Church welcomes our team

We arrived at the church an hour late; one of our two taxis had broken down. Joseph, a taxi driver and presiding elder in the church, was dressed to the nines in an orange blazer and navy tie. He had told the congregation that he was bringing foreign guests, and was obviously anxious to deliver on his promise.

The church was in the middle of a very poor neighborhood. Because of the rain, there were deep, muddy puddles in the road that our low-slung taxi struggled to get through. People along the road were selling charcoal in little blue-and-white striped plastic bags. I also saw a hairdresser weaving strings of black hair onto her client’s head.

People in their Sunday best were waiting for us at the top of the steps of the bright white church with blue trim. We were ushered up to the front of the hall to sit in blue plastic chairs beside the main stage. Ken, our leader, was called up to introduce us to the congregation.

The women wore traditional, brightly patterned dresses that hugged their bottoms, and flared out in a mermaid cut below the knee. They wore their hair up and covered with turbans of fabric often matching their dresses. Some had wound strips of sequins around their head. The men wore drab suits. Sweat plastered the dress shirts to their backs, turning their torsos darker colors.

After the formal introductions, the singing began. This was a service for several congregations who had come together. As each community was recognized by the reverend, congregation members came to the front of the church to sing. There were around five groups in total. The reverend spoke to his congregation, with people calling out, seemingly spontaneously, to praise the lord. People had their heads bowed, and their arms stretched up to heaven.

The singing started up again, with the best leading from the front of the stage. The whole church joined in and danced, accompanied by a bass, keyboards and a drum kit. I bounced around from my position backstage, snapping furiously with my camera. I’m not sure when I’ll see something like this again.

One thing that was quite difficult for me was that, after the sermon, the reverend read out a list of names of people who were suspended from the church. Three women, all pregnant out of wedlock, were no longer welcome. They are suspended for six months. No men had their names read out. I asked our taxi driver about this later, and he said that the fathers of the children were not affiliated with the church, online casino and if they had been, they would have been suspended, too. He said that it was important to send the message that the community did not sanction sex before marriage, and that the suspension should be seen as serving penance. After the six months, both the mother and her child would be accepted back. While this seems to be gender-equitable in theory, he explained that no such immoral men attend the church, so men rarely got suspended. An absence of immoral men, when three women were suspended in one week, seems fairly unlikely.

Another thing that sat a little uncomfortably was that the reverend kept asking the parishioners for money. Apparently, they are building a new church, and have a bunch of other good works in the pipeline. But this is obviously a very poor community, and the collection box had already been wheeled out. The reverend called for donations – in U.S. dollars – for the new construction. He started with a call for U.S. $50, and was greeted with silence. Then one person held up his hand, fingers splayed wide. The reverend got all excited, booming through his microphone, “we have $50!” A small voice corrected him from the audience – he could spare $5. This did not get announced over the PA system. Eventually, all those who could donate were invited to stand at the front of the church, staring down those who could not give. It was quite confrontational, and I felt sorry for those who were been shown up as stingy, or as having very little means.

But then, I felt guilty for my uncharitable thoughts as the reverend called us to the front of the hall, and bade the congregation to pray for us, to keep us safe while here in their country. Again, heads bowed and palms faced the ceiling. How kind they were to talk to god on our behalf.

After the service, many came to offer us the handshake of peace. Women hugged me, and were obviously very happy to meet a girl from so far away. Names were exchanged, and little slips of paper with phone numbers pushed into my hand. “We want to be your friend,” they said. “You have friends here in Liberia.”

About Luisa Ryan

Luisa Ryan is a Rotary World Peace Fellow at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, studying a Masters of Journalism and Mass Communication. Her research interests include the role of local journalists in peace building efforts in conflict-affected countries, and the role of media and national identity in conflict.