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Commentary: Amid sad context, Liberia’s story inspires

 


Commentary: Amid sad context, Liberia’s story inspires

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A UMNS photo by Dean Snyder & Jane Malone

United Methodists gather at First United Methodist Church in Monrovia, Liberia, for annual conference.

April 19, 2005

A UMNS Commentary
By Dean Snyder and Jane Malone*

The danger of visiting Liberia, as we did in February during the 2005 Liberia Annual Conference, is that a visitor might easily confuse the context with the story.

The context is a nation that has experienced more than two decades of violence and years of political and economic devastation. It has been 14 years since Liberia, once the jewel of West Africa, has had centralized electricity, water or sewage systems. Buildings have either been destroyed in fighting between government troops and rebels or have deteriorated without occupants, repairs or maintenance.

Until 2003, when former President Charles Taylor left Liberia in exile, most Liberians lived desperate lives, focusing daily on survival and protecting themselves against extortion and robbery. Many were eager for the United Nations and United States to help end decades of civil war and random violence.

Historically, since its founding with U.S. subsidy to support the emigration of freed slaves, Liberia has been closer to the United States than any other African nation. Thus, Liberians could not understand why their overseas friend would drag its feet in supporting a U.N. presence. The war killed more than 200,000 Liberians and produced more than a million refugees. Violence was so widespread that, when the United Nations finally arrived, more than 100,000 young people turned over weapons as part of a pacification initiative.

Except for a few affluent Liberians and those with resources from outside the country, education and medical care have been practically nonexistent. Almost an entire generation is now without formal schooling. It is a sobering land to visit.

But this is only the sad context, not really the story.

The real story is the Liberian people’s determination to restore their nation to health and vitality. The real story is the commitment and sacrifice of Liberia’s United Methodists to reopen hospitals, clinics and schools and to regain democratic control of their government. This is an inspiring story and a humbling one for us who have so much, need so much less and yet share so little.

At present, a transitional government, established during peace talks following Taylor’s decision to step down as president, holds power in Liberia. We had the good fortune to sit with transitional President Gyude Bryant when he visited the annual conference to thank Bishop John Innis and the United Methodist Church for their critical role in rebuilding Liberia.

We stayed at the home of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a member of the First United Methodist Church of Monrovia and a leading candidate in a free and open presidential election set for October. She and others have organized the Unity Party, which is mobilizing a powerful community of Liberians determined to establish an honest, accountable government after years of corruption and abuse. Johnson Sirleaf is helping register women and others previously excluded from the political process. She is determined to make sure Liberia’s resources provide services and education for ordinary people rather than lining the pockets of the powerful.

It is an inspiration to observe this movement of Liberians who believe in democracy with all their hearts, who believe government can be accountable and who are willing to give themselves and all they have to rebuild their government. If only a critical mass of U.S. citizens cared this much about our political processes and the welfare of all our citizens, especially our most marginalized.

It was inspiring to watch United Methodists practicing the teachings of Jesus in the most demonstrable ways. One of the many Liberian United Methodist institutions damaged by warfare was Ganta Hospital. Established in 1926, the hospital served a major section of Liberia, as well as neighboring Guinea and Cote D’Ivoire. Its complex included primary and secondary schools, vocational training, one of Liberia’s best nursing schools, a demonstration farm and a leprosy and tuberculosis care facility. Everything but the quarantine facility was destroyed by government and rebel troops.

With the support of the United Methodist Committee on Relief and the Board of Global Ministries, United Methodists of Liberia began working to reopen Ganta as soon as the worst of the violence ended in 2003. Local United Methodists of the Goompa District devoted weeks to cleaning up the damage. Finally the hospital reopened in March 2004 with one doctor and a nurse.

During annual conference, the director of Ganta Hospital reported on the gradual re-establishment of services over the past year and said more than half of those seeking medical help are former government and rebel troops responsible for the hospital’s destruction. The members of annual conference, some 1,200 Liberian United Methodists, responded quickly with applause—happy to turn the other cheek, happy for the opportunity to pray and care for those who had persecuted others.

During our visit to the U.S. Embassy, we were disappointed to learn about waning U.S. financial support, as well as technical assistance, for the redevelopment of Liberia. There is no public health strategy, and no plan to redirect into renewed central electrification the funds being paid to foreign interests to fuel generators as a temporary source of electrical power. Meanwhile, businesses such as a well-known U.S.-based tire manufacturer are trying to take advantage of Liberia’s vulnerability by cutting long-term sweetheart deals with the transitional government.

We have done this before. In the 1980s, the United States supported antidemocratic governments in Liberia in exchange for placing military installations there. Some Liberians fear we will again choose military and economic expediency over supporting the development of democratic institutions there. We pray that, this time, we will choose to support our sisters and brothers of Liberia in their longing for democracy.          

*Snyder and Malone are a United Methodist couple in the Washington area. Snyder is pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church and former editor of UMConnection, the newspaper of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference. Malone is a laywoman.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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