The first time Brother Lothar Wagner visited Monrovia’s central cemetery, it was pouring rain. And what he discovered there overwhelmed him: huddled within the vaults of the dead were dozens of children, defiantly clinging to life despite seemingly insurmountable odds.
Known as “Cemetery Children,” they are homeless boys and girls who sleep in tombs because they have nowhere else to turn. Driven from their homes by violence and neglect, they struggle with hunger, illness, substance abuse and despair.
“It is the young who suffer the most from Liberia’s decades-long civil war, and from the Ebola crisis,” says Bro. Lothar. “The educational system is rated as one of the worst in the world. According to a new study, more than half of the population is ravaged by famine, often fatally affecting families. Parents take their frustrations and aggressions out on their children, and many of them end up on the street. I have met far too many who use drugs to escape their daily lives. It’s simply terrifying.”
Before arriving in Liberia a year ago, Bro. Lothar directed Don Bosco Fambul in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he championed the rights of marginalized youth: child slaves, unjustly imprisoned juveniles, homeless children and more. Because of his leadership during 2014’s Ebola crisis, and his work on behalf of the thousands of children orphaned by the deadly epidemic, he earned Sierra Leone’s 2016 Presidential Award for Don Bosco Fambul.
Now, at Don Bosco Matadi in Monrovia, Liberia, he applies his knowledge, skills and insights toward concrete, sustainable solutions to the many challenges threatening the lives of the young: family disintegration, pervasive poverty, lack of educational access, a broken health care system, inadequate sanitation and poor overall support for their needs.
“They need help from adults who take their problems seriously,” he explains. “And they have not received it. As a result, they sink further into the cycle of despair.”
In this new role, one of Bro. Lothar’s primary responsibilities is outreach. “We have to be present,” he says. “Simply be present at the periphery… so that children begin to understand that we will go through thick and thin with them, day and night. That we will take them from the street and help reunite them with their families; take them from prison back to school; from drug addiction to a meaningful life.”
Walking among the headstones and through the desolate streets, Bro. Lothar introduces homeless youth to the Salesian presence in Monrovia -- and encourages them to seek help there. At the Don Bosco Sean Devereaux Youth Center, for example, youth can receive nutritious meals, healthcare and psychological counseling. They can also participate in recreational activities and enroll in vocational training that will help get them out of the cemeteries and into stable, productive lives.
His success, of course, depends upon trust: a skill that seems innate to this Salesian missionary. Recalling the first “cemetery child” he encountered that night in the rain, Bro. Lothar says, “The child smiled at me. Without words. An invitation to his world. This reinforced my decision to be there for the forgotten children. I met Christ that night, through the child in the tomb. A gift of grace amid unthinkable suffering.” Thanks to that gift, many more Liberian children will discover brighter futures through the Salesians.
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Kirsten Prestin, Don Bosco Mission Germany, conducted the interview that informs this story. Photo copyright Don Bosco Mission Bonn.