I recently returned from a trip to Sierra Leone, a country I have visited 11 times since 1988. OC Ministries, a nonprofit that operates through the Minnesota Conference, has participated in 15 different ministries there in the last 28 years. Those ministries have supported schools, churches, clinics, wells, student scholarships, accounting seminars, salaries, and sewing co-ops through The United Methodist Church.
Each of the seven sites I’ve visited and all of the trips had their own nuances, but I have found the people of Sierra Leone to share some of the same characteristics. The residents I’ve met have taught me a lot—and I believe there are things we can all learn from them. They’ve been:
• Resilient: They have lived through a civil war, an Ebola crisis, and malaria while having a life expectancy of 40 years and losing one in every five children before the age of 5, and yet, they still get up in the morning with positive spirits praising God for their blessings.
• Tolerant: Christians, Sunnis, and Shiites live peacefully and cooperate with one another. Much of the rest of the world could learn from the relationship they’ve built.
• Poor: Christians are mostly subsistence farmers living in one of the poorest nations in the world, with 158 doctors serving 4 million people fighting a variety of diseases. Many go hungry, especially in the dry season of January through April.
• Industrious: They get up before dawn to cook for the day, then work in the fields, doing all they can to provide for their families. They give every last penny to keep their children in school.
• Appreciative of The United Methodist Church: They are grateful for our denomination’s work in helping to heal a broken world by educating one-third of the populace, distributing hundreds of thousands of malaria nets, setting up triage units for Ebola, leading the Truth and Reconciliation process after the war, providing solar technology, housing hundreds of orphans, staffing three health care centers, and providing world-class eye surgery through Rev. Dr. Lowell Gess and his associates at the Kissy Eye Clinic in Freetown.
In January, I visited Rev. Judith Banya, an inspiration to all who know her. Raised in Baiwala, two miles from the Liberia border and the place where both the rebel war and Ebola crisis began within the country, she returned to serve her people after receiving an education in the U.S. While briefly interning at Simpson United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, she felt called to “push back the darkness” and gave up everything to live in her village on $2,000 a month, which she is using to feed 500 children daily, build a school, create housing for work teams, and start a church.
During my most recent visit, I had the privilege of speaking at the dedication and chartering of that church, Baiwala United Methodist, where 40 people declared their commitment to membership and 12 were baptized.
Missions are primarily about people—seeing old friends and making new ones. It’s people like Judith who make it all worthwhile and who remind us why we have been in Sierra Leone for decades and why we will remain there for decades to come.
If you or your church are interested in supporting the ongoing efforts in Sierra Leone, either financially or by making a trip to the country, contact me. You can also visit ocministries.com to learn more.
Rev. Lyndy Zabel is director of missional impact for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church