Sitting in his office in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the summer of 2003, Samuel Reeves received an unexpected phone call. A committee from Providence Baptist Church in Monrovia, Liberia, had unanimously elected him to be the congregation’s twenty-third pastor since its 1821 founding. Reeves was flabbergasted. Though he attended Providence Baptist Church with his grandmother as a child and later even served as its associate minister and then acting pastor, Reeves had been living in the United States since the beginning of Liberia’s first civil war in 1989. He had earned an M.Div. (1997) and D.Min. (2002) from Princeton Theological Seminary, and accepted a call to Madison Square Church, a multi-racial Christian Reformed church in Grand Rapids.
Reeves and his family were happy in western Michigan. As co-pastor at Madison, he had helped grow the church from approximately 800 members when he arrived in 1997 to approximately 3,500 members by 2005, resulting in the church increasing their worship services from two to four services a week. As the pastor in charge of evangelism and racial reconciliation, Reeves initiated a sister church partnership between Madison and Providence, leading a small contingent of Madison’s lay leaders to Liberia every year. Despite this partnership, however, Reeves had never considered leaving his pastorate at Madison to return to Liberia. “I didn’t want or plan to go back to Liberia. Things were great at Madison. My first reaction to the phone call was that they must be crazy. I wasn’t going anywhere!”
While Reeves felt strongly that he could not leave the ministry at Madison, he nevertheless asked the committee from Providence Baptist for time to pray and discern. They were willing to wait. Over the next year and a half, he and his family did pray for discernment. Reeves discovered that his heart became “more and more satisfied with the thought of returning to Providence.” He attributes this growing willingness to return to Liberia to God’s relentless prodding, since there was nothing extrinsically motivating him to accept the position at Providence. “I had everything I wanted and needed, so to speak, at Madison—a good job, a good income, security, retirement, etc. At Providence, I had nothing. When the committee told me what they were able to give as remuneration...it wasn’t even buying my soda every week in Michigan. But God made it more apparent,” he explains.
Ministry for the Community: Microbusinesses and Meals
In 2005, Reeves accepted the pastorate at Providence Baptist Church and returned to Liberia, where he was joined two years later by his wife and son. When he arrived, the nation had just ended its second civil war and “the infrastructure was very poor.” Reeves immediately got to work shaping the church’s ministry to address the social, economic, and religious needs of its community. Using the model for community ministry he learned and implemented at Madison, as well as principles derived from the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), Reeves began LEAD INC. (Liberia Entrepreneurial and Asset Development In the Name of Christ), a ministry that sought to help small and medium-sized Christian business owners become better entrepreneurs and business people. Since 2005, LEAD INC. has opened offices in six of the fifteen counties in Liberia, offering training, mentoring, advocacy, and access to capital to more than 2,000 Liberian men and women who own micro, small, and medium businesses.
In addition to LEAD INC., Reeves and his ministry team also developed the Gospel Hot Meal Service, a community outreach ministry that serves 500 underprivileged men, women, and children dinner every Friday evening following a short worship service. In addition to providing members of the community with a dignified meal (Reeves and other church staff and volunteers serve participants seated at tables furnished with linens in a decorated room), the church also invites attendees to come to weekday individual and small group counseling sessions for employment assistance. “The goal of the ministry is to help the people get back into society as productive men and women,” says Reeves.
Through the Gospel Hot Meal Service, Providence Baptist has helped several unemployed men and women secure jobs. Two Hot Meal participants now work for the church’s property department, and others have begun their own shoe shining services on the corners in Monrovia. While some of the Hot Meal participants have begun attending church services because of the outreach ministry, Reeves says the real success of the ministry can be seen in their lifestyle changes. “The same people who would pick your pocket on the street aren’t doing that anymore,” explained Reeves.
Ministry in Community: It’s about Partnership
Reeves has also sought to build and maintain relationships with other churches and institutions. In addition to continuing the partnership with Madison Square Church in Grand Rapids, Providence has also forged a sister church relationship with Shiloh Baptist Church in Trenton, New Jersey, and its pastor and Princeton Seminary graduate and trustee, Darrell Armstrong. For the last three years, ministry leaders from Shiloh have visited Providence and partnered with its ministers to do everything from evangelistic outreach to medical ministry to education and training for local teachers.
As with Providence’s relationship with Madison, the goal of the church partnership with Shiloh is for both congregations to learn from each other’s ministry models. Reeves emphasizes that international church partnerships, like any other kind of partnership, must be mutual. He laments that all too often mission groups coming from the United States to Liberia or other communities different than their own embark with the mindset that they are bringing what the people need; that they have all the answers. Reeves explains, however, that true partnership is based on mutual learning. “Real partnership happens when we sit down with the understanding that I don’t know it all; I’m not bringing all the answers. Real partnership happens when we realize that both parties bring something to the table.” Reeves argues that this kind of cross-cultural, mutual partnership benefits both parties by first and foremost challenging their myopic views of God. “In opening ourselves to learn about God from other cultures, we realize that God is far bigger than our own culture.” Reeves maintains that this realization can help us appreciate and embrace different kinds of ministry.
In addition to developing relationships with other churches, Reeves has also striven to develop cross-cultural, mutual relationships through participating in Princeton Seminary’s international field education program. He has supervised three PTS summer field education interns since 2010 and has found the experience to be incredibly enlightening for both Providence Baptist Church and the interns. “It’s really a mutual learning experience—the intern becomes a better minister, and the ministry they leave back in Liberia is a better ministry because they’ve been a part of it,” he affirms, pointing to one former PTS intern, Marsha Scipio (M.Div., 2012), as a primary example. “Marsha has a legacy at our church. She helped us see the need to have a youth church by itself, outside of the regular church—to have a church planned and run for and by young people themselves. We have a youth church today because of her passion for youth ministry.” Reeves hopes that Princeton Seminary will continue to expand its international field education program so that more students and churches can form relationships like those Providence Baptist has formed with its PTS interns. He also hopes that other churches in Liberia will supervise PTS field education students so that both parties may be mutually blessed.
Reeves is not afraid to confess that, at nearly 193 years old, Providence Baptist Church, like most old churches, is steeped in a rich yet at times immobilizing tradition. He admits that one of his greatest challenges for the past nine years has been getting the church to see ministry “through new lenses” and go about ministry “in creative and innovative ways.” Nevertheless, he is quick to point out that this very challenge has also been the source of greatest joy, bringing renewed vision and vitality to the ministry. Reeves hopes that in continuing to develop mutual partnerships with churches like Madison Square and Shiloh Baptist, and with seminarians like PTS field education interns, Providence Baptist Church can continue to learn and be inspired by others, as well as be a source for learning and inspiration.