So much is new and different, I find it hard to organize my thoughts around conveying what happened this past week. The bishop gave me two weeks to get settled and move into my apartment before hitting the ground running with missionary work. And so I really do spend about half of every day resting in my hotel room or walking along Lumley beach. I normally spend about 5-6 hours every day getting things taken care of. But for the little time that it is, I’ve experience more than there is room to reflect on here. And so I will share two experiences and then some more photos to give an idea of what else is happening.
On Thursdays We Wear Black
The United Methodist Women in Sierra Leone are a force to be reckoned with. I was impressed with them even before I came because of this article about their march through the city protesting a "culture of silence" surrounding violence against women. They seem to truly embody the United Methodist’s belief that it is one of the church’s responsibilities to call the culture to account for the injustices that we see. We are called to be a voice in the community that speaks on behalf of the vulnerable and insists on a higher moral standard across all society. My dad used to say that the church is meant to be the conscience of it's society.
They also embody well the United Methodist Women’s purpose to serve, protect, and empower women and children by pursuing their safety, education, and wellness. I love coming here and seeing how much of what is already happening here is something that I can get behind with my whole heart.
Having nothing to do with such high endeavors, on Monday I asked my guide and friend Olivia if we could find a tailor for me to get some new skirts. Mostly this was out of need. Clergy women here do not wear skirts with a hem that hits above the knee. My skirts in the US almost all hit above the knee. If I’m being honest, though, it is also because I love love LOVE the fashion here. So much color and fun! And I was itching to join in. It turns out that the tailor we know is also the Director of United Methodist Women for the Annual Conference. And so there in the conference office I got measured for new clothes. Not the most professional, but it was super awesome.
At the same time in the UMW office were other UMW leaders planning a weeklong gathering of women coming up in a few weeks out in the Provinces. (I will have a brand new tailor-made embroidered white dress for the occasion!) As we were chatting and I was looking around I saw a sign that read “Wearing black on Thursdays indicates that you are tired of putting up with rape & violence in your community.” This is a problem, it seems, in every society…including the one I just left.
I am so inspired by these women and am glad now to count myself as one of them. So…on Thursdays we wear black. This is a part of our Christian witness.
Going to Prison
Olivia volunteers every Thursday at the juvenile correctional facility. She asked me if I wanted to go and I, of course, said yes. Prison ministry is a passion of mine in the States as well. And so she picked me up Thursday morning (both of us in black) and we made our way to the facility. The night before, she asked me to prepare something to share with them (a message or lesson or something). I asked her how long I should expect to teach. She said, “Mmmm…until they get bored.” Lol.
This being somewhat imprecise, I figured 30 minutes would do it. It turns out we had two whole hours. We arrived and went to the boys area. It seemed to me that there were only one or two young women in there. One of them had a toddler toddle up to her while we were talking. I meant to ask. Surely this young woman’s child isn’t with her in the correctional facility?
This facility is a holding facility for juveniles awaiting trial for various crimes. I didn’t ask what crimes and they did not tell me. One of the young men led us in singing to start and then I gave a lesson centered on Isaiah 43:1-2, which has become a favorite of mine. We talked about what our names mean and how they connect us to who we are. We talked about how God knows our name, how God calls us God’s own, how God redeems even the worst things we’ve done. We talked about the Israelites and how they had messed up, broken the laws, lost everything. They felt that even God had forgotten them, but God speaks to them saying, “You are mine and I will lead you through the fire.” We shared our own stories of God showing up to us in times of trouble.
I think the most meaningful moment was when I had them replace the name of “Israel” with their own names. We did it together. I led it and they repeated after me: “But now thus says the Lord, ‘He who created you, <your name here>, he who formed you <your name here>, Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” It was chaotic with all the boys saying their name at the same time, but so powerful.
It felt like such an important and urgent message to give to these boys, some of whom had been there up to three years. You are not forgotten. You are not abandoned. There is one who knows your name, sees you, and redeems you. And it felt like so much joy to be the one to speak those words on behalf of God.