The Liberian Council of Churches (LCC)
by Soka Moses
An interview with the Rt. Rev. Sumoward E. Harris, President of the Liberian Council of Churches (LCC) and Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Liberia.
The Rt. Rev. Sumoward E. Harris, Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Liberia and President of the Liberian Council of Churches, was interviewed by Soka Moses on Wednesday, December 10, 2003 , concerning the current work and situation of the Liberian Council of Churches (LCC). Bishop Harris served as first vice president of the organization until his election as its president in December 2002.
The Liberian Council of Churches (LCC) was organized as a fellowship of churches in Liberia , with the goal of working together to find solutions to crucial problems of public concern. It also seeks unity among Christian churches working together, rather than being separated by doctrinal differences, and seeks to promote inter-religious dialogue.
Reporting on the current situation of the organization, Bishop Harris explained that the LCC is made up of 16 full members and 18 associate members and organizations. Bishop Harris lamented that the Council was greatly affected by the most recent civil unrest in Liberia , in May through October of this year, in which several hundred Liberians were killed, and hundreds of thousands displaced. The military violence brought overwhelming destruction throughout the entire country, including the ransacking of the Council's new offices.
According to Bishop Harris, it was only in December of last year that the Council established a well set up office after the secretariat was restructured. Despite its great importance to the future of Liberia , Bishop Harris said, "this office has no modern equipment such as vehicles, computers, fax, e-mail services, or a generator, among other essential equipment."
He noted that the lack of communication equipment, in particular, has been a great detriment. Unable to keep in touch with its foreign partners, donors, and friends around the world, the Bishop said, "the Council's secretariat has been unable to function effectively."
It was problems such as these that rendered the Council ineffective for the past four years, but during the past year renewed strength and hope have brought some remarkable strides for the organization. A major leadership conference was held last month, bringing together more than 60 Christian leaders from a wide variety of denominations -- including many who were not members of the LCC. Representatives of other Christian organizations joined in the conference, which prepared a comprehensive vision for the LCC in peace building, reconciliation, and raising prophetic calls regarding problems facing the nation at large.
A major breakthrough cited by Bishop Harris was the joint effort with the Liberian Muslim Council in 2002 to meet with the leaders of rebel military forces. The Christian and Muslim leaders persuaded the rebels to enter into dialogue, which had previously been impossible. At the same time, the LCC prevailed on the Parliament and Secretariat of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to lift a travel ban on the two rebel factions, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL). This action allowed the rebel leaders to travel to Sierra Leone in 2002, for the first peace talks.
In 2003, the LCC directed all of its energies toward the success of the peace talks in Accra , Ghana . These discussions, which lasted for about three months, led to the formation of the present Transitional Government. The LCC participated actively in this conference, and also sent its delegates to neighboring Guinea , Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast , urging the governments of these countries to lend their support to the restoration of peace in Liberia .
Bishop Harris explained that LCC has made itself available to the United Nat ions Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) for the successful implementation of the Disarmament Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation (DDRR) Program. The goal of this program is to disarm the 40,000 armed fighters in Liberia , and reintegrate them into society as contributing citizens.
Bishop Harris says the principal focus for LCC over the two-year transition period is the peace process. "We want peace and reconciliation," he noted. In order to be effective in that process, Bishop Harris said, one of the current priorities of the LCC is the rehabilitation of its offices with effective communication equipment and other equipment needed for the daily operation of the organization.
Beyond the immediate needs, Bishop Harris outlined the LCC's participation in the long-term peace building process, reconciliation program and fostering of unity among the churches.
Christianity and Islam are the two dominant religions in Liberia , and Bishop Harris said that the LCC is currently working on several programs geared toward inter-religious dialogue, in order to break down barriers between followers of these two major religions. He said the first major program in this inter-religious effort is to be held in January 2004.
"The two groups will come together," Bishop Harris said, "to talk about how they can harmonize and coexist peacefully. I believe we can work with Muslims, not on a faith-sharing basis, but on the basis of promoting religious tolerance, and fostering respect for the fundamental rights of all people, regardless of creed, political orientation and ethnicity."
The LCC has collaborated with the Liberian Muslim Council on a number of issues of national concern, chief among them being the peace process in Liberia . LCC is a member of the Interfaith Mediation Committee, organized by Christian and Muslim organizations early in the peace process to bring the warring parties and the former government of Liberia , headed by Charles Taylor, to dialogue.
Looking toward the future, Bishop Harris noted that the LCC will undertake massive civil education in order to prepare Liberians for the 2005 Presidential and General Elections. Such education is essential, he said, "so that honest and qualified people can lead Liberia to peace, unity and prosperity."
The LCC will model its efforts and build upon the experience of the Ghana Christian Council (GCC), which participated in that country's successful peace education and voters' education programs, which led to smooth elections in Ghana .
"We believe," Bishop Harris said, "that we can gain experience from them and their literature, and apply this experience here in Liberia ."
In addition, the LCC has already begun youth workshops to empower youth participation in the information dissemination process. This process has the goal of persuading fighters, including men, women and children, to give up their arms as part of the peace process.
Asked to comment on other problems facing the LCC, Bishop Harris lamented the lack of necessary support funds. Without the necessary financial support, he said, there will be no way to realize the plans and programs of the organization. Of the 16 LCC members, he said, only six have been able to make any financial contributions for the viability of the council, "which is insufficient for our work."
The bishop acknowledged the support of foreign partners and donors that have assisted the LCC. Since the secretariat was organized as the service wing of the LCC, he said, several foreign partners and donors have contributed funds to finance the LCC's work. These include the Presbyterian Church of the USA , Lutheran World Relief (LWR) of USA , the Church of Sweden , and the German Diaconal Work. It was the latter organization, he said, that gave financial support for the leadership conference held in November. He noted that the LCC has received a message from the Church of Netherlands expressing willingness to help.
Although the modest bishop declined to accept any of the credit himself, it is a matter of public record that since he assumed the leadership of the LCC, it has experienced strong growth and has earned widespread public admiration, especially for its influential role in the Liberian peace process.
Bishop Harris sees a bright future for the Liberian Council of Churches. The LCC has given a convincing demonstration that the church is a credible institution in the peace process, and, he said, "can deliver the goods if empowered with financial and logistical support."
Bishop Harris concluded by making a passionate appeal to potential partner churches, organizations, friends and donor agencies to come to the aid of the Liberian Council of Churches and help it carry on its work in the peace process. "This is the time for well meaning Liberians and friends all over the world to help LCC work in restoring peace to Liberia ," he concluded.
SOKA MOSES is a son of a Liberian physician formerly associated with Phebe Hospital . He had lived at Phebe for most of his formative years, and was deeply moved by the reports that a few visitors made after their trip to assess the damage at Phebe. He felt that it was important to let others know what was happening in Suakoko. He has no formal training as a writer or reporter, but he sent a message through the e-mail facility of hospital administrator Bill Martin describing the devastation at Phebe. That message was made available to Verlon Stone and presented on this FOL/Indiana news service. The reaction was so favorable that Mr. Moses has agreed to prepare additional reports on other phases of the war and reconstruction efforts in Liberia .
E. CHRISTOPHER CONE has been a volunteer Episcopal Church missionary to Liberia since 1958. He worked at Holy Cross Mission in Bolahun until the start of the war in 1989; then at the Episcopal Refugee Outreach Ministry, founded by Bishop Edward W. Neufville to work with Liberians fleeing into the Cote d'Ivoire ; and most recently at Phebe Hospital , a joint venture of Lutherans, Episcopalians and Methodists. In his secular life he was editor and publisher of a community newspaper in Livingston , New Jersey . He sold his business to return to full- time missionary work at Phebe, but had to evacuate in March 2003 to the sound of approaching gunfire. He lived in "temporary" exile at Grace Church in Madison , New Jersey but returned to Liberia on January 27 th with a delegation of workers to assist Phebe Hospital .
This story was commissioned by the Liberian Collections Projectó Indiana University and distributed free of charge courtesy of Friends of Liberia (FOL) in association with the Liberian Collections Project (LCP) at Indiana University . To learn more about Friends of Liberia (including how to join) and the Liberian Collections Project, please visit our websites at http://www.FOL.org and http://onliberia.org/fol_service.htm . Contact the Liberian Collections Project at email@example.com .
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Last Modified: Friday, February 20, 2004 16:06