Story and photos by Daniel R. Gangler and Phileas Jusu

GREENWOOD, Ind. - More than 400 supporters of a mission outreach to West African United Methodists packed a suburban Indianapolis banquet hall Sunday night to celebrate 20 years of educational and medical ministries in countries recently torn by civil wars.

The outreach mission, Operation Classroom, was designed originally as a partnership linking the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, the Liberia and Sierra Leone annual conferences of the church with the two Indiana annual conferences to upgrade secondary education in these two West African countries. Today Indiana's Operation Classroom works with 15 elementary and secondary schools, one college and two hospitals related to The United Methodist Church in those two countries. The medical component, called Operation Doctor, was established in 1994.

Operation Classroom partners with United Methodists in the North Indiana, South Indiana, Rocky Mountain, Minnesota and Holston (Tenn.) conferences plus congregations and individuals from a total of 25 states. Conferences beyond Indiana sponsor even more schools.

Indiana Area Bishop Michael J. Coyner welcomed participants to the anniversary banquet saying, "You have touched and transformed thousands of lives (through this ministry). This has given hope and resolution. You have expanded this ministry far beyond anyone's expectations."

During the banquet, participants honored the Rev. Joseph and Carolyn Wagner of Colfax, Ind., as co-coordinators of Operation Classroom during its 20-year existence.

Also honored were John Shettle of Orestes, Ind., Bob Boman of New Castle, Ind. and Bishop Arthur Kulah, retired bishop of Liberia, for their role in beginning this unique mission to West Africa that brought the North Indiana and South Indiana conferences in closer relationship to each other.

Kulah helped organize Operation Classroom in Liberia in partnership with the late Bishop Leroy Hodapp and the late Rev. Mark Blaising, both of Indiana.

Bishop Joseph Humper, resident United Methodist bishop of Sierra Leone, said, "Today is a great day never to be forgotten celebrating 20 years of mission in a unique way."

Recalling 11 years of civil war in his country, Humper said, "You renounced that war and continued to work in the midst of conflict. Mission came alive and hope came from hopelessness. The challenge is to go and tell the story of Operation Classroom and Operation Doctor of a great mission come of age. Say it with all your hearts, minds and souls. You came to us in the midst of turmoil."

Joined by 13 Liberians who attended the banquet, Bishop John Innis, resident United Methodist bishop of Liberia, said, "We are all proud students of United Methodist Church schools in Liberia. Our life was given by Operation Classroom. You are the light of the world. You educate and redeem people from darkness to light. Many would not have been educated had it not been for your work with Operation Classroom. Look what the Lord has done for us."

Also present for the event was Bishop Felton May, interim general secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries based in New York City. He first recalled 1979 impressions of three months when he lived with his family in the two West African countries.

May said, "We stand on the threshold of the day we can eradicate malaria, HIV/AIDS and diseases of poverty. We know what ought to be done. We lack people, missionaries and sufficient resources, and infrastructures of this great denomination to combat the root causes of poverty. When poverty is eliminated, healing will come to a land.

"The General Board of Global Ministries will be supportive of any program to combat poverty. A portion of every dollar given through your congregation goes to combat poverty. It is our hope to make Operation Classroom a prototype for every nation in sub-Sahara Africa. We have at present Operation Classroom in front to educate, to heal and to make friends."

Bob Bowman, one of two conference lay leaders who envisioned Operation Classroom in 1987, challenged those attending the banquet to support students by providing scholarships. He said, "The mission train is running for 15 schools and 14,000 students who need supplies and tuition. These countries can come back. Education is the only way it can be improved."

Bowman invited each attendee to contribute at least $75 to provide for one annual scholarship for a student at one of the Operation Classroom partner schools.

John Shettle, the other layman who envisioned this ministry 20 years ago, auctioned off a hand-carved nativity set for $2,350 which will provide 32 student scholarships

Margaret Ewbank of New Salisbury, Ind., a retired laywoman, was honored for contributing $100,000 to a newly formed Operation Classroom endowment fund.

Church of Pakistan retired Bishop John Samuel was recognized as a visiting bishop.

Also present from Sierra Leone was Saffa Koroma, Operation Classroom coordinator and head administrator of the country's 295 United Methodist schools, Anthony and Jennifer Dioh, Liberia's OC coordinators.

The banquet culminated two days of consultation with more than 30 volunteers in mission from Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and South Dakota who planned for future Operation Classroom programs and ways to expand this established outreach ministry.

Since its beginning, Operation Classroom in Indiana has renovated each of the 15 partner schools and constructed two security walls, two principals' houses, four school buildings and established school libraries. Operation Doctor has, among other things, constructed a surgical unit and post-operation ward at Kissy Hospital in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

During its 20-year history, Operation Classroom has sent more than 60 construction teams to Liberia and Sierra Leone, 14 counselor training teams and has deployed 28 individuals who served in West Africa from two months to three years.

Operation Classroom also has shipped 34 sea-land containers to Liberia, 33 sea-land containers to Sierra Leone and two sea-land containers to the Ivory Coast. These shipments totaled 61,000 boxes of medical and educational supplies and equipment.

For more information about Operation Classroom or Operation Doctor, contact Joe and Carolyn Wagner, co-coordinators, P.O. Box 246, Colfax, IN 46035, by phone at 765-436-2805 or by e-mail ccwagner@hotmail.com, wagners@operationclassroom.org, or visit the OC Web site at www.operationclassroom.org.

Phileas Jusu is director of communication for the Sierra Leone Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.