The day before Leymah Gbowee addressed 3,300 participants attending the Tenth Triennial Gathering, July 14, she took time for a conversation over a cup of green tea.
Gbowee, a Lutheran from Monrovia, Liberia, led the interfaith movement of prayerful and persistent women credited with bringing peace to her civil-war torn country. She explained why, even as a Nobel Laureate, she continues to be a friend to Women of the ELCA.
“First, I am a Lutheran, a Christian,” said Gbowee. “I am the daughter of every institution that claims Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of our world.
“Second, I have a history with Women of the ELCA. Before I was known, before the Nobel, they supported me in my personal and professional development,” she said. “Four women helped pay my undergraduate tuition and ELCA leadership scholarships bridged the financial gap for my graduate studies.
“Finally, my mother always told me, ‘ingratitude is a sin.’ For that reason, if I can possibly make it, when the church calls me, I will definitely be there.”
How so hopeful, so positive?
The conversation turned to the topic of hope. How does Gbowee stay so hopeful, so positive?
“Hope is something I must hold on to in this world of pessimism and injustice,” she said. “Then I see the young people I engage with in my new life, who despite everything still believe in the future. They still fight for justice, believe in justice. Then I remember, ‘who am I to give up hope when these people are not?’”
Gbowee said in her new work, she addresses the needs of young people, especially their education, health and livelihood.
In 2012, she set up the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa Foundation using her Nobel earnings. The foundation started with seven students. By 2016, two have graduated with a master’s degree, four have graduate certificates, three bachelor’s degrees, and three are high school graduates.
“I am investing in the sustainable lives of these young people,” she said.
She also manages ‘Peace Through Fair Play,’ a camp that brings together disabled and non-disabled youth, mixing them in teams.
“In our four years, we’ve touched 2,500 lives,” she said. “This year’s camp will include participants from two ‘opposing’ Liberian ethnic groups—and I intentionally put ‘opposing’ in quotes—Gios and Krahn.”
“Many times, I’m up on a stage addressing a big crowd and then I leave,” she said. But at camp, “students, volunteers and participants get seven days of my full attention.”
At the end of the day, she spends two hours in leadership development with the volunteers and staff.
“I start with, ‘Great job, team.’ Then I might reflect on something I observed. How something might have been handled differently.”
The hard work gives her energy
Immediately after speaking at the triennial, Gbowee flew to Ghana where she’ll then drive for five hours to the camp.
“It will be OK,” Gbowee reassured. “The students will give me energy. Just seeing Hannah will be enough.”
Hanna, she said, at 16 is the first in her village to finish sixth grade. However, the school she attended is shuttered.
“Her mother is worried about Hannah’s future, now there’s no school. I reached out and Hannah is coming to camp. And from camp, she’ll go on to boarding school.”
When asked, “What will have made your time with Women of the ELCA a success,” Gbowee thought and said, “Being able to share what I understand ‘being Anew,’ is.
“Being ‘anew’ is not an event. It’s a daily process, a journey of understanding. It’s a way of life. I pray God will use me to help women leave here revived and rejuvenated.”
She said being anew means getting down on your knees each morning in prayer and getting up spiritually refreshed to go out and touch people’s lives. It means doing your part to bring the world one step closer to sanity.
Just then, Elizabeth McBride, Café editor, entered the room with her husband, Aaron Marshall, who was pushing a stroller with their 5-month old baby, Eilis. Gbowee’s face lit up and she immediately got up from the table to hold the baby.
“Oh, I love babies,” said Gbowee. I have eight children. The youngest is 5.”
Then, in walked Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Her face lit up when she saw Gbowee with the baby. She got her turn holding Eilis, too.
After the Gbowee and Eaton left, we went back our respective triennial duties, spiritually refreshed and feeling “All Anew.”
Sue Edison-Swift, a member at First Lutheran, Decorah, Iowa, helped with communication during the triennial. From 1988-2000 she served as an editor of Lutheran Woman Today, now Gather.
About 3,300 participants of Women of the ELCA, the women’s organization of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, are in Minneapolis, Minnesota, for the Tenth Triennial Gathering (July 14–16).
Photo of Leymah Gbowee and Eilis Marshall