By Linda Bloom
and Kathy L. Gilber

FORT WORTH, Texas (UMNS) - Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf told a worldwide gathering of United Methodists that her country and her church share a common commitment to eradicate poverty.

Sirleaf, a member of the Monrovia (Liberia) United Methodist Church, greeted delegates to the denomination's top lawmaking body as "fellow Christians and fellow Methodists" many times during her April 29 address to the 2008 General Conference.

"This is a special honor for me," she said. "I am the first African leader and the first female president to address the General Conference of The United Methodist Church."

Sirleaf, 70, was greeted with cheers, applause and "ululations" from fellow Africans in the assembly. General Conference brings together delegates from around the world every four years to decide church law. The body met April 23-May 2 in Fort Worth.

Bishop John Innis of the church's Liberia Area introduced the president to the assembly with the question, "Have you heard in Africa a woman was elected president of Liberia?"

The Indiana Area's Operation Classroom/Operation Doctor ministers to the educational and medical needs of Liberia with supplies, equipment, money and volunteers-in-mission.

People have hope

Liberia has been weighed down with poverty, lack of education and years of civil war, Sirleaf said.

"We need the church now as never before," she said. "The moment has never been more opportune to collaborate with the government to improve health and education and give our people hope."

Sirleaf became president in 2006 and has worked to restore the country's infrastructure and to maintain peace and security.

"I am proud to say we have moved Liberia from a failed state, from an awful flicker on your television screen to a success story."

She said when she was first elected and traveled around Liberia, children were frightened by her presidential convoy and thought she was coming to take something away from them.

"Instead of the distress of yesterday, today their eyes light up and they smile," she said. "Liberia is on the way back."

President honored

After her General Conference address, Bishop William Oden presented Sirleaf with an award at a dinner sponsored by the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. The dinner was a fundraiser for the commission's Bridges of Unity Ecumenical and Interfaith Endowment Fund.

The James K. and Eunice Mathews Bridge Builder Award is named for the longtime United Methodist bishop and his wife - the daughter of renowned evangelist E. Stanley Jones - who "have been a team of bridge builders for unity during their entire ministry," Oden said.

Created to honor a person "who has played a significant role in building global community and dismantling barriers that separate people," the award's first recipient was Sirleaf, who accepted on behalf "of the millions of Liberians who have suffered so much."

She acknowledged the many Liberians who were forced to leave their country for their own safety, youth forced into civil war, women who were the most vulnerable but still took responsibility to lead the peace, and children who lost years of childhood and education.

"Today, we can start anew," the president said.

She mentioned two of the programs her government has started: a Liberian education plan that is about one-third complete and calls for the renovation of 50 schools, training of 500 teachers and funding of scholarships for 5,000 girls; and a "market women" fund, now under way to provide space for women to sell their wares and have a small school for their children.

Attitudes also have changed in Liberia, as evidenced by a story Sirleaf told about a girl who was admonished by her teacher for not being ladylike in front of an important visitor. "Teacher, be careful how you speak to me," the girl replied. "Don't forget, a woman is president."

Bloom serves as a United Methodist News Service writer based in New York City. Gilbert serves as a United Methodist News Service writer based in Nashville, Tenn.