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Thursday, March 20, 2008

After a long journey, a return home

By Margaret Plevak/Contribuor

Today Rev. Joseph Tarnue will celebrate Easter with congregants of the Rock of Jesus Church in Elkhorn, but there was a time not long ago when his Christianity nearly cost him his life. The Liberian native believes his faith saved him then and continues to lead him now.

Terry Mayer/The Week

Rev. Joseph Tarnue came to America eight years ago, while a civil war raged in his western African country.
When a promised job in Washington, D.C. fizzled, Tarnue, 55, found work in Minnesota through a relative already living there. In 2002, a friend introduced him to Dwight Davis, pastor at the Rock of Jesus, who asked him to speak at his Apostolic church. Impressed by the talk, Davis urged Tarnue to move to Wisconsin and join the congregation. Within a year, Tarnue became a minister.

He's also the evangelism director, teaching classes to new believers, and he's organized a church choir that sings native African songs.

As an Apostolic minister in Liberia, a country that's about 40 percent Christian, he faced persecution.

"Americans take much for granted," he said, "their freedom of religion, their privileges, their lives in a wealthy country."

Tarnue was granted Temporary Protected Status when he arrived here. But TPS for Liberian refugees expired last year, after the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services declared Liberia safe under its new government. Denied U.S. residency, Tarnue will return to Monrovia, Liberia's capital, next month.

To help pay for his expenses, the Rock of Jesus Church is holding a spaghetti cook-off fund-raiser March 29.

"Joseph's had a hard road, but his isn't a unique story. Other Liberians have stories, too," Davis said. "But he's a king who became a Pentecostal minister. That's a pretty big step to give up a life of privilege."

Tarnue was born a Loma, one of nine indigenous tribes in Liberia, a country founded in 1847 by freed American slaves. He was expected to succeed his father, a wealthy ruler. Tarnue was taught a tribal religion in which gods were in sacred banana trees and local rivers. To groom him as a future king, his father also sent him to school for a traditional education. But the plan backfired.

"Learning to read and write was an eye-opener for me," Tarnue said. "My problem was I looked at the creation of the world and was skeptical that a banana tree or a river would be God. I realized there was a divine power that was responsible for creation, and I wanted to know the power behind this creation."

The school's curriculum included Bible study and, through a friend, Tarnue attended a Christian rally and a local church service. What he heard made sense to him, and in 1985, he was baptized.

Christianity was at odds with his tribal religion, and caused so much dissention in his family and community that he, his wife and children left his hometown, Ziggida, for Monrovia.

In December of 1989, warlord Charles Taylor staged a coup in Liberia and war broke out. Homes were burned and citizens attacked.

Rebel forces moved into the capital, and with the sound of automatic gunfire ringing in his ears, Tarnue decided his family had to flee. In the devastated city, he managed to find 10 gallons of gasoline. He filled his empty gas tank, packed his pregnant wife and family into the car, and headed along a highway leading to a refugee camp. As he drove, he prayed.

"It was the miraculous hand of God that carried us through," he said. "Without that, I would be dead."

With no police force, chaos reigned. Rebel soldiers as young as 10 toted AK-47s and stopped fleeing refugees along the highway, demanding to know their tribal heritage.

All his life Tarnue was told he looked like a Mandingo tribesman. Now Mandingos were being targeted and killed.

At one checkpoint, Tarnue watched in horror as refugees were executed at gunpoint. Amazingly, he was let through unquestioned.

At the camp, conditions were dire, so the family traveled to Ziggida, smuggling what money they had in their youngest child's diaper.

In his hometown, Tarnue preached and baptized, but opposition to Christianity arose, and members of a "secret society" arrested, imprisoned and beat Tarnue and several converts. Learning of a plan to murder him, Tarnue and the others escaped. Eventually, the war brought the family back to a refugee camp.

With no income, Tarnue jumped at a job offered by the Liberian Embassy in Washington, D.C., even though he'd have to travel to America alone. Once there, he found the embassy had no money to pay its employees, so he moved to Minnesota, then Delavan, where he got a job at Pentair, an industrial manufacturer. All along, he's sent part of his pay to an extended family of 14 in Monrovia, including five children, ages 14 to 28.

Tarnue has run into racial discrimination, but overall, finds locals friendly. "Americans smile a lot," he said. "They welcome everybody with open arms. They love their fellow human beings."

Tarnue said he will tell Liberians that America "is like heaven on earth. It's a beautiful country."

He's eager to get back to his family and preaching. With a donated laptop, he plans to keep in touch with church members.

He's hopeful that Liberia's new president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, will guide the fragile republic, but knows unemployment and poverty still abound.

"I'm leaving behind a strong church family, so I have no fears," he said. "And if you trust God, he can take you through."

The Great American Spaghetti Cook-Off/Silent Auction is Saturday, March 29, 4:30-7 p.m. at Rock of Jesus Church, 101 W. Walworth Ave., Elkhorn. Check the church's Web site at www.rockofjesus.org or call (262) 724-5434 for more information.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are a true disciple of God. I wish you all the peace and safe trip. Your people are very luck to have you. I am sure your church will miss you very much. I was blessed two years ago to go on a trip to Ugnada. There is to much poverty in this world. To many people are gready in this world.GOD BLESS all you do!!

March 21, 2008 3:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous,

As a close friend and brother to Reverend Tarnue, I would like to invite you on his behalf to attend a service at Rock of Jesus Church. We would love to meet you and worship with us. Go to www.rockofjesus.org for service times and location/directions.

Peace and God bless,

Aaron V.

April 6, 2008 11:00 PM  

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