By Joe Isenhower Jr.
“The entire room broke into applause” after Bishop Amos Bolay of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Liberia (ELCL) requested altar and pulpit fellowship between the Missouri Synod and his church body during Dec. 31 discussions in Monrovia between representatives of the two church bodies.
The Rev. Dr. Albert B. Collver III, the Synod’s director of Church Relations with the LCMS Office of the President, made that observation in his “Day 2” post on the “Witness, Mercy, Life Together” blog where he reported on the nearly weeklong visit he and three other Synod representatives had with the ELCL. The other LCMS representatives were the Rev. Dr. Joel Lehenbauer, executive director of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations; Dr. Michael Rodewald, regional director for Africa with the Synod’s Office of International Mission (OIM); and the Rev. Dr. David Erber, the OIM’s area facilitator for English-speaking West Africa.
Bolay’s request for fellowship came at the end of an impassioned address in which he traced the close association of confessional Lutherans in Liberia with the Missouri Synod.
Collver related that the talks – which included the ELCL’s executive committee and church council – then “led to a several-hour conversation about Lutheran doctrine, fellowship and the LCMS’ policies and procedures related to fellowship.”
That procedure for fellowship, adopted by delegates at the 2010 Synod convention, is detailed in Bylaw 18.104.22.168.2c, as follows:
“When a small, formative, emerging confessional Lutheran church body (identified as such by the president of the Synod as chief ecumenical officer) requests recognition of altar and pulpit fellowship with the Synod, and after consultation with the Praesidium and approval by the commission [CTCR], such recognition may be declared by the president of the Synod subject to the endorsement of the subsequent Synod convention.”
Collver noted that he and Lehenbauer plan to compile a report on the Liberia visit for Synod President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison and the CTCR, for its next meeting in April.
To date, the new procedure for altar and pulpit fellowship has led to President Harrison’s declaring fellowship — after the CTCR’s approval — with the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church in December 2010.
Lehenbauer told Reporter that “several other recent requests may also follow this track, but they have not yet been formally routed to the CTCR in this way.”
Bolay asked Harrison for the fellowship talks last October while they were at the first LCMS-sponsored International Disaster Response Conference for Lutherans, in St. Louis.
The Synod started mission work in Liberia in 1978, but missionaries left there in 1990 when civil war erupted that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and turned more than a half million others into refugees across West Africa. During the 14 years of that strife, the number of congregations multiplied by some 400 percent. The ELCL was formed in May 2009 from the merger of four different Lutheran groups with roots in the Synod mission group. Today, this Liberian Lutheran church body includes about 150 congregations, 16 schools and an estimated 5,000-6,000 members.
Liberia – with a population of some 3.7 million – was founded as a nation in 1847 by freed American slaves. Monrovia, its capital city, is named after James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States.
The Synod representatives’ Dec. 30-Jan. 3 visit to Liberia began at Monrovia’s Roberts International Airport as they were greeted by Bolay and a local congregation’s choir serenading them with a rendition of Psalm 23, followed by dinner at Bolay’s home.
On New Year’s Day, the delegation attended a three-and-a-half-hour worship service at Christ Assembly Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Lehenbauer said he “was very moved and impressed by the worship service – both by its clear, unapologetic Lutheran character and by various traditional African elements that exuded great vibrancy and faith and joy in Christ, despite the severe … challenges that currently exist in Liberia.”
Collver observed in his blog post that some of the groups that came together to form the ELCL “originally had roots in the Church of God or in the Assemblies of God. … Yet, having originated in a more Pentecostal background, the ELCL has a good understanding of its dangers and incompatibility with Lutheran theology … and recognizes that elements from its Pentecostal background remain and require slow, patient teaching.”
Along with Bolay, the group visited nine of the 13 ELCL congregations in the Monrovia area the next day. “At each church,” Collver noted, “the pastor and church leadership [were] waiting for our visit. In some cases, a choir and parishioners also waited for us to arrive. … As we traveled, Bishop Bolay said that there is a big need for training pastors in the ELCL.” Collver also wrote that “Bolay explained that some adults … do not want to become Christians because they do not want to give up their traditions” and that “it is very difficult for Muslims to convert to Christianity,” since those who do convert are considered dead to their family members.
“The visitation of ELCL congregations was invaluable in better understanding this Lutheran church body in Liberia,” Collver wrote, adding that the group found those visits to be “instructive, inspiring and encouraging.”
On Jan. 3, the final full day of their visit, Bolay and the LCMS representatives met with Joseph N. Boakai, vice-president of the Republic of Liberia.
“Although Lutheranism has been in Liberiai for 150 years, we had opportunity to explain how the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Liberia came into existence in 2009,” Collver wrote of the meeting with the vice-president. He also related that Bolay explained to Boakai “the connection the ELCL has with The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod,” and that greetings were brought on behalf of Harrison and the people of the Synod.
In addition to giving the vice-president a booklet describing the Synod, Collver said the LCMS delegation “describe[d] the work of the LCMS around the world, particularly in the area[s] of education and humanitarian work.”
Capping that day was a “farewell celebration” dinner for the LCMS delegation with ELCL pastors and other church leaders – which included “singing, short speeches and excellent West African food,” according to Collver.
Before they left Monrovia for the airport, the group stopped at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church – a congregation of the Lutheran Church of Liberia and a partner of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Collver pointed out that “St. Peter Lutheran Church was the site of a horrible massacre during the Liberian Civil War. Approximately 600 to 700 people (mostly women and children) were slaughtered in the sanctuary … by rebel forces. The pastor said [that] after the massacre, the bodies were piled up in the sanctuary” and later buried in a mass grave in the churchyard.
A cross on the church’s altar is made from an artillery shell salvaged from the strife, and the congregation intentionally left several bullet holes in the building as reminders of the tragedy. A stone marker overlooking the mass gravesite quotes Rom. 8:35-39: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? … For your sake, we are killed … For I am sure that neither death nor life … shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
“The trip to Liberia in general and to the Evang
elical Lutheran Church of Liberia in particular educated and encouraged the LCMS delegation,” Collver remarked via the blog. “As devastating as the Liberian civil war was, the Lord worked good by strengthening churches.”
“It was a joy to visit Liberia for this courtesy visit towards recognizing full altar and pulpit fellowship with the ELCL,” Rodewald wrote to Reporter by email. “In 2009 the ELCL was formed into one church body out of several different groups that had emerged from various LCMS efforts before and during the Liberian Civil War. This was in no small part made possible by examples set by the leaders of each group who were able to put aside their own interests and ethnic loyalties. The unified ELCL has congregations throughout Liberia and we are grateful for the effort of the many LCMS missionaries and members [used by God] to support mission and proclaim God’s Word in Liberia that this day would come.”
Rodewald continued that he “was impressed during our congregational visits. The ELCL is not a resource-rich church, yet they have been able to reach out into their communities within their own capacities to do so. Many pastors are not formally paid, and others receive very little from their congregations, but they are faithfully present to proclaim the Gospel.”
Posted Jan. 13, 2012