Liberia is a small developing country in West Africa. But it means much more to the Rev. Dr. Mlen-Too Wesley, a contributing pastor at Juniata Presbyterian Church and a religion lecturer at Penn State Altoona.
It is his homeland, albeit one that holds pleasant and horrific memories. Days when he feared for his life and that of his family will never be forgotten, but Wesley's compassion for his countrymen outweighs those ghosts from the past.
He and his family fled Liberia in 1991, two years after a civil war broke out that would rage for 14 years.
(Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski) The Rev. Dr. Mlen-Too Wesley is shown in the Eve Chapel at Penn State Altoona, where he is a lecturer and campus minister with International Worship that works with college students
Wesley has returned several times since, most recently last summer when he did research and work to improve the lives of the people who have lived in peace for about 10 years.
He spent about three months in his homeland, planning ways to improve village life and doing research on the country's faiths. He also served as a teacher at a university.
Wesley believes he has a calling to serve the nation where he once had to watch every move he made.
"I faced death many times. Many times, I would be questioned," he said about living under the rebels' control.
"Only by the grace of God am I here talking to you. It is not easy to go through a civil war. You are at the mercy of those who have guns," he said. "Thousands of people were displaced, no part of the country was untouched."
The Wesleys lost their home for a time, their vehicle and valuables.
Knowing the struggles of Liberia firsthand, Wesley went back with three missions in mind. He wanted to gain a better understanding of the role people's religion played during the war and its aftermath. He is doing a research project for Penn State on the subject called Religions, Conflict and Healing.
For his work, he interviewed people from three religions: Christianity, Islam and an African faith.
He said he asked people about their experiences during the war and how it affected them. He wanted to know if their faith helped them to survive and did it have a role in helping them to heal emotionally.
Wesley said Liberians saw members of their families and friends get killed and their possessions destroyed. He said people became angry and found it difficult to forgive.
Wesley also went to Liberia to make a tangible difference.
Before the war began, he established a nonprofit organization called Winning Eternally. Its purpose is to promote education, business and healthy living among other goals in Liberia.
He visited villages and spoke with their chiefs about ways to provide clean water and establish health centers and high schools. Although children receive a basic education in the villages, they move to the city to attend high school and rarely return home.
Wesley believes high schools closer to home would improve family stability. He also desires to improve the villagers' way of life by promoting farming and fishing.
Wesley hopes to fulfill these goals through mission trips with Americans offering their expertise.
In the United States, Wesley co-founded another nonprofit organization called International Worship. He said donations to the organization will be used for mission projects and Christian activities in Liberia. International Worship also serves Penn State Altoona where it encourages and serves students.
Before, the Wesley fled Liberia, Mlen-Too was a business professor at the University of Liberia and through the years has earned several master and doctoral degrees. He used his expertise to provide training in entrepreneurship at Tubman University in Harper City, Liberia, the third reason for his trip.
"In God's own time, we are seeing things come about," Wesley said, who added that the country is experiencing stability and peace. "Now people can improve their lives."