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Retired Liberian clergy eke out survival on pensions

The Rev. JoJoe Vah, a retired United Methodist minister, lives in a burned-out house with 17 relatives. UMNS photos by Kathy L. Gilbert.

By Linda Green*

March 27, 2008 | GRAND BASSA COUNTY, Liberia (UMNS)

Retired pastors and surviving spouses gather at St. John United Methodist Church in Grand Bassa County, Liberia, to share their stories.

The Rev. JoJoe Vah, his mother and 16 other relatives live in a house that would be condemned by U.S. standards.

The home was heavily damaged and looted by rebels during Liberia’s long civil war, and now it stands as a burned-out shell.

Vah, 78, who retired from active ministry in 2002, was a United Methodist pastor for 53 years. He has no money to repair the damage to his home caused by fire, bullets, water and weather. Receiving no income other than a quarterly pension of US$60, he and his family subsist on rice, soup made from a local nut and items they receive from others.

His grandchildren reside with him in Buchanan so they can attend school in town. "They live in the rural area and have no means of transportation and no means to go to school, so most have to be here in the city to go to school," he says. He also cares for his elderly mother, who is in poor health.

"The only income coming in is from the Board of Pension," he says, referring to the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits. "That buys just a bag of rice to sustain the rest of the family," he says of the hundred-pound bag that sometimes lasts a month.

The pension "is not enough to sustain me and my family," he says. "With the funds given to us by the Board of Pension, we purchase the rice and keep it in the room where I sleep because I can’t keep it in the kitchen," which is outside under a roofed structure.

When he was an active pastor, a small side business helped him to support his family. Since retiring, he says, "I don’t have any money like before from the business when I was active. I rely only on the Board of Pension."

Offering hope

Stories like Vah’s abound in Liberia. A news team from United Methodist Communications and members of the denomination's Board of Pension visited the Liberia Annual Conference in 2005 to gain a better understanding of the pension needs in that West African country. The team visited cities outside of Monrovia, Liberia's capital city, meeting with pastors and surviving spouses whose pension funds were minimal or nonexistent. Many had given 20, 30 or 40 years of service to the church.

The Rev. Charles Horace says he survives "by the mercy of God."

The United Methodist Church, directed by its 2000 and 2004 General Conferences, has been working to develop pension models to help pastors and church lay workers in Liberia and other countries retire with an adequate pension. The church’s effort, known as the Central Conference Pension Initiative, is focusing on Africa, Eastern Europe and the Philippines.

A campaign to raise $20 million is under way to fully fund pensions for retired central conference clergy and surviving spouses. More than $4.6 million has been raised, says Chad Peddicord, the campaign director for the Board of Pension and vice president of CCS (Community Counseling Services) of New York.

The initiative is led by a Central Conference Pension Committee with representatives from five church agencies: the Board of Pension and Health Benefits, General Council on Finance and Administration, Board of Global Ministries, United Methodist Publishing House and United Methodist Communications.

In November 2006, the committee selected the Liberia Conference to implement a pilot pension program for clergy and church lay workers, beginning in 2007.

"This is groundbreaking and is a celebration of the church’s global nature and that we are in mission together," says Bishop John Innis of Liberia. For the Liberia Conference to be chosen as the pilot project in Africa is "commendable" and "falls under the umbrella of making disciples for the transformation of the world," he says.

'We are begging'

On its visit to Liberia in 2005, the U.S. team met with a group of 12 retired pastors and surviving spouses at St. John United Methodist Church in Buchanan. The retirees reported that the cost of living is high, and that their pension money is often the only income they receive. It covers some food costs, but often comes up short, forcing retirees and surviving spouses to turn to family members and others for help.

Most of the retired pastors say life continues to be hard, and as a result of Liberia’s civil war, every day is a struggle. Many of the pastors saw their homes destroyed in the war, and they now live in those same dilapidated structures. An increase in pension would help pay for expenses in addition to food, shelter, clothing, school fees and medical care.

The Rev. Henry Wheh struggles in retirement to support his children and grandchildren on his
pension from the Liberia Annual Conference.

The Liberia Conference, comprising more than 170,000 United Methodists, has 382 active clergy, 230 retired clergy and 264 surviving clergy spouses.

Retired pastors and surviving spouses in Liberia generally receive US$60 a quarter, according to the Board of Pension. That amount represents an increase of $5 since last fall. The pension is slightly less for retired associate elders and surviving spouses ($55), retired deacons and their surviving spouses ($50), and retired probationary members and surviving spouses ($45).

The Rev. Charles Horace, 78, and the Rev. Henry Wheh, 77, both retired United Methodist pastors from the Grand Bassa area, live in damaged houses. Like Vah, they help to care for their children and grandchildren who live with them.

"We are begging, asking the church to increase pension," says Horace, who served for 34 years. "It is not enough at all, with a lot of children."

Asked how he survives, he replies: "By the mercy of God. There is hunger. Most of the time we don’t eat. When God opens a way, we find something to eat. That is how we are living."

His family relies on his pension and a meager income from two rented rooms. His children, who are adults, have no jobs. Rice is the family’s staple food.

"We struggle. We always struggle," Horace says, choking back tears. There are times when the only thing that touches the family’s lips is water from a pump at St. John United Methodist Church. There is a well outside Horace’s back door "where we get water to cook with. We don’t drink it," he says, "because it is not sterilized."

Wheh’s home has been damaged from a leaking ceiling and sinking floors. Like most other retirees, the only income he receives is the church pension. He recently took a year’s worth of his pension and purchased a sheet to put on the roof and a mattress.

His family of 20 people survives on fish from a local fisherman and rice that is purchased by the cup. The type of fish they eat—boney—is high in protein, but it must be dried out in an open-air kitchen to be safe for consumption.

"We have no icebox to store raw fish for the next few days," Wheh says. "We dry this fish to sustain us for the next few days."

Since his retirement, he says, the family doesn’t have enough money to send his children to school. "Even my health, there is not enough for me to go to the hospital. I am old. I need medical care. That is my concern."

Retired and working

The Rev. David W. Paye, 78, has not experienced the hardship and hand-to-mouth existence of some of his peers, but he too faces difficulties.

The Rev. David W. Paye signs for his quarterly pension of US$60 from the Liberia Annual Conference.

Retired as a United Methodist pastor in 1998, he did not stay inactive for long. He travels four miles three days a week to serve as a chaplain for the employees in the conference office. When he is at home in Lookingtown, he does chores while his wife operates a roadside stand selling clothing, food, oils and vegetables to supplement the family’s income.

As chaplain of the annual conference office, Paye leads chapel services on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and goes from office to office praying for the ministers, staff and bishop. He receives a pension equal to US$60 every three months, as well as a stipend for being the office chaplain. There are 102 people working at the conference office.

"As chaplain, I pray in offices—I pray for their lives, for the conditions, to hold the job and do it well," he says. "Being a chaplain is beautiful to me because I still continue to do the work of God. Doing the work of God is important because God is my strength and my salvation, so I always work for him."

If he did not have the income from being chaplain, survival would be hard for Paye, who has 13 children and numerous grandchildren who depend on him. Eight grandchildren are at home and some are still in school. A son just finished high school and wants to go to college.

"At my age, there is no way to survive," he says.

The children sometimes buy rice, at a cost of about US$25 for a 125-pound bag. "Rice lasts about two weeks," he says. "We sometimes eat nothing but rice."

When Paye can no longer be chaplain, he says he "will look to the Lord from whom all blessings flow and look to my wife, who sells clothes, vegetables, Pal oils, foo-foo (derived from cassava)—all the small things in front of the house that people come and buy."

More information on the Central Conference Pension Initiative is available at www.ccpi-umc.org or by writing to ccpi@gbophb.org.

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


The Revs. JoJoe Vah, Charles Horace and Henry Wheh

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The Rev. James Mazdeh and David W. Paye

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