John Gaye was serving a full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in his native Liberia when a brutal civil war broke out in late 1989. His mission presidency had been compelled to leave the country because they weren’t native Liberians. But Gaye and seven other native Liberian missionaries wanted to stay and complete their missions. The events that followed inspired the movie Freetown.
By July 1990, the missionaries were unable to preach the gospel and risked death just to meet with Church members. Food was scarce and obtaining fuel for cars was very costly. The two zone leaders determined that with the work halting, they would take the other missionaries and go wherever they had to go to complete their service. They decided to head to Freetown, Sierra Leone, where their mission presidency had gone. The two, Elders Menti and Myers, took the four other missionaries serving in Monrovia—Elders Selli, Forkpah, Chanipo, and Gonquoi—went to find and pick up Elders Gaye and Nyanforh who were serving outside of Monrovia. Philip Abubakar, a counselor in the branch presidency, was their driver.
At the heart of the Liberian Civil War was ethnic tensions. The rebels wanted to oust the president who gave preferential treatment to those of his own tribe, the Krahns. So members of the Krahn tribe were targeted and civilians belonging to the tribe were regularly killed. Elder Gaye was a member of the Krahn tribe.
The LDS.org Church History website details conditions that Elders Gay and Nyanforh encountered:
- He and Nyanforh were trapped in their home for some time when rebels descended on Paynesville, and Gaye didn't dare leave, instead coaxing Nyanforh out to find food.
- “They were killing people, so I ask him, I say, ‘When I get out there and I die then you will let the ward know that this missionary die for this cause,’” Nyanforh later said. He managed to get the missionaries some sustenance and return home safely—but only just.
- “I told him that I would not go out there again because they killed two or three men, and I’m afraid to go out so I can die,” he said. “Rebels were walking around, and people were in doom.”
- After several days, the missionaries' neighbors planned their exodus. They called for the elders to join them, and Gaye and Nyanforh did. But as the group was making its way out of the area, they were apprehended by the rebels.
- “They came interrogating us—to know where we’re from,” Nyanforh said.
- Gaye remembered that the rebels appeared “as fierce as famished wolves” as they interrogated each person to determine their ethnic origin and other information. But before they had made it to the missionaries, darkness had fallen and the rebels decided to wait until daylight to continue their investigation.
- “All night long I had been in communion with my Heavenly Father,” Gaye later wrote. “Though I was in an inextricable plight, I was confident of the Lord’s help.”
- When morning came, the soldiers resumed their questioning. With just one more person to question before it would be Gaye's turn, the missionary remembered he “nodded [his] head and began to imagine paradise.”
- With his companion urging him to “trust God,” Gaye waited for his fate. But before he was questioned, a familiar face arrived.
- “It was a Saint who the Lord has sent to rescue me and my companion,” Gaye remembered. “He is a member of the church who is fighting for the rebels. He knew that I was one of those been sought for, but he concealed my identity to his colleagues.”
- Nyanforh said the rebel soldier was a clerk in their branch and recognized the missionaries. The LDS rebel told the soldiers that the men were brethren in his church, and without further question, the missionaries were released.
Meanwhile, the six missionaries and their driver searched for the two elders and were able to buy four gallons of gas to start their journey. They went to the mission home to inform their acting mission president that they were leaving for Freetown and to say goodbye. Small delays kept them from leaving until 2 p.m. They met Elders Gay and Nyanforh on the steps. The two had been at a refugee camp for a week and after many days of fasting and prayer, they felt prompted to walk to Monrovia, which took them eight hours.
Nine adult men squeezed into a five-seat Toyota Corolla, and with only five and a half gallons, they began their journey. They believed that God would provide. They made the 100-mile trip with gas to spare, even passing through fifty checkpoints along the way. At the border they were able to buy five more gallons of gas.
- When they arrived at the border, the immigration checkpoint had already shut down for the night, so the missionaries spent the night taking turns sleeping in the car. The following morning, yet another obstacle arose.
- Of the nine men in the Corolla, only three had passports. Of the remaining six, only two had national ID cards that would enable them to cross the border. After initially being told they would have to return to the embassy in Monrovia, they were later called in and told the immigration officers would help them, because they were missionaries.
The roads in Sierra Leone were very difficult to drive on and many cars were wrecked or stranded.
- At some points, there were gaps in the road that the car had to be pushed across or lifted over.
- “In some places where the road is very bad I will order the elders to get down and run after me while I drive through the rough part of the road,” Abubakar wrote. “I was very careful with the exhaust pipe and the tyres.”
- Late that night, after thirty-four hours on the road, the eight missionaries and Abubakar arrived at the home of mission president Miles Cunningham in Freetown.
Gaye and the other Liberian elders worked hard in the Sierra Leone branches. Baptisms rose and the number of branches quickly doubled. They believed the Lord had provided a way for them to continue to preach the gospel.
Later Gaye learned that his relatives thought he was dead—nobody expected a Krahn to survive in a rebel-held area. Looking back, Gaye realized, "If I wasn't a missionary at the time when the civil war erupted in Liberia, I would not be alive.”