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Church teams assess Liberia's needs in wake of war

11/18/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

This story is part of a weeklong Close Up series on how the United Methodist Church is helping Liberia recover from war. Photographs, video reports and other features are available.

By Joni Goheen*

MONROVIA, Liberia (UMNS) - As peace takes hold in this West African capital, United Methodist teams are busy trying to identify the needs of a people whose country has been ravaged by war.

The United Methodist Church's longtime partnership with the Liberian people - dating back to the country's earliest days in the 19th century - is more important than ever.

"We have always been involved in terms of providing relief assistance, counseling and just helping to give our people a sense of hope," said Edwin Clarke, communications director for the church's Liberia Area. "The church feels that at this time it is important to come and find out exactly what the situation is, in respect to what they intend to do, what they have done in the past."

During an assessment visit to the Samuel Doe Sports Complex, which is being used as a temporary camp for displaced people in Monrovia, Clarke explained some of the ways the United Methodist Church provides assistance.

"The church will write several project proposals to some of our partners in the (United) States and in Europe," he said. "The church also asks for volunteer contributions from its members. So people, who have used clothes, had them brought here and we donated them to the people here. The people were glad to receive them. We also had some food come in, and the church was gracious enough to purchase some rice that we distributed here."

At the sports complex, almost everyone is housed on the concourse. The thousands who live in this and other temporary camps have staked out small personal areas, creating invisible walls using rocks, tin cans, or plastic tarps. The permanent camps, located outside the capital city, have thatched huts, one-room living quarters that stretch for miles, row upon row.

As Clarke and his team from the conference walked the concourse, word of their presence spread. People came up to them, telling their stories and asking for assistance. One woman told Clarke her house was destroyed and that any help the church could give would be appreciated. Clarke asked where she could be found later in case a contribution could be made, but he gave her no promises.

"It's difficult to treat individuals because her case is just one out of a thousand," he said afterward. "Her case isn't even one-third of what you will hear. Some cases are even worse than hers. Some cases may tell you that their entire family got killed, and they're the only ones that survived the attack. Some other persons would tell you that they lost their entire family while running. They don't know where their families are. These cases, when we hear them, we try to talk to them in such a way that they should understand our position (that) we cannot treat them case by case."

But some cases can be handled on an individual basis. A small number of opportunities are available with specific conference programs. The church's women's organization can assist with start-up micro businesses; the youth program strives to help young people find alternatives to violence.

"It's not enough, and we want to do more, but we are limited, given the situation," Clarke said.

When a woman, crying in pain, walked up to Clarke and told her story about a shrapnel wound that had not healed, he tried to comfort her. Afterward, he said, "It would be difficult for the church to respond to that kind of need in particular. We just can't. It would be difficult given the circumstances that we're in now. We feel what she's been through, but there's nothing that we can do.

"On a whole, the church is also here to give hope to these people, and we try our best to talk to them in such a way that they should not lose hope in our God, and God will take care of situations like these. But my heart goes out to those persons who are wounded, someone like her. If it was in a situation where our hospital in Ghanta was not destroyed, we could easily … take her there and see what we can do from there. I doubt, in a case like this, how she would be treated. The hospitals may not be able to cope with the operation that she has to undergo."

The conference is working not only with United Methodists but with the Liberian public as a whole. The church has been trying to identify smaller displacement centers where it can have a bigger impact than it would have with larger groups.

Assessment teams are also traveling outside Monrovia to permanent camps in suburbs and the countryside. The teams usually target only camps that have security forces provided by the Economic Community of West African States or United Nations. Travel in parts of the country is still unsafe, so assessment cannot be conducted in some of the more rural areas.

"The need never ends," Clarke said. "It just goes on and on. It seems at one point we were rich, and now we can't do anything about those needs again. We still like to give them hope in the midst of all of this. Life still goes on."

He and his team are looking forward to the time when these assessments will become a thing of the past. Unfortunately, that is not likely to happen anytime soon.

Contributions for ministries in Liberia may be designated for the United Methodist Committee on Relief's Liberia Emergency, Advance #150300, and dropped in church collection plates or sent to UMCOR, 475 Riverside Dr., Room 330, New York, NY 10115. More details are available at
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*Goheen is a freelance writer living in Morrison, Colo.

Tomorrow: United Methodist relief agency responds to huge sanitation problems.

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