As James Labala of Liberia walked across the stage set in the transept of The National Cathedral he was not only receiving his diploma, he was crossing cultures. In the beautiful setting of this cathedral in Washington, D.C. the stage was situated before the assembled congregation and in front of the altar. Rev. Dr. Labala, along with three other degree recipients from Liberia and one from Nigeria, joined the most recent graduating class of Wesley Theological Seminary in receiving their degrees.
The intersection of cultures is a passion of Rev. Dr. Labala. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church serving as a District Superintendent in the Liberia Annual Conference, Rev. Labala sees the impact of cultures daily. At home in his district in northern Liberia near the border of the Republic of Guinea, Rev. Labala ministers with congregations representing four different tribal groups each with their own language and distinctive cultural background, practices and history.
During his preparation for the Doctor of Ministry degree, Rev. Labala studied particular cultural practices of ethnic groups in northern Liberia in relation to Christian practices. The study included the discussion of the omnipresence of God, the incarnation of God, and John Wesley’s understanding of prevenient grace.
Rev. Labala states in his dissertation that “the Mano and Kpelle people of northern Liberia have a very deep appreciation for the values certain cultural practices instill. For this reason, it keeps calling forth a new and fresh attention of the church in Africa.” Then, in his deep desire to understand cultures and that intersection, Rev. Labala asks, “How can the church see this challenge as raw material for theological reflection and draw from it elements of meaning that might be useful for Christian evangelistic and discipleship efforts?”
In this study Rev. Labala calls the church to fresh theological reflection. The study sets out bold goals and optimistically states that this may:
“provide a new paradigm that the church can use to make Christianity more meaningful to the African and the African context. This bridge has been hidden for too long so that its uncovering is now a matter of urgency if the church is to be effective in empowering the African for a mission that speaks to the needs of the people in meaningful ways.”
As Wesleyans, we United Methodists understand God is at work in our lives through grace. Rev. Labala relies on this understanding of grace to provide us with local context for theology.
“And through God’s prevenient grace, God has a way of empowering and enabling humanity to move toward establishing relationships with God in their own context and time. This is an eternal truth that cannot be denied. As such, the meticulous African Christian may ask, “how have the African people been in relationship with God?”
The love Rev. Labala has for the people of his district is profound and deep. His love for the church of Jesus Christ has led him to make a life-long commitment to bringing the Good News of the Gospel to the people of Liberia.
Plans are being made for the publication of the dissertation in both Liberia and in the US. Please watch here for updates on its release as a book.