Sometimes there is an opportunity to document that the power of God is real. The sentencing of former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor Wednesday for war crimes in Sierra Leone is one such case. “God willing, I will be back,” Mr. Taylor said in a dramatic moment as he left peace negotiations in 2003. It was his response as BBC News announced that he was to be arrested for crimes against humanity.
God willing, Mr. Taylor is back. Prosecutors in The Hague have called for a sentence of 80 years in prison following his conviction last month for murder, rape, enslavement, recruiting child soldiers, pillage, acts of terrorism and other atrocities committed in Sierra Leone between 1996 and 2002. His conviction may change African leadership forever, and Wednesday’s sentencing is a watershed moment.
Behind it all is an almost forgotten women’s movement of prayer that refused to let Mr. Taylor ignore the suffering he was inflicting. Pray the Devil Back to Hell is a 2008 film by Abigail Disney and Gini Reticker that documents this Liberian prayer activism. It shows how broken, war-weary women received divine strength as they gathered in Monrovia’s fish market in 2002 to pray for peace. They dressed in emulation of the Hebrew Bible’s Queen Esther, who mourned as she prayed God would save her people’s lives. Some Western journalists described the women praying in Monrovia as pathetic, and at one point the women called for a sex fast. Pathetic, desperate – whatever you call it, the Bible has a record of God declaring love for people in that state.
Liberia’s Leymah Gbowee believes that. Ten years of war had erased her childhood faith, and as a social worker in Monrovia in 2002, she was trying to establish a peace movement when one night she had a dream. “I couldn’t see a face, but I heard a voice, and it was talking to me – commanding me: ‘Gather the women to pray for peace!’ ” she writes in her 2011 book, Mighty Be Our Powers. “That wasn’t possible. I drank too much. I fornicated! … If God were going to speak to someone in Liberia, it wouldn’t be me.”
In an interview she explained to me how she tried to offload the idea to church workers, but they told her “the dream bearer was the dream carrier.” On a Sunday morning in 2002 she was given the pulpit at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monrovia to call women to prayer. The only Muslim at the service was a female police officer who asked to take it to the mosques. Mr. Taylor was a churchgoer; the warlords who opposed him were largely Muslim. As women of different faiths prayed, they bolstered each other in courage and strategy. Some lobbied their imams to pressure the warlords, while others lobbied the government. By April of 2003, the women had obtained an audience with Mr. Taylor to demand that he begin peace talks.
The rest is history. Frustrated at the lack of progress, the women barricaded the talks after six weeks. Still praying in the fish market, they refused to let the warlords and Mr. Taylor’s representatives out of the conference room until an agreement was reached. They went on to drive the election of Africa’s first female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who after a period of transitional government succeeded Mr. Taylor as president of Liberia. Together with Yemeni activist Tawakel Karman, Ms. Gbowee and Ms. Sirleaf shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
Their Liberian story is proof enough for me to conclude that what happens in prayer can be enough to equip us to heal our world.
Lorna Dueck hosts Context TV, seen Sundays on Global and Vision TV.