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Liberian church members voice support for Johnson-Sirleaf

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A UMNS photo by Mary Miller

A supporter of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf attends a campaign rally.
Nov. 14, 2005

By Mary Miller*

MONROVIA, Liberia (UMNS) — United Methodists throughout this West African country are expressing support for Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who appears to have won the Nov. 8 presidential run-off election.

While final results have not yet been announced, Johnson-Sirleaf was firmly in the lead with 59 percent of the vote, after 90 percent of the votes cast had been tabulated. If she is confirmed the winner, she will be Africa’s first female head of state.

Many United Methodists around the country worked hard to galvanize support for the former finance minister, whom they felt was the most capable person to lead the country.

“She is our daughter. She grew up in this church, and we know how she was raised,” said the Rev. Erlene Thompson of First United Methodist Church in Monrovia, where Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is an active member.

Thompson, a childhood friend of Johnson-Sirleaf, feels confident that her former playmate has the skills required to rebuild Liberia after years of civil war, which have left the country in ruins and even its capital city without electricity or running water. While the transitional government put in place by the Comprehensive Peace Accords of 2003 has maintained a fragile peace, it has contributed little to revitalizing the country.

Keeping the peace is in the forefront of everyone’s minds right now, especially since George Weah, the opposing candidate in the presidential run-off, is alleging electoral fraud and has asked the National Elections Commission to stop the tallying process.

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A UMNS photo by Mary Miller

Signs at A.B. Anderson Memorial United Methodist Church show its designation as a polling place.
In Monrovia on Nov. 11, hundreds of Weah supporters marched on a route that included the offices of the National Election Commission and the U.S. Embassy, chanting, “No Weah, no peace.” Weah, a former international soccer star and hero to many Liberian youth, has urged his supporters to remain calm but is demanding a full investigation of the election.

While sensitive to the developments around town, Thompson believes Weah will eventually accept the results, and she has confidence Johnson-Sirleaf will make reconciliation her first priority. “She will reach out to the youth and heal their wounds. She will be a mother to them.”

Rudolph Merab, the lay leader for the Liberian Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, said the church will be there to support Johnson-Sirleaf.

“The church has to adopt a posture that will allow the country to grow,” he said, “and just because someone is popular doesn’t mean he is a capable leader.” Merab described the churches as “foot soldiers” during the run-off campaign period, when members went door to door encouraging people to vote for Liberia as a nation rather than on ethnic or partisan lines.

“We worked hard because we knew everything was at stake,” Merab said.

Yet Liberian United Methodists recognize that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf will need a lot of help to rebuild the country and to reconcile long-standing tensions between communities. Thompson reported that the United Methodist Church in Liberia has always been at the forefront of reconciliation and development efforts and having Johnson-Sirleaf as president will lend support to the church’s work.

“Ellen believes in educating the youth and building health clinics,” Thompson said. “She will help all the churches, of every denomination, develop Liberia.”

Many believe the fact that Johnson-Sirleaf is a United Methodist gives the church a special mandate to ensure that she receives the support she needs as well as lives up to her campaign promises.

“She is still a human being,” commented Richmond Dupre, lay leader of First United Methodist Church. “We as a church will continue to pray that God will endow her with wisdom.”

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A UMNS photo by Mary Miller

A woman is checked off the voter registration roll in Bomi County, Liberia.
He noted that if for some reason Johnson-Sirleaf falters on her promises, he will be the first to ask the bishop to remind her of her commitments. “She is a humble person, and the church will find every possible way to engage her because the job ahead of her is overwhelming,” Dupre said.

Bishop John Innis has been involved in the reconciliation efforts, and during the United Methodist Council of Bishops’ Oct. 30-Nov. 4 meeting, he asked his colleagues to pray for Liberia during the elections.

Liberian United Methodists are developing ways to work with a Johnson-Sirleaf administration as well as to be independent from it. The Liberian Annual Conference has created the Liberian United Methodist Empowerment Foundation to help the church’s work in education, health and agricultural development as well as to support clergy throughout the country.

The fund is intended to help build the capacity of ordinary Liberians through livelihood support projects and training, among other things. The foundation is building an endowment fund, which receives support through the denomination’s Advance for Christ and His Church giving program (Advance Special #14368T).

“People here depend on the government for everything” said Merab, the foundation’s co-chairman. While stressing that the church will work with Johnson-Sirleaf wherever possible, he noted that “it’s important for the church to be in a position of independence from the government.”

“The United Methodist Church will stand strong, preaching the message of the gospel, if the leader goes wrong,” commented Rev. Weh Weah Betieh, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County. “The church is not separate from politics — even Jesus was a politician.”

*Miller is assistant program coordinator for the Democracy Program at the Carter Center.

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