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Sierra Leone bishop hits road, sizes up challenges

Bishop John Yambasu of Sierra Leone addresses a gathering of United
Methodist students at Baoma Secondary School. Yambasu has been
visiting different church districts in the African nation since his
election six months ago. UMNS photos by Phileas Jusu.

A UMNS Report
By Phileas Jusu*
July 6, 2009 | FREETOWN, Sierra Leone

United Methodist Bishop John K. Yambasu wants to know first-hand “the realities on the ground.”

So six months after his election, he has been on the road, visiting areas of Sierra Leone where the denomination has a presence.

The United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone operates 226 primary and 28 secondary schools in the country and two leading hospitals -- in Freetown, the capital, and Bo, in the south.

In addition, it has hundreds of churches and health centers, and a thriving orphanage in Bo. The church also supports other educational and community development programs across this West African country.

“I have vowed to be meeting the communities where The United Methodist Church functions, and I want to visit every circuit by the end of the year,” the bishop told church members in June at Mondema, in the eastern part of the denomination’s Sierra Leone Conference.

Pentecost in Kenema

On Pentecost Sunday, the bishop was received in grand style in Kenema, in eastern Sierra Leone, where United Methodists came out on the road and danced, singing and drumming with brass bands in attendance. It was exciting “to receive the new bishop ... on his first official visit to the region,” a church member in the crowd said.

Hundreds of schoolchildren from various religious backgrounds walk in procession as they welcome the bishop at Mondema.

The Kenema congregation – including children from all the United Methodist schools there – assembled at the southern end of the city, where the bishop was received, and processed along the streets to Kercher Memorial United Methodist Church.

Yambasu preached about love and unity in the church to the crowd at Kercher, noting that the Holy Spirit only comes to a people who are united like the apostles of Christ were after his death. He distinguished between “being assembled” and “being united,” noting that people could be assembled in one place, as in a church, and still not be united.

The bishop had brought his own mission of unity to Kenema. While there, he reconciled an estranged family with the leadership of the Kercher congregation. Komba Kamanda, an active United Methodist, and his entire family had withdrawn from the church for more than 10 years following a dispute with church leadership over a new church site in the town.

After listening to Kamanda, Yambasu appealed to the family to return. After the bishop’s mediation, a reconciliation service was held at Kercher Memorial on June 14, which the entire Kamanda family attended.

Restoring hope in Mondema

At Mondema, The United Methodist Church historically has provided education and health care and maintained a worshiping congregation in the area.

When the community learned of Yambasu’s visit, Catholics, Muslims and community elders joined the United Methodist congregation in welcoming him. For those in Mondema, his arrival was a special occasion because it marked the first time a bishop had visited their community.

Bishop Yambasu assures members
of the Mondema community of the
church’s commitment to them.

The bishop said he was impressed by the degree of unity between the Muslims and Christians in the community.

“When Christians and Muslims work together for peace, development will come,” he told the cheering crowd. Noting that Sierra Leone’s civil war had ended more than six years ago, he urged the community to take charge of its own development programs.

The Mondema United Methodist Circuit has 3,624 members. The main source of income in the community is subsistence farming and illicit mining. Poverty is endemic in the community.

Gorama Mende Agricultural and Vocational Secondary School, a United Methodist high school, was recently rehabilitated. However, enrollment has dropped from 520 to 300 students, which Principal B.M. Tarawally blames on poverty and the inability of parents to pay fees for children.

“Some of the children whose parents cannot afford school fees go out to the diamond mine fields to try their luck,” he said. “The few determined pupils who come from the surrounding villages cluster together and contribute to feed themselves.”

Lack of pay

Graduate teachers are not attracted to the Mondema community due to its remoteness and poverty, so the school has few qualified teachers. Payment for newly recruited teachers is a huge challenge because of the delay before new teachers are approved for payment by the Freetown-based Ministry of Education.

Some teachers in the community have worked for more than five years without pay. Gabriel Karimu, at the church’s primary school in Mondema, has taught for 15 years without pay.

Lansana Brima, a community worker with the British charity GOAL, said a recent survey by her agency showed the United Methodist schools in the community are highly under-resourced.

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S.J. Koroma, Mondema United Methodist council chairman and a community elder, appealed to the bishop to rehabilitate the United Methodist Health Centre in the town. “It used to be a very good community health center,” he said. “We are losing a lot of our community members to treatable illnesses, including pregnant women, because there is no health center here anymore.”

The nearest health facility to Mondema is in Kenema, the district headquarters town about 100 kilometers away on a very bad road. No vehicles ply the route in the thick of the rainy season.

Appeals for joint effort

In all his visits, Yambasu has asked for cooperation from the church, emphasizing he cannot move the conference forward alone.

“I have told the conference repeatedly that grumbling and complaining are not relevant for now,” he stressed. “What we need is to move forward. I continue to pray for wisdom and strength considering the enormous challenges now before us.

“Everybody has a role to play. I believe that no matter how much challenge we face, once we are united and sincere to serve God, the challenges will come and go,” Yambasu told a United Methodist gathering in the eastern diamond-mining town of Panguma.

The bishop cites encroachment by others on conference land and the poor living conditions for pastors, especially in remote communities, as the biggest threats to the church.

The United Methodist Church also is facing a stiff challenge in post-conflict Sierra Leone from a growing Pentecostal church and the Islamic faith that was revitalized by peacekeeping forces from Pakistan and Bangladesh, he said.

*Jusu is the communicator for the Sierra Leone Annual Conference.

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

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