What began as a conversation over a cup of coffee has become one of the most effective mission programs of The United Methodist Church in West Africa, and has sparked interest in several conferences to consider this concept in their mission outreach.

When Bob Bowman and John Shettle were elected lay leaders of their respective South Indiana and North Indiana Annual Conferences in 1984, they decided to meet to discuss how they might work together to help renew United Methodist churches in Indiana. Their meeting place was the Hardee's fast-food restaurant in Newcastle. There the concept of working together in a hands-on mission program began to emerge. Later, with the guidance of the late Bishop Leroy Hodapp and the late Rev. Mark Blaising, they began to formulate a plan for the mission program, which became Operation Classroom.

Operation Classroom was designed to be a partnership program linking the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, the Liberia and Sierra Leone Annual Conferences of the church, and the two Indiana annual conferences, with the objective to upgrade secondary education in these two West African countries.

Advance team

In order to implement this plan, an advance team - composed of leaders of both North Indiana and South Indiana Annual Conferences - traveled to Liberia and Sierra Leone in September 1986 to meet with church officials and see the schools selected by leaders of the Liberia and Sierra Leone Annual Conferences. The team visited schools, met with principals and teachers, spoke with students, viewed the physical condition of the buildings and received reports of the needs of each school.

When the team returned to Indiana, they determined the best way to challenge Indiana United Methodist churches to meet these needs was to:

  • Assign a district or districts to be partners with a specific school,

  • Empower Indiana laity to become more actively involved in mission than in the past, and

  • Embrace the hands-on mission concept.

Launched in 1987

Operation Classroom was launched officially on Jan. 1, 1987, involving a partnership with four schools in Liberia and six schools in Sierra Leone. The goal was to upgrade these schools until they were able to be self-supporting, then Operation Classroom would move on to partner with other needy schools. The Rev. Joseph and Carolyn Wagner were selected to be the co-coordinators of the program.

The program of Operation Classroom evoked an immediate, enthusiastic response across the state. By June the area churches, through a special offering, had given more than $52,000. During the first year, both conferences raised more than $197,000 to this Advance Special project, designated for Operation Classroom schools. From 1987 through 2006, Indiana's United Methodists contributed a total of $3.2 million to Operation Classroom through the Advance.

Ingathering at Westfield

To initiate the concept of a hands-on mission program, a statewide ingathering was held at Westfield in September 1987. Churches brought supplies they had gathered for their partner school. A semi-trailer load of school supplies and books was collected in three hours. These original donations were shipped to Liberia and Sierra Leone in January 1988. Since these first shipments, many districts have sponsored packing parties with hundreds of people participating. Through the years a total of more than 60 volunteers have come to the OC warehouse in Lapel, Ind., to load 62,367 boxes of school, medical, and refugee supplies and equipment, valued at more than $3.4 million into 68 shipping containers.

The work-team program was launched in January 1988 with a team of 16 volunteers going to the W. P. L. Brumskine School in Buchanan, Liberia, to construct a security wall around the school property. A few weeks later, a second team of 22 volunteers traveled to Albert Academy in Freetown, Sierra Leone, also to begin construction of a campus wall. Since 1987, OC has prepared and sent 381 people to West Africa, including 13 field coordinators and 15 individual short-term volunteers. The 40 teams have worked in 12 schools and two hospitals, and have held 17 seminars for teachers and pastors. In addition to those Indiana teams, several Operation Classroom teams have originated in Minnesota, Tennessee and Colorado.

Through the tumult of the civil wars in both Sierra Leone and Liberia, Operation Classroom continued its partnership with the citizens of these embattled nations. OC shipped supplies, started refugee schools and medical clinics, began trauma counseling seminars and established partnerships with five additional schools.

Twenty years after its inception, Operation Classroom continues a strong, viable ministry in both Liberia and Sierra Leone. Currently, partnerships are with 15 schools with a total enrollment of more than 15,000 students. This partnership includes providing school supplies, vocational equipment, books, work-study grants ($75 per-student per-year), and scholarships for teachers ($1,200 per year) to attend college in their own country. The renovation of several buildings remains as another priority.

Medical component

Operation Classroom established a medical component in 1994, which involved the resurrection of Operation Doctor. Dr. Tom Foy, a volunteer physician, and his wife Kay, a nurse, went to Kissy Clinic in Freetown, Sierra Leone, to help reestablish the program and address the vast medical needs of this area of Freetown. Dennis Marke, M.D., became the chief medical officer in 1994. Early in 2006, the Kissy Clinic, with its new surgical theater and post-operation ward, became the United Methodist Church Kissy Hospital. With the inclusion of the eye hospital this past year, it became the UMC Kissy General Hospital with Operation Doctor being the major partner. OD is responsible for raising funds for medications, as well as the salary for Marke. Kissy Hospital has excellent nutrition, maternity, HIV/AIDS and outpatient programs.

Operation Doctor also renovated the water and electrical systems at Ganta Hospital, in neighboring Liberia, including the construction of two water towers. It also provided funds for medication and fuel, has shipped supplies and equipment, and assisted with renovations.

Vocational education

Vocational education is a high priority for each partner school. Tools and other vocational equipment continues as a need. Some Operation Classroom-related schools continue to assist their conferences in helping former child soldiers plus other children and youth through the trauma incurred during the war years. The Peal Center, a counseling program of the Liberia Annual Conference sponsored by Operation Classroom, ministers with children and youth through peace clubs in schools, children-for-peace programs and a Palaver Hut Management program, which assists youth with leadership abilities to be positive influences within their peer groups.

For more information about Operation Classroom or Operation Doctor or to schedule a speaker for your church, contact Joe and Carolyn Wagner, co-coordinators, P.O. Box 246, Colfax, IN 46035, or by e-mail ccwagner@hotmail.comwagners@operationclassroom.org, or visit the OC Web site at www.operationclassroom.org. The Wagners and others are available to speak at your church or missionary conference.