Because of the Ebola crisis, the United Methodist Sierra Leone Annual Conference that ended April 26, conducted its business in two days rather than five.
Delegates meeting in Bo had just one day – Saturday – to discuss serious business, the church body elected 20 clergy and lay delegates to the 2016 West Africa Central Conference and 12 to General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body.
Many other normal conference agenda items were removed to save time to attend to priority matters. “By now, you all would have noticed that this conference is much different from the others over the years,” Resident Bishop John Yambasu told the gathering. “This is because of the prevailing Ebola epidemic in the country.”
The bishop said he was grateful to God that the conference, postponed from early March, had happened at all. “...those of us who have survived Ebola and are alive to see each other’s face have every reason to be thankful ...to God Almighty for sparing our lives to witness yet another annual gathering of United Methodists from across the country.”
A traditional march of United Methodist organizations and institutions, led by the bishop and clergy and accompanied by music from brass bands, which usually heralds the start of annual conference, was cancelled. Annual reports were not discussed but archived into the preconference journal that delegates would read at home. Two retirees were presented to the conference but a special service was not held.
Though the request to permit United Methodist clergy to hold a ministerial session on Friday initially was turned down, a compromised position was agreed after further deliberations with Bo government officials. Clergy were granted part of Friday afternoon to meet and discuss discipline, policy and welfare matters.
Ban on public gatherings
Although new Ebola infection rates have been significantly reduced to single digits in the past three weeks, a government ban on public gatherings remains in effect. Delegates were cut to a minimum of 146 — compared to more than 750 at last year’s annual conference — in an attempt to persuade The Sierra Leone government to approve the gathering of a reasonable number.
The usual talent shows featuring youth and children from the various districts of the conference competing in singing, drama and debates were cancelled due to the state of emergency in the country that forbids all entertainments at night. Men and women’s nights fund raising activities also were not observed.
Conference time is often an occasion for evangelism and outreach in the communities hosting the conference. Those in youth and young adult ministries, in collaboration with the evangelism ministry, usually organize outdoor crusades with preaching and singing through a public address system. That did not happen due to Sierra Leone’s Ebola restrictions.
A bishop’s words of hope
In his episcopal address Saturday, Yambasu thanked God for granting United Methodists the opportunity to witness the 2015 annual conference, which had looked very unlikely.
“In the almost one year since the outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease, many people had wondered whether they would ever live to see this day,” he said. “For nearly one year, we all have lived in fear, pain and frustration.
“We have lived each day as though in the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ as we witness our loved ones die of the deadly Ebola virus day by day. Indeed, it is the grace of God that has brought us thus far, and I believe that God is going to do something extraordinarily wonderful in the life of each one of you.”
Citing the 2015 conference theme, “Together, We Can Make A Difference,” Yambasu declared that togetherness is a strong administrative pillar that any leader must use to foster development. He said great strides have been made in his past six years of administration because togetherness has been used to harness all the organs of conference for growth and development.
That growth includes the repair or building of schools, churches and new congregations. Equipping hospitals and clinics to provide accessible and affordable health care has helped make the Kissy Hospital maternity complex among the best in the country, he said. The conference also has complied with the new government policy of paying a minimum monthly wage of LE 500,000 – an equivalence of $100 – in the midst of serious financial challenges.
“Together, we continue to engage in community transformation through economic development and livelihood opportunities for depraved communities, including clean drinking water, toilets facilities and training opportunities,” Yambasu said.
“Together, we continue to be actively involved in providing a leading role in the fight to eradicate the two major killer diseases —malaria and Ebola — that continue to decimate our population,” the bishop said. “And together, we have resolved to establish the United Methodist University.”
*Jusu is director of communications for The United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone. News media contact: Vicki Brown at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.