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 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 joyful circle. During that trip we repaired the Guest House at Leicester Peak, laying block that created new walls for the facility. I was impressed at the way Rev. Yambasu organized the work, motivated the young people who joined our work crew, 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 a deep desire to see the 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. I carried his application to the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, my alma mater, back to the United States. He came to Candler in the fall of 1998 and spent Christmas with my family that year. When rebels invaded Freetown in January 1999, John called me and said that he had to gather funds to get his family to a refugee camp in Guinea. I asked members of Floris UMC for their assistance and they offered the funds in one Sunday. Once Millicent and their children were out of danger, I invited John to preach at Floris UMC to share the story of what was happening in his country. His sermon was so powerful that three months later church members asked 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 UMC.
Rev. Yambasu used these funds to start the Child Rescue Centre, 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. 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 over 600 children in family-based care that offers education and medical care for future leaders of Sierra Leone.
Following the fractious called 2019 General Conference of the UMC, Bishop Yambasu brought together a global group of leaders in the UMC to create the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation. I was a part of the mediation team, whose work was sometimes tense. I appreciated the way my friend’s faith and leadership called us to do our best work in keeping with our shared love of Christ. 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.
I will miss my friend John, who opened my mind to both the needs and joys of the larger world. His friendship was used by God to further my sanctification, grow in 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.