Precious Johnson, 22, arrived at Trinity Cathedral here Jan. 3 expecting to see the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. Johnson didn't expect to see a woman.
"I was expecting a man," she said outside the cathedral following the Eucharist. "I was excited to see a woman."
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preached and celebrated solemn high mass for more than 1,500 people on the second Sunday after Christmas at the cathedral in central Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, a nation of nearly 3.5 million people on Africa's west coast.
At the invitation of the Episcopal Church of Liberia, Jefferts Schori arrived there Jan. 2 for a weeklong stay. The visit marks the first time Jefferts Schori has been the official guest of an African church.
In his announcements during the Eucharist, Liberia Bishop Jonathan B. Hart extended an official welcome to Jefferts Schori and dozens of native-born Liberians, including the Rev. Theodora Brooks, vicar of St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Bronx, New York, who were visiting the country and the cathedral.
For the first time in 20 years, William Tobah, 37, a member of St. Mark's Cathedral in Minneapolis, made the trip home to Liberia.
"Me and a bunch of friends who left came back," he said, adding that when he heard news reports that Jefferts Schori would be celebrating at Trinity Cathedral, he decided to take the opportunity to see her.
He plans to see her again this week, he said. Tobah's relatives are longtime members of St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Camp Johnson Road, where the presiding bishop is scheduled to celebrate Mass on the Feast of the Epiphany Jan. 6. She is also expected to visit the Episcopal-affiliated Cuttington University, the all-girls Bromley Episcopal Mission School, meet with clergy and vestry members, U.S. Embassy and USAID officials and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the continent's first elected female head of state.
Jefferts Schori's sermon also touched on homecoming.
"This very nation of Liberia began in homecoming, in the restoration of peoples forcibly enslaved and exiled to North America and the Caribbean. Like ransomed Israel, the people who would form Liberia began to stream homeward nearly 200 years ago," the Presiding Bishop said. "Yet the work of homecoming is far from finished in this land. The homeward journeys of the 1800s also meant that others were pushed out of their homes. The years since have given rise to many struggles over whose home this nation would be. The violence of the last decades is stark reminder that the Prince of Peace still has much to do."
Jefferts Schori said she was surprised to find that Liberia's growth rate is the highest in the world and that its infant mortality rate trails only Afghanistan and Sierra Leone.
"When the average woman bears six or seven children in her lifetime, it's almost always a response to chaos and life's radical uncertainty. That chaos is evident in the fact that that average woman is likely to lose at least one of those six or seven children she bears," she said, adding that "the world into which Jesus was born was not all that different."
Jefferts Schori called those present to help the children of Liberia to be able to use the gifts that God has given them, noting that many others, including the Episcopal Church, have long been partners in caring for and teaching the children of Liberia.
"The holy child who is born among us yet again is an ever-present reminder of the unique value of each human life, for each human being offers us a glimpse of the divine, each one is an image of God," she said. "Joseph was willing to risk his life for the sake of a child he believes is not his own -- what about us?"
The Rev. Elizabeth Wilson-Hina, of Emmanuel Chapel in Marshall City, traveled to the cathedral to see the presiding bishop.
"She gave us the challenge to ascend the pulpit," she said. "I am proud of her because I am female, too."
The Rev. Shirley Diggs, of Christ Church in Crozierville, said that it was the first time in her 59 years as an Episcopalian that she met a presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.
"Spiritually it means a lot for me and the Church of Liberia," she said.
Diggs and Wilson-Hina are two of seven female priests resident in the Diocese of Liberia. Driggs said that the road to women's ordination was paved by Brooks, who in 1989 because the first woman ordained in the diocese. For Brooks, the Jan. 3 Eucharist was an exuberant homecoming.
"I'm speechless, I am just so humbled at the goodness of God," Brooks later said in a telephone interview. "When I think of how it all started in the beginning; we were so lucky here in Liberia to have a bishop open to ordaining women -- Bishop George Daniel Brown, a visionary, a leader, a pastor, a good shepherd."
Founded by the U.S.-based Episcopal Church in 1836, the Episcopal Church of Liberia was a diocese in the Episcopal Church until 1980, when it became part of the Anglican Province of West Africa. As part of that change of affiliation, the Episcopal Church and the Liberia diocese established a covenant partnership, which pledges each entity to mutual ministry and interdependence and calls for financial subsidies with an eventual goal of self sufficiency and sustainability for the Church of Liberia.
From 1983 through 2007, the Liberian church received close to $6.6 million from the Episcopal Church.
The most recent version of the covenant was adopted by the Episcopal Church's Executive Council in April. Information about the Episcopal Church's four other covenant partnerships with Anglican provinces is available here.
Liberia, first founded as an American colony in the 1820s as a homeland for freed slaves, became an independent republic in 1847, but kept close ties with the United States. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Liberia was crushed by civil war, with more than 250,000 people killed and more than one million people displaced.
Under the leadership of Johnson Sirleaf, that nation has started to rebuild.
Precious Johnson said she hopes that women will take the lead in everything.
"We ladies are coming up and one day we'll be there," she said.