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Operation Classroom celebrates 20 years of mission

The Rev. Joseph and Carolyn Wagner coordinate Operation Classroom, a United Methodist mission supporting educational and medical ministries in Liberia and Sierra Leone. UMNS photos by Daniel R. Gangler.

By Daniel R. Gangler and Phileas Jusu*
Nov. 1, 2007 | GREENWOOD, Ind. (UMNS)

Bishop John Innis and fellow Liberians thank supporters for 20 years of commitment.

More than 400 supporters of a mission outreach to West African United Methodists packed a suburban Indianapolis banquet hall Oct. 28 to celebrate 20 years of educational and medical ministries in two countries torn by civil war.

Operation Classroom was designed originally as a partnership linking the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and the church's Liberia and Sierra Leone annual (regional) conferences with the two Indiana annual conferences to upgrade secondary education in the West African countries.

Today, Indiana’s Operation Classroom works with 15 elementary and secondary schools, one college and two United Methodist-related hospitals in Liberia and Sierra Leone. A medical component, called Operation Doctor, was established in 1994.

Operation Classroom partners with United Methodists in the North Indiana, South Indiana, Rocky Mountain, Minnesota and Holston (Tenn.) conferences, plus congregations and individuals from 25 states. Conferences beyond Indiana sponsor even more schools.

"You have touched and transformed thousands of lives (through this ministry)," said Indiana Area Bishop Michael J. Coyner in his welcome message at the banquet. "This has given hope and resolution. You have expanded this ministry far beyond anyone’s expectations."

The Rev. Joseph and Carolyn Wagner of Colfax, Ind., were honored as coordinators of Operation Classroom during its entire 20-year existence.

Bringing hope to turmoil

Bishop Joseph Humper of Sierra Leone called Operation Classroom "mission in a unique way."

Recalling 11 years of civil war in his country, he said, "You renounced that war and continued to work in the midst of conflict. Mission came alive and hope came from hopelessness. The challenge is to go and tell the story of Operation Classroom and Operation Doctor, of a great mission come of age. Say it with all your hearts, minds and souls. You came to us in the midst of turmoil."

"You educate and redeem people from darkness to light. Many would not have been educated had it not been for your work with Operation Classroom."
-Bishop John Innis

Joining 13 other Liberians at the banquet, Bishop John Innis lauded the mission's educational focus. "We are all proud students of United Methodist church schools in Liberia. Our life was given by Operation Classroom," he said. "You are the light of the world. You educate and redeem people from darkness to light. Many would not have been educated had it not been for your work with Operation Classroom."

Bishop Felton May, interim chief executive for the Board of Global Ministries, pointed to the need to eradicate malaria, HIV/AIDS and diseases of poverty in Africa. The board supports programs that combat poverty. "It is our hope to make Operation Classroom a prototype for every nation in sub-Sahara Africa," said May. "We have, at present, Operation Classroom in front to educate, to heal and to make friends."

Education for the future

Operation Classroom was borne in 1987 out the vision of two conference lay leaders: Bob Bowman of Newcastle, Ind., and John Shettle of Orestes, Ind., both of whom attended the banquet.

Bowman issued a challenge to support students by providing scholarships. "The mission train is running for 15 schools and 14,000 students who need supplies and tuition," he said. "These countries can come back. Education is the only way it can be improved."

Shettle auctioned off a hand-carved nativity set for $2,350, which will provide 32 student scholarships

John Shettle auctions a hand-carved
nativity set to raise money for the
outreach mission.

Margaret Ewbank of New Salisbury, Ind., a retired laywoman, was honored for contributing $100,000 to a new Operation Classroom endowment fund.

Other bishops attending the festivities included retired Bishop Arthur Kulah of Liberia and retired Bishop John Samuel of the Church of Pakistan. Kulah helped organize Operation Classroom in partnership with the late Bishop Leroy Hodapp and the late Rev. Mark Blaising, both of Indiana.

Also present from Sierra Leone was Saffa Koroma, Operation Classroom coordinator and head administrator of the country’s 295 United Methodist schools, and Anthony and Jennifer Dioh, project coordinators in Liberia.

The banquet culminated two days of consultation with more than 30 volunteers in mission from Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and South Dakota who planned for future Operation Classroom programs and expansions.

Since its beginning, Operation Classroom has renovated each of the 15 partner schools and constructed two security walls, two principals’ houses, four school buildings and established school libraries. Operation Doctor has, among other things, constructed a surgical unit and post-operation ward at Kissy Hospital in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

During its 20-year history, Operation Classroom has sent more than 60 construction teams and 14 counselor training teams to Liberia and Sierra Leone and has deployed 28 people who served in West Africa from two months to three years.

Operation Classroom also has shipped 61,000 boxes of medical and educational supplies and equipment to Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast.

For more information, contact coordinators Joe and Carolyn Wagner at (765) 436-2805, e-mail ccwagner@hotmail.com or wagners@operationclassroom.org, write P.O. Box 246, Colfax, IN 46035 or visit the Web site at www.operationclassroom.org.

*Gangler is director of communication for the Indiana Area of The United Methodist Church. Jusu is director of communication for the Sierra Leone Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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