Education is perhaps the most important factor in lifting people out of poverty - but it's not always easy, or even considered, in third-world nations with little infrastructure and even less peace.
Providing education and encouraging faith in nations such as these is the mission of Pastor Ron Shellhamer, an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, who has made a second home and a second family in Liberia, Africa.
Shellhamer came to the Upper Susquehanna Synod of the ELCA, whose companion synod is the Lutheran Church of Liberia, in 1991. That's when he began to learn more about the country and its culture, and when he became deeply passionate about it.
Inset, pastor Ron Shellhamer. Top, children from the Lutheran Church of Liberia Mission elementary school pose for a photo. Right, from top to bottom: the Liberian flag; community members gather at the mission church; Shellhamer with mission church leaders; Shellhamer teaches a class at the mission elementary school.
"It's a fabulous country," he said. "The people are warm and welcoming and caring ... I can't say enough about them."
Shellhamer has traveled there every year since 2002, when he began teaching 12th-grade English and junior high math at an interdenominational Christian school, and religious studies and church history for a continuing education facility for pastors and deacons.
"Primarily, I teach, but I help wherever the needs are," he said.
He first went to Liberia, a country colonized mostly by freed slaves from the United States in 1820, as a missionary, when the country was in the grip of brutal civil war that had been raging since 1989.
More than 500,000 people lost their lives as a result of the conflict, which did not end until August of 2003, when the two warring factions signed a peace agreement.
Shellhamer witnessed the fighting and its aftermath firsthand, something that still haunts him, he said.
"The human suffering I saw ... is still sometimes hard to think about," he said. "It left an indelible mark on me."
Despite the conflict and its lingering effects, Shellhamer continued his work, traveling to the country once a year for a month or more at a time.
He also spent a span of two years there, from the summer of 2007 to the summer of 2009, and earned a doctorate in Liberian studies in the precious spare time he had in between trips.
Somehow, Shellhamer also found the time to take on no less than 15 surrogate sons, most of whom had lost their fathers in the war, helping with their education during his visits and staying in constant communication with them while back in the United States.
The youngest now is a sophomore in high school at the age of 20, Shellhamer said, adding, "that's the effects of war."
"Only since 2005 is school free of charge up to the sixth grade," he said. "Before that, everything had to be paid for - there was no free education."
Most of them are older now - several have graduated from college and one is working toward a master's degree - but he still stays in touch regularly, albeit less frequently.
"They're growing up now, and part of being a father is learning to let go a bit," he said with a smile.
Things began to change for the better in Liberia in 2005, when democratic elections were held and the current president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf - the first female president of any African nation - was elected.
Shellhamer was one of five representatives of the ELCA appointed to observe those elections in order to promote fairness and transparency.
"It wasn't just to watch for corruption - at that point, (Liberian) society was 80 percent illiterate," he said. "We had to guide them to prevent mistakes in voting."
He said that he saw a son accompany his mother into the voting booth; he could read, so he wanted to help his mother understand the candidate's names, Shellhamer said.
"We had to watch for that kind of thing," he said.
Shellhamer, who has "a special passion for the role of women in Liberian society," called Sirleaf, now in her second term, "a very good woman and a very good president."
He is traveling to the country again in September, to continue teaching elementary and middle school at the Lutheran Church of Liberia Mission in Sanoyea, about 100 miles from the capital of Monrovia.
And although his hope is to provide education that will "break the cycle of poverty, that suction of the vacuum of poverty," as a theologian, he tries to instill spiritual nourishment, as well.
"We ask, 'Where is God in all of this?' " he said. "That's the premise that we try to serve."