'I've forgiven you': A Bishop reaches out to those who almost killed him
|Bishop John Innis|
by Steve Smith and Fran Coode Walsh
In the midst of grinding civil war 11 years ago, young Liberian thugs pistol-whipped Bishop John Innis so severely that he suffered deep head gashes.
Then a pastor, Innis was attacked as he provided food, shelter and other assistance to more than 300 children who had fled to his rural mission station from war-torn Monrovia, Liberia’s capital city.
Now leader of the United Methodist Church in Liberia, Innis struggles with forgiving not only the children who beat him within an inch of his life but also the Muslims and Christians who have spent the past 20 years turning his homeland into a killing field.
“I said to one of the boys who beat me up, ‘Come to me. One of the best things I can do for you is to give you an education. I’ve forgiven you for what you’ve done,’” said Innis.
“Whether he came back, I don’t know, but I said it from the sense of love, because I felt that he and the many other kids were the future of our country and that we needed to give them hope.
“In time, they’ll come to realize that and forgive themselves.”
The civil war has subsided, but many of Liberia’s residents face the task of “corporate forgiveness” — forgiving entire groups of people who turned the country into one of the world’s most violent areas.
|Kerry Sly, head of mission work in Liberia for the United Methodist Committee on Relief, helps clean a public latrine in Monrovia, Liberia. There is little privacy, no running water, no electricity and no functioning sewer system anywhere in the country.|
“You know what Jesus said when He was victimized seriously on the cross? He appealed to His Father, ‘Forgive them for they do not know what they’ve done,’ so that’s the kind of thing we have to continue to do,” Innis said.
“One thing I note about the people of Liberia, we are very quick in forgiving people.”
However, despite the civil war’s official end, the country remains tense. Three days before Innis came to the United States last fall for the Council of Bishops meeting, Muslims and Christians clashed outside Monrovia after Muslims burned down several churches and houses. Christians retaliated by torching a mosque and Muslim-owned gas stations.
Innis said he’s not sure what sparked the recent troubles, but the Liberian Council of Churches, on which he serves as vice president, brought the two warring sides together and tempers settled eventually.
The United Methodist Church in Liberia has 168,300 members in about 700 local churches. They not only minister to souls but also provide agricultural and health-care services and 121 schools, ranging from elementary schools to a university.
The work enables churches to “become the redemptive community, the educating community, the healing community,” Innis said.
He added that the country struggles now with saving some 8 million Liberian children from cycles of violence, especially those recruited into the rebel fighting forces, sometimes at the barrel of a gun.
“Conflict or war is something like a disease or sickness: it comes very quickly, but it takes time for healing to take place,” he said. “We as Christians must continue to preach the gospel of love, forgiveness and reconciliation, noting that God places us in this world so that we can live at peace with one another.”
|A family makes their temporary home at a camp for displaced persons at the Samuel Doe Sports Complex in Monrovia, Liberia.|
He cites the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the denomination’s humanitarian aid agency, which is supervising activities leading to the reintegration of 23,000 former combatants into society.
“I just want to be grateful to the United Methodist Church and many other churches because had it not been for the Christian denominations in my country, Liberia would be really at the bottom of the ladder,” Innis said.
Contributions to UMCOR’s work in Liberia can be made to UMCOR Advance No. 150300, Liberia Emergency. Checks can be placed in church collection plates or mailed to the agency at 475 Riverside Dr., Room 330, New York, NY 10115. Credit-card donations can be made by calling toll free (800) 554-8583.
—Steve Smith is a freelance writer living in Dallas. Fran Coode Walsh is mulitmedia editor for United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn.