Coming soon: United Methodist University of Sierra Leone

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It is a poor country rich with promise.

Its daily rhythm is one of slow progress and regular disappointment.

Yet, Sierra Leone has proven to be a country of faith and fortitude, two ingredients necessary for the success of an ambitious dream: the United Methodist University of Sierra Leone (UMUSL).

Organizers say it will be an institution of higher education like no other in West Africa because of its “holistic and integrated approach to addressing human suffering.” 

“The time has come for this nation to produce cutting-edge, principled Christian leaders who will re-envision and redirect the future of our nation,” explains Sierra Leone Area Bishop John Yambasu. “No institution can do this better than the church.”

Symbol of hope in struggling nation

Optimism bubbles from the bishop when he speaks of a university that will strive to be life-changing for students and transformational for the nation.

Unlike the two major public universities in Sierra Leone, the United Methodist university will pair classroom instruction with experiential learning that places students within communities to serve, learn and mentor.

The university will launch in October with the first of five schools, the School of Theology and Ministry. It will open a temporary facility in a retrofitted building in the heart of Freetown. Eventually, the university will consist of two additional campuses. The main, residential campus will be in Pa Loko, 25 miles (about 40 kilometers) from the capital city. A campus for the School of Nursing and Health Science will be on the United Methodist grounds of Mercy Hospital and the Child Rescue Center in Bo.

Theology students will also study sustainable agriculture and basic health care. Degrees will require extensive service within rural villages, where students will share skills while demonstrating Christian faith.

The link to theology

Yambasu explains that in a nation of subsistence farming, where 300 physicians serve a population of six million, pastors must help however they can. Teaching a village to farm smarter and stay healthy is essential to effective ministry in Sierra Leone.

“We don’t want to train pastors only for pulpit ministry,” explains Vice Chancellor George Carew.

Course work will also emphasize entrepreneurial models so that graduates can earn a living while teaching others to do the same. 

The diversified curricula may eventually include marine and geological engineering to take advantage of the country’s vast natural resources and funnel them back into sustainable development.

“It will help create new opportunities and help reduce unfair income distribution,” Yambasu explains. Ultimately, the bishop believes this approach will help maintain a democratic and peaceful society.

Another departure from the conventional West African academic model is the university’s priority on developing ethical leaders. The university will promote an understanding of human rights and good governance, to help combat systemic corruption and challenging injustice.

Building a leadership base

While the School of Theology and Ministry will begin with about 25 students and a team of six faculty and administrative staff, the university expects to roll out four more academic programs by 2020. These are the schools of Humanities and Social Sciences, Technology and Information Systems, Agriculture and Natural Resources, and Nursing and Health Science. All the degree programs will strive to train the nation’s future leaders, a potential game changer for Sierra Leone.

“The concept of building for the future is foreign to most of the population,” Carew said.

In the center of Pa Loko’s untouched forested area is the newly completed United Methodist chapel. It stands alone but within the next six years, organizers hope an entire university campus will emerge.  Architects have drafted blueprints for academic buildings, residential housing, a library, cafeteria, hospital, auditorium and even a sports complex.

“There is no university in Sierra Leone that has a sports complex,” said Yambasu.

Some have said the plan is too grand for a poor nation.  Yambasu does not waver: “I’m very allergic to mediocrity — you either do it well, or you don’t do it at all.”

Needing help, but not helpless

The United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone is the largest Protestant denomination in the country, with 235,000 members; 400 primary schools; 54 secondary (high) schools; and four hospitals and clinics.

At a recent round-table discussion in Nashville, Tennessee, hosted by the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, ministry partners and representatives from eight United Methodist agencies gathered to hear plans for the university.

The Rev. Steve Bryant of Discipleship Ministries summarized his understanding of how the university will fit into the structure of the annual conference: “It’s not just one more thing in a long list of developments but it is the focus in the sense that it becomes a leaven in the loaf and would feed the well-being, health and strength for all the other things the church is doing.”

Early on, Yambasu envisioned a university that would educate and empower women exclusively. As a young theologian, his ministry benefited from the support of United Methodist Women. Yambasu also learned first-hand that when African women are afforded education and opportunity, a stronger society results.

However, as the university’s planning committee began to refine their ideas, they determined the university should be co-ed. A university prospectus explains that education of women will remain a major priority. But it adds:  “A system that educates women and men side-by-side creates a healthy and well-balanced development where women are empowered to attain their highest God-given capacities to make meaningful contributions to national development.”

The Rev. Nancy Robinson recently served as a Global Ministries missionary in Sierra Leone. She said the university’s intention to enroll students regardless of gender, tribal or religious affiliation presents a unique opportunity to form partnerships around the globe.

“The university holds the potential for being a real seed for social transformation,” she said.

Edwin Momoh, director of planning, research and development for the Sierra Leone Conference, said support among United Methodists in the home country is strong. In November, an annual special offering called “University Sunday” will be taken for the first time.

“Everybody is on fire to see a transforming kind of institution,” Momoh said. “But we cannot do it alone.”

Even the most rural churches are organizing small donations and local pastors are working to recruit 10,000 members who will donate the equivalent of $3 a month. In the short term, the conference will leverage properties and endowments to bolster these efforts. Longer-term strategies include commercial farming on undeveloped land and joint ventures with outside partners to market products and services.

Resources within the connection

The round-table primed participants to suggest resources within the general agencies or partnering organizations.

“I see an opportunity for United Methodist Communications to walk alongside your program development so that you are teaching technologies that will work in rural communities,” said the Rev. Neelley Hicks, the agency's director of information and communications technology for development.

Scott Gilpin of Discipleship Ministries suggested working with the university to avoid getting “toxic charity” that would prevent self-sufficiency in the future. “Together maybe we can come up with some processes that fit your situation, your culture and your abilities,” he said.

Other agency participants offered to facilitate relationships within the denomination, including those with theological schools and grassroots organizers, along with secular partnerships among non-governmental and international development organizations. 

Drawing on the agency’s 25-year experience with United Methodist’s Africa University in Zimbabwe, the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry top executive Kim Cape offered foundational expertise.

“The school has to have a faculty and curriculum and there has to be an academic plan that fleshes out those disciplines. We can help with that,” she said.

When the School of Theology and Ministry opens, a joint venture between higher education and discipleship agencies will deliver a cache of e-readers that will contain a library of textbooks and documents to aid in coursework. The devices will allow students to access up-to-date information without connecting to the internet.

The university is completing the final steps for government accreditation. Last year, Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma issued his approval.

The projected cost for structural and program development over the next six years is nearly $5 million, with an eventual targeted enrollment of 4,000. The visionaries are relying on the strength and reach of the United Methodist connection to make it happen.

Yambasu acknowledges that Sierra Leone may feel distant to many United Methodists. But, he adds: “If you think Sierra Leone is a far distance from here, think about Jesus moving from heaven to earth.”

Snider is special projects producer with United Methodist Communications.

News media contact: Vicki Brown, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5474 or [email protected].

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