By Rick Wolcott*
For nearly 10 years the Liberia Partner Summit has brought together leaders from the Liberia Annual Conference (LAC) and clergy and laity from conferences and central conferences of The United Methodist Church who do ministry in the West Africa country. The 2019 summit was held April 4-5 at Garfield Memorial Church (North Coast District) in Pepper Pike.
“This is the first Partner Summit where we have been able to come together around a strategic plan,” said Pastor Jason Hockran, Liberia Missions coordinator for the East Ohio Conference. “As the LAC has become a healthy partner with Global Ministries and the other partners from around the globe, they’ve realized they really need to tell people what their most basic needs are as they move from a country coming out of a civil war and coming out of an Ebola crisis to a place where they want to find sustainability and healthiness moving forward rather than just saying ‘yes’ to everything that is offered them.”
The Liberia Annual Conference Strategic Direction was born out of findings gleaned from Conference leaders, knowing that Bishop John Innis would soon retire, going out into the communities in 2016 to ask: “Where is the church in Liberia now?” “Where do you want the church to go in the future?” “How do we get there?”
What was learned from those conversations became the basis for the eight pillars on which the Strategic Direction was built: 1) Evangelism, Spiritual Formation and Mission, 2) Financial and Infrastructure Management Accountability and Stewardship, 3) Agriculture and Rural Development, 4) Education, Human Capacity Development and Outreach, 5) Health and Social Welfare, 6) Peace, Reconciliation and Unity, 7) Age Level Ministries, and 8) Ecumenical Relations and Connectional Partnerships.
This Partner Summit in East Ohio was the first time that the Strategic Direction was rolled out to a larger audience after it was adopted earlier this year at the Liberia Annual Conference business session.
“The Liberia Annual Conference is ready, committed and dedicated to pursuing a new beginning under a new episcopal leadership,” said Bishop Samuel Quire in his keynote address. “We invite all of our friends and partners to kindly join us in offering hope and healing to a world that is in desperate need of the liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ and to the poor and marginalized of our society. We have a common mission and our gathering here is ultimately in fulfillment of the great commission of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Summit was attended by 84 people who came representing either the Liberia Annual Conference, 17 United Methodist conferences in the United States, or four of the General Agencies of the denomination. Over the course of the two days, participants worshipped together, prayed together and broke into small groups.
“The purpose of the breakouts was to allow the partners, the agencies, and the Liberia Annual Conference leaders to come together and have some intimate time to talk about the main priority of each of the eight pillars, which become the focus for 2019,” Hockran said.
Bunny Wolfe, coordinator of Missions and Outreach for the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, reminded attendees that we in the United States do not make decisions for the world.
“We will never truly be Liberians no matter how many times we go to Liberia,” she said. “For us as partners to tell our brothers and sisters in Liberia what needs to be done is totally inappropriate. We are going down that pathway now to listen to one another and to partner and to 50/50 work together as we walk side by side – not in front or in back, but side by side.”
“Relationships go two ways,” said Alex Plum, a certified candidate on the Deacon track for ordination from the Michigan Area of The United Methodist Church. “I want to challenge all of us to think about how do we look at our brothers and sisters in Liberia as experts in their own right with something to teach us? This bi-directionality we really need to embed this in the mission work that we are doing because this is about recognizing our shared humanity and our quality as brothers and sisters before Christ. So, if that can undergird all of the work that we are doing its going to help us achieve a little bit more humility and I think we are going to start speaking that language a little bit better together.”
Since 1983 Garfield Memorial Church has been a sister church with the James A. Garfield Methodist Church on the grounds of Camphor Mission Station in Liberia. In his opening night worship service message, the Rev. Chip Freed of Garfield Memorial Church drove home the point that we all need each other.
“Maybe we can be the community of faith where we go in and say, ‘how about we get to learn each other’s culture a little bit better,’ how about we listen to each other a little more,’ ‘how about we say I have no idea what it’s like to be you but this I know, in Jesus Christ, God wants everybody,’” he shared.
“We know what we need for the church in Liberia. We are cognizant of the fact that partnerships are mutually benefitting so we expect our partners to also tell us what they need so we can see how we can meet those needs,” said the Rev. Jerry Kulah, one of the facilitators of the Liberia Annual Conference Strategic Direction. “We may not have the financial resources compared to the church here in America but definitely our revival spirit and our ability to grow the church in using very little to achieve so much can be shared with the church here and they can learn from it.”
“When I come to gatherings like this I come as a listener,” said the Rev. Gary Henderson, chief relationship officer for United Methodist Communications (UMCOM). “We believe that from the place of listening and understanding its only in that place that we begin to craft something together, as we listen and discern together we come to a place where we can begin to work. We are committed to working with our big, large, glorious, diverse, church.”
The Liberia Partner Summit convened a little over a month after the Special Session of the General Conference had met in St. Louis, Missouri. That meeting of the top legislative body of The United Methodist Church highlighted some of the challenges of a worldwide denomination.
“Truth be told, when our labor here on Earth is over I’m convinced that Christ will not be interested in knowing what our individual Biblical and theological understandings and positions were regarding the subject of human sexuality, as important as they may be to all of us,” Quire said in his keynote address that opened the summit. “I believe Christ’s primary concern will be centered around such questions as ‘how well did you take the Good News to the ends of the Earth so that every nation, tribe, and people group may hear the Gospel and be saved?’”
“The summit was a time to discover the goals and visions of The UMC in Liberia and it was also a time for healing and speaking truth to each other,” said the Rev. Kathy Dickriede, East Ohio Missions and Community Engagement coordinator. “It was a time for Liberians to speak to progressive and traditional partners about how we will move forward together. It was a time for partners to speak to their Liberian friends and get answers to take back to their conferences and make decisions about how to move forward together. Together, in God’s time, partners and Liberians will be building for universities, schools, building for human rights advocacy work and houses of worship, students will receive scholarships, and agriculture production will happen.”
The Rev. Jon Reynolds, Michigan Area Liberia Ministry Partnership chair agrees. He has developed life transforming relationships working in mission the past seven years, traveling to Liberia, and hosting people from Liberia in his home.
“I feel called to reinforce that there are many causes and issues that people in Michigan and Liberia share. We are committed to access clean, safe drinking water. We are committed to affordable health care, committed to education, justice and sanitation. For me, access to these basic human rights shouldn’t be contingent on our cultural differences or perspectives.”
“What this partnership is doing is it is bringing us closer, so we can hold hands, we can pray with each other, we can cry with each other, we can clarify our misconceptions, and clarify issues that may have existed among us because we were not connected as close as we needed to be, and I thank God for that,” Kulah shared.
“I am very excited about this plan,” said Sandy Whittle of Peach Tree City UMC in Georgia whose church works with the Judith Craig Children’s Home in Liberia. “God doesn’t give us easy things to do. We know that this is not easy, so we can trust that God is walking ahead of us to help us get this done.”
*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.