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Application of II Corinthians I to the Church in Sierra Leone, Part I
RESPONSE TO THE LIBERIAN CIVIL WAR
The Church in Sierra Leone actively participated in ameliorating the lot of the suffering masses. When the Liberian civil war broke out, Sierra Leoneans responded to displaced populations with impressive levels of hospitality and assistance, mobilizing indigenous and internationally based social agencies, networks and church structures.
A vast number of these people were received into private homes by acquaintances and many more were housed by total strangers. Some were put up in churches and schools. Many were simply provided with land on which they could build shelters and grow their own food, aided by their host communities and by church groups and international relief organizations.
In 1990, Baptist ministers, Richard Howard and Alexine Howard, started a refugee facility near Freetown, operating a feeding program, an elementary school and vocational classes. With eventual assistance from the Red Cross, Planned Parenthood and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the camp served up to four thousand and six Liberian refugees. The Howards operated their camp for more than a year, suspending operations only when a major United Nations camp finally opened in the area.
A Catholic priest named Brian Starken provided another illustration of sacrifice. Located in territory where refugees are concentrated, Father Starken donated the facilities of the Catholic Pastoral Center he operated and enlisted its staff for a food distribution program for thousands who fell through the cracks in government-level services. Because the area was also the scene of rebel activity, food shipments from Freetown could not be brought further than the Pastoral Center. It was eventually the responsibility of Father Starken and his staff to transport the food to needy people in remote areas. Father Starken headed this effort for over a year before moving on to administer a nearby United Nations camp of about thirty seven thousand displaced Sierra Leoneans.
Local Protestant and Catholic groups also helped refugee and displaced populations who had not yet received official attention. The Christian Council of Sierra Leone provided emergency food, medicines and household supplies to Liberian refugees in the regions receiving the largest influxes, and responded similarly to the fast-growing numbers of displaced Sierra Leoneans. Essential partners in the efforts of local groups have been international organizations such as Catholic Relief Services (CRS), International Red Cross and Lutheran World Service. CRS, for example, provided the food Father Starken distributed.
Certainly, the large-scale crises put a significant strain on the churches. Church relief operations were being called upon to respond to more and more situations even as their resource bases were suffering from declining church memberships and from ‘donor fatigue.’
Although the material contributions of churches were nevertheless pale when set alongside the sacrificial service of church personnel on the ground, some personal bonds were formed within and between churches and their surrounding communities as they struggle against adversity. In this way, churches are active partners in political reconciliation and in the creation of new political communities formed out of people’s experience of suffering and struggle.
The situation in the church in Sierra Leone is just a microcosm of what is happening in the nation in general. The country is a former British colony and protectorate and has been ranked several times at the bottom of the United Nations Development Program Index. A considerable portion of the population suffers intensely because of abject poverty and “the social indicators – including illiteracy, primary-school enrolments, life expectancy, maternal deaths, malnutrition and child mortality – are among the worst on earth” (Harding 2002, 68). Unfortunately, “the government depends on handouts from the UN and donors who will have to fund the country for some time. It is no wonder that Sierra Leone is at the bottom of the UN Human Development Index” (Davies 2000, 5).
A contributing factor to suffering in Sierra Leone is the implications of the Structural Adjustment Program. This program – a radical economic policy launched by a government to redress structural distortions existing in the economy of a country- prescribed by the industrialized western nations through the International Monetary Fund and World Bank is viewed by Third World Countries as “an instrument to keep their economies under the yoke of western domination” (Harding 1998, 8). In reality, most, if not all, West African countries prosecuting the Structural Adjustment Program have been having a very difficult time with the deteriorating value of their currencies. In Sierra Leone, in particular, “the value of the leone… dropped considerably” (Ola-Roberts 1989, 11). The implication of this ‘retrogressive development’ is severe hardship for the bulk of the population. This is reflected in the lifestyle of members in the church, most of whom cannot determine the source of the next meal with any degree of certainty.
Life became meaningless for the average Sierra Leonean and some erroneously thought that the way to ameliorate the problems of the average citizen was to take up arms and overthrow or destabilize the democratically elected government. On March 21 1991, the flames of the rebel war was lit, a fire that was to last for over a decade, subjecting the people of Sierra Leone to an intolerably agonizing period. The war was terrific in many areas.
Some children were recruited as child soldiers, others died of starvation, malnutrition and disease. Many people became beggars and thousands languished in camps for refugees and the displaced. Life became unmanageable – no food, medicines, pure water, no jobs, no salaries for those on payroll; in short all economic activities virtually came to a halt. The civil war in Sierra Leone was seen as one of the most vicious rebel war in human history.
When the rebel war broke out in 1991, many churches suffered by the burning of church structures. Lang (2000) cites twenty-two Lutheran churches burnt down. The United Methodist News Service put the destruction of United Methodist properties at a significant number of churches, parsonages, secondary and primary schools and clinics. Almost every denomination has its own story to tell. The Anglicans are still mourning the burning down of their cathedral, the Holy Trinity Church, at Kissy Road, Freetown which is still under reconstruction. When the Christ Apostolic Church lost its fine structure at Priscilla Street, many doubt whether any reconstructed building would resemble the original. In terms of poverty “homes were looted and vandalized, towns and villages burned down and many institutions – including churches and schools were destroyed” (United Methodist Service 1998, 1).
In 1992, the National Provisional Ruling Council (N.P.R.C) overthrew the government of J.S. Momoh and ruled for four years. Within the last four months of its rule, a palace coup was staged by Maada Bio who replaced the then Chairman, Valentine Strasser. Although there was a slight improvement in the economy, the rule of the N.P.R.C. was tainted with blood as some opponents were murdered.
Hope was restored in Sierra Leone when the Sierra Leone People’s Party (S.L.P.P.) won the general elections in 1996. Within a year of its rule, there was a significant improvement in the economy. Things fell apart again when the rebels (who started their systematic destruction of the country in 1991) successfully staged a coup which ousted the democratically elected government of Ahmed Tejan Kabba in 1997, instituting a reign of terror. The juntu was responsible for some of the gravest abuses of human rights the world has ever seen. The church was divided during this era. Some believed that no God sent leader could be so ruthless and others believed that it was the road to eventual freedom. Although this regime was ousted when the Nigerian-led West African intervention force attacked in February 1998, a significant proportion of those who suffered were the innocent civilians, including a large number of Christians. Churches, schools and colleges were completed destroyed. The restored civilian government of Ahmed Tejan Kabba was still gathering the broken pieces when the rebels struck again on January 6 1999 and held the capital city, Freetown under siege for about a month until they were pushed out again by the intervention force. Some civilians went to the polls in 2002 with an acrimonious spirit against Christian leaders who aggravated the sufferings of the innocent masses rather than giving a helping hand. A case in point is the leader of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, Johnny Paul Koroma, who claimed to be a born again Christian. When university students demonstrated against the injustices of the military regime, they were ruthlessly beaten and raped. President Ahmed Tejan Kabba was re-elected in 2002. Realistically, even this government has done very little to improve the lives of the populace.
The implication of the burning of structures is financial and material loss. Like many other aspects of suffering during the rebel war, the level of destruction can hardly be quantified. During the period of the war, many lived on charity in refugee camps. Economic activities came to a halt and those on payrolls went without salaries. Policemen were regarded as a group loyal to the government. Subsequently, the ruling junta did not easily release their salaries for the period they controlled the government in Freetown (May 1997 to February 1998). The situation in the University of Sierra Leone [which then comprised several colleges and institutes (Fourah Bay College (1827), Njala University College (1964), College of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences (1980), Institute of Public Administration and Management (1988) and Institute of Library and Information Studies (1989) located in various sections of the country] was just another reflection of the situation in the country. There was tremendous material and financial loss since thousands of members of staff went without salaries between August 1997 to March 1998) since the ruling junta suspected that the institution did not accept the regime. The resultant effect was intense suffering for these members of the staff and their families. The researcher, whose daughter was only six weeks old when the rebels took over the government on May 25 1997, found it extremely difficult to take care of his family as the only means of income was from the University.
No proper statistics can be presented on the financial loss from the burning of shops and houses since no two structures could carry the same number of assets. It is therefore not surprising that the number of beggars increased a direct effect of the loss of business. The few refugee camps were overcrowded since the burning of houses rendered a lot of people homeless.
MORAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL SUFFERING
The researcher’s residential quarters at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, witnessed some frustrating scenes when citizens of Freetown were using the university as an escape route from the rebel onslaught. A family of six (the mother and five daughters) rushed into the flat to escape the live bullets. Narrating their ordeal of the last three days, the mother observed that these rebels attacked their house and raped the children. Two of the daughters were virgins and one was already carrying a three-month-old pregnancy. The unmarried ladies swore they’d remain unmarried for the rest of their lives and vowed to be cruel to men. The researcher sensed that the traumatized mother was not herself and one of the daughters revealed in confidence that she was also raped together with all her children.
Even though the rebels were eventually pushed out of the city, several young girls will have to grow up with cruel memories of rape from unknown men. It is rather unfortunate that there is a high probability of sexuality transmitted diseases as a result of rape such as HIV/AIDS. Who will be a husband to a lady if he knows that she has been a victim of rape and has contacted sexually transmitted diseases?
The recruitment of children as child soldiers will have terrible implications on these young lads as they grow up in society. A strategy of the rebels was to eliminate all but one in the family so that someone will be around to tell the story. The surviving individual will then be indoctrinated by another set of rebels who will introduce him/her to drugs and encourage all sorts of activities that are morally incomprehensible.
Anyone who closely observes the activities of rebels will easily discern that they deal with supernatural means. The implication is that a significant proportion of the child soldiers and followers have been introduced to witchcraft. If the church is to be of any relevance to the postwar situation in the country, these problems should be meaningfully addressed otherwise people will continually turn elsewhere for solution.
Davies, Desmond. 2000. Sierra Leone. New Internationalist, 322 : 5-12.
Harding, Oliver L.T. 1998. Acquisition and Collection Development in the Libraries of the University of
Sierra Leone : a Comparative Study of Fourah Bay College of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences
and Institute of Public Administration and Management. M.A. thesis, University of Sierra Leone.
Ola-Roberts N. 1989. User and Borrowing Patterns at Fourah Bay College
Library : 1970/71-1984/85. Freetown : Fourah Bay College.
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