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Chicago pastor elected top Liberian bishop

Published: Monday, June 4, 2012 1:55 p.m. CST
Caption
(Photo by Phil Velasquez Chicago Tribune/MCT)
The Rev. Jensen Seyenkulo, right, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, hugs the Rev. James Gonia, May 16, 2012, at the ELCA offices on Chicago's northwest side.

CHICAGO (MCT) — At last, the Rev. Jensen Seyenkulo can go home.

As a newly ordained pastor in the West African nation of Liberia, he escaped civil war more than 20 years ago. Now a longtime pastor in Chicago, he will return to a wounded country — quite different from the one he left behind — as the nation’s top Lutheran bishop.

“I think God has prepared me over the years to do just what I’m going to be doing,” said Seyenkulo, 55, who starts his term in July. “That’s why I think it’s time for me to return and share that with the people. … I have dreamt that I would be able to return home.”

Liberia was colonized by freed American slaves in the 19th century and founded as a republic that resembled the United States. In 1980, a military coup led by Samuel Doe assassinated the sitting president. In December 1989 then-rebel leader Charles Taylor staged a second coup to oust Doe.

That rebellion sparked one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars. More than 200,000 Liberians died and about a million more became refugees in border countries. A peace accord between the warring factions eventually led to Taylor’s election as president in 1997.

But Taylor turned out to be a brutal tyrant and financed another civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone.

“No one was safe from the guns and atrocities that people suffered,” Seyenkulo said. “You just had to be fortunate to survive.”

Forced to resign and go into exile in 2003, Taylor was convicted of crimes against humanity in April after a trial in The Hague — just two days before Seyenkulo’s election. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison last week.

Born and raised in Kenata, a remote northeastern village, Seyenkulo left behind his tribal traditions and became a Christian when a cousin whisked him away to live in a city occupied by Lutheran missionaries. A Bible teacher first inspired him to become a pastor when she called him by his first name: Daniel. His full name is Daniel Jensen Seyenkulo, but he goes by his middle name.

“You know what happens to Daniel in the Bible?” he asked, referring to the prophet who miraculously survives a lions’ den. “I thought I was invincible.”

For Seyenkulo, that teacher’s generosity and blind eye to race exemplified Christianity. In addition to scholarships, Esther Mennen financed much of his religious education.

“She basically adopted me,” he said. “She didn’t know how to distinguish between a white woman and a black country boy like me. She just took me to be her son.”

In 1982, Seyenkulo earned a bachelor’s degree from Gbarnga School of Theology. He earned graduate degrees in the U.S., including a doctorate and a second master’s degree at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. He met his wife, the Rev. Linda Johnson Seyenkulo, at seminary in St. Paul, Minn.

She was evacuated from Liberia in 1990 when civil war erupted a month after she and her new husband moved there.

Seyenkulo narrowly escaped three months later when Taylor’s rebels confused him with a member of Doe’s tribe. With help from the medical director at a Lutheran hospital, Seyenkulo got away through the neighboring Ivory Coast. Divine providence and his wife’s calling led the couple to Chicago, he said.

On the city’s West Side, he led the congregation of United in Christ Lutheran Church. On the South Side, he served at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. Most recently, Seyenkulo has worked at the Chicago-based headquarters of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as program director for disability ministries and clergy support. All of those experiences have reinforced his belief in the church’s capacity to fight for the oppressed.

“I have learned that there is power in numbers,” he said. “God has given us the ability to change any situation.”

Seyenkulo hopes to impart that sense of empowerment when he returns to lead Liberia’s 75,000 Lutherans — a tiny church compared with the U.S., where the 4.2 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is the largest Lutheran denomination. There are more than 97,000 members in the Chicago area alone.

But the challenges in Liberia outweigh the church’s size. The political tumult not only dealt an emotional blow, it dealt a setback to economic development. Seyenkulo hopes to make the church more financially self-sufficient by “returning to the soil.”

Seyenkulo acknowledges that his long absence from Liberia puts him at a disadvantage as the nation’s Lutheran leader.

“That was one of the criticisms my opponents had of me ... I didn’t know the church well,” he said. “There was some truth to that. However, I’m smart.”

His wife believes the 2006 election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard University-trained economist, has already led Liberia into a new era. She believes her husband will inspire the same unity in the church that the president has tried to inspire in Liberia’s government.

“Jensen hopes that unity will permeate the church too, to be an effective witness,” said Johnson Seyenkulo, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Park Forest. “My life’s work as a pastor in the church has been to make sure the Gospel of Jesus made a difference in the lives of people. I see this as a way for that to happen.”

The couple’s two oldest children will stay in the U.S. to attend college. Johnson Seyenkulo and their youngest daughter, adopted from Liberia five years ago, still need to figure out when they will join the bishop-elect.

“I was excited for him because I knew that was what he wanted to do,” said his oldest daughter, Apu Seyenkulo, 20, who attends college in Winston-Salem, N.C. “They need a lot of hope. I think my dad is going to be able to provide that.”

In 2007, Seyenkulo co-founded the Kuwaa Mission, a nonprofit organization named for his tribe that raises money to dig wells and provide safe drinking water for rural villages. The mission also has started building a health clinic in one of the villages and has lobbied the government to build roads between remote villages and marketplaces.

Naomi Ford-Wilson, general secretary of the Lutheran Church in Liberia, said Taylor’s recent conviction has had a calming effect on the country and has sparked new conversations between his victims and supporters.

“Reconciliation takes place only when the victimizer and victim are both willing to have a dialogue or process that can enable the victim to let go of … pains and grieves,” Ford-Wilson said.

Seyenkulo is reminded of human resilience whenever he sees young Liberian men hobbling on crutches because they are missing a limb — a common penalty doled out by Taylor’s regime. Athletes who suffered this cruel punishment now make up pan-African soccer leagues. His Christian faith reminds the bishop-elect of the liberating power of forgiveness.

“I forgave Charles Taylor a long time ago,” he said. “He destroyed an entire generation of Liberians. How could anyone benefit from holding that against him indefinitely? God is his final judge.”

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