

Hemabu is about eight miles away from COTN’s ministry center in Sierra Leone—currently too far of a walk for COTN to start a Village Partnership Program or for national staff to try to plant a church. But about a year ago, during a festival involving all of the COTN village churches, a few Christians from Hemabu made the trip to COTN to ask for help with starting a church. “They felt very isolated because there was only a Muslim mosque in Hemabu and people were afraid to come to the village because they were known for witchcraft,” Mark says. “They wanted someone to come and help encourage them and give them better training in the Bible.” Since then, COTN–Sierra Leone Head of Evangelism Rev. James Conteh, along with other COTN–Sierra Leone staff, have visited a few times to talk about God and the Bible.

Because of those visits, people have come to know Christ and were anxious to join others from Banta Mokelleh in the recent baptism ceremony. “They launched a church and this was one of the first baptisms that they’ve done,” Chris Clark says. “That was incredible.”

About thirty people from all different villages, along with family and friends, made the trip to the village of Senehun, where there is a shallow river. After a worship service, prayers, and songs, everyone paraded down to the water. “Their testimony to the village was awesome,” Eric says. “They’re not shy about taking a stand in that village; they were very bold and courageous, that was very neat to see. It was quite a contrast to how we can be here in the US sometimes. We invite our friend and family to come see baptisms, but this was like going through your neighborhood and asking them all to come.”

Though a large crowd watched, it was still a very personal experience for those being baptized. “We worked with translators and had people share their stories about how they came to Christ and what this means before we baptized them,” Eric says. “It was very special to be included in that part of their spiritual journey. It was really the highlight of our trip for me personally.”

And it’s no doubt that this ceremony will be a highlight in the lives of those who were baptized, especially for those from the village of Hemabu. Sarah Saunier, COTN–International Education Assistant, was serving in Sierra Leone at the time of the baptisms. She spoke with the pastor from Hemabu Village afterwards. “He said that no longer will Hemabu be known as a place of witchcraft,” Sarah says. “But they will be known as a village where Jesus is worshiped.”

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