The Nobel Prize Committee awarded the Peace prize this year to three women, including Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia. I had a chance to hear President Johnson Sirleaf speak in 2008. It was a truly powerful experience, so I am re-posting what I wrote three years ago.
The Humphrey Institute hosted a lecture by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia at the U of MN today. The President is the first democratically elected woman head of state in Africa. She’s a phenomenal leader. I confess I know very little about her story or her politics, but I was moved at the event today.
Liberia has a very complicated history tied to the history of the United States, former slaves from the United States were sent to West Africa, what would eventually become Liberia. The capital city Monrovia, is named for our former president. My head is swimming as I reflect on this afternoon so here’s my first reflection.
President Johnson Sirleaf took office in 2006. There are 3.5 million people living in Liberia. Since she took office, neighborhoods that had been without electricity or hot water for 15 years have received both. Twenty Six new schools have been built. 400 new teachers have been trained. The National debt has shrunk considerable, and is projected to be done in the next year or so. This “Iron Lady” has led her country to something quite extraordinary.
When Ellen was first born her grandfather looked at her and said, “This child will be great.”
Truly this is a great woman.
In my studies we talk a lot about “Speech Act Theory.” Words, according to this theory not only communicate ideas, but create or do something. When a groom says, “I do,” he not only communicates that he loves that woman in white at the altar, but he does something, after he says, “I do” he is married to that woman. He is no longer single he is married. Words communicate and do. In Speech Act Theory, what words do, their effect is called perlocution.
Imagine the perlocution of these words. “This child will be great.” Imagine growing up in a multicultural family, in a multicultural country, having heard those words. Imagine facing political and bodily threat, but constantly being reminded of this story. “Ellen when you were born. . .”
When Yahweh talks to the prophet Jeremiah he says, “before I formed you in the womb I knew you and set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations. (Jeremiah 1.5)”
Simeon and Anna spoke words to Mary, Joseph and Jesus. “this child is destined to . . .” (Luke 2).
Lord, too often the words we speak into a child’s life are, “No, you can’t.” “You won’t do that.” “You’re just like your dad (mom, grandma, aunt).” “We don’t do that in our family.” ” boys in our culture don’t go to college.” “girls don’t do that.” Forgive us God and let us use our words to speak a future and a hope into the lives of the young people around us. Our children, our students, our clients, our friends, our neighbors, the youth in our pew. God give us eyes, like Ellen’s grandfather to see young people through your eyes and courage to speak that future to them.
Post Script – President Johnson Sirleaf has book titledThis Child Will Be Great, it is available on Amazon. I haven’t read it yet, but it is going on my wish list right now.