REV. KEVIN R. Johnson, pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church in North Philadelphia, was visiting Sierra Leone in 2009, looking at places where people worshipped in tents and community centers, when he came to a plot of vacant land and was overwhelmed by a vision.
"I looked at the wilderness and the trees and, in my mind, I could see a church," Johnson says now. "I could see people coming into that church and hope coming into that community.
"I thought, if we could lay the foundation, the people would get the sticks from somewhere to build the church."
So Johnson turned to the Sierra Leone pastors he was traveling with and he asked them, "How much would it cost to lay the foundation for a church here?"
And they replied, "One thousand dollars." And Johnson knew that he could turn his vision into reality.
"One of the things I'm definitely in fear of is God," Johnson told the Daily News. "So when he tells me to do something, I do it."
Rev. Kevin's quest
What began as a social invitation to visit the homeland of Ibriham Jalloh, a Bright Hope Baptist Church deacon who came to Philadelphia from Sierra Leone 30 years ago, ended as an unforgettable spiritual journey.
Jeneen Roscoe, a Baptist missionary in Western Africa who was there when Johnson had his vision, said that "God touched Rev. Kevin's heart" at the end of a long day spent looking at worship sites on the outskirts of Moyamba, a city in Sierra Leone.
"We came to a field of tall grass and open space," Roscoe said. "Village huts in the distance. It was a hot, sunny, summer day. The wind was blowing. We had a moment of silent prayer, and after that moment, Pastor Kevin revealed that God had spoken to him, and he saw a house of God growing up in that place.
"We were all caught by surprise that God would move in such a way upon his heart," Roscoe said. "It was a happy, blessed revelation, like something you read about in the Bible."
The coffers overfloweth
After returning home to Bright Hope Baptist Church on 12th Street near Cecil B. Moore Avenue, Johnson shared his Moyamba vision with the congregation and asked for a special offering.
"To my surprise," he said, "we raised $8,000 in one day." That was enough to not only build the foundation, but the church itself.
By the summer of 2011, Bright Hope Baptist had a namesake sister church in Moyamba. But no pews. "It was a blank canvas," said Johnson, who returned to Moyamba for the dedication with money to replace the torn folding chairs with new wooden pews.
As Johnson watched people arrive for the first service in their new Bright Hope Baptist Church, he saw that their faith had survived the horrific Sierra Leone civil war (1991-2002) that left tens of thousands dead and maimed.
Despite suffering unspeakable horrors, Johnson said, "the people inspired me because I saw hope every day. They had that dogged determination to wake up every morning and see what God had for them."
Materially, he said, people had very little. "They're brushing their teeth and washing their bodies in the creek," Johnson said. "Very few have a bathroom. The majority have no electricity."
Johnson studied a photo he took of a little girl in a torn dress, walking barefoot down a dirt road, balancing a basket of fruit on her head to sell in the market.
"To wake up every morning and have the expectation that something great is going to happen to you says you have faith in God," Johnson said.
Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia continues to send money to the one in Sierra Leone. To date the congregation has raised more than $10,000 to build the church and support projects like the Bright Hope Baptist carpentry shop, where young people learn a trade. There are now plans to build a church school.
Johnson has made three visits to the Moyamba sister church, and each time he returns home rejuvenated by the ongoing fulfillment of his 2009 vision.
"I told my wife that of all the things I've done in the ministry, this is probably the crowning jewel for me," said Johnson, who succeeded William H. Gray III as senior pastor of Bright Hope in 2007. "Not that I'm trying to die," he said, smiling, "but I can go home now. My sense of ministry has definitely been completed."