The Rev. Macdilla "Mac" Milton is 60 years old, young-looking 60.
But, she says, laughing, "I'd look even better if it wasn't for the war."
The United Methodist minister can laugh a little now. First she had to survive a decade's worth of experiences that were anything but amusing.
The last 14 months have been especially tough on her. In that time, she has witnessed mass slaughter during a civil war in her native Liberia. She fled her homeland while her two daughters and five grandchildren escaped to Ghana.
And now Milton is trying to eke out a living as the pastor of West Liberty and Brown's Chapel United Methodist churches, two small parishes in Howard County. She hopes to raise enough money to get an apartment and a car, and to help support her family in Ghana.
She shares an apartment in Columbia with three relatives who also fled the war in Liberia. Her husband, a Liberian government official, died in 1983.
"I'm a woman of prayer and faith, and my faith is so strong that, even amidst trouble, there's peace in my soul and my heart," Milton says, explaining how she has endured.
A civil war between the government and rebel groups began 20 months ago in Liberia, the West African republic settled in the early 1800s as a haven for freed American slaves. More than 10,000 civilians have died in the violence, and about half of
Liberia's 2.5 million citizens have become refugees. The country is a human rights nightmare.
However, the fighting appeared to be winding down last week, as a U.S.-backed peacekeeping force of West African nations gained control over the warring factions.
As outspoken opponents of the government, Liberian clergy found themselves in the middle of the conflict. Many churches were shut down.
Milton, the pastor of First United Methodist Church in the capital city of Monrovia, had a prominent pulpit from which to denounce the government. She often spoke against the Liberian leaders for their corruption and disregard of a population suffering in a wretched economy.
The pastor was well-known also for her work as a Liberian legislator in the late 1970s. She represented, of all places, Maryland County.
Her tenure in government was brief. In 1980, an uprising of indigenous tribes led by Samuel Doe resulted in a bloody, successful coup and the jailing of all the legislators.
All but one.
"Before the legislators were put in jail, we were to be taken to see the new minister of justice, a vicious man," Milton recalls. "I had been praying to God that if I lived through this ordeal, I would become a pastor. I'd felt a call to the ministry when I was a young woman, but I ignored it to enter political work."
According to Milton, when the legislators were ushered into the justice minister's office, he glowered at her and said to his aides, "Why is this woman here? Send her away."
Milton, raised as a Methodist, went away to the denomination's Wesleyan Theological Seminary in Washington. She graduated in 1985 and, returning to Monrovia, became the pastor of First United Methodist.
The church parsonage would be the scene of a terrifying drama for Milton and other Liberians in July of 1990.
Fighting was heavy in the area. There was a 6 p.m. curfew, but, Milton says, "no one ever dared to go outside because there were government soldiers and rebels fighting right below your window."
One particularly bad night, about 50 of Milton's parishioners, including her family, came to the parsonage for shelter, she recalls. About 900 people had sought safety at a Lutheran church across the street, and another 1,000 went to First United Methodist, next to the parsonage.
At midnight, Milton and the others in the parsonage saw government soldiers shooting into the Lutheran church across the street. They listened, Milton says, to "those awful sounds" -- gunfire and screams -- until they stopped four hours later.
"We prayed and prayed that those people were all right," says Milton. "But when the sun came up, we saw bodies hanging out of the church windows, thrown around on the lawn, just strewn everywhere. It was a massacre. The newspapers said 700 people were killed, but I believe it was more."
That day, Milton, the 50 people in the parsonage and hundreds who had been hiding in the Methodist church walked 10 miles to the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia. They joined thousands of others at a refugee camp behind the embassy building, which was heavily guarded by Marines.
Soon Milton and many other refugees boarded boats for Nigeria and Ghana, where they lived in camps where food and medicine were scarce, but hunger and dehydration were widespread.
In September 1990, Milton and her family were taken in by relatives who had an apartment in Ghana. Three months later, as her family stayed behind, Milton left Ghana and came to the United States, where her three relatives had recently found the Columbia apartment.