Seminary Reaches out to Heal Others

December 16, 2009

By Vicki Brown

Despite devastation from civil war on the campus of the Gbarnga School of Theology in Monrovia, Liberia, the faculty immediately added counseling to its class offerings after peace was restored.
"This is what sacred theology is all about. We are equipping church workers with clinical pastoral education to let them be able to assist their traumatized members. Graduates from this discipline are working in churches and schools and communities," said the Rev. Yatta Roslyn Young, dean of the seminary.
The seminary, with about 100 students, is at the center of the religious community that trains ministers and Christian educators of the United Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Pentecostal churches in Liberia, Young said.
"The cross-and-flame logo of The United Methodist Church can be found in every village, hamlet, town, and city in the country," Young said. The United Methodist connection is strong in Liberia, where President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a United Methodist.
School's needs are many
While seminary graduates try to help the country heal the wounds from a long civil war that left hundreds of thousands of people dead and devastated the country's economy, the theological school itself has many needs.
The Rev. Ken Carter Jr., senior pastor of Providence United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., and chair of the General Board of Higher Education's Division of Ordained Ministry, said he was stunned by the condition of the school when he visited in 2009. The campus was occupied by rebel forces during the war.
"They are really rebuilding the school; it was decimated by the war, and there is a need for infrastructure and housing for faculty. The library looks like the worst church library you've ever seen. No one on the faculty has a laptop, and the building of a new lecture hall is the first priority," Carter said. He said the faculty is trying to identify what books are needed, and his personal project - with the help of his church - is going to be to try and help rebuild the library.
The Rev. Isaac Dowah's studies were interrupted by the war, but he is now completing his final year of study in the Basic Theology program, though he earned degrees in Ghana and was ordained in 1998.
But he said study is difficult at Gbarnga because everything was looted.
"All our books and computers were taken away …. Moreover, students have to go on a book hunt if they have a little assignment to do. Before the war, this was not the case. Students got all their major books on the first day of school."
Lack of electricity creates problems, too, he said. "The majority of students cannot afford a personal power generator, so they are studying by candlelight, which is to the detriment of their eyesight," he said.
U.S. helped establish modern-day Liberia
Carter said Liberians he spoke with had always expected the United States to intervene in their civil war because of the U.S. role in founding Liberia. Modern-day Liberia was founded by the American Colonization Society in 1821-22 as a place for slaves freed in the U.S. to emigrate to Africa, where it was believed they would have greater freedom and equality.
"I never met anyone in Liberia who wanted to leave. They just want to have peace," Carter said, adding that he believes The United Methodist Church and the seminary can have an important role in the healing process.
"A lot of young people in Liberia have been child soldiers. They have to be reintegrated into society," Carter said.
Young said the needs of the school are great. She was among 23 United Methodist theologians, seminary representatives, and leaders from across Africa, as well as representatives from general church boards and agencies in the U.S., who gathered last August in Kampala, Uganda, for an assessment of United Methodist theological education in Africa.
"We need textbooks for the disciplines we have at Gbarnga School of Theology - general theology, religious education, sacred theology, and basic agriculture," she said.
"I use a manual typewriter, and I just recently received a gift of a used computer from a friend - praise the Lord for small favors! That is the only computer on the campus. We need computers for office use as well as for the students to prepare their assignments and papers. Our library has a few obsolete books that cannot support research work, and we need Internet connections," she said.
No sister relationships
Apart from a few individuals, and one or two churches that have opted to assist with textbooks, the school has not established any sister relationship with any church or conference in the U.S. - or anywhere else, for that matter, Young said.
"This is my desire, and I will appreciate all the assistance in that direction. The devastation on the campus is of monumental proportions and The United Methodist Church in Liberia cannot rebuild it on its own," she said.
Carter said the Gbarnga School of Theology is a part of the maturing of theological education in Africa. "We need to develop a collective effort," Carter said.
He noted that while there are 700 churches in the Liberian Annual Conference with two pastors each, many of those are local pastors. One district superintendent told him no pastor in his district even makes $1 a day.
That need for effective, sustainable theological training, and formation of church leaders was the focus of the August consultation in Uganda.
Advance giving
The 2008 General Conference approved "Support of Theological Education in Africa" (petition 81160), which directed $2 million over the next four years to expand and strengthen theological facilities beyond Africa University, as well as library development, scholarships, publications, and logistical support of theological education. More than 25 percent of United Methodists worldwide live in Africa.
The Revitalization of the Gbarnga Mission and School of Theology/United Methodist University is a designated Advance Special Giving project, Advance #3020679, and you may donate online.
Donations of books, computers, or other specific items may be sent to: the Rev. Yatta Roslyn Young, DEAN, Gbarnga School of Theology/United Methodist University, Liberia Annual Conference, The United Methodist Church, 13th Street, Sinkor, P.O. Box 1010, 1000 Monroviq 10 Liberia. Dean Young said monetary donations may also be sent to the same address - to Bishop John G. Innis, Liberia Area/The UMC.
*Brown is associate editor and writer, Office of Interpretation, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.