Q&A: Bishop shares upbeat view of Liberia
Sam Hodges, Jan 20, 2012
Bishop John Innis
Bishop John Innis oversees the Liberia Area of the United Methodist Church, with its roughly 150,000 members. During one particularly difficult phase of civil war in Liberia, he directed a mission station that took in thousands of refugees. In 1993, rebels raided the center, and he was severely beaten.
Bishop Innis served as executive secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries, and was elected to the episcopacy in 2000. He’s been on various panels of the UMC, including the Committee to Study the Worldwide Nature of the United Methodist Church.
He spoke to Reporter managing editor Sam Hodges at the Council of Bishops’ meeting last fall at Lake Junaluska, N.C.
What did you think of (fellow Liberian and United Methodist) Ellen Johnson Sirleaf sharing in the Nobel Peace Prize?
We’re very proud. It gives credit once again to the rebuilding of Liberia. It demonstrates that she’s a vision-driven leader. She is a leader whose heart is centered in peace-making. The world has been watching her, and the folks who are responsible for giving these prizes, especially the Nobel Peace Prize, made no mistake to have her as the recipient.
Has it been helpful to the United Methodist Church in Liberia to have her as president?
Oh, yeah. But she cares for every religion. She is not one-sided, even though she is a bona fide United Methodist and supports the United Methodist Church. She pays attention to every denomination. When she’s invited and has the time, by the Seventh-day Adventists or Catholics, she goes to their events.
She also has a sincere interest in education. You have now community colleges and universities in almost all of the counties—which you might refer to as states here.
Her interest is also in the education of girls. So scholarships have been made available. Even in our own United Methodist university in Liberia, you have a higher percentage of female than male attending.
What is your brief assessment of the situation in Liberia, in terms of stability?
Things have turned around in the best interest of every Liberian. People go to bed sleeping peacefully. They’re not being harassed. You can travel from any part of the country, be it early in the morning, midnight, any time of the day—no one is going to harass you. There are no more checkpoints, as there used to be in the early days of the war, and even up to the end of the war in 2003. All attempts have been made to build roads, to make travel throughout the country much easier. And a lot of investors are now entering Liberia. That means the economy of the country will have a dramatic turnaround, in the best interest of the people.
The capital city of Monrovia has been transformed. Great and wonderful things are happening.
The common wisdom in the United States is that the church is growing rapidly in Africa. What would you say about the growth of Christianity and United Methodism within Africa generally? Is it for real, and what accounts for it?
It’s for real. People believe very strongly that it is Jesus who has given them life. They believe that when you accept Christ, you become a new person. All old habits are thrown away.
So people are just excited, including children, men and women. They go to church, they learn about God, they learn about Jesus Christ as their Lord and savior. Evangelism is not only done by the pastor, but by everyone who is part of the congregation. They go and tell the story of the love of Christ.
In addition, for us in Africa, for us in Liberia in particular, the church is being looked at as a caring committee, holistically. Anything that happens to anybody, the church is there. During the [Liberian] civil war, it was the church that stood up on behalf of the oppressed, of the hopeless people.
So much of the discussion here and throughout the UMC in the United States has been about the Call to Action reform initiative, and so much of that seems focused on the U.S. church. Are you supportive of that, and is there anything in it for the African church?
The book of James talks about [how] love must be matched by action. We’re all called to action, wherever we are, to be evangelists, to be spokespersons of the marginalized people. We’re called to be action-oriented, to do good, to stay in love with God, to stay in love with Jesus Christ. All of the other things will come together. A lot of the [UMC reform] debate was on money and all of that. Christ says, “If you ask me, I will provide for you. If you look for me, you will find me. And if you knock at the door, I will enter.” So for me, these are all means of the call to action. All other things, I just leave it for God.
I want us to do what God wants us to do—to preach Christ; to teach Christ. Through Christ our people will be educated, through Christ our people who are sick with malaria will be healed, through Christ there will be justice for all, not a few. Through Christ we will be perfected, in terms of government operation.
I wouldn’t want go into the whole nitty-gritty of the whole issue of the Call to Action. There are a lot of things they’re trying to line up. They’re all good. But the thing is to make disciples effectively.
In other words, you would rather not comment specifically on guaranteed appointment, consolidating agencies, so forth?
If we say it comes from the depth of our heart, if this is something that we do in the best interest of the church, that would be all right. That would be very fine. But all of these will come together when we give our hearts, our heads and our hands to Christ.
Looking forward to General Conference 2012, is there one thing you would hope that would come out of it that would be helpful to the church in Africa?
We want General Conference to be very peaceful. We want to practice love that will receive and embrace one another. Anything contrary to that will not go well for the life of the church. We must be one in the spirit, one in the Lord, so that those who do not know us will get to know the savior.
That conference should be surrounded by peace, by love, by understanding, by laughter and embracing one another.
Can that happen with the conflict over homosexuality?
It can be discussed, but I don’t think it should be central to the discussion of General Conference. . . . For me, I have nothing against people who practice that. They’re my friends, they’re my brothers and sisters in Christ, and so forth. We should love them.
But would you favor changing the Book of Discipline?
For me, I’m going to abide by what the Book of Discipline says, that practice [of homosexuality] is incompatible to Christian living. That’s what the church has said to us over the years.
It would be accurate that that’s the prevailing view in Africa?
There is a prevailing view in this country as well. You’ve got thousands of people, maybe millions of people, who believe that practice is incompatible to Christian living. . . . People say it is the Africans who are responsible for [the failure of efforts to change the Book of Discipline regarding to homosexuality]. It is not true. It is not fair to Africa. Before the majority of Africans decided to come to General Conference, [the current position on homosexuality] was already written in that book. It was not an African who put it there. It came from this side.
Last question. Do you feel African representation is fair, in terms of General Conference?
I feel we’re getting closer. It’s step by step. The participation is getting to be very wonderful.