It was hot. We were sweaty. I was dirty and sore and tired. And then we started to sing. We took each other by the hand and made a circle, and we sang:
“I just want to say thank you, thank you my Lord.
I just want to say thank you, thank you my Lord.
For your blessings we say thank you, thank you my Lord.
I just want to say thank you, thank you my Lord.”
The floor of New Hope United Methodist Church was not yet finished, but it was closer than it was at the beginning of the day. We had spent the morning and early afternoon working hard. First we hauled forty wheel barrows of sand into the church. Then carried twenty 110 pound bags of cement into the church. After dumping the cement onto the sand, we mixed it up with spades. The Liberian men that were there knew what they were doing. We learned by watching, and pitched in. I feared that we might be slowing them down – or worse – taking away work that they wouldn’t get paid for. But their smiles and gestures of help allayed my fears.
The process was long and slow. Others in our group affixed wires to the undergrid. Others spread sand on the dirt floor, providing even ground on which to pour the cement. Then we hauled in 30 wheel barrows of rock and dumped them on the huge pile of sand-cement mixture. Then came the water, and more mixing. When the cement was finally mixed and wet, it was put into a wheel barrow and dumped on the floor, where skilled masons spread it out and made it level.
New Hope United Methodist Church sits on a hill on the outskirts of Monrovia. It is the biggest building in the little neighborhood. Inside there was a sign that read “2011-Our year of divine breakthrough.” The people of New Hope used to worship at homes, and then in a structure of sticks holding up a tin roof. The new New Hope UMC is a structure of cinderblocks with a vaulted ceiling. The roof is supported by wooden trusses under tin sheets. The floor was half cement, half dirt. By the end of the week, the floor will be complete.
Those working were a mix of clergy and laity, American and Liberian, black and white, skilled worker and unskilled laborer, man and woman, educated and uneducated, paid employee and volunteer. What we held in common was much stronger than the things that could divide us. And in that moment in the back of the church, what united us came out in song.
I was a part of a group made up of mostly newly ordained clergy, we had spent the last two weeks doing various projects in and around Liberia. This was the last day of work. We gathered to make sure we were all together before we walked down the hill to get in our van and head back to the United Methodist guesthouse in the city. I’m not sure who started singing, but the singing started quietly. It was a song we had learned from the Liberian people.
“I just want to say thank you, thank you my Lord…”
And then an amazing thing happened. Many of the Liberians that were still hard at work came over. They put down their spades. They put down their wheel barrows, and they joined us. We took each other by the hand and formed a circle. We were no longer Americans and Liberians. We were no longer black and white. We were simply God’s children. We were one in Christ, and we sang. We sang as loud as our lungs could muster. I was already covered in sweat and cement dust. Now tears were added to the mixture. The pastor of New Hope United Methodist Church prayed. We gave thanks to God for the cement floor, but also for so much more.
We thanked God for the relationship between the people of Liberia and the people of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference. We thanked God for the connection of the United Methodist Church. We thanked God for the respect and friendship that was forged in our sweat. We thanked God for hope.
We broke the circle and it took us a few minutes to actually leave. We shared hand shakes. We shared hugs. A few small tokens of appreciation were exchanged. A few last pictures were taken. There were many smiles, and then we got in the van and drove away. None of us truly left.