Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Defacing a Historical Relic

My mental picture of Miller McAllister United Methodist Church was shattered when I reached the Ganta United Methodist Mission Compound, the official grounds that host the Church. I struggled for the entire day trying to find the natural stone building of the Miller McAllister UMC that I knew before and replace it with the cement sprayed ash-gray one. I quickly took a picture of the MMUMC since I could not lay my hands on the picture of the famous “stone building” which represented a historical relic not only of the United Methodist Church, but the entire community of Ganta. Being deeply troubled, I decided to see some members of the church.
I visited Rev. James Z. Labala, District Superintendent of Gompa District and one time pastor of the Miller McAllister UMC. “What happened here?” I asked. “I spent five years debating with my congregation on the need to preserve the building as it has been for the past sixty years, but they won the argument,” he said. Actually members of the church wanted the church plastered with cement to conceal the natural stony look of the church. “We want to have our church plastered and painted like other churches,” Rev. Labala quoted some of his members. While others complained that the stones were uneven and  took away the beauty of the church. “As a matter of fact there are some members who want the church reroofed with zinc instead of maintaining the present clay tile roof,” he added.
Still not understanding why any group of people would want to get rid of such antiquity, I approached a group of church members who were completing their day’s work of cleaning around the church in anticipation of the funeral of the Late Rev. Herbert Zigbuo. According to Rev. Labala in our earlier discussion, the Late Rev. Zigbuo was one of those who supported him in his drive to preserve this historical relic.  Without being direct, I asked, why is the church sprayed with cement? “We want to get rid of the old look of the church” a young lady said to  me. “We are in modern days now,” another lady intoned. I was more disturbed than I had been when I first saw the church.
I returned to Rev. Labala to ask  a little more about this church. According to Rev. Labala, the church was established in 1926 by Dr. George Way Harley from North Carolina the United States of America. He was a member of the Edenton Street United Methodist Church. According to other sources, the building of a church in Ganta was the culminating point in Dr. George Way Harley's work in Liberia. Erecting a church was the high point of his work in mission building. It took many years to build the church. The work was delayed for a long time because of shortage of funds and pressing demands for other buildings.
Though he did not say how long it took to build the church, he just said, the church was completed in 1950 and because Charles Miller a devoted Methodist layman and Agnes McAllister a gallant young missionary among the Kru people in Garraway in the 1890's were the highest contributors of funds to the building project the church was named in honor of both families: The Miller McAllister Memorial United Methodist Church. There is a missing puzzle of what the church was called before its current name. Be it as it may, this historical church is about to be erased, not by tearing it down, but by defacing it from its original look which is worth every effort of preservation.
Still not wanting to judge those who I thought were in the process of defacing the church as wrong doers, I probed further by asking Rev. Labala who is also a graduate of the University of Liberia with a degree in architecture, if the sixty year old building posed any form of danger to the congregation. “Not in another 50 years time” Rev. Labala said.  As I write this piece of information trying to capture the attention of those who will want to rescue this historical relic, I saw visible cracks in the walls, sun light streaming through the roof, which suggested to me that water also pours down on the congregation during the rainy season.  Then I said to myself these folks may be right by saying, “away with the old.”
[On second thought, I realized that a new campaign of “generational change” is about to enter into the church.] So I decided to once again confront Rev. Labala about the issue of cost if one wanted to change the roof to zinc which is what some of his members are calling for. “It will cost us US$14,000 to keep the clay roof and probably the same amount or more even if we decide to use zinc,” Rev Labala said. I also realized that the cost of preserving this relic will be high, but the impact of erasing it will be more devastating to those of us for whom historical records mean so much.
I further realized as I was concluding this article that “away with the old” is not just a campaign of wanting to change the outlook of the Miller McAllister Memorial United Methodist Church, but to make sure this relic of the 18th century is preserved.  

About the Author                                                                                                                                                  I am a Journalist, Transitional Justice Worker, and former Inquiry Officer TRC of Liberia. I am interested in transitional justice work and my research interest is in the area of education, land tenure security, youth, and gender sensitivity issues. At the moment, I am serving as the Director of Communications for the United Methodist Church in Liberia. I am based in Monrovia.

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