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 schools determined to educate Liberia’s children

By Dean Snyder and Jane Malone

BUCHANAN, Liberia – “Give me pen, not gun” reads a hand-written poster on the cafeteria wall of J.F. Yancy School at Camphor Mission near Buchanan, Liberia. The slogan is not hyperbole. Beginning in the early 1990’s, boys as young as 12 and 13 were recruited or forcibly drafted into rebel armies, given guns, and deployed to fight and kill other Liberians for more than a decade.

Since Liberia’s former president Charles Taylor finally stepped aside in 2003 and the United Nations has deployed peacekeeper troops, Liberia’s deadly 14-year civil war has largely subsided and order has been restored to much of the nation. Yet, the chaotic war took countless lives and has left the nation’s buildings, roads, schools, businesses, and government in disarray. Liberia has had no centralized systems for providing electricity, sanitary water, safe disposal, or trash collection for a decade-and-a-half now. Unemployment is estimated at 95 percent.

In an election scheduled for October 11, Liberia will select a new president, and hopefully, the nation, once considered the “jewel of West Africa,” will be able to rebuild.

In the meantime, Liberian United Methodists are eager to get the nation’s children back into the classroom. As the 2004-2005 school year drew to a close in July, Richard Clarke, director of the Department of General Education and Ministries for the Liberian Annual Conference, reported that its 120 schools are at least partially back in operation, although some of them are meeting in church buildings because classrooms vandalized during the war are unusable.

To recover the scope and quality of education that characterized its pre-war school programs, the Liberian Annual Conference must overcome overwhelming challenges: ruined school buildings; insufficient funds to pay teachers; the need to train new teachers; shortages in basic school supplies and school furniture; and inadequate resources to cover costs for families who cannot afford the modest tuition (the equivalent of U.S.$12-67 per year, depending on the school’s location).

Circumstances at J.F. Yancy School and two other United Methodist schools in the Buchanan vicinity in southeast Liberia illustrate the desperate lack of resources in the nation’s United Methodist schools.

Yancy School is a boarding and day school located on the grounds of Camphor Mission a few miles outside Buchanan. Its faculty and students were forced to flee Camphor when the popular boarding school’s campus was overtaken by rebel soldiers. Since the war’s end, the school has reopened and now serves 184 elementary and junior high students, a fraction of its former enrollment. Only a few students live at the school; the majority live walk to school from villages as far away as two or three miles.

Other programs at Camphor Mission that serve the school's students and families as well as the larger community include a health clinic, a church with a congregation of 300, and a fledgling agricultural project that includes soap-making, vegetable growing, and raising pigs and chickens.

Arthur Jimmy, director of Camphor Mission, is eager to repair Camphor Mission’s schools and other buildings so its educational and other programs can become fully functional again. As Jimmy guided visitors from the United States around the school and mission grounds July 12, he talked about the need for books, salaries for teachers, and repairs to the buildings. Then he added, almost in a whisper, “We have another obstacle, a big one.” The mission’s only source of water is an untreated shallow stream.

As Jimmy led his visitors down a narrow muddy trail through the bush to the stream, he explained that the mission desperately needed a source of clean potable water for the health of the school’s students, but also for the thousand nearby residents who depend on the Camphor clinic for health care and midwifery.

Without a well or reservoir, students and mission personnel must carry water from the stream100 yards up a steep hill to the dorms and cafeteria. The stream is so shallow that a bucket can be filled only half-full at a time. Because the water is untreated, students and faculty often suffer from gastrointestinal illnesses and even cholera. The cost of building a reservoir where water can be collected and purified -- about U.S.$60,000, Jimmy said -- is almost inconceivable in an economy where families can afford to contribute only small tuition payments and where many are not able to pay tuition in full from the small incomes they make selling their meager crops.

Five bumpy miles away --Liberia's roads have had no maintenance forthe past 15 years-- is the Brighter Future Children Rescue Center, a United Methodist school system currently serving more than 500 students from first through twelfth grades. Built with funding from Operation Classroom, a program sponsored by the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, the W.P.L. Brumskine High School constructed in the early 1990s as the civil war was beginning is already overcrowded.

During the war, the school property was occupied by refugees driven from their homes. About 2,500 refugees were crowded into the school’s buildings, according to Chapman L. Adams, Brumskine’s principal. After the displaced families had been resettled by the United Nations, the school’s teachers returned to repair and repaint the buildings.

As the school year was ending this July, Adams worried about where he would put students in September when classes begin again. The high school has four classrooms. This year the school had one senior class with 50 students, a junior class with 50 students, and two sophomore classes with 50 students each. Next year he will need two sophomore and two junior classrooms, as well as a classroom for seniors. The year after that, he expects to need six classrooms.

The campus includes a large metal frame structure that was once covered with a tent, until refugees tore it apart to make makeshift shelters. The large tent had provided space for three elementary classes. If Adams could erect a new tent on the old frame, he could move elementary classes into the tent and expand the high school classrooms. To do so would cost about $2,000, he said. Barely able to pay teachers’ salaries, he has no idea where he will be able to find the money to rebuild the tent by September.

The third school, the J.C. Early United Methodist School, is located inside the city limits of Buchanan in a neighborhood called Gbehjohn. The school was begun during the war for students who were forced to flee from Camphor Mission into the city. Faculty and parents built a makeshift school out of dried reeds and bamboo in this urban community, less vulnerable to rebels than Camphor Mission because of the city’s population density. Once Camphor Mission reopened, Buchanan clearly continued to need a school, so the makeshift school has become permanent. It now serves 316 students in elementary and junior high classes.

Recently the school administration recognized that the bamboo buildings constructed in haste 11 years earlier would not serve the needs of a permanent school. With almost no resources, the school is being rebuilt literally one block at a time. Dirt is carried to the school from nearby landfill sources in wheelbarrows, then dampened with water and pounded into an oblong wooden frame template. Each dirt block is then dried in the sun and used to build new walls.

It is a slow process, said vice-principal Abraham K. Wilmot, but with no money to buy building materials, it is the only option.

One of the corollary benefits of a United Methodist school continuing in this Buchanan neighborhood after Camphor Mission reopened is the birth of a new congregation. The school buildings are used on Sunday mornings for worship and Sunday School by Gbenjohn United Methodist Church, a congregation begun by the Rev. George Mingle eight years ago. Despite the return of its earliest worshippers to Camphor Mission, the congregation has grown to more than 200 worshippers.

United Methodist schools in other rural communities throughout Liberia are trying to educate students in circumstances even more dire than those faced by the Buchanan area schools, according to Clarke. As the person responsible to oversee and support the United Methodist school system in Liberia, his highest priorities are training enough teachers to keep the school system supplied, finding scholarships to allow poverty-stricken families to send their children to school even when they can not pay full tuition, and getting the school buildings repaired. The difficulty of meeting this last goal especially troubles him. “In the rural communities, especially during the rainy season, it brings tears to your eyes to see where students are sitting,” Clarke said.


Blogger John Wilks said...


Thank you for sharing this vital information and increasing awareness.

What gets lost in the culture war we're stuck in these days is how much responsibility God has entrusted to our connectional system, all the people and places who depend on us to be the hands and feet of Our Lord in the face such hardship.

I pray that what God has done and is doing in your ministry will make many more aware and motivated by the great need at hand.

11:52 AM  
Blogger John said...

This article is a great argument for paying our apportionments. Thanks!

2:29 PM  
Blogger John Meunier said...

Welcome back.

This is a great post. I had the experience at annual conference this year of sitting for a time next to a man who had come from Liberia to the United States to raise awareness and money for Liberian schools.

That slogan, "We want pens, not guns," is so powerful if you know anything about the history of child soldiers. And I only know a little about it.

3:30 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

gee - I have to comment just so you get a non-john comment up here! :) I've missed your blog entries while you were away - thanks for sharing about your trip!

5:43 PM  
Blogger Dean Snyder said...

Good to be back to web access. The Liberia Annual conference's web access was down all week. Finally, the day before we left we found an Internet cafe that was working. We bought 1/2-hour time for the Liberian equivalent of a U.S. dollar and checked our e-mail. Otherwise, we had no Internet access, a strange experience. Spending the week, however, where most people have no electricity, sewage, or furniture puts things into a different perspective.

Elizabeth and johns, thanks for your comments!

5:50 PM  
Blogger Mendel's Garden said...

Your post --- this post --- has been on my mind ever since you posted it on your return to the States.

What can we do to help?

From a narrow-focus, a major problem for Liberia, and for much of rural Africa, is access to clean, pure water. There is no simple solution to this. I know nothing about the geology of Liberia. Are drilled borehole wells possible for deep water? The water table is shallow enough to supply the stream you showed, so a shallow hand-dug well might be possible, but would also be susceptible to contamination. What about household cisterns, collecting rainwater from roofs, and then filtering through a sandbed. This, at least, would enable kitchen-sink-style hand pumps.

However, cisterns would probably require cement to make concrete. A quick search indicates that Liberia has few to no limestone deposits, meaning Portland cement would to be imported.

Any Peace Corps or USAID support for clean water initiatives to Liberia? I'm a political naif re either the PC or USAID. But any clean water initiative will need a community sanitation component, too. Surface run-off needs to be routed away from a well-head, for instance, and latrines should be sited only down-gradient from the well-head. These are kinds of educational considerations that I would think would be ideally suited to a PC program.

Again, the issue has been on my mind all week. And again, my question is: What can we do?

Thanks, Dean, for bringing this to all of our attention.

Rick Grazzini

3:42 PM  
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