February 2015

We live in a world hungry for compassion

As I kneel to pray in the Historic Chapel of Saint Augustine’s University, the Ebola Epidemic seems distant and surreal to me. I pray for the victims of this outbreak, knowing that in Liberia alone the number of people who have died exceeds 8,000. However, quantitative data does not bring me closer to the reality of the suffering experienced by the people of Liberia. Therefore, as I leave the chapel I keep the prayers for healing and recovery in my heart as I walk to the Benson building and join our provost, Dr. Yvonne Coston, in a phone conference with the associate vice president of student services at Cuttington University, Liberia.

You may ask if my prayers always lead to such a direct action as this phone call. That is a question that I cannot answer. However, the hand of God is always at work in ways that are a mystery to us.

My relationship with Ms. Lovette Tucker, an associate vice president at Cuttington University, began in the summer of 2014 in Seoul, South Korea. However the relationship between Saint Augustine’s University and Cuttington University stretches back to the 1940s.

Let me begin with the connection between our two institutions. Cuttington University was initially Cuttington College as it was founded in 1889 by The Episcopal Church under the direction of the first African-American bishop to become Bishop of Liberia, Bishop Samuel Ferguson. The school focused on theological, agricultural, and industrial education as it equipped young adults to serve a newly growing nation. The staff of Cuttington College consisted solely of Liberian citizens with the belief that the citizenship of the country possessed the gifts necessary to govern and educate themselves. Located in Cape Palmas, Cuttington College remained open until 1929. However, Cuttington College closed for 20 years during the Great Depression and two World Wars and did not reopen until 1949.

During this time, a student at Saint Augustine’s College was preparing to lead the Episcopal Church in Liberia through one of its most difficult periods. Bravid Washington Harris was born in Warrenton, North Carolina, in 1896. Soon to become Bishop Harris, he earned a bachelor’s degree while serving in the Student Military Corps at Saint Augustine’s College.

After graduation, he served as a first lieutenant in France during World War I, and returned to the United States while he discerned a call to ordained ministry. He attended Bishop Payne Divinity School, a seminary in The Episcopal Church for African American students during that time, and he graduated with the Bachelor of Divinity degree. He was later awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from the Virginia Theological Seminary of The Episcopal Church. He served the Church faithfully while working to develop the spiritual lives of African Americans, and he was consecrated as a bishop in 1945 and designated as the Missionary Bishop of Liberia.

Harris began his work in Liberia as a as a ministry of reconciliation. His challenge is described in The Archives of The Episcopal Church as follows:

The patterns of tension and misunderstanding present among the different peoples of Liberia were familiar to him, reflecting the division of races and classes present in the United States at the time. The almost three decades preceding Harris’ episcopate were marked by events which impeded the Church’s progress in Liberia – a labor scandal in Liberia, two world wars, and the 1930s economic depression. Success in Liberia was further complicated by the lack of strong clerical leadership in the country. It was a period in the mission’s history that tested the endurance and patience of the Church’s faithful. The devotion and integrity consistent with Harris’ decision making and leadership would help him to overcome the ever-present obstacles and to assist Liberians in reaching their potential.

This son of Saint Augustine’s College was well equipped to handle the challenges he faced as a leader at this time in Liberia. He began by placing a primary focus on Liberia’s educational infrastructure. To this end, he strengthened primary and secondary schools in the country, and he reopened Cuttington College. Christian education was foundational at the college, which would train clergy, educators, business leaders, and leaders in industry and agriculture. Additionally, Bishop Harris stressed the importance of education for women as well as men, noting that “women of the Church were an underutilized resource and advocated both theological and traditional education for them.”

We share a common history with Cuttington University, which trained the majority of Episcopal priests in Liberia. When Bishop Harris died in 1965, this son of Saint Augustine’s University had ordained the bulk of Episcopal priests in Liberia, just as over one-third of all African-American priests in The Episcopal Church were graduates of Saint Augustine’s University in 2002. Saint Augustine’s University and Cuttington University share a legacy of collaboration.

As I completed my conversation with Ms. Tucker and Dr. Coston about the future of our institutions, we realized that we face many challenges ahead. However we stand on the shoulders of leaders who have persevered through economic hardships and war, and have prevailed. The Ebola outbreak, racial tensions, and economic disparity present new challenges for a new generation, so I challenge you to dig deep into the resources which God has bestowed upon you to meet the needs of your brothers and sisters in this world. We live in a world hungry for compassion and a willingness to learn from and serve each other.

— Rev. Nita Byrd