RALEIGH -- In 12 trips to Liberia, Jim Perry has slept in mud-hut villages, braved highways with canyon-sized potholes and found himself detained and interrogated for the crime of snapping a photograph.
His missionary work through Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh has taught many Africans to harvest honey, water gardens through trickle irrigation and pull nutrition from the leaves of a moringa tree.
At 77, he hopes one day to see Liberians selling seeds and other wares out of pushcarts rather than wheelbarrows – surviving on their own after decades of civil war. He checks this progress daily in a flurry of email from his North Raleigh home, arranging for a medical student’s tuition in Monrovia or an extension agent’s transportation in the up-country.
To Perry, this is simply how a faithful person behaves. “This is a country where $150 a month is adequate for food, shelter and tuition for two children,” he said. “What we need to do in the church is to let the heart-strings guide you, but also use your head to ask, ‘Will this work here?’ ”
It makes sense for Perry to teach self-reliance and farming techniques to an impoverished West African nation, founded by freed slaves in the 1820s.
He grew up in western New York, part of a family that has sold John Deere equipment for generations. He also helped develop several types of automated farming systems, including a machine for shaking fruit from cherry trees.
As a young man, one in a tiny town of 108, he got wrapped up in a community project to repair the local church bell, and the idea of immersing yourself in problems larger than your own life took hold.
But he and his wife, Kathleen, also chose Edenton Street for their church. In 1833, that same church sent missionary Melville Cox to Liberia – the first American Methodist to work there. The historic sign outside the downtown Raleigh church bears this quote from Cox: “Let a thousand fall before Africa be given up.”
For the past 15 years, Perry has found a dozen ways to answer “Yes” to his own question “Will this work?”
He collected discarded textbooks from North Carolina schools and shipped them to the impoverished West African country.
But it isn’t enough to slap a stamp on a box and hope it reaches a classroom. You’ve got to find someone to drive them for five hours over roads that border on impassable.
“Typically in Liberia, students do not get books,” said the Rev. Bill Haddock of Garner United Methodist Church, Perry’s sometime partner in charity. “They are lucky if they can get a pencil and composition book. It’s important to have visionaries, and I think Jim is a visionary.”
Perry leads the Africa subcommittee at Edenton Street, which meets monthly at the McDonald’s on Lake Boone Trail. “That’s our executive board room,” said Harry Moore, a member who has followed Perry to Liberia.
In 15 years of work, Perry has organized a vast network of volunteers and charities to help piece the country back together after a pair of crippling wars and an ex-president indicted for war crimes.
His subcommittee manages a trio of workers in Liberia who travel the country like county extension agents, pointing out how to make natural pesticides from neem trees or how to irrigate a garden with a 5-gallon bucket and a 50-foot tube with notches cut every foot.
Moore has seen this work in action. “Twice a day, they fill that bucket up, and it irrigates 50 feet of their gardens,” he said. “If they’ve got five buckets, they’ve got five rows. If they can get their garden to grow in the dry season, it’s worth three times what it’s worth in the wet season.”
Many of the villages where Perry operates get electricity only a few hours a day from a generator, and wells providing clean water are rare. When Perry visits, it’s often to find a reliable person to keep his projects running once he leaves, or to find a warehouse to store the goods the church ships.
Developing a doctor
Back in Raleigh, he manages a thousand logistical details from an ocean away. Last week, Perry was trying to find a way to get his third worker a four-wheel drive vehicle and to get another charity to provide gas. “We’re having some issues with laptops over there,” he said. “But thank goodness for email.”
It’s hard sometimes getting Methodists in Raleigh to focus on a faraway nation with no direct connection.
But it helps if you have stories like this one: Years ago, Perry was traveling outside Monrovia with the Rev. Vernon Tyson, former pastor at Edenton Street, when a young Liberian asked them for a ride into the capital. The youth joined Tyson in the back of their Suzuki Samurai, and over the long ride over bad roads, Tyson became so impressed with him that he later arranged to pay for his college education.
Today, Edenton Street is helping him through medical school – a new doctor delivered by a chance meeting with a pair of Raleigh Methodists.
Shaffer, Josh. "To Liberia with Love" newsobserver.com. 1 April 2012. Web.