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United Methodist of the Year: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf leads Liberia, wins Nobel Mary Jacobs, Dec 30, 2011
UNITED METHODIST NEWS SERVICE FILE PHOTO BY MIKE DUBOSE
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won re-election this year as president of Liberia, and also shared in the Nobel Peace Prize. A faithful United Methodist, she’s seen here speaking to the 2008 General Conference of the UMC, in Fort Worth, Texas.
By Mary Jacobs Staff Writer
For her work in peace-building and championing women’s rights in Liberia—and in turn, inspiring women around the world—Liberian president and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the Reporter’s 2011 United Methodist of the Year.
“She is, in my view, an illustration of what God can do through the United Methodist Church, in terms of making a disciple of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” said Boston Area Bishop Peter D. Weaver.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Africa’s first democratically elected female president in 2005, and is widely credited with helping Liberia to emerge from a brutal civil war. Ms. Sirleaf was one of three women who received the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in December.
“We are celebrating her achievements and consider it an achievement of the entire church and the Liberian people,” said the Rev. Jerry Kulah, superintendent of the Monrovia district in Liberia.
Raised in the United Methodist faith and educated at a United Methodist-affiliated high school, Ms. Sirleaf is an active member of First United Methodist in Monrovia, Liberia. Many who have met her say her faith deeply informs her leadership.
“She has a sense that her life and her talent ought to be given to trying to make this world look a little like the kingdom of heaven,” Bishop Weaver said.
Destined to lead
Ms. Sirleaf was born in Monrovia, the granddaughter of a Liberian chief. In her autobiography, This Child Shall Be Great (2009), Ms. Sirleaf relates a family story about an old man who visited shortly after her birth, took one look at the infant and proclaimed, “This child shall be great. This child is going to lead.”
For years, Ms. Sirleaf wrote, the comment seemed like a cruel joke. Married at age 17, later the mother of four sons, she felt trapped in an abusive marriage and struggled to pursue her education.
However, Ms. Sirleaf was able to eventually complete her education. She attended high school at the United Methodist-affiliated College of West Africa in Monrovia, and later studied at Madison Business College in Wisconsin, the University of Colorado and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Her entry in politics came in 1972, when she delivered a now-famous commencement address at her high school alma mater, sharply criticizing the government.
Ms. Sirleaf worked for the World Bank in Washington, D.C., then served as head of the African Regional Office of Citibank in Nairobi. In the mid-1980s, she returned to Liberia and was imprisoned for her criticism of the regime under Samuel Doe. With the outbreak of the First Liberian Civil War in 1989, Ms. Sirleaf initially supported Charles Taylor’s rebellion against Doe, but later opposed him and had to leave Liberia. In the early 1990s, she led the United Nations Development Programme’s Regional Bureau for Africa. In 2005, she won the election, and this past October, she was re-elected.
Her status as Liberia’s president sets “an important precedent. . . . Not only has it inspired women, they like what her election says about the inclusiveness of politics in Africa,” said Ambassador Charles Stith, former ambassador to Tanzania and former pastor of Union United Methodist in Boston. He has met Ms. Sirleaf and remembers her as a “woman of great bearing and presence.”
Nobel Peace Prize
Ms. Sirleaf shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with Leymah Gbowee, her Liberian compatriot, and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen. The peace prize committee recognized the three women for championing women’s rights in regions where oppression is common and for empowering women to promote peace.
On accepting her Nobel in December, Ms. Sirleaf dedicated it to the women of Africa, particularly the Liberians.
“They have carried the burden of those conflicts, subjected to rape, to sex slavery, being the ones who have to continue to have to provide for their children even as their men are out in war,” she said in a speech in Oslo the day before the prize ceremony.
No woman or sub-Saharan African had won the prize since 2004, when the committee honored Wangari Maathai of Kenya.
Thomas Kemper, top executive of the General Board of Global Ministries, visited Liberia during the war, and has followed Liberia’s comeback after the civil war dragged the once-thriving nation into chaos and violence.
“When you meet women in Liberia and Africa, you can see the pride as they talk about Liberia’s first female president,” Mr. Kemper said. “To have a president who was a kind of mother of the nation, to be elected and re-establish trust and relationships and standing up for women . . . was just unique and created this atmosphere that the international donor community wanted to give to Liberia, because they trusted the president and her way forward.”
Dr. Kulah, whose 2010 dissertation at Asbury Theological Seminary described the church’s leadership in transforming Liberia, noted that Ms. Sirleaf’s years as president have created a marked decline in corruption. When she took office in 2005, Liberia ranked 185th among 206 countries for success in controlling corruption, he said, citing World Bank Institute data. Two years later, Liberia ranked 113th, the largest improvement over two years by any country.
Dr. Kulah sees Ms. Sirleaf’s Wesleyan roots in her governing style.
“At the moment, over 25,000 youths are doing vacation jobs, cleaning up their communities, and will be paid on Dec. 23rd to have some money for their Christmas,” he said in a Dec. 18 email. “These similar things Wesley did as he went into the coal mines, barns, prisons and ghettos to liberate people.”
“She has doubled the number of healthcare facilities in Liberia during her tenure,” Ambassador Stith added. “She has built over 220 schools since 2006. More than 700,000 residents in Monrovia now have pipe-borne water. These things reflect her commitment to uplifting the poor.”
Ambassador Stith hopes Ms. Sirleaf’s example will also inspire action.
“Her success is a challenge to the church universal to look at ways to support the hope in a place like Liberia,” he said. “It’s not enough to stand on the sidelines and cheer her achievements.”
He adds that, while Ms. Sirleaf has accomplished much, Liberia has a long way to go. The nation’s roads and infrastructure are still shaky; there’s still government corruption that needs addressing.
Ms. Sirleaf’s United Methodist faith remains an important part of her life. Dr. Kulah called Ms. Sirleaf a “very devoted worshipper” who attends services every Sunday.
“She listens to her leaders of the church and is open to counsel,” he said.
Bishop Weaver was part of the delegation that attended Ms. Sirleaf’s inauguration in 2006, and recalls her deep faith as evident. She carefully planned a prayer service at First UMC in Monrovia for the day before her inauguration.
She chose three hymns for the prayer service: “A Charge to Keep” (by Charles Wesley), “Jesus is All the World to Me” and “We’ve a Story to Tell the Nations.”
After a contentious election and long years of civil war in Liberia, the latter hymn was particularly moving, Bishop Weaver recalls, as it closed with the refrain: “the darkness shall turn to dawning and the dawning to noon day bright.”
“She sang those hymns by heart,” he said. “I don’t mean just by memory, she sang them by heart. You could tell she was deeply moved by what she was singing.”
Mr. Kemper adds that Ms. Sirleaf’s visible commitment to her United Methodist faith has “helped the church in Liberia to find its place after the war and to restart again.”
Ms. Sirleaf was called on to address the United Methodist General Conference in 2008 in Fort Worth, Texas. She was the first African leader and the first female president to address the General Conference.
“We need the church now as never before,” she told the delegates, calling them “fellow Christians and fellow Methodists” many times during her address.
“I am proud to say we have moved Liberia from a failed state, from an awful flicker on your television screen to a success story,” she added. She recalled how, shortly after her election, children were frightened by her presidential convoy. “Today, they light up and they smile,” she said. “Liberia is on the way back.”
Ms. Sirleaf, who calls herself “Mama Ellen,” has made equality for women a top priority for her administration.
She has also emphasized education for women, said the Rev. Deborah Thompson, mission coordinator for the Wisconsin Conference. The conference sends teams to Liberia for mission work.
“She’s encouraging young women to go to school,” she said. “She believes that if you educate a woman, you can educate a nation, because women will teach their children.
Ms. Thompson lived in Liberia in the late 1970s and has family ties there; she recalls how people then referred to their country with pride as “Sweet, sweet Liberia.” That pride evaporated during the long civil war, but as the nation rallies, now she sees pride returning.
“The Methodist church tries to bring hope in situations where people are challenged,” she said. “Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is someone who has brought hope to Liberia.”