Questions and Answers with Rev. David DiCanio

An interview with our missionary-at-large has been greatly overdue. Being a missionary demands regular feedback on the pressing needs of the mission, but we can sometimes lose sight of the real man who is carrying the burden of the work. Who is he, why is he there, and how is he coping with life on another continent? These answers will affect how we think about the man and his mission. Dave DiCanio never sits still for long. His energy seems to be boundless. Once again, as you read his responses, you will find that he is still in the forefront of pioneering new methods to reach Liberians with the gospel.

Some of our readers may not be aware of your video productions for our churches and missionaries. Tell us about your boyhood passion for photography. Can you give an example of your first experiments with a camera?

My interest in photography started at age ten with an Argus camera and our family cat. Those were the non-digital days of film. After seeing the processed photos, I was hooked. One day our neighbor’s house caught fire, and I shot photos of the tragedy. From that day I decided to be a photojournalist. The Lord, of course, had other plans, but before heading to college to train for the gospel ministry, I was selling spot news photos to several newspapers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News.

My interest in video production peaked when I pastored in Denver, Colorado. Prior to this I had taken radio-television courses at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina after finishing my Master of Divinity (M. Div.) degree there. I secured a summer internship at a local television station and got hired in the production department, but could not take the job because I would have had to work on Sunday. Back then, quality documentary work was out of reach for the average person because of cost, but by the time I arrived to pastor in Denver, digital video had been invented, and the field became accessible. I felt compelled to use this interest as part of my ministry, and got acquainted with a local cameraman in Denver who pioneered Dan Rather’s CBS program 48 Hours. He and others helped me learn “storytelling” with video. His partner let me do some grip work on a shoot with ESPN Sports and a PBS program, which helped me to see how professionals do their work in the field. This gave me further guidance to do my documentary, Here I Stand: A Documentary Film About Separation & Ecumenism.

Tell me how you came to know the Lord and how you came to the assurance of your salvation?

My Aunt Hannah told me that I had made a profession of faith at age five, and I believed at that time I was saved, however, there was no real desire for spiritual things until much later. Through the influence of my mother, who raised us five children in the ways of the Lord, I gave my life to Christ on June 10, 1983, at age 17. It was also on this date that I yielded to God’s call to the gospel ministry, a call I had been fighting for over a year. I remember the June date because I kept the news clipping from a photograph I sold to a local newspaper the very next day. This was after not selling a photo all that year, which I knew was God’s chastening for not submitting my life to Him. The Lord arrested my heart, and I eventually began training for the ministry, although I was still very torn between the ministry and the desire to be a photojournalist.

When did you start training for the ministry?

I started training the next year at age 18. I was a Bible Presbyterian (BPC). I grew up in Carl McIntire’s church in Collingswood, New Jersey. For those who don’t know, he was a fundamentalist leader and a student of J. Gresham Machen. As a student, he left Princeton Seminary, along with Machen in 1929, when the seminary board was reorganized to favor modernists.

I initially trained at our BPC schools: Shelton College, in New Jersey where I got my B.A. in Bible with a minor in history, and then Faith Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where I worked towards my M. Div. degree, a requirement for the BPC ministry. A semester before finishing, Faith Seminary was struggling to get teachers, and so I was led of the Lord to transfer to Bob Jones University’s (BJU) seminary in Greenville, South Carolina. I lost most of my credits from Faith Seminary, but was able to finish my M. Div. in two years at BJU. While in Greenville, I attended the local Bible Presbyterian Church, but it soon closed. Through Dr. McIntire’s friendship with Dr. Ian Paisley, the founder of the FPC, I knew of the Free Presbyterian Church, and I had also attended a few meetings under Rev. John Greer in Pennsylvania during my Faith Seminary days. So I began to attend Faith Free Presbyterian Church in Greenville under Dr. Alan Cairns. I felt comfortable there because it was a church that took a separatist stand like the BPC. In the providence of God, and through His leading, I eventually joined the church, and applied to be a minister in the FPC.

You eventually graduated from Geneva Reformed Seminary, what was the highlight of your years of study?

I think the highlight was seeing the importance of knowing and preaching theology. Also, I found my heart warmed by the doctrines of grace, which I did not understand when I first arrived at the Free Church. Actually, when I applied for the ministry of the FPC, I felt so deficient in my grasp of theology, especially a Christ-centered approach to preaching, that I requested the presbytery commission to allow me to study in their seminary, even though I already had completed nearly two M. Divs. Dr. Cairns taught us for the first year before he retired, and then FPC ministers came in from around the country every two weeks to teach us.

The Lord gave you a passion to minister to young people. This was evident at the various youth camps in which you assisted and in your work with youth in Denver, Colorado after the Columbine school massacre. How did you become engaged in missionary work in Liberia and what opportunities do you have to work with young Liberians?

My involvement in missionary work goes back to photography again, because George McConnell, the chairman of the Missionary Council in Northern Ireland, and Presbytery Missions Officer, had seen my 10th Anniversary FPC Camp video, and invited me to Kenya to do the project, Mission to Africa. I had visited Kenya in my late teens shortly after my call to the ministry, but this later visit, and the regular influence of George were the Lord’s means of opening my heart to labor as a “missionary-at-large.” I never had applied initially to the FPC to be a pastor, but rather to be an evangelist.

After I left Denver in 2007, I spent three years in Kenya teaching in the BCFC Bible college there. The following year (2011), the Lord opened the door to Liberia where I have been for five and a half years.

I suppose you could say I have opportunities to work with “young Liberians” since half the population is under age 18, because so many older people died during the civil war. My main influence with the youth is in the Sunday school where I teach a group of about 15 students aged 14 to 22. They’ve been doing a great job learning the Shorter Catechism and Reformed theology. We are also doing some church history, especially Liberian church history. I also preach most Sundays. Much of my work currently, however, involves overseeing the construction project on our missionary housing, and government paperwork for our Non-Governmental Organization (NGO).

Tell us about the opportunities for radio ministry in Liberia. Why is radio still “king of media” there?

We are currently running two 15-minute broadcasts sponsored by Let the Bible Speak in Northern Ireland. One program airs daily on a large Christian station in Monrovia, the capital city where we missionaries are located. That signal reaches about one quarter of the population of Liberia. The second program airs nationwide four days per week on the government station. Liberia has no internal mail service, but lots of people send texts through our “golden” number 664422 to say they are blessed by the broadcast.

Radio is “king” here because so few people have money for satellite television and the Internet, which is fairly slow. Everyone has a cell phone with an FM tuner, so everyone listens to radio—everyone!

Would you be able to maintain a 24/7 broadcast if the mission had its own station? Would you even consider such a venture?

It is funny you should ask this question because I have been “informally” (meaning I have not officially presented this idea to the Mission Board yet) trying to acquire an FM frequency from the Liberian government for over two years now. We have already received a permit from the Ministry of Information to erect a tower and radio station on our property in Dwazon, and we have sourced locally a 150-foot tower. We are also getting help from Randy Cornelius, a BJU graduate who runs Harbour Light of the Windwards in Carriacou, Grenada. Randy is providing us with much of the programming, except for the preaching, which will be from our FPC ministers.

But could we maintain it? I believe we could. Radio is automated today; the computer does almost everything for you. You just stack the material into the lineup and it plays. Of course, you can cut in with live programming, like a call-in program, but the computer is the key. It even retrieves and downloads daily shows for you, and sends you an email if it cannot find the right program.

Should we consider this venture? Absolutely! There is so much foolish talk on radio today, both in the secular and Christian realm. Why shouldn’t we broadcast our FPC sermons to the 1.5 million people in the greater Monrovia area? It would be challenging, but it is by far the most efficient way to spread the gospel and plant churches, especially in a country that is almost exclusively oriented toward radio for information.

Readers will know that Liberia is one of the most Americanized countries in Africa, yet what do you miss most about life in the USA?

That’s true. Liberia’s history is linked with early American history. I am happy to have grown up as an American because it is important to know the non-revisionist history of America, especially when you work among Africans. Many have been taught so much about “imperialist” America, and have failed to understand the godly influence of the Ulster Scots, Puritans, and others upon early American history—especially when it comes to Christian efforts to end slavery. Of course, freed American slaves under the direction of the American Colonization Society (ACS) settled and founded Liberia. A number of members of the ACS were believers, and a large number of settlers were as well. Liberia, therefore, has a godly heritage. Unfortunately, that heritage has been mostly rewritten in the school textbooks here to convey that the settlers were racists who looked down upon the “uncivilized-heathen-African” by preaching the gospel and spreading western civilization. The settlers did have something of a Protestant work ethic, and were therefore prosperous, but this success caused a rift with the egalitarian-minded West African natives. This tension eventually brought about the recent 14-year civil war.

Naturally the war destroyed the country, and so what I miss most about life in the USA is the stability, organization, and quality of life. I mean no offense to Liberians, but life here is challenging. It is very difficult to find good workers to handle basic maintenance, and it’s even more difficult to get them to show up on time, even if you pay them well, although we have been fortunate to find some very good workers ourselves. Not all of this is the result of the war. Some of it results from a lack of gospel influence (i.e. revival) upon the culture. I realize that America is going the same way, especially evidenced among “college snowflakes” (Google it!), yet there seems to be a greater degree of common grace at work in western society.

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By Ian Goligher

Rev. Ian Goligher is the pastor of Cloverdale FPC, Vancouver, BC. He was Editor of Current from 2014 to 2019.