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Q&A: Liberia needs church’s support, new president says

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf answers questions during an interview with United Methodist News Service.

Jan. 23, 2006

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

MONROVIA, Liberia (UMNS) — On her third day in office, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf met with a delegation of United Methodists from the United States and Liberia.

At 67, Sirleaf is the first woman to be elected a head of state in Africa, and she is a member of First United Methodist Church, Monrovia.

Sirleaf discussed the role the church has played in the peace process and expressed her hopes for the future of Liberia in an exclusive interview with United Methodist News Service.

Q: What part did the United Methodist Church play in the peace process in Liberia? What influence has the church had on this country?

A: The churches, through the bishop and several pastors, have brought to the sensitivity of the Liberian people the need for peace and reconciliation through their sermons and through their visits throughout the country. I know Bishop (John) Innis has gone throughout the country talking about the need for peace, for reconciliation, and for our young children to move away from guns and warfare into peace.

The bishop and the church have also played a role in the Interreligious Council, which has met with leaders in West Africa to talk about peace, has met with the warring factions, and supported women organizations which have been supporting peace.

The church has just been instrumental in promoting peace. On an individual basis, those who go to church for prayers and for comfort — that has all contributed to the peace. Our nation is a very religious one, so the church has played a very dominant role.

Q: How might you as a woman succeed in this leadership role where men in the past have not?

A: (Smiling) You know I always start off by telling people I am a professional, I am a technocrat who happens to be a woman. I bring to the job the requisite competence. But then I also think I have the sensitivity of being a woman and a mother, and so the caring and sharing that comes from that will enable me to be more concerned and to respond more to the basic needs of human beings — particularly children.

I believe that my personal commitment, the experience that I have working both at home and abroad, brings to the task what it takes to get it done. My commitment of course, I believe, will make me have the chance of succeeding and excelling much more than my predecessors who were all men. (Laughing)

Q: In your inauguration address you spoke especially to youth and women. Do you feel that is where the future of Liberia lies?

A: Absolutely. In the case of the youth, we have a lost generation. So many of our young people have been exposed to violence for so long and have not had the opportunity of an education. We have a very unique situation here where the current generation is more educated than the younger one — something that is completely the reverse in a normal situation. Every generation that comes is better equipped, more educated and more knowledgeable, but in our case it is the reverse, and that is so sad. That is why we have to address the youth. We have to make up for lost time; we have to give them back a future.

The women, as I mentioned in my statement, in a way have become full citizens only a couple of decades or so ago. And they have still not had the equal opportunity to enable access, for example, to the factors of production — land, credit. They still have difficulties, even though there are no legal restrictions anymore. But there are still social barriers and habits. We have to come out with the enforcement of policies that will grant them equal opportunity. The girl child is still more disadvantaged compared to the boy child in terms of access to education. We have to take measures that will reverse that and give them an opportunity. Just promoting women’s rights and enhancing their role in society (will be important for the country’s future).

I am having trouble filling 50 percent of my cabinet with women — which I am committed to do. (They are) just hard to find, so that just shows you we don’t yet have the critical mass that suggest equal opportunity. I have to work to try to make up by trying to give the women better opportunities.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert

Bishops Peter Weaver and John Innis pray for Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Q: What should United Methodists in other parts of the world know about the church in Liberia?

A: To know about the role the church is playing. Our church promotes schools, hospitals in rural areas where the need is the greatest. Our church supports higher education, through the university, which we don’t have enough of in our country. I hope they would assist our church to be able to expand our services in this regard or to lead the effort, even if it means mobilizing among several church groups.

The United Methodists in United States should recognize the important role, the historical role, the United Methodist Church has here that is so profound. They should know the fact that it has continued and continues to grow in importance and in service to the nation. I hope more of that story could be told.

Bishop Innis as a spiritual leader moves us all. You know (that) when he preaches like he did at the inauguration sermon, which I think people are still talking about in town. Those are all the things we think United Methodists should know, and we hope you will spread the word.

Q: Do you have a favorite Bible verse you keep in your heart?

A: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” — and the rest of 23 Psalm.

Q: What are you praying for?

A: Courage, strength and good health to do the right thing.

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

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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