Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


United Methodist is frontrunner in Liberia's presidential race, scholars say

By Dean Snyder and Jane Malone

MONROVIA, Liberia - It is quite likely that a United Methodist will become the first woman to be elected president of Liberia, according to interviews with faculty members and students at Liberia's United Methodist University.

University faculty members and students identified Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, formerly an official with the United Nations, the World Bank, and Liberia's Finance agency, as the frontrunner in Liberia's presidential race during impromptu conversations July 16. The faculty members interviewed included, among others, a political scientist, a theologian, and the university president.

University president J. Oliver Duncan called Johnson Sirleaf a "very strong, very focused leader," and said that many Liberians "are dreaming of bringing forth the first woman president of Liberia."

Johnson Sirleaf, an active member of the First United Methodist Church of Monrovia, is one of more than 50 aspirants who have announced their intention to run for the nation's highest office. Some will run as nominees of Liberia's 30 political parties; others may run as independents. Candidates have until Aug. 6 to fulfill requirements established by Liberia's National Elections Commission to qualify as either party nominees or independent candidates. Campaigning officially begins Aug. 11. The election will be held October 11.

The Rev. Julius Sarwolo Nelson, Jr., dean of the university's Gbarnga School of Theology, said that out of the many contenders only five or six will actually turn out to be viable candidates. He believes that during the final weeks of the campaign, the number of candidates who have a chance of winning will drop to two or three. Johnson Sirleaf will run as "the standard bearer" - a term commonly used in Liberia for presidential candidates nominated by political parties - of the recently formed Unity Party.

Johnson Sirleaf's candidacy is currently being ratified at Unity Party conventions -similar to state-level party primaries in the United States - being held county by county throughout the nation. The numbers attending Unity Party conventions have been exceptionally high, and support for Johnson Sirleaf has been enthusiastic, according to observers.

Blessing Harris, a political scientist on the university faculty, agrees that Johnson Sirleaf will likely be the leading candidate when the campaign officially opens. "Ellen is a capable person; she is educated," he said. "She has had experience working in government in Liberia, and she has worked in the U.N. for quite a while."

But Harris warned that the campaign could include some surprises. Because many of Liberia's schools could not function during the country's 14-year civil war that ended in 2003, the literary rate in the nation is low, Harris said. Some studies cited by university faculty suggest that only two out of 10 Liberians are now literate, a drastic drop from pre-civil-war literacy levels. Harris was not sure the same qualities in candidates that are admired by more educated voters will win the votes of less literate Liberians.

Harris also wondered whether Liberia's young adults might be attracted by the candidacy of soccer superstar, George Weah, who recently returned to Liberia to become the nominee of the Congress for Democratic Change Party. Weah recently transferred his membership from the First United Methodist Church of Monrovia to George Patten United Methodist Church, a growing, youth-oriented congregation located in the midst of Monrovia's market area.

Wyeatta Moore, a young adult studying sociology at United Methodist University, agreed that young adults, especially young men, are drawn to Weah because he is a sports hero. But, she said, in a nation where many feel leaders have been self-interested and corrupt, some young adults look to Weah as a possible alternative to "business as usual" in Liberian politics. "They don't see him as a regular politician," Moore said. "He is the one who is the outsider who is not looking for money because he is already rich."

Young adults, aged 18 to 30, make up half of Liberia's 1.3 million registered voters and are expected to have a significant impact on the election. Moore believes, however, that most young women will vote for Johnson Sirleaf. "Everybody is saying it is time for a woman president," she said. Over 50 percent of those registered to vote in the Oct. election are women, she added.

Ambassador T. Ernest Eastman, dean of the university's College of Liberal and Fine Arts, has been impressed by the response so far to Johnson Sirleaf's Unity Party, but was cautious. "No one wants to bet completely on her, but she may emerge as the central candidate," the former Liberian secretary of state said. "We don't know how the election will go until the campaign."

The professors said perceptions about the ethnic and religious affiliations of presidential aspirants, and their vice-presidential candidates yet to be named, will also affect the campaign. Most candidates are Christians from Monrovia, Liberia's largest urban center by far, yet many Liberians in rural counties are suspicious of urban and Christian people. They identify more with tribal affiliations and non-Christian traditions.

Even though she is urban and Christian, Johnson Sirleaf appeals to some rural voters because she is a descendant of a powerful rural tribe and the widow of a Muslim man, the professors said. Eastman and Nelson emphasized that the results of the campaign will be influenced by each aspirant's ability to select vice-presidential candidates able to reach out to rural and tribal voters outside of Monrovia.

During a brief interview July 15, Johnson Sirleaf said she is optimistic. "We do not have as many financial resources as some other parties," she said, "but I am reassuring the people that the money we are spending is money that has been earned honestly. I tell them we have not mortgaged Liberia's future by taking money with strings attached, and people seem to be responding to this message."

Johnson Sirleaf said her party has developed a strong slate of candidates in local races for seats in parliament, and that local support for these candidates will strengthen the national presidential campaign effort.

According to university faculty members, in addition to Johnson Sirleaf and Weah, others expected to be strong presidential candidates include:

* Varney Sherman, nominee of the Liberian Action Party, the party currently in control of Liberia's interim government;
* Togba Nah Tipoteh, an economist and founder of the popular social change organization Justice in Africa who will run as the nominee of the Liberia People's Party (Tipoteh is also a United Methodist);
* Winston Tubman, nominee of the National Democratic Party of Liberia, the party established by former President Samuel Doe, former U.N. secretary general representative to Somalia, and the nephew of the late President William V. S. Tubman (the Tubman family has historically been strongly identified with the United Methodist Church);
* Charles Brumskine, the nominee of the Liberty Party, a lawyer who once was close to exiled President Charles Taylor but who left the Taylor government and fled to the United States due to philosophical differences (he now attends a nondenominational church, although his father was a highly respected district superintendent in the Liberian Annual Conference); and
* Roland Massaquoi, secretary of agriculture in Taylor's administration, the candidate of Taylor's National Patriotic Party.

Faculty and students agreed that, no matter who wins the election, the new president faces a daunting challenge. The war torn country has been without centralized electricity and operable water and sewage systems for the past 15 years. Because highways have not been repaired and are now pitted with potholes, transports that used to take 45 minutes can now take hours. The rural population fled to the city to escape the rebels and lost their farming equipment to looters, so agricultural production is limited and the cities are overcrowded. The unemployment rate is estimated at 95 percent, and no one is paying taxes. U.N. troops are still stationed throughout the country to keep the peace.

Faculty and students agreed that this will be a critical election for Liberia's future. Eastman said that strong presidential leadership is essential to maintain peace in Liberia. "Our soldiers have still not surrendered all their weapons; they are buried," he said. "They [the combatants in Liberia's civil war] are untrained in anything else but fighting; the only thing they know of family life is war." United Methodist University faculty members estimate that 110,000 Liberians or more are ex-combatants.


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