Today is the birthday of my friend, Bishop John K. Yambasu, who recently died in an automobile accident in Sierra Leone. He would have been 64 years old today. In honor of the gift of his life and our 23-year friendship, I offer this tribute.
I met Rev. John Yambasu in 1997 when I took my first Volunteer in Mission trip to Sierra Leone in the midst of the country’s rebel war. Rev. Yambasu met us at the airport and secured our luggage and transportation to our accommodations. He was friendly, efficient, and joyful. He had a remarkable ability to engage people from anywhere in the world in ways that drew us into his circle of hospitality and friendship. During that trip we did repairs to the Guest House at Leicester Peak. We laid block that created new walls for the facility. I was impressed at the way Rev. Yambasu organized the work, motivated the young people who allowed us to join their work, and talked to contractors and building supply personnel to secure materials. It was obvious on that first trip that he was a man with natural leadership gifts and remarkable skills in motivating and managing people. He carried a deep desire to see the United Methodist Church become a blessing to his nation. It was Bishop John Yambasu who opened the United Methodist University in Sierra Leone in 2017 on this site. His ability to hold hope and patiently work to develop projects over long periods of time was a hallmark of his leadership.
Rev. Yambasu invited me to call him John and as the week progressed and I knew we would be friends. He invited us to have dinner with his family in his home. I met his children. We went to the beach together and enjoyed time talking and laughing. With John, there was always laughter. His sense of humor was excellent, and it demonstrated an underlying joy that he shared generously with others. I recall thinking that he carried the joy of the Lord. His faith in Christ enabled him to look on people and events with a great charity and grace. He was deeply grateful for anything large or small that made a day brighter and more pleasant. When I returned from that trip, I carried his application to the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, my alma mater, back to the United States. He was accepted and came to Candler in the fall of 1998 and spent Christmas with my family that year. Knowing there was war in his country and full security in mine, Karen and I worked to make Christmas simple that year. We soon realized that “simple” has different meanings in various parts of the world. As our children opened gifts and we visited in the homes of family and friends, our friend John, without criticism or judgement, helped us realize how fabulously rich we were. His presence and insights gave us new eyes on our lives and made us long to find new ways to follow Jesus’ calling to serve the economically poor in the world. He enabled me to understand issues of Christian stewardship that later impacted my work and writing as a pastor.
When rebels invaded Freetown in January 1999, John called me. He was frantic after hearing Millicent describe the rebels who had demanded all of their money and who promised to injure or kill her and their children if more money was not offered. He said that he had to gather funds to get his family to a refugee camp in Guinea and asked for my help. I asked members of Floris UMC for their assistance and they offered the funds that day. Once Millicent and their children were out of danger, I invited John to preach at Floris UMC so that he could share the story what was happening in his country. His sermon was so powerful that three months later church members were asking what we were going to do in response. In December 1999, Floris UMC took up a “Millennial Offering” to mark 2000 years of the Christian faith by partnering with Rev. John Yambasu, who returned to Sierra Leone as a missionary through the United Methodist Church. Our goal was $25,000. By January 2000, we received $150,000. The vision John cast was the reason people responded so generously.
Rev. Yambasu used these funds to start the Child Rescue Centre (CRC), whose initial mission was to care for children whose lives were severely impacted by the civil war. Rev. Yambasu gathered 40 children and began feeding operations that served many more. His work was driven by a deep calling of Christ to care for the vulnerable. He found it morally offensive that any child would have to beg for food, sleep without shelter, or lack proper care from adults. Further, he longed for every person to know the love of Christ and experience the gift of faith in him. His ongoing passion for this ministry inspired and convicted us to continue the work and sustain this vital ministry over the past 20 years. Later, as the Bishop of the Sierra Leone Annual Conference, he led the transformation of this ministry and renamed it the Child Reintegration Centre. It now serves more than 600 children in family-based care that offers education and medical care for future leaders of Sierra Leone.
Through the years of working in partnership with Bishop Yambasu, I was able to see him often in meetings held to develop the work of the CRC and Mercy Hospital. Each year he communicated new opportunities to develop Mercy Hospital in ways that would better serve its focus on child and maternal health. Over time our partnership added an outstanding laboratory, vehicles for mobile health clinics, and most recently, a surgical suite. It was a great moment for us all when Dr. Aruna Stevens, who grew up at the CRC, became the doctor at Mercy Hospital. Bishop Yambasu was a remarkable leader who built international ministry partnerships across the United States and Europe. His generosity of spirit, hospitality, and capacity to laugh at himself and others in ways that invited people into the circle of his care were key elements of his magnetic personality. He was honest and always responded favorably to the ongoing need for financial integrity and transparency. I learned that about him in 1997, when he refused my desire to leave money with him to buy block for the building. Instead, John took me to the quarry, let me buy the block, and had it delivered so that I could inspect it the following day. Transparency was an essential virtue that I found in his leadership throughout our 23-year ministry partnership, which enabled us to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in the ministries he envisioned in Sierra Leone.
Floris United Methodist Church realized it needed to start a separate non-profit to sustain our partnership with the Sierra Leone Annual Conference. Helping Children Worldwide was established in 2003 to assist other partner churches in the United States with the work of the CRC and Mercy Hospital. When John travelled to Virginia to meet with his partners at Helping Children Worldwide, he often stayed in our home. We called our basement, with its bedroom and bathroom and large living area, “the Bishop’s Suite.” I was concerned about the schedule Bishop Yambasu was keeping. He often showed up looking tired and road weary when I met him at the airport. We tried to offer him a quiet space where he could catch up on work, but also nap, read, and relax. It was always a pleasure when he joined us for meals or sat in our living room to catch up and share news of his ministry. I experienced Bishop Yambasu as a colleague and a friend. We knew that our mutual wellbeing was important to each other and to the mission partnerships we each represented. Our friendship enabled us to have candid conversations. We observed the cultural differences that were impeding the work of the larger leadership team for the CRC and Mercy Hospital. We problem-solved. We listened to each other. We challenged each other to do more and to do better for Christ in the world.
Rarely in a lifetime does one find a deep friendship with someone from another culture and continent whose deep love of Christ creates a commonality of perspective and purpose. Our relationship grew out of our ability to observe and be curious about differences. We taught each other about our cultures and the way the mission of the church uniquely expressed itself in our diverse missional contexts. We cared about each other, about our roles not just as clergy, but as husbands, fathers, and men. We learned to hold each other in grace, and to speak the truth in love to one another. We had differences, but our common love for Christ and the friendship that developed between us enabled us to live as people of peace with each other. I believe that we were fundamentally for each other and found John to be as dependable a friend as any I have known. He was a partner in the gospel. My friendship with Bishop John Yambasu was a means of grace to me. In my relationship with John, I found the truth of Proverbs 27:17, As iron sharpens iron so one person sharpens another.
We both experienced the tension of the fractious called 2019 General Conference of the UMC. There are diverse opinions on LGBTQ inclusion in the global United Methodist Church. While Bishop Yambasu understood the more progressive views I held and the missional needs of the community I serve, he carried the perspective and weight of leadership of an African Bishop in the Central Conference. We realized that we did not have to see eye to eye in order to speak heart to heart. His great desire to bring unity to the United Methodist Church made the conference difficult to bear. Like everyone, he was discouraged and stymied when he considered what might be done to keep the church together so that missional partnerships that unite our global church would continue. We talked often after that General Conference. He felt the Holy Spirit encourage him to understand the unique role God had put him in as an African Bishop in the UMC. He had the ability to call leaders together. While various parties might not accept the invitation of different interest groups who wanted to help the church move forward, everyone would accept his invitation if he was willing to lead in this way.
Bishop Yambasu brought together a global group of leaders in the United Methodist Church to create the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation in 2019. I was a part of that mediation team. The meetings spanned months of time and included a great deal of work as negotiations progressed. The mood was sometimes tense. Observing Bishop Yambasu, I was again able to appreciate the way my friend’s faith and leadership called us to do our best work in keeping with our shared love of Christ. There were times when his prayer enabled us to take the next faithful step in negotiations and envision a future full of ministry and free of the conflict that has so hampered the work of the denomination in recent years. While it is yet to be seen if the Protocol will be accepted by the delegates of General Conference, it is commonly agreed that it is the best hope for the UMC that he loved and served. This was another gift he offered to the church, and one that required remarkable energy and sacrifice on his part to coordinate and attend meetings in the United States.
It was after the last Protocol meeting in December that we ate what would be our last meal together. We had not planned this time, but both realized it would be nice to celebrate our recently signed Protocol. It was a meal shared by two old friends who had seen a lot of life together, even as we lived on separate continents. During that meal we laughed as we recounted so many things the Lord had called us to do together. We celebrated each other, our friendship, and the goodness of the church that brought us together. I count it a distinct blessing today that we left nothing unsaid.
In his life Bishop John Yambasu endured great hardship, sacrifice, and loss. Yet his faith never wavered. God gave him a vision that enabled him to start and develop project after project, as he worked to accomplish his “Vision 2020” for the Sierra Leone Annual Conference. Through it all he carried a deep love for his wife Millicent and for their children, and most recently his grandson. I will miss my friend John, who opened my mind to the calling of Jesus in Matthew 25 in a manner that was transformative. His friendship was used by God to further my sanctification, grow empathy and compassion, and find the joy of a deep and lasting friendship that I will treasure throughout my life, even as he has found his heavenly reward. I will miss the laughter that always accompanied his presence. He taught me that unity in the church is sometimes a halting and jarring journey, like the road I took to Bo, Sierra Leone, the first time we travelled there in 2002, but one that is ultimately used by God to sanctify those who may live a world away, but who daily walk together in the Kingdom of God.