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Liberia: Counting on change

A dozen Liberian young people and one ELCA pastor, Hans Lee, huddled around two battery-powered lanterns and a dim flashlight until after midnight Oct. 11. It wasn’t a youth group lock-in. It was democracy in practice during Liberia’s first democratic elections after a 15-year civil war that claimed more than 250,000 lives and created hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Polling officials and election monitors work late into the night to count ballots.
The young people took charge at this polling station in Voinjama, Lofa County. They’d been well-trained as election officials, political party watchers and observers. Lee, pastor of Our Saviour, a Minneapolis congregation with many Liberian members, was one of six ELCA and United Church of Christ members to join more than 300 international volunteer observers in monitoring the election process.

Counting those ballots was long and tedious, especially in a country that hasn’t had an electricity grid for more than a decade. But it didn’t break the good spirit of those who gathered to ensure that this election was free, fair and transparent. Earlier that day nearly a million Liberians waited in long lines to cast ballots for president, vice president, senate and house of representatives. The high turnout and absence of disruptive violence was a testament to people’s commitment to peace and democratic governance.

The Lutheran Church in Liberia was active in the election process. Although small in numbers, the church is well-known for its peace, reconciliation and trauma-healing work. Earlier this year, Lutherans and other church bodies trained civic educators to prepare parishioners and the rest of the citizenry to vote. “This time we wanted to do more than simply pray for a fair election. We intend to be active participants in the democratic process,” said Sumoward Harris, bishop of the Lutheran church and president of the Liberian Council of Churches.

The council trained 18 international and 400 local church observers from 15 denominations, deploying them to seven of Liberia’s 15 counties. On election day, these ecumenical teams joined other accredited delegations from the European Union, The Carter Center and other West African states.

Their work continues since the election didn’t end in October. Neither of the two leading presidential candidates—George Weah, millionaire soccer star, and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Harvard-educated economist—won the required 50 percent plus one majority, forcing a run-off vote between the two Nov. 8.

Liberians know how important this election is. Benjamin Lartey, general secretary for the Lutheran church, said the election “will determine whether we go forward or backward into war. We don’t want to be another Somalia where the international community gives up on us. ... Never again will we pick up guns and kill each other.”

Our joining this process is the essence of what the ELCA does best in global mission: responding to the call to accompany partner churches as they work for peace and reconciliation amid difficult times. Our presence was important for the Liberian church. They know the world is watching right now. But more importantly, they know our church won’t forget their struggle, even when elections are long past and Liberia is no longer in our newspapers.

The ELCA and UCC election observers paid for their travel expenses, with some help from a small grant from ELCA Global Mission and the UCC. In addition to Hans Lee and me, the observers were:

• Ronald Shellhamer, a Shamokin, Pa., pastor who represented the ELCA Upper Susquehanna Synod, companion of the Lutheran Church in Liberia.

• Nancy Haberstich, Lincoln, Neb., a former ELCA global mission volunteer at Phebe Hospital and School of Nursing in Liberia.

• Jim Bowman, Albuquerque, N.M., who once directed the Lutheran World Relief Office of Public Policy in Washington, D.C., volunteered in the Peace Corps in Liberia, and observed 1997 elections there.

• Susan Sanders, Cleveland, team leader for the UCC’s Wider Church Ministries, Global Sharing of Resources.

For more information, see: www.elca.org/liberia.


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