Descriptions of Sierra Leone generally cite the following statistics: 60% of the country’s residents are Muslim, with 40% holding either Christian or indigenous beliefs (I’ve read different reports on the percentage of Christians here). In this mix, one of the most striking things I’ve discovered here is the degree to which religious tolerance is a deeply held value. Christians and Muslims live side by side; they celebrate and work together; they intermarry; they elect political leaders of both faith traditions. In a world too often divided by relgious differences, Christians and Muslims in Sierra Leone have joined together and speak with one voice on critical public issues through an Interreligious Council. Every converation I’ve ever had about religion in Sierra Leone cites tolerance as a living reality. Historically, and still today, Christians and Muslims get along without the misunderstandings, fear and suspicion so common in many parts of the world, including in the U.S.
My contact with Muslims in Sierra Leone has been limited although periodically I hear the call to prayer from a mosque and see faithful Muslims lined up for prayer. Earlier today I met a captain in the Sierra Leoneon Armed Forces who is also an imam. In the army he is a Muslim chaplain working in the same office as Christian chaplains. He talked about his dream of establishing an organization to take the message of tolerance and peaceful co-existence to places in the world beset by religious conflict, like Nigeria, Sudan, the middle east.
The Christian context in Sierra Leone is fascinating and complex. The Roman Catholic church is well established throughout the country, with a sizeable school system as well as a major seminary. The Protestant churches include Wesleyan, Methodist, Anglican, Baptist, Presbyterian, and others. Sierra Leone was ground for Protestant missionary efforts as long ago as the late 18th century. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sierra Leone is very young in this context, at the age of 21 years. (A number of Lutherans have actually converted to Christianity from Islam). These days, great growth is seen in the number of Pentecostal churches as well as a variety of independent and evangelical churches. There are also significant evangelism and missionary efforts coming this way from Nigeria.
A peddler I sometimes talk to at Lumley Beach is a member of the “Jesus is Lord Church.” The other day he told me that this is a “born again” church. His comment reminded of a question raised during a Sunday school discussion at King of Kings Lutheran Church a few weeks ago about the difference between Lutherans and “born agains.” I asked the beach peddler what it meant to be “born again.” He told me that members of his church didn’t smoke or drink. I also learned that members of his church are praying and fasting these days in preparing for an upcoming, week long revival to be led by an American evangelist. I have been graciously invited to attend, but I’m not sure I have the properly tolerant ecumenical spirit or physical stamina to endure what I imagine will be a lively and lengthy experience.
Christians and Muslims worship and practice their faith amidst deeply rooted traditions related to witchcraft, sorcery, and secret societies. I’ve had a few conversations about these things, but as an outsider its difficult to get a clear picture of the nature and extent of such traditions. The Christian church faces a great challenge in addressing deeply ingrained traditions in this arena, and in this light, the Lutheran message really is good news to proclaim.