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COMMENTARY: ‘They Preached to Me’ Sheron C. Patterson, Mar 21, 2012
The Rev. Sheron Patterson poses with Rev. Rodney Marshall, pastor of Ebenezer UMC in Liberia.
By Sheron C. Patterson Special Contributor
Liberia is on the rise. It has a long way to go. The 14 years of civil war destroyed buildings and the Liberian infrastructure. One thing not destroyed is the power of praise.
I had the honor of preaching in a United Methodist Church during my two week visit to Liberia recently with a delegation from the North Texas Conference. This particular church was on fire for God. Members were not concerned with an absence of amenities that would have halted a worship service in the U.S., such as no air conditioning, and no rest rooms of any quality.
I went with a Word for them, but came away with a Word from them. The members of Ebenezer United Methodist Church of Liberia preached to me. The sermon I prepared was titled “Anyhow Praise.” Based on Habakkuk 3: 17-18, my message encouraged an attitude from the prophet himself; even if there is no fruit or cattle, “yet I will rejoice in the Lord.”
My plan was to prop them up and help them hold on. The exact opposite happened.
We Americans are often quick to dismiss struggling African nations with a list of negative adjectives such as primitive, remote and undeveloped. I certainly have. A lifetime of air conditioning, running water and electricity caused me to question whether I could live without them during this visit. I worried so much that I almost missed the blessing that God had for me in Liberia.
If you look at Liberia through ordinary eyes you will see a poor West African nation fraught with troubles inward and outward. If you look at this same nation through the lens of United Methodism, a much more positive image becomes clearer.
There is an intense love for the United Methodist church in Liberia. With over 250,000 members, it is the largest Protestant denomination. Even the president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a United Methodist. Men and women wear garments with images of John Wesley printed onto the fabric. Deaconesses wear white scarves around their heads that bear John Wesley’s face. John Wesley is a rock star here.
I soaked up their enthusiasm because I was empty. I have written countless articles on the denomination’s U.S. membership losses. I have attend numerous seminars that detail how we as a church are in the wilderness, caught between changing paradigms and in need of new structure. And as a pastor, I’ve seen large numbers of United Methodists lose interest and leave for non-denominational churches. The zest and zeal I experienced in Liberia was like having my battery recharged.
The members of Ebenezer UMC come to their church to have hearty, sweaty worship. The building was rickety by American standards. It probably would not pass any of our code inspections. The walls were thin and flimsy and the ceiling was nonexistent. When I looked up, I saw the roof, and it was in bad shape. The toilet was behind a curtain. It was quickly identifiable by the smell. Despite all of this, Ebenezer was a place of glorious worship.
Actually it was a glorious cardio workout of worship. Everyone was on their feet and in the aisles: jumping, clapping, and swaying to the beat of a set of drums and an organ. I was glad that I work out five days a week back home. All the jumping, clapping and swaying back and forth would have drained me before I preached.
These were not spectators or unimpassioned bystanders. We sang lots and lots of hymns and gospel tunes. The members poured themselves into each song. John Wesley said, “Sing heartily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half-dead or half-asleep. Don't be more afraid of your voice now, or more ashamed of being heard than when you sang songs of Satan.” They took Wesley seriously here.
The temperature of the church became very hot after the first song was sung, due to all the stirring bodies. The heat was so intense that my hair was plastered flat on my head with sweat. Sweat poured from members of the congregation as well, but they did not seem to mind. I wanted to forget about it too. A pair of ushers noticed that I was wilting in the heat and rushed toward me with a small cooler filled with chilled water. I accepted it gratefully and secretly wished I was as heat resistant as they were.
When the preaching moment came, I was directed to an elevated preaching loft. I climbed the narrow stairs, and a scorching heat met me up there. In the tight, wooden enclosure I felt boxed in, but blessed nevertheless. Who would think that this African American would have the privilege of preaching to Africans in Africa? I told myself not to concentrate on the heat, but on the Holy Ghost.
The paper that I wrote my sermon on succumbed to the heat and went limp. It lay in my hand like a piece of fabric. Nevertheless I preached from my limp notes with all my might and soon my clothes were soaking wet. The sweat on my forehead made a concerted run downward to my eyes and I was temporarily blinded. The congregation saw my struggle and did not laugh. They kept giving me amens, and I accepted them even though I could not see.
My sermon at Ebenezer was a success. God wanted me to have “Anyhow Praise” while in Liberia and stop complaining and worrying about what conveniences I temporarily lacked. And I did. I thanked God for people who do not need to be pampered with modern conveniences to come to church and worship God. I thanked God for worshippers who threw themselves into song and dance in the sanctuary with no shame. I thanked God for United Methodists still madly in love the John Wesley.
If I can manage to hold on to their fervor and spread some of this “Anyhow Praise” in the U.S., we will have a revival of worship and a reversal of our downward trends.
The Rev. Sheron Patterson is director of communications for the North Texas Conference.