Very rarely do I come across many devoted youths working collectively, happily, and sharing their passion toward a common goal. If I ever had doubts that that were possible then the youths from Trinity United Methodist Church (UMC), Rome, Georgia, had the right answers as they kicked off their summer tour in grand style, Baltimore being their first stop.
A member of the Board of Trustees at Old Otterbein United Methodist Church in Baltimore, I had spent the first quarter of 2008 advocating amongst other trustees that the request of the Georgia group to stay at the church on the weekend of May 30 be approved. Until then, the church had yet to allow as many as between 55 and 60 youths to stay there at once but this proposal was eventually given approval. I agreed to serve as the group’s point-person and host upon their arrival.
Little did I know what to expect when they’d get to Baltimore. But within few hours after they had arrived it seemed as if I had known them for so long. They took a tour of the historic church, and had graciously agreed to join in on the church’s traditional peanut sales to passersby who made their way to the Oriole Park—two blocks away—for a baseball match.
The energy and enthusiasm of the youths were undeniable, and they evidently displayed their true passion for
ministering God’s word through their appealing music as they hurriedly lined up their musical instruments at the church’s front lawn. They immediately attracted the attention of hundreds of people walking along the streets and driving by as they joyfully sang, clapped, danced and waved their hands up in the air with praise. Others were on hand selling the tons of packet-crackly salted and unsalted peanuts.
About a year later, in May 2009, they made a second visit and once more I served as their host. Like the previous year, we visited Baltimore’s renowned Inner Harbor for lunch/dinner, sold peanuts, and later to the Ball Park for a Baltimore Orioles game, which the home team won against the Detroit Pistons. We had lots of fun before they continued their journey the following day.
Yesterday, I contacted some of them to find out how they are doing and to talk about their experiences in Baltimore and plans for the future. “Well, definitely changing,” says Jonny Williams.
As I tried to understand what he meant, the 14-year-old continued: “I mean, in the middle of this busy, modern, and maybe even dangerous city, there is a church that is as old – if not older than the town itself. It’s just incredible the way it has survived through this whole time.
“And it couldn’t on its own. People did that, and it’s amazing to see the faith that some people have to keep a holy place for so long. It’s just amazing,” says Williams.
Aside from playing the djembe (in 2008 he played the drum set), Williams also helped with peanut sales. “I’m just really proud to say that I helped with your church’s funding,” he says.
While fascinated by the history of the 238-year-old church, the oldest operating in Baltimore, Williams and his peers waited impatiently until around 9:30 pm on May 29 to hear my story.
Earlier in the day, they had been briefed about some of my life’s experiences by Old Otterbein’s then Pastor Mernie Crane. They were eager to hear how I had escaped the war in Sierra Leone, how it was like living in The Gambia as a refugee, and details of my remarkable academic journey in the U.S. I knew I also had to encourage them to work hard in school, and, be the best at anything they do.
Before I took to the lectern to speak to them, I had requested they sing “Shine Jesus Shine,” a song that means a lot to me, which they sang with great enthusiasm, accompanied by electrified clapping. The first time I heard this song was when I was around 10 years old—my uncle, late John Saffa had taken me to a concert at the Mary Kingsley Hall at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, to see youths (just as the group from Trinity UMC) who had visited from the U.S. to perform.
Perhaps that motivated me to get into singing, too. I joined my Secondary School—Albert Academy, a UMC school—choir and was later part of the top “100 Voices of Sierra Leone.” I was between the age of 11 and 13.
As I grew up cherishing that song, Shine Jesus Shine, so have I held on to memories of late Saffa, who was one closest to me, and like a
father, did everything he could to make me happy. Not long after he graduated from Fourah Bay College, he was unfortunately brutally murdered by rebels in 1994 when they attacked the diamond mining town of Tongo in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone and beheaded him. It was very hard to overcome that devastating news, and I cried bitterly for many days and many years.
“It sounded like you had the most difficult time,” says Williams, who plans to become a professional percussionist for the Atlanta Symphony in the future, “and you came and worked your tail off, and you got all of those honors. It’s really inspirational.”
Hannah Campbell said: “My experience in Baltimore has never been less than excellent (many thanks to you),” also adding that she can’t think of a better way to make her Dad proud than to stand on his lawn and minister to everyone.
“Our first visit [to Baltimore] I fell in love with the idea of singing on the street as I saw people slowing down, rolling down their windows, singing along and actually listening to what we were saying,” recalls Campbell.
“I enjoy that so much. As for Old Otterbein’s hospitality, simply wonderful! Opening up a historic building to 60 kids with no previous interaction is unreal. Yet we pray for places to take a chance on us and what a wonderful blessing it has been to stay there.”
For Campbell, it was more than just singing. “Getting the opportunity to do something we love: go watch a Major
League Baseball game, have dinner at the Inner Harbor, and grow in our faith is awesome. Learning from you especially since many of the kids in our group do not understand what Christianity and freedom cost some people, or what hard work and dedication can help you achieve — and you have been an inspiration to many. Because of all the wonderful things that have happened in Baltimore it has become a stop that I really look forward to making on choir tour.”
One thing I noticed about Campbell, 16, is that she sings so well and passionately, she would sometimes close her eyes as she gets caught up in praise and worship.
“Thank you for the compliment, I appreciate it,” says Campbell. “Singing is my passion. I
absolutely love it. It is my form of expression and an outlet for all of my emotions. The feeling while I sing, especially in praise, is unbelievable. I try to honor Him with all I do and every time I sing I feel closer to Him. I can’t describe the feeling of joy in making music but I do pray that everyone finds that joy in something.”
Alex Soto, who is passionate about soccer and hopes to one day become a coach, also adores singing. “I enjoy singing
a lot,” says Soto. “I can’t count how many songs I sing in a day.”
While Soto continues to sing regularly, he won’t let the good memories of his trip to Baltimore sink into oblivion. “Baltimore is a very memorable place to go, it is very welcoming to us, it is a very fun place to go,” he says. “I can’t wait until the next time.”
Sharing similar comments with Soto is David Dickson. “Singing is something that I love to do. I sing pretty much every day for school or enjoyment,” says Dickson, adding that “Baltimore is one of my favorite towns to visit. The people are great, the food is great, and the Baltimore games are awesome.”
Marley Bostick said her experience in Baltimore “was really fun and I enjoyed the people and it was really cool,” adding that “singing is one of my favorite things. I sing a few hours a week, at least just for fun to keep my voice well.”
While she is yet to decide her future plans, she says she loves writing and video games; one of her goals is to become a video game developer.
Anna McDaniel said she enjoyed a lot in Baltimore, a city she describes as “historic.” “Both times I’ve visited with the youth group,” says McDaniel, “the people in the city have been quite friendly. It seems a little more calm and spread out compared to other cities we travel to, such as Philadelphia or NYC. It was a very relaxing place to be, for me at least.”
McDaniel enjoys singing “very much” and says, “Singing is something that feels very natural to me. I don’t play any musical instruments, but singing is something that I’ve always enjoyed. It feels very natural and uplifting to me.”
While McDaniel loves to sing, she has even greater plans – to add value to human development. “I’ve found myself telling people that what is most important for me is to always be doing something to enrich the lives of others,” says McDaniel, who starts college next year.
“That’s my starting point. For me to feel completely content as a person, I need to be finding ways to make other
people’s lives better. I’m sure there are many career paths one can take where you are constantly interacting with and helping other people,” she says, adding that majoring in Social Work is one of the areas she has considered.
McDaniel plans to serve in ministry in some aspect and while I found some her comments very interesting and meaningful for a 17-year-old, she seemed to have a clear sense of direction as to how she can add value to the lives of others.
“I’ve found interest in youth-age people,” says McDaniel. “If you try to help people at a young age and get them on the right track, you could maybe help them from making decisions they regret once they become older.”
“I love Baltimore! I love the church we stay at and getting to go to the game is such a great experience,” says Melissa Blackwell.
Very interesting, and with a great sense of humor, Blackwell would always hold my hand and crack jokes as we walk to the Oriole Park and back. Indeed, she would often keep the group laughing. She was very interested in my story, too.
“It seemed like you came from a long, hard journey and it was a great inspiration to me. I loved that story you told us. I had great interest in it,” she says.
During my speaking, I had mentioned plans to write a book and afterward, Blackwell came up to me and whispered boldly in my ears, “I’d be the first person to buy your book.”
Blackwell plans to become a Marine Biologist saying: “I love the water and animals, so I put two and two together and that is my outcome.” During her visit to Baltimore, she had told me to get her a souvenir from Africa, and if I had forgotten, she reminded me again, saying: “By the way, I’m still waiting
on a shirt from Africa.”
I often miss and think about these ambitious youths and the joy and values they bring along every time. The song Shine Jesus Shine keeps echoing in my ears while thoughts of how my uncle was viciously murdered keeps lingering on my mind.
The flip side is bright. As the bitter memories continue to inspire me to make a difference in our world, and as Jesus continues to shine on the lives of these youths with a bright future ahead of them, so will they continue to positively impact many lives through their captivating music and plays.
See videos of youths performing in Baltimore (produced and edited by Ibrahim Dabo):
Video 1: 2009 visit featuring youths singing, Ibrahim speaking, and the Baltimore Orioles game (Please note: the “Hard Travelers Folk Revival” banner above the youths when performing does not reflect their visit but a different event)
Video 2: 2008 visit featuring Ibrahim singing with youths, a Red Sox fan passing by joining youths to sing and much more
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