Category Archives: ELCSL Congregations

New things in the new year

I traveled to Bo late last week for a  workshop with a select group of  ELCSL evangelists.   Rev. Edward Lavally (chair of the Commission on Evangelism and Outreach) and I worked together to teach these lay leaders about the sacrament of holy communion in the Lutheran tradition and to train them to preside at the Lord’s table.

Participants in the training for holy communion: Wilfred Kamara of Faith, Freetown, James Vandy, St. Anthony's, Yeagele, Rev. Lavally (teacher), Henry Massaquoi, Mt. Olive, TImidale, Marion Boima, St. Paul, Kissy, and Dwight Suluku, Messiah, Taima. Two additional evangelists were not present for the picture.

The evangelists have been asking for this training for some time, and the Commission on Evangelism debated at length about the best way to address the need for communion services in congregations not served by pastors.  In the end, the Commission selected 7 of the 23 ELCSL evangelists to participate .  Five of these are in remote provincial congregations and two are serving  in Freetown in congregations without pastors.   The evangelists who participated in the training will be “tested” in August and be eligible for certification as Eucharistic Ministers thereafter.

I’m always struck by the variety of issues that arise as we seek to train and support the churches in Sierra Leone.   Language is an ongoing issue.  Rev. Lavally asked the evangelists to learn the communion liturgy in English. He said the upcountry evangelists would be able to translate easily into Mende once they know the service by heart in English.   During the workshop last week, we also talked at length about the elements used in holy communion.   A visiting pastor shared his experience of being asked to celebrate holy communion in a distant village and using coconut water and cassava root for the elements.  In that instance, he needed to be creative, and to use the resources available.  He believed, (and I concur)  that in those extraordinary circumstances,  he was indeed celebrating holy communion, and that with the words of promise and command spoken by Jesus, God was present in the act of sharing food and drink. In our teaching, however, we instructed the evangelists to stay within the ancient tradition of the church, and to use bread and “juice” for holy communion.  Most village congregations will be able to procure  bread, as long as they plan ahead.  Communion wine is not easily accessed and so the question of the cup presents a greater challenge here.   Grape juice is not easily found either, and with wine  is also very expensive.   The  alternative communion drink used by most ELCSL  churches is a cherry soda.

Rev. Christopher Yanker, St. Peter's,Romankneh. The communion trays were most likely sent by churches in northern Texas. St. Peter's does not have a chalice. Distribution of communion drink is by plastic cups which are recycled month after month.

Additionally, none of the remote village congregations have communion ware or easy, affordable access to  suitable alternatives.   Most plates, cups and dishes used in daily life here are plastic, and that is by far the most practical and affordable material for this context.  We encouraged the evangelists, however, to set aside special items for holy communion.   I was able to purchase simple, durable wine glasses with short stems to be used as the chalice in the village congregations, and we encouraged the evangelists to purchase a suitable plate for the communion bread.

I originally posted this picture in Oct. 2009 after worshiping in Yeagele. Since I was a visiting pastor, the congregation celebrated holy communion for the first time. We brought the chalice, bread and drink, and improvised for other communion ware items. St. Anthony's evangelist was among those trained to preside, so the congregation will now be able to share holy communion on a regular basis.

In addition to their own learning about holy communion, the evangelists now have the task of returning to their communities and teaching their people — what it means; the liturgy itself; as well as the very practical details about how to receive the bread and wine.   In my experience here, baptism and communion are often occasions for “holy chaos,” as worshipers (especially the children) eagerly seek to participate.  It is my hope that local congregations and the ELCSL as a whole will be strengthened and renewed as “Christ is known [anew] in the breaking of the bread” — especially in those places where the bread has not often been shared before.

Di lanin boy den

The Krio translation of the English word “disciples” is  “lanin boy den.”   (Krio actually has different vowels than English so I can  only type this phrase in an approximate way.)  In  Krio, a disciple is one who  is learning (ie, “lanin”).   Last week in Njala, Lutherans came together as disciples to learn:  we were teachers and students together, as well as a community of faith learning from each other.

Lutheran disciples: "lanin boy den." Some of the pastors and evangelists found the weather in Njala to be quite chilly as you can see from the coats and hats. It may have been in the low 70's F, cool enough for me to wear an extra layer too.

The occasion was a week of training for the lay evangelists of the ELCSL.  While some of the original ELCSL evangelists received training 20 years ago, many of those currently serving have never had substantive instruction in basics of the the faith or in the leadership needed to sustain a local congregation.   These faithful men (and one woman) have  nonetheless led and maintained their churches year after year, many without any substantive pay in current years.    The ELCSL, in partnership with the ELCA, recently identified education for pastors and evangelists as a priority for the future of the church.  This is an area I am paying particular attention to in my time remaining in Sierra Leone.  Funding has been an issue in the past, and will remain an issue in the future, but we also need to establish processes and systems to ensure that the mandate for such training is carried out.  The ELCA provided a grant for this particular workshop to take place.

Pastor Hannah Kargbo was ordained in 2006 and is exploring possibilities for starting a new congregation in Waterloo, east of Freetown.She is currently the only actively serving female pastor in the ELCSL.

One of the highlights of the week for me was the chance to see my colleagues in action as teachers.  Rev. Hannah Kargbo provided a lectionary based bible study and insight on sermon preparation.  Rev. Dalton Levi-John taught Lutheran history; Rev. Moses Kobba Momoh taught stewardship; ELCSL treasurer taught financial management; and Rev. Edward Lavally taught leadership.   All are very fine teachers.  My teaching focused on Luther’s Small Catechism and I also did some instruction on issues related to worship.   Pastor Lavally stayed very busy as our host in Njala. His family along with members of his congregation provided additional support as cooks and servers for every meal.

"Support staff," African style. These are just two of the women who prepared food each day for about 30 people. Abu my driver stayed busy with my car transporting 3 meals a day for 30 people from the Lavally home to our meeting hall. As this picture suggests, African cooks are very proficient with sharp knives (they are peeling eggplant for a stew).

The consensus at the end of the week is that the ELCSL should do this kind of thing more often. The evangelists expressed a willingness to meet twice a year — during school holidays, as many earn their livings as teachers.   I would like to see similar programs held on a regular basis for the ELCSL pastors.

The 7 days I spent in Njala last week were the longest period of time I’ve ever been out of Freetown.   It turned out to be a good week to escape the torrential rains in the capital city. We had some rain in Njala, but intermittently so.  I enjoyed the chance to walk in the quiet beauty of a rural, provincial setting,  to do some bird watching in the mornings, and at night to see fireflies flickering under an incredibly vast, star-filled African sky.

A New Chapter in ELCSL History

Lifting up the cross:: Members and friends of the Lutheran community in Gondama were led by the cross into worship. I'm always grateful to see all generations active in worship.

For the first time since 1989, a new congregation has been formally received as a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sierra Leone.  This past Sunday, Trinity Lutheran Church in the provincial village of Gondama was welcomed as a part of the ELCSL family by Bishop Barnett.   After the long years of war and recovery in Sierra Leone (concurrent with the birth and development of the Lutheran Church), the number of congregations in the ELCSL has grown now from 22 to 23.    It was a joy to have witnessed this historic occasion and to acknowledge the ways God continues to be at work in the life of the ELCSL.

"Let your light shine before others" was the charge to newly baptized Christians at Trinity, and to the whole congregation as they were received into the ELCSL.

Trinity, Gondama began as a “preaching point”  in 1997.    Pastor Edward Lavally currently serves a church in Njala, but Gondama is his home village.  Over the years, he called together family and friends for worship  there and taught the basics of the Christian faith as well as  Lutheran traditions.

John Lavally is the lay leader overseeing Trinity. The congregation has built and furnished their own structure, and received the gift of green altar cloths from King of Glory in Njala.

Early in 2010, the Lutheran community in Gondama applied for membership as a congregation of the ELCSL, and the festive worship service this past Sunday was the final step in formal recognition of this new Lutheran community.   There are a number of similar “preaching points”  and nascent Lutheran communities being served by ELCSL pastors and evangelists in the southeastern region of Sierra Leone and given this reality, the ELCSL is poised to grow.

I was privileged to join Pastor Lavally in baptizing a number of new members of Trinity.   15 candidates had been registered prior to the worship service, but a far greater number of  infants, children and adults came forward to the font, so we baptized all who presented themselves or were brought by a parent.   (Someone did keep a record, but I have not yet heard the final count.)  Through these baptisms,  Trinity congregation grew in the number of its members, even as the ELCSL grew in receiving a new congregation.

I had the chance to practice my Mende as I asked each candidate (or parent) "what is your name?" prior to baptizing each one.

Resurrection, Bo

As the new year continues to unfold, I am looking forward to accomplishing a new goal in my experience with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sierra Leone.  This year I am hoping to worship with a number of congregations in the provinces, in particular those congregations I have not yet had a chance to visit on a Sunday.  This week I was pleased to worship with God’s people at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Bo for the first time.

Eva Gebbie leading the congregation in singing praise choruses, a standard part of Lutheran worship services. She is also the newly elected president of the National Lutheran Women's Association.

In many ways, Resurrection Church reflects the state of the ELCSL at the edge of a new era.   The ELCSL came into being while the Sierra Leonean rebel war simmered and raged throughout the country. Throughout the 1990’s,  congregations were founded, lay leaders trained, and the first generation of pastors were ordained as the Lutheran movement took root.  In this time, the first generation of Sierra Leonean Lutherans were formed in worship and in the programmatic ministries of the ELCSL.   Today, significant challenges remain as the ELCSL continues to grow and as a new generation of members begins to emerge.  I am repeatedly confronted with the need for permanent church structures  and the need to train new leaders.

Men of Resurrection

Resurrection in Bo has been served since 1996 by Rev. Samuel K. Yovonie.  Rev. Yovonie received his training as a Lutheran pastor in Singapore and Tanzania  He is now in his early 70’s and  continues in ministry in partnership with his son Lona.   This past Sunday Pastor Yovonie led worship and presided at holy communion at Advent Lutheran in Bo, while Lona led worship at Resurrection in his capacity as the evangelist for the congregation.

Evangelist Lona Yovonie

In Sierra Leonean terms, Lona’s worship and preaching style would be described as “having fire.”  For the younger generations of Christians in Sierra Leone, “having fire” is much appreciated and applauded.  The idea of  worship and preaching that is “on fire”  seems to reflect Pentecostal influences, as well as a generational dynamic between youth and their more traditional elders in the Christian community.  The youth of the ELCSL are among those who are impressed by, and strongly desire “fire” in worship.

Women of Resurrection

In my experience, “having fire” means having energy, vitality, emotion, and spirit.  (The danger, or course, is having these without Spirit and without gospel content).   On Sunday, Lona preached an excellent message about discovery and testimony, and he did so with energy and conviction.  He is among the emerging generation of leaders in the  Lutheran church, and my hope is that he can pursue solid theological and biblical training. He currently works full time as a teacher, but does indeed desire to pursue further training for ministry in the church. Opportunities for theological studies are available in Sierra Leone, although none with a Lutheran emphasis.

Pastor Yovonie is on the right of Mr. Eddie Bongah, one of the congregation's leaders. They are standing in front of Resurrection's future church building, which has been awaiting a roof for some time.

Resurrection Lutheran has been struggling for many years to complete a building project.   The congregation’s vision of their own church structure is long-standing, but the dream has been on hold for a number of years in the face of limited resources.     Recently however, a renewed emphasis on giving and on stewardship has brought a renewed sense of life and mission to the congregation.  Gifts from partners in northern Texas will supplement congregational resources, and we are hoping to see the roof raised on Resurrection’s church home by the end of the year.   There will be singing and dancing — with fire — when that happens.  For now, the congregation continues to worship in a local community center.

Mogbuama

Lifting high the cross in Mogbuama: processing to worship through the village with singing and dancing.

After visiting the village of Ngolahun 2 weeks ago, we stayed overnight in the nearby village of Mogbuama. If figuring out how to pronounce the names of these towns seems daunting for English speakers –  it is! Mende names and words are tongue twisters for me, and I can almost guarantee surprised (and appreciative) laughter when I try to exchange greetings in Mende with the people I meet. It was certainly true for the adults I met in Mogbuama.   My experience with children in the village also held true:  crowds of kids consistently gathered around to touch my hand or just to stare.

Among the next generation of Lutherans in Mogbuama.

I had previously traveled to Mogbuama for brief meetings and short visits, so it was good to spend the night and to join St. Luke Lutheran Church for worship on Sunday morning. Signs of grace and change were abundantly clear amidst the singing and celebrating crowds. Worship with prayers and singing began at a newly functioning water well, rehabilitated with funds from Water to Thrive. This is the first of 10 wells we hope to dedicate in coming months.

This water well had been abandoned for many years. A pump had never been installed, so it had previously been used with a bucket system. The community cleaned it and the contractor installed new concrete lining and a concrete top, along with a new pump.

Led by the cross, making a joyful noise the entire way, members and friends of St. Luke’s then processed through the village to a newly finished church building. Bishop Barnett was on hand to offer prayers of blessing and dedication. St. Luke is served by Lay Evangelist Francis Sorgbeh who normally conducts a simple service of the word in Mende (with singing of course) each Sunday. Congregations like St. Luke celebrate holy communion infrequently — only when a pastor is able to visit.   The visit of a delegation from the ELCSL office in Freetown along with the regional dean and other pastors was  an occasion then for sacramental sharing.   I assisted in the distribution of the communion elements in partnership with Pr. Lavally. We stepped outside to serve the worshipers who couldn’t squeeze into the church building, and the phrase “holy chaos” came to mind as we were surrounded by adults and swarms of children all wanting to participate and partake.  Holy chaos describes many of my experiences in Sierra Leone, and while the chaos can be overwhelming at times, the presence of God is an enduring grace.

St Luke Lutheran Church. For the dedication service, the church overflowed with worshipers from other churches and communities.

The exterior of St. Luke's a year ago. Plastering inside and out helps preserve the mud brick walls.

The road to Ngolahun revisited

This past weekend I journeyed “upcountry” with ELCSL colleagues  to the villages of Ngolahun and Mogbuama to celebrate 2 special occasions with church and community members there.    On Saturday we traveled to Ngolahun to break ground for a new  building for  the St. John Lutheran Church  Primary school.  Currently over 120 children meet for classes in the church sanctuary, outdoors, and in other makeshift places.

Students of St. John Primary School participating in the ground breaking ceremony. Their teacher is blind.

Funds for a new, 6 classroom school are being provided by a retired Lutheran pastor and his family in Ft. Worth Texas.   The partnership between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sierra Leone and Lutherans in the Northern Texas- Northern Louisiana Synod  has been growing and deepening over many years, and Pasor Willie Hunt’s commitment is another encouraging expression of this global relationship.   I think it is difficult for villagers in Ngolahun to imagine the lives  and support of  Lutherans in a far away land across the ocean, but Bishop Barnett spoke movingly about the contribution of funds for the school as a sign of God’s love that knows no boundaries.

Marking the footprint for the new school building: Bp. Barnett and community leaders.

I first visited Ngolahun in March during the dry season and with help from a road crew of villagers, we were able to drive to the village on that occasion (see posting from March 24, 2010).   This time, however, the journey posed some challenges.  It is particularly noteworthy that in these post-rainy season days, the road/path to Ngolahun crosses and passes through 10 streams and swamps.

It didn't look good when the car I was riding stopped to see what happened to the car that went before us! The stream bed was very sandy, and this Toyota 4 runner's 4 wheel drive was not working properly

In order to get to this point, the men first had to lift and bounce the car sideways onto rocks placed in the stream bed for traction. Then they pushed the car backwards, back across through the water and up a steep embankment. It was an altogether amazing sight. With properly working 4 wheel drive, Bishop Barnett drove his car across with ease.

After we had driven as far as possible in our vehicles, we completed the trip to Ngolahun on foot, crossing over and   through 6 water filled  spots as we walked the final 3 miles.   As we were retracing our steps  on the return journey a couple of hours later, I smiled to see a man carrying a TV set, followed a mile or so later by another man carrying a small generator.

The school to be constructed in Ngolahun in coming months will be built with local materials (mud blocks) as well as cement.  Anything not available locally will probably be carried in the same way as the man carrying the TV.  Where there is a will there is a way in Africa!

One of the swampy areas on the walk to Ngolahun. The ELCSL visitors were honored for coming with gifts of a goat, sweet potatoes and rice. Villagers carried these 3 miles back to the cars for us.

Someone in the village will use the TV to show videos and will probably generate income in that way. This man is crossing the final bridge into Ngolahun.

Youth Happenings

In the time I’ve been in Sierra Leone  I have spent more time in the provincial village of Njala than anywhere else outside of Freetown.   As a university town, Njala has good facilities for hosting visitors and conferences,  with the added bonus of electricity every evening from 7 pm to 11 pm.   King of Glory Lutheran Church in Njala (Mokondi) is a dynamic, hospitable, well-established congregation under the leadership of Pastor Edward Lavally, and they have welcomed me on many an occasion.

Children and youth led the procession to the church for worship on Nov. 28 in Njala.

Two weeks ago King of Glory celebrated a youth-sponsored thanksgiving weekend with youth events on Saturday and a festive worship service on Sunday under the theme “Let us Dwell Together in Unity.”    The youth at King of Glory made their plans well in advance,  and they invited me a number of months ago to preach, to organize a bible quiz, and to otherwise participate in the weekend events.  I traveled with Lutheran youth from Freetown, including members of the newly formed Lutheran musical ensemble.

Youth from about 7 other Christian churches in Njala also participated in the weekend events.   A football match between the Lutheran youth and young people from other congregations resulted in a 1 – 1 draw.

The Lutheran football (soccer) team with supporters, including Pr. Lavally (wearing blue striped shirt on the right). A number of the players were wearing the same white shirt with #11 on it, so that made for amusing commentary from the play by play announcer who kept talking about what #11 was doing on the field.

An evening talent show by the youth provided energetic entertainment from the Christian community, including the best musical performance by youth from the Catholic church.   The bible quiz (with questions from the gospel of Mark) and the talent show were scheduled to start at 7 pm but didn’t get underway until 9 pm.   I stayed until about 11:30 pm and the evening activities continued until one in the morning — with, I expect, the usual high energy, touched by chaos, that characterizes most youth activities  here.

The youth I've met in Sierra Leone embrace western style instruments and electronic sound systems. But this group of musicians from the Catholic church brought the house to their feet dancing and clapping with joy as they performed a Mende song using only their voices and traditional instruments. I have been told that the Catholic church is far ahead of other churches in terms of incorporating cultural traditions along with traditional languages and music in worship.

Traditional Mende instruments played by the Catholic youth. Personally, I prefer Mende singing and drumming over modern styles with western instruments and amplification.

The youth thanksgiving worship service at King of Glory lasted about 4 and a half hours complete with a lot of singing and dancing and good natured exhortations to give money.   After nearly 2 years in Sierra Leone, I have a pretty good idea of what to expect when I’m invited to a thanksgiving service, including the various fund raising traditions involved.   Typically, key participants are thanked for their contributions with a certificate of recognition, and I received a certificate for being “the best missionary.”  (I will be keeping that one, although I am admittedly the only missionary!)   Mostly, these thanksgiving services are all about community, and coming together in worship to give thanks to one another and to God.

This photo reflects two traditions typically practiced in thanksgiving services: friendship ribbons "for sale" to members of the congregation and pinned on the blouses and shirts of those one wants to honor. The ribbon covered cloth is used to hide a gift from the youth to the congregation. After considerable singing and the collection of money, the gift is finally unveiled. Those who sponsor a thanksgiving service (sometimes even the whole congregation) typically wear matching outfits for the event.

The youth's thanksgiving gift to the congregation was a clock. On similar occasions in other congregations, I've helped unveil and dedicate a chair, a fan and cleaning supplies. Clocks are often prominently displayed in church settings, although I haven't noticed that anyone pays particular attention to them.