BUILDING BRIDGES, AND SCHOOLS, IN AFRICA by Tia Swanson
Morrow Church looks to lessen the divides between rich and poor
Like many congregations, Morrow United Methodist Church in Maplewood has long had a small mission presence in Africa. For many years, its gifts went to Tanzania, but 25 or so years ago both the direction and the scale of its missions changed when the congregation met a talented, brilliant, charismatic preacher working with refugees in Ghana.
When they became acquainted, John Yambasu was himself a refugee, having fled civil war in his native Sierra Leone, and for several years he organized school supply drives for his fellow refugees, both from Sierra Leone and Liberia.
But he was always on the move, always studying – he visited Morrow while getting his master’s degree in theology from Emory University in Atlanta in the late ‘90s – and after the war ended, he returned to his native country and its fledgling democracy. In 2008, he became its bishop, in charge of all the Methodist churches in the country. He became one of the country’s leading religious voices, a critic of corruption in the government and a trusted voice during the country’s Ebola outbreak in 2016.
His responsibilities were enormous. Because of the country’s lack of reliable governance, about a third of the country’s elementary schools are operated by the Methodist Church. (The Catholic Church and the Muslims run large numbers of schools, too.)
“Where the government fails, they step in,” explains Tim Roebuck, who has long been Morrow’s point man in Sierra Leone. The Methodist Church also runs a large share of the hospitals and health clinics in the country.
Yambasu devised a 10-year plan for building schools, farms, and health clinics.
“He was always a champion of the poorest of the poor,” says Roebuck.
As Yambasu’s dreams grew, so did Morrow’s connection to them. Initially, the church raised money to buy a used SUV for the bishop and his staff. After Roebuck and his daughter, Shona, visited in 2013 and saw the desperate poverty, the church began fundraising to buy an ambulance, and in 2016, at the end of the Ebola epidemic, the ambulance was shipped to Sierra Leone.
Not long after, the church sent a second, larger delegation. Yambasu arranged for the Morrow folks to visit a few struggling schools and hospitals, among them a desperately poor school outside the country’s third largest city of Kenema.
“There was a very engaging principal, and she’d put this school together,” Roebuck remembers. But she was facing enormous obstacles, the most immediate being that there was really no “school” at all. It was a patch of muddy ground under a rickety pavilion. The walls did not reach to the roof, and the roof consisted of several worn, torn tarps.
“Inside there was basically nothing,” says Roebuck. Nearly 300 kids were packed in. The lucky ones carted chairs or stools back and forth from home. The others sat on the dirt. “When it rained, they had to go home.”
The delegation spent several hundred dollars to provide immediate relief. In Kenema they found tarps that had been brought in by western relief agencies during the Ebola epidemic, left behind, and then gathered up to be resold. The new tarps ensured that, at least for a short while, the rain might be kept at bay.
But they returned home with a much bigger goal: to raise the money to build an actual school.
It took two years and $65,000, but in 2018, Burma IV, a U-shaped, cement block structure with windows, five classrooms, a teachers’ room, chairs, desks, and indoor plumbing opened to 300 children. The building is not fancy, but it does its job. “They don’t have to take their chairs home every night,” says Roebuck. Although the country has eliminated school fees, separate drives at Morrow helped pay for uniforms and school supplies for those too poor to buy their own, and Roebuck and others have sometimes given money to some of the school’s teachers, who are supposed to be paid by the state but frequently are not.
Now, Morrow Church has a new goal: to put a second story on the building to accommodate all the children who would like to come. Over the next several years, sooner if all goes well, the church is hoping to raise $60,000 to add a floor. There has been a good start already. This past summer, the Morrow Memorial Theater Camp – a one-week musical intensive theater camp run by Roebuck’s daughter – donated its proceeds to the school. And in October, the Morrow Church Council voted to fund the program with a $30,000 donation.
At some point, Roebuck got to wondering why a school in a remote area of Sierra Leone, near the west coast of the continent of Africa, should bear the former name of a country in Southeast Asia. It turns out the school is so named because during World War II a large group of conscripted Africans were sent there to fight on behalf of England, which was then the country’s ruling colonial power. When the English finally got around to bringing the soldiers home from Burma (now Myanmar) after the war, they were returned to this patch of land, which the British Air Force had used as a wartime airport but was no longer needed by them. Those soldiers and their descendants have struggled to make a living on this unprepossessing strip of land ever since.
Roebuck says most in the area are subsistence farmers, even though, like so much of Africa, this area has a valuable natural resource – diamonds. But little of the money generated by the mines makes it into the hands of Sierra Leonians.
According to Roebuck, Sierra Leone ranks 182 out of the 189 nations in the UN’s Human Development Index; the average life expectancy is just 54 years. Lives are cut short by many things. Roebuck says car accidents are a huge driver of premature death. He talked to a doctor in Sierra Leone who told him treating traffic accident victims was as big a drain on hospital resources as treating malaria victims. Morrow parishioners, as well as the Methodists in Sierra Leone, realized that acutely when Bishop Yambasu was killed in a traffic accident in August of 2020. He was 63.
The Methodists at Morrow are among the most progressive in the denomination: Still officially disallowed, the congregation has had an openly gay pastor, and over the last several years, as the global church struggled to reconcile its diverse membership, members at Morrow wrestled with the support they provided to churches that embrace conservative doctrine. Homosexuality is still a crime in Sierra Leone and can be punished by life in prison. In 2019, largely because of the votes of the churches in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world, the denomination upheld traditional teaching on homosexuality, a rancorous vote that portended years of chaos, division, and strife.
Yambasu was so distraught by the rancor that he organized a group to negotiate a compromise. That compromise – an amicable separation in which the traditionalists agreed to leave the church and form a separate denomination – was due to be voted on in 2020 when the pandemic forced the cancellation of the conference.
Judging from some of his reported comments, what seemed most upsetting to Yambasu was not the question of homosexuality; it was that the dispute meant there was less focus on what he saw as the church’s purpose: to relieve suffering and poverty, and to sow love, the causes to which he dedicated his life.
At the church conference in 2016, Bishop Yambasu gave a sermon in which he told attendees, “I am totally fed up. I am fed up! We need to engage each other! We need to embrace each other! We need to talk to each other! Red and yellow, black and white, poor and rich, haves and have-nots, gay or straight, bisexual or homosexual, polygamists, we all need to engage one another. We need to shake this place. We need to shake our churches. We need to torment God with our prayers and give us sleepless nights until we can look at each other in the face and say, ‘We are brothers and we are sisters.’” The work of the church, he said, was “to dismantle the demons of all sorts of inequalities in our world. We are called to do so with passion. But even more so, we must do so with compassion. Therefore, go!”
While Roebuck understands the frustrations on this side of the Atlantic, he agrees with Yambasu that the work is too important to stand on principle. He points out that Sierra Leone has just outlawed the death penalty, something the United States has not yet done. Meanwhile, there is a world of need, and children waiting for a chance to learn.
“Apart from the moral obligation,” Roebuck says, “we all live in the same place. Unless we solve [problems] everywhere, we solve [them] nowhere.”
The second story of the school will be built in Yambasu’s memory.
Tia Swanson is a member of Morrow, and proud of the church’s connection to Sierra Leone. To donate, contact Roebuck at firstname.lastname@example.org.