Learning to ROAR

Last week I wrote about channeling my anger for good during the Trump administration. I said:

The hateful rhetoric and falsehoods that propelled our current president to power strikes at the core of who I am, and against the foundations of my faith tradition.

I came up with a method (ROAR) to keep me focused, and now I’m working it. I thought I’d take some time to write about my experiences. For sure, I’ll make missteps and will share those too. This week is “Relate.”

Relating to people of differing opinion has grown more difficult in the digital age. We now have a president who has regularly used Twitter to bully and oppress, and whose following is so large that his behavior is somehow condoned. We have to remember that a large number of people also condoned lynching, stood by silently during the Holocaust, and cried for the death of Jesus Christ. Numbers alone don’t mean much.

Here’s where the rubber hits the road. Do I have faith enough to act on the things I believe, even if it makes me really uncomfortable? And can a small number of committed people make a difference?

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I reached out to someone whose political views are radically different from my own, and who uses them to bully others. I asked if we could host community gatherings together – the purpose would be to get to know our neighbors, and the issues they face. These gatherings could take the emphasis off of a national leader and help us focus locally on things that could unite us. So far, my first effort was only met with the other person doubling down in divisiveness.

I haven’t given up hope yet.

Small numbers of committed people can make a difference. Most weeks, I’m part of a gathering pretty much like the one I described above. The group who meets is one big mixed lot. Some live on the streets. Some live in mansions. Some Democrat. Some Republican. Some don’t care to know the difference. We come from a variety of ethnicities, but have found that the common blood of humanity and Christ is enough to tie us together. The place? Sixty-First Avenue United Methodist Church.

Last night, the fear for loved ones affected by executive orders was palpable in the after-sermon sharing time. Pastor Marie had just preached from Micah 6:8 which says,

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

How do we live out this essential element of faith under this administration?

We can’t let the government define who we can and can’t love any more than we can legislate discipleship. We can’t let the government define who is and isn’t of a particular faith either. And if we who are Christian want to prove ourselves to be outwardly Christian as potential litmus tests are considered – wouldn’t we emulate our leader – Jesus Christ – who ate with the outsiders of his time? Wouldn’t we be the Good Samaritan and not leave harmed travelers by the side of the road?

One thing I know that I can do is host an interfaith dinner – intentionally reaching out to those who are being oppressed. This type of regular gathering could resist profiling’s damaging effect of increased prejudice and hate crimes. It can make a difference.

I will get to work and will write about the experience. I cannot stand idly by.


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I Cannot Stand Idly By

gty-womens-march-washington-4-jt-170121_12x5_1600Rallying cries resound from women marching in the streets – stirring something within me that challenges me on many levels. I want to make a difference. But why? How? What difference will my actions make for those I love, for our daughters, our granddaughter and still future generations?

So, being a white, middle-class woman, why do I care? Maybe I’m just now feeling the pain minorities have felt for centuries. The election process, having our nation’s first female candidate, revealed deep prejudice that still exist within our nation, foremost on gender, but also on race, religion, class and sexual orientation. The hateful rhetoric and falsehoods that propelled our current president to power strikes at the core of who I am, and against the foundations of my faith tradition. A few examples:

Body shaming women with derogatory terms like “fat pigs, slobs – and disgusting animals,” this president thrives on the lowest form of human dialogue – often in a public forum where he incites other low-minded individuals. Bragging about sexual predatory behavior showed a deep human flaw of using power over those considered less powerful for one’s own pleasure. We’re in the 21st Century now. Can we just agree that “boys will be boys” doesn’t work anymore…especially for the leader of a nation? The classism and lack of care for the poor that calls for the end to healthcare options means that low-income women and children will suffer. I cannot stand idly by as if I’m alright with any of this. I’m not.

But how do I turn my anger into a productive energy? How can I live in this time and place, fighting injustice that will come and caring for people who will be most hurt during this administration? As an homage to a song often sung during Second Wave Feminism, I’ve written these steps based on the acronym ROAR:

Relate. Become politically active at the local and state level. This means getting to know the people I’ve voted for and attending city council meetings. Make my voice known, and carry the voices for whom I may speak. We also have to relate more to our neighbors. Maybe it’s time for less Facebook and more “face-to-face.”

Organize for justice and compassion. If something I care about is killed at the federal level, work with my local community on addressing fallout from both a compassion and justice perspective. See what is going on with different faith traditions and how, together, we can offer love.

Assist. Charitable giving can provide resources that may be dropped by the government, and it’s tax deductible. Share food with those who may have to reallocate budget to rising healthcare. Provide transportation to community meetings that lift up one another in spirit and circumstance.

Refuse to be silent about oppression and injustice. Use my words, my vote, my dollars to voice what I stand for – doing business with those who support my beliefs, voting for those who have the courage to stand up against injustice, and dialoging about issues faced by those I care deeply about.

We deserve a better world, and I still believe it’s possible. What we do in the United States matters to the world community, whose geographic and party lines were drawn by none other than humans themselves. Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Driving hate out through love is something I can do, by God’s grace. I shall not stand idly by.

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The Crumbs We Leave Behind

Years ago, I visited an art museum in Memphis, Tennessee – meandering about until I found an exhibit on the civil rights movement. I still remember how I felt reading about Dr. Martin Luther King’s “kitchen table” experience and how it set me on a path of striving to live with greater purpose. This is a story from his life that many haven’t heard.

In January of 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King struggled for courage to keep up the fight that would later become known as the civil rights movement. After having his life threatened, King went to his kitchen table and had a conversation with God – expressing his doubts as a leader and asking for guidance.

“I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward…The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid…I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’

At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.” (Stride Toward Freedom)

mlk-kitchen-tableThe art exhibit featured a kitchen table with a coffee cup humbly displayed along with those words.  The table was simply made, but it echoed the holiness of communion – Christ at the table – feeding one who was hungry with something more than physical sustenance – the power to go on.

King’s table experience empowered him to feed others – to share a vision of something much larger than any one life – and to inspire others to fight for that something more. Elsewhere in the exhibit were pictures of lives lost and maimed, exposing the ugliness of humanity’s bent toward oppression. Yet that ugliness was diminished and overshadowed by the power to overcome, and it was that power that dominated my experience.

As I walked through the museum, I read another quote of Dr. King’s – one that is reflected today on the monument in Washington, DC:

“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.”

I left there thinking about life differently – I felt challenged to live a life that’s not as much concerned over personal welfare as much as leaving the world a better place. If you’ve ever had to clean out someone else’s stuff after they’ve died, you know that it’s not their material leftovers that matter – it’s the other leftovers of their life that count. These may be their ideas, their love, their way of being in community – all things you can’t measure with money. Kind of like crumbs of the soul left behind to feed generations to come. A committed life echoes and informs future generations to make life better – for the whole of creation.

King’s life showed the power of not just letting things lie, but that by taking risk together we can create the beloved community intended by God. There’s still so much to do in the world today – things that need to be discussed and acted upon by people committed to leaving leftovers from their lives that are worthy of consumption.

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Women of the Congo Arise

United Methodist Women in the East Congo Episcopal Area are helping rape survivors emerge from misplaced blame and isolation. In this place often called the “rape capital of the world,” brutal sexual assaults are not crimes against one person – they are crimes against family and community – a weapon of war that cuts deep and wide.

Culturally, the assault survivors bear the burden of shame and become outcasts, living in isolation at a time when they most need support and care. Children suffer in their absence – struggling to understand why their lives changed so swiftly, and needing the one who is often known as the backbone of the family.

I traveled to Kindu in September, and met with those who are reaching out to help.

Mama Helene is an older woman whose face shares the signs of an earnest, hard-lived life. Her strength was visible as she pounded dirt and cement into the form of bricks. Standing amidst young men also making these bricks, Mama Helene, who serves as chaplain of United Methodist Women, spoke about the ministry she envisions. She shared a story about a woman who was raped by “militia.” The survivor’s body was torn and bruised and she needed medical care. Able to help her, Mama Helene’s eyes turned from anger to a sparkle of hope as she began to talk about the development of this program that will help others. “We will share with them God’s love,” she said.

What draws me into this work is that “God’s love” is made beautifully and counter-culturally tangible. Rejecting societal shame, United Methodist Women want to bring more survivors “out of the forests” to provide physical, psychological, and spiritual care through professionals, and help these women gain new income-generating skills for potential life on their own. Cultural change will come as these women emerge from living in the shadows to be reunited with community and family – becoming accepted, loved and respected once again.

East Congo Episcopal Area isn’t alone – they are supported in this initiative by their partners in the Tennessee, Memphis and Cal-Pac UMC Annual Conferences, and by friends everywhere.

Help Congo Women Arise (https://www.tnumc.org/engage-in-mission/mercy-and-mission-ministries/mission-in-east-congo/ ) to do this ministry with, and for one another. Your gift will go toward building transitional housing, and a center for counseling and skills-building. Together, let’s share the love –

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Hearing the Cry of Tamar

I really can’t remember who first told me that the Democratic Republic of the Congo is called the “Rape Capital of the World.” It stuck with me though. I have come to love the DRC through my many travels. I’ve met so many gracious, talented people there and call many “friends.”  In some parts, the land is so vivid and lush that I’m reminded of holy writings of an ancient garden. And although I reject the label as a total “capture” of this place I’ve come to love, I am now looking more deeply into how this name came about.

In many parts of the world, rape is used quite effectively as a weapon of war – violent and brutal crimes committed against women while family and community are made to watch. If the woman survives the attack, she becomes a visual reminder of powerlessness against the invaders who committed the crime. She is sent out and isolated – abandoned and left to fend for herself. Her family is left behind, never to be respected as they once may have been. Logically, the family and community understands it is not the woman’s fault, yet the mantle she now bears makes it too difficult for them to look upon her again.

United Methodist Women (UMW) in the DRC are helping to bring victims out of the shadows and back into community – sharing love and hope. When I was in Kindu, I was inspired by Mama Helene who is the chaplain of UMW – a short, slightly built woman of age whose eyes are bright with determination. Quite animatedly, she said, “We let them know that this was not their fault and that we love them. That God loves them.” UMW brings together members of the church who volunteer their time, offering professional counseling and skills training. Even after incomprehensible tragedy, women are coming to learn that all is not lost and are reclaiming themselves as unbroken.

Have you heard the word, “chabadza”? It means coming together with those who are already doing the work – offering your part – adding value. It’s a Shona word and my friends from Zimbabwe may add to the meaning.

I am joining the work of these women in East Congo. I will do my part.

Note: The reference to Tamar comes from 2 Samuel 13.

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New Beginnings

I came to UMCom in April 2007, having been invited to work with the Global Health Initiative and the 2008 General Conference as a contractor. It was a risky move for me, being a single mother leaving behind the benefits of employment as clergy in a local church, but I did it anyway, because I felt that it was God’s calling to a new form of ministry.

In the years at UMCom, I authored and co-authored documents, speeches, sermon series, marketing materials and white papers, even assisting with the publishing of one book. I helped lead the inaugural “Change the World” event – encouraging churches around the world to get outside of their walls and serve alongside others. The best part was working closely with the Rethink Church team and building new friends around the world.

All my life, I’ve had visions of how things can be – but I’ve not always had the opportunity to make those dreams reality. Having leadership who believed not only in me, but seeing the vision as well gave me a chance to lead a new effort – casting vision, teaching and helping church leaders use communications technologies for social good in parts of the world that have been most excluded from the digital age. I enjoyed finding new team members abroad and helping them cultivate their gifts and skills. 

It was fun – finding solutions to communication problems within a global institution. With Ushahidi Crowdmap, we were able to begin mapping the church in remote places for the first time in its history. With FrontlineSMS and later TextIt, we were able to leapfrog over email and reach church leaders without Internet access. We built a ham radio network in the Philippines that can serve during times of calm or storms. We developed a network of United Methodist Radio Stations as another means of strengthening the United Methodist Connexion.

We put these systems to use during times of crises: SMS became a means of fighting Ebola among UM clergy and World Vision staff. Mapping demonstrated where the churches serving as shelters in a storm were located. Solar lights signified the caring of Christ for those living in darkness after Typhoon Haiyan, and handcrank radios/solar cellphone chargers became a means for connection to news and loved ones.

We worked with world renowned experts to develop two animations about Ebola which became the first time that the UMC had broadcast on African television throughout the West Africa region, even while serving populations who could only watch on a mobile handset – all in local languages. It was a privilege to speak on UMCom’s behalf at the United Nations – Geneva, and New York, sharing the work that we were doing to use technology for social good.

Innovation and connection is at the heart of who I am, and how I am called to serve the world.

I am turning in a new direction – to serve beyond one church agency, one local church, and perhaps even one faith tradition. I am passionate about amplifying voices within communities who are most marginalized from information that can impact their well-being. As an independent communications consultant – I will have room to grow a part of me that I feel I only just discovered! You’ll be hearing soon about my first work of this type.

See you online, and many of you at Fail Festival! (Got your tickets yet?)

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She’s the one I tried to return or exchange. Twinkie was just about the prettiest blond Cocker Spaniel you’ve ever seen, but from the start, she was cantankerous, feisty, independent, and one could say, an introvert. Humans were around to feed her, with only a few deemed worthy to touch her, and even then, when she’d had enough, she let you know it. I’ve been bitten quite a bit over the 15 1/2 years of her life. Recently I noticed that it didn’t hurt so bad now that she’d lost some teeth.

Yes, I tried to take her back or get a replacement. She would bite me when she was only 7 weeks old, and I didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t the normal puppy biting. That can be cute. This was gnarled faced, nasty biting. The breeder wouldn’t take her back, and so I figured that we would make the best of it and stick together.

Over time, I learned that turning my back on her bad behavior would lessen her aggression and so we started getting by with one another. If people didn’t try to touch her, she would wag her tail but always had a  “Look but don’t touch!” attitude. So I just told people not to touch her and things would be fine. I always felt that she was missing out, but we let her live life her way.

Once, my daughter and I drove to visit family and brought her along. She behaved well enough, and enjoyed anybody who fed her. My mom was alone with her one afternoon when Marissa and I got back to my parents’ house. Mom told me that she had fixed some popcorn and that Twinkie loved it! She would throw, Twinkie would catch.

When Marissa moved off to college and I was single, I enjoyed Twinkie’s company. She would get so excited when I put a bag of popcorn in the microwave, and she’d eat about half the bag with me. I never felt alone with her around.

As the years passed, I was surprised at how energetic she remained. She never had any major illnesses, rather a lot of chronic ones along the way. All were typical for Cocker Spaniels – ear infections, skin growths, fatty tumors, etc. I have a terrific vet (who now is my daughter’s mother-in-law) and always had the best care for her. When she turned twelve, I expected to see a lot of change due to aging, but I really didn’t. A bit of arthritis, so meds were added to peanut butter each day and she lapped them up.  Then thirteen and fourteen, no dramatic change. Fifteen came last November, and still, she was energetic even with two torn ACLs. She just kept going, but the chronic issues were taking a toll.

Last week, I took her to the vet for yet another skin surgery to remove a growth that had begun bleeding regularly. One would require a skin graft if removed. We took care of the worst, cleaned and packed her ears (which had ablation surgery a few years ago) and brought her home. More meds, and a fashionable new Victorian collar to keep her from chewing where it itched.

Twinkie just couldn’t get comfortable anymore. Medicine and attention just didn’t make her better. I could keep going with band-aid treatments, but today I made the decision not to.

I never thought it would be this way. I figured she would die on her own, or an illness would be so catastrophic that there would be no real choice for me to make. I just didn’t expect it to be this way.

She lay on a blanket just after the doctor administered a sedative. I laid down beside her, petting her and telling her I loved her. The procedure continued, and I felt her last breath on my face. Robby buried her at the top of our hill near a cedar tree.

IMG_1556It’s a really empty feeling now. I have a taste of grief, though not as large as so many others in the world. I pray this reminds me to hold others near in prayer so together the world will feel better.

For now, I’m going to leave myself with this image: Mom (who passed in 2007) sitting now with Twinkie, throwing her some popcorn and laughing when she catches it. It’s a nice image, isn’t it?

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The Thread is Raised

As a group of us discussed presidential politics, a friend visiting from Africa casually said, “Racism has been a part of America from the start, but people were just afraid to speak out because it was politically incorrect. Donald Trump is simply voicing the opinions of the people who have been silent.”

Racism is just one part of a larger group of prejudice, one that includes sexism, classism, homophobia, and virtually anything that marginalizes whomever is seen by some as “the weaker link” of society. Trump has exposed this larger thread which lines American culture.

It’s all out in the open now, isn’t it? The underbelly is exposed, and people are lining up from both political parties to call him out on “ism” issues that will never take him down – that only bolster him among the audience who believes as he does and is ready to vote. The signs are flagrant now, literally, as I saw on the store just down the road from me last night.

“Trump that B*TCH!” said the sign on Lewis Country Store last night. On Sundays, this sign proudly proclaims that they are closed on Sunday, and reminds people to go to church.

With Hillary Clinton now the presumptive nominee, we are sure to see the threads of sexism raised to the surface, where it has been denied almost as vehemently as climate change among some.  “Quiet” sexism is very much present in the US, in the home, in the workplace, in the church and civil society. When salary surveys expose this reality, they move faster out of the headlines than one of Trump’s tweets.

So, what can these raised threads do for us? They can be quietly tucked back into the garment of society, or perhaps they can be cut off without unraveling the whole. Who knows? Audre Lorde’s words can guide us:

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.”





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Global Communications through a Basic Handset

When the Ebola crisis began in 2014, some recognized the fact that while much information was being shared on the Internet, those without Internet access living in the affected regions could be left to wonder if Ebola was real, a hoax, or something they should pay attention to. We knew that the lowest common denominator in global communications is a simple text message – able to reach a person directly if she or he holds a basic mobile handset.

We scrambled then to gather mobile numbers of United Methodist clergy in Liberia and Sierra Leone, assembling them into groups for cloud-based messaging. Twice daily messages reached them with both practical ways of applying health protocols within a church setting, and inspiration to help them know they were not alone. When quarantines may have prevented those pastors from getting out to phone charging stations, UMCom sent Freeplay Assist Radios – which have a solar cellphone charger, hand crank radio, and solar lantern.

The value of the program was proven among those who reported to their bishops (whose name was on each message) feeling cared for and informed during the duration of the program.

Since then, we began working with communicators throughout Africa under their bishops’ approvals, to set up a system that will cover all of Africa – and which can be expanded to cover other regions within the UMC as well. The system was tested during General Conference 2016.

In three weeks’ time, twelve countries took part, through nine operators who sent SMS in local languages using the same system. Over 80k messages were sent during the two-week period to over 3,300 people. Hugo Ngwira of Malawi reported,

In a follow up phone call, Evangelist Mikuwa who is also pastoring local churches in remote areas said he never knew that United Methodist is that big, and he was thankful for the program that has helped him get a picture of what the UMC and General Conference is all about. (Evangelist Mikuwa lives in a remote area where there is no internet and no post office, and the only way of communication is through phone)

13235051_10153659311118157_1644108181_oThe Reverend Daniel Mhone also reported, “One moving experience was that most of the leaders took time to pray for the General Conference especially when tension was at its highest level. Thanks for connecting us in this special way to the global church.”

General Conference was a catalyst for the system’s implementation, but its usefulness is far from over. Consider when the church wants to reach clergy to reinforce the need for Yellow Fever vaccinations, and where they can be found; when educational programs and/or scholarships come available; when daily devotions can be shared to strengthen the Body of Christ.

This system can also provide a means of monetization for publications. Phone credit can be transferred to the church’s number to “purchase” items, with links and passwords for download then shared. Donations could also come to the church in this way. As we move to testing that system, we will keep you informed.

Making sense of today’s technology for social good…that’s the focus. SMS is one component, but there are many more. I hope to write more in the days ahead. Feel free to get in touch, via nhicks@umcom.org or via Twitter @nneelley.

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The 183rd Liberia Annual Conference

Speaking Notes: February 10, 2016, Buchanan Liberia

Bishop Innis, esteemed guests, brothers and sisters in Christ, I bring greetings on behalf of United Methodist Communications, and General Secretary Dan Krause. I am attending with our West Africa special projects manager Tueche Ndzulo Joe from Cote d’Ivoire.  United Methodist Communications is the global communications agency for The United Methodist Church.

Over the last few years, the world has seen much change in communications! How many of you have a mobile phone? How many of you are on Facebook? We believe that new communications technologies should not simply be used for entertainment. They should be used to build the Body of Christ on earth! We also believe that, since The United Methodist Church is a global entity, all of the church should be included in communication advances, all of the church should have full representation on the church map, and all of the church should be able to fully participate in connectional communications.

UMCom is partnering with the Liberia Annual Conference to do just that. I would like to recognize Liberia’s communication staff who worked with us during the Ebola crisis. Please stand. During the Ebola crisis, we worked together so that clergy could receive personalized messages of health and inspiration via SMS. We worked together to distribute hand crank radios, with solar chargers and lanterns so those who might be isolated would still feel the comfort community. Together, we shared the message that The United Methodist Church cares about preventing Ebola – through an animation called “Ebola: A Poem for the Living.” Together, we shared this message through radio – still the most popular form of communication throughout Africa. And Liberia, through its communicator Julu Swen, shared an Ebola story that was read around the world, for which he was recognized by being named 2014 Communicator of the Year, for the first time, a shared honor with Sierra Leone communicator Phileas Jusu.

While I wanted to be here during that time, it is now that God has brought me. Beyond Annual Conference, next week, Radio ELUM will be the host for the United Methodist Radio Network of Africa meeting – bringing guests from Cote d’Ivoire, Angola and DR Congo. I am sure you are proud of the work that Edward Massaquoi does as radio station manager – I have been inspired by his loyalty and commitment to God’s calling on his life. As we all know, the station is operating at less than half capacity, due to a lightning strike. But I believe this can be overcome, if it is the will of the people. As United Methodists, do we have a story to share? If yes, then we must work together so that the church’s story can travel far and be heard by many!  We must amplify the voice of United Methodist Church of Liberia!

United Methodist Communications’ motto is to Inform, Inspire and Engage. This past Christmas, we inspired giving within a children’s program at Wayne United Methodist Church, in Wayne, Pennsylvania. The children sold candles to raise funds for solar lights, and by God’s grace, were able to purchase 120 of them. I am the bearer of this good news and the lights themselves! May God shed grace and light upon all the recipients.

Finally, we would like to provide the church with a new animation, titled: “In Praise of Prevention” meant to prevent a future outbreak, which was produced by UNICEF, UMCom and Chocolate Moose Media. There are also 6 animations focused on values which are included. Copies will be distributed tomorrow to all district superintendents.

I pray for Bishop Innis, and for the Liberia Annual Conference. May God bless the 183rd Annual Conference!


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