Three years of dreams, prayers, and planning. Sixteen months of backbreaking labor, cutting through solid jungle and raising structures in the tropical heat. The mud, sweat, and tears culminated in the “flip of a switch” on January 18, 1954.
Jane Reed ’53 waited with the other missionaries, families, and crew in front of ELWA’s unfinished studio, where an impromptu crowd of Liberians had gathered on the lawn to witness the beginning of Christian radio in Africa. The voice of C. Gordon Beacham spilled from the loudspeaker and, simultaneously, over the airwaves into homes across Liberia. “I was so happy I sobbed with joy,” says Jane. “There were times in the early days, during building and difficulties, when we wondered if it would come true.”
Four years earlier, even President V. Raymond Edman HON had difficulty believing the dream of the earnest young men who walked into his office to talk about building Africa’s first Christian radio station. Missionary kid Bill Watkins ’47 was the ringleader. “He came out of Africa with a burden to build a missionary radio station,” said Merle Steely ’50, M.A. ’58 in a 1984 interview for the Wheaton Missionary Sources Collection. “The week after the 1950 revival, on Tuesday morning ... [I said], ‘Bill, we’ve been talking about this radio station for over two years now, and I think it’s time we did something more.’”
The students who caught Bill’s vision prayed together weekly and sought guidance from Dr. Edman. Wheaton’s president was encouraging. Mission leaders were not. “Almost without fail they would ask, ‘Who has radios in Africa?’” Abe Thiessen ’50 wrote in his autobiography. “We felt that the question should be, ‘Who is going to have radios in Africa?’”
The group formed the West Africa Broadcasting Association and selected Abe, a Saskatchewan farm boy with an astute business mind, as their president. Based on radio propagation studies, they chose Liberia as the location for their station. God provided support and credibility for the group through a merger with Sudan Interior Mission. With a broadcasting permit secured in 1952, a radio frequency and call letters assigned— ELWA: Eternal Love Winning Africa—the work began.
Bill, Merle, and Dick Reed ’50, a respected baritone soloist and quartet singer, moved their families to Monrovia, Liberia. Though Abe had hoped to go, his wife suffered from encephalitis and could not endure the move. Instead, Abe became the team’s home representative, promoting, recruiting, and financing their work from thousands of miles away.
For ELWA to launch on January 18, 1954, obstacle after obstacle had to be overcome—often miraculously. The missionaries and Liberian workmen built everything from the ground up, sometimes not knowing where their funding would come from until Abe told them about the next unexpected provision. Once while pouring concrete under the threat of a torrential downpour, they watched God hold back the rain that could have delayed their progress by months. Jane Reed writes in Voice Under Every Palm that pilots flying overhead reported rainstorms all around them but clear sky directly over the ELWA property.
When ELWA reached the airwaves, listeners responded overwhelmingly. Staff went from answering 25 letters per week to replying to hundreds. Liberians with a background in Bible teaching answered God’s call to provide programming in local languages. ELWA Ministries expanded to include a school for children of missionaries and Liberian staff in 1957, a youth camp in 1961, and a hospital in 1965.
Bill and Betty Thompson, graduates of John Brown University, were recruited to ELWA by the Reeds and arrived in Liberia two and a half months before the station went live. Today they marvel at the impact of the radio station, which reached every part of Liberia and beyond with gospel programming in English and 15 other languages. A Liberian prayer group gathers regularly in the Thompsons’ Wheaton home, and the couple still meets Liberian Christians who have been shaped by ELWA Youth Camp. With daughters Judy Koci ’74 and Nancy Molenhouse ’76, the Thompsons serve on the board of the U.S.-based ELWA Ministries Association, which was established in 2009 to raise support for ELWA Ministries’ current needs, including scholarships for Liberian students to attend the academy, renovation of the youth camp facilities, and construction of a new 100- bed hospital.
The radio station endured major setbacks during the Liberian civil wars. Bombs and looters destroyed the original ELWA studio in 1990, and the station moved to another building, which burned down in 2011. As SIM builds a new studio, ELWA broadcasts from a satellite site, spreading the message of God’s eternal love to a nation healing from civil war.
“Dick and I went to Liberia for the first time 61 years ago,” says Jane. “There have been many changes since then. Praise God, the message is the same!”