Journey to Africa: Part 2 in a series
My trip to Liberia this past February was a series of long flights: From Detroit to Amsterdam to Morocco and finally to Monrovia. Delphine and I landed at midnight and were greeted by representatives from the Liberia Annual Conference as well as a Liberian government official. We expected the representatives from the office of Bishop John Innis, but not the government protocol person.
We were not aware that we had been flying with Bishop Bennie D. Warner, a retired United Methodist bishop and former vice president of Liberia. It was his first visit to Liberia since the 1980 coup d’etat orchestrated by Samuel Doe. The coup toppled the elected government, leading to a series of wars that devastated Liberia until the election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2007. Delphine and I benefitted from Bishop Warner’s return, because we also received the V.I.P. treatment upon our arrival.
Later, we traveled on to Bishop Innis’ Episcopal residence, where we stayed for the next four nights. On our first morning in Liberia, I visited Bishop Innis’ office to greet his district superintendents and other members of the extended cabinet. I then toured the J.J. Roberts School, which has been supported by Holston Conference for about 13 years.
J.J. Roberts School is named for the first president of Liberia, a former slave from Maryland. In fact, the first eight presidents of Liberia were repatriated slaves or their descendants. The school is attended by about 1,000 students who all depend on outside support. Holston helped finance the construction for the school’s three buildings. However, the need is still great for more buildings and equipment. I saw 50 computers that were dated but have been repaired and pieced together by faculty and students. There is also a great need for a science building and lab equipment. Education is essential to prevent this struggling democracy from slipping back into war.
The United Methodist Church has already played a pivotal role in Liberia’s development as people have come to know Christ and become disciples of Jesus. The United Methodist churches of Liberia, J.J. Roberts School, and other institutions have provided the liberating gospel of Jesus and training that helped produce President Sirleaf, former Bishop Arthur Kulah, and current Bishop John Innis. Our support continues to be crucial to Liberia’s future.
After my tour of the school, I spent the next few days meeting national leaders who are also United Methodists. It brought me great joy to know that The United Methodist Church and Holston Conference were key participants in the spread of the gospel and in the development of Liberia.
Four days after our arrival, we departed for Gbarnga City, located about 110 miles from Monrovia, where the Liberia Annual Conference was to be held. Gbarnga City is home to the Gbarnga Theological School where many United Methodist pastors are trained. It was during this part of the trip I first realized I didn’t see any animals! I almost didn’t ask about the absence of animal life because I didn’t want to appear ignorant.
Finally, I leaned over and asked our driver: “Where are the animals?”
He replied, “The wars drove them away and they have not returned.”
“What animals are gone?” I asked.
“We had plenty of monkeys, elephants, deer and some cats – like lions and leopards – but they were frightened by the war and have not returned,” he said.
The driver grew silent after that and said nothing else. I sat back and couldn’t help but visualize what Liberia must have been like before the war.
The next day we went to Ganta. We traveled three to four hours over a road that showed the strain of wear and war – but still, no sign of wildlife. We toured Ganta United Methodist Hospital and Medical Center. All the time, I couldn’t stop thinking about what the driver had said: We had plenty of monkeys, elephants, deer and some cats – like lions and leopards – but they were frightened by the war and have not returned. There was a sermon in his answer, seeking to be spoken into existence.
The call for us to “study war no more” was clear to me. We humans can bring on devastation because of selfishness, greed, and rejection of our own sisters and brothers. We in the United States, who have been blessed with so much, must not forget that Liberia has no animals because of war. We must remember that people in Zimbabwe starve because of greed. We must remember that, despite a population of 1.2 million, there are no United Methodist churches in downtown Kampala, because land is too expensive in Uganda.
Many other realities were revealed to me during my journey to Africa. As I traveled to Burundi, I learned the church is divided because of greed and thirst for power. I learned Rwanda is struggling to heal from a genocide that eliminated 500,000 people in 100 days. I learned that Kenyan girls are still mutilated through circumcision while many in the church remain silent. I saw firsthand that we must not forget about Sudan, where hunger and malnutrition still exist in the wake of a civil war.
So I ask again: Where are the animals? What have we lost, because we refuse to be the community God calls us to be?
Part 1: "Spiritual Abundance Amidst Such Poverty"