One of the locations I wanted to visit on our trip was the Jubilee Center. Many in NT-NL have given generously to this project. A tithe of the DiscipleLife Alive campaign ($300,000) was dedicated to hopefully complete this project. A group from NT-NL visited the ELCSL in 2013 when the sanctuary space was dedicated. This building, standing on Tower Hill in Freetown, near the government buildings, and amongst other major non-governmental organizations, was intended to announce that this fledgling Lutheran church was invested in and planning to stay in Sierra Leone.
This multistory facility, housing a multitude of ministries including a congregation, was a bold and grand vision. The good news is that the sanctuary is operational. There is a congregation that worships there. I met the pastor and youth leaders and they are energized and excited for the work they are about on Tower Hill. Unfortunately, as can happen with building projects and bold visions, there are unforeseen challenges that can arise, and the reality or construction and then maintenance can outstrip the capacity of those with the vision. Combine that with uncertain building codes, development promises (such as roads and access) that don’t develop, and you have the challenges of doing ministry in these contexts.
In the photo below you can see the Jubilee Center as it currently sits on Tower Hill. The parliament building is on the top of the hill (the gold dome) and the Jubilee Center is the large building with an A-frame roof in the center of the photo. The size and scale of the building is evident even when taken from a distance (photo taken from the campus of the University on an adjacent hill). When the facility was begun there was little development around the building and a road was promised that would service the facility. Those promises did not come through. As a result the building has access problems for a facility that size.
Another of the great challenges of doing any work in Sierra Leone and in West Africa and other formerly colonized nations is that title to land is difficult to often ascertain. What was new learning for me in this conversation was that the land upon which the Jubilee Center stands is owned by the government of Sierra Leone and has been leased to the Council of Churches of Sierra Leone (which we visited) and then subsequently to the ELCSL. As such, the ELCSL does not technically own the land upon which this building is placed and therefore only can continue to reside in that facility as long as the lease agreements continue.
As previously mentioned (and the plaque in the picture collage below commemorates) in 2013 the sanctuary was dedicated. However, the remainder of the building was never finished and appears to have had little work done on it since the dedication. Given the reality of the Ebola crisis and funding challenges this should come as no surprise. The majority of the floors have no windows, the stairs have no railings and there is no plumbing or electrical to the majority of the building. As mentioned there is little access and because of the homes built above it now there are issues with drainage and rain flow around the building. This creates concerns about the stability of the building as a whole.
Bishop Momoh and I had very frank discussions about these realities. As the new bishop he inherited this vision and project and must discern what he believes to be the right course of action. He sees these challenges clearly but also feels a sense of stewardship for the resource and responsibility to the community around the facility. To allow it to deteriorate to the point of becoming a public health hazard is a problem that must be addressed. The Lutheran name is in fact attached to this facility. As such I have asked him to do 2 things. 1) Find out clearly if obtaining clean title to the land is at all possible and 2) Have an engineer give an scope of work as to the foundation issues and drainage. That said, I also told him I have little energy and neither does NT-NL for funds for this building at this time, I would much rather invest our resources into the people of the church, the vital resource that is the human capacity and capital of the church than in buildings.
The vision of a grand center for ministry and mission in Freetown was bold and certainly worthy of effort. As bishop of NT-NL I, like my brother Bishop Momoh, have inherited this legacy and we must together discern what is best to do next. The commitment to accompaniment in mission efforts means that we engage in the projects that our partners ask us to. NT-NL was asked by the ELCSL and former bishop Barnett to engage in this project and did so in good faith and in hope. I am grateful there is a worshiping community taking advantage of this location and facility and encourage you to pray for them in their work. At the same time I cannot in good faith commit any NT-NL funds for the future into brick and mortar projects on this location unless our partners ask for that and we deem, prayerfully, that this is good stewardship of what has already been committed and for the safety of the community around the facility.
The Jubilee Center, like the Leadership Center at Briarwood, is a bold vision of a place to develop disciples of Jesus Christ and care for the community around us. As bishop I am grateful for those who committed resources and energy to this project. I am also deeply aware of the challenges that buildings create and the obligations for construction and ongoing maintenance they place upon communities. My commitment, shared with Bishop Momoh, is that our efforts will be to build up the body of Christ, the people, that make up the church. Where buildings coincide with that effort we will prayerfully discern how best to invest in those resources. However, our efforts going forward will be focused on youth and young adults, pastoral education, and work for gender justice and the education and development of women’s resources. Buildings will come and go, but investing in people, these are efforts that will last generations.