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A Reverse Missionary Moment for Liberia

It is not the least of the pleasing encouragements of the present day, that the attention of the Christian world is unusually turned towards the regeneration of Africa; … Go, then, Christian Brother, trusting that His grace will be sufficient for you, and preach the unsearchable riches of that grace to benighted Africa …

—Letter from the Foreign Committee of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS) to the Rev. Thomas Savage, M.D., in 1836.

The election and consecration of Bishop John Toga Wea Harmon as the 14th Bishop of Arkansas is a seminal moment in the history of the Episcopal Church of Liberia. It signifies a church that has come full circle. The church planted in Cape Palmas by valiant 19th-century missionaries has sent one of its own to lead an Episcopal diocese in the continental United States.

This movement has several dimensions. It is linked to a broader phenomenon of African or international priests filling American pulpits, as noted by Grace Doerfler of USA Today on December 26, 2023. But it is also a consequence of outmigration from Liberia traced to two political events in the West African country: a military coup d’etat in 1980, and a civil war that began in 1989 and lasted for 14 years. One consequence of these developments is the emergence of the Liberian Episcopal Community in the United States. Harmon, when he was the 14th Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., helped found this diasporic community.

Harmon personifies the reverse missionary movement. Born and nurtured in the Liberian missionary district/diocese of Cape Palmas “and parts adjacent,” he followed many of his compatriots to the United States because of Liberia’s civil war. Many Liberian Episcopalians and graduates of Episcopal schools have joined the same diaspora.

The Liberian Church’s History

There are two phases to the genesis of the Episcopal Church in Liberia. The first is the freelance and pioneering missionary work of an African-American couple, James Madison and Elizabeth Mars Johnson Thomson. The Thomsons arrived in the Mesurado settlement of colonial Liberia in 1832, and relocated to Cape Palmas in 1834. James served as colonial secretary while initiating the Episcopal Church’s ministries of education and evangelism. The Thomsons were employed as teachers “under the patronage and direction of the Episcopal Mission Board.” They secured the land for the first mission station at Mount Vaughn (Nyepaulu) in 1835.

The second and more institutional phase begins with three white American missionaries, all graduates of Virginia Theological Seminary, sent to the colony of “Maryland in Africa” by the Episcopal Church. The missionary doctor Thomas Savage led the way in December 1836, followed in June 1837 by the Rev. John Payne and the Rev. Lancelot Minor. This trio would set in train the mission’s three-pronged ministries of evangelism, education, and healing. Payne became a bishop in 1851 as he served in Liberia.

The Thomsons and the Virginia Seminary trio would in time be joined by several other “builders for Christ.” This was the case especially as the Episcopal Missionary District of Cape Palmas and Parts Adjacent began to expand after 1847 into the new Republic of Liberia. Now the mission design and the vision of Bishop Payne found themselves in a rapidly changing environment of indigenous and colonial peoples.

It was during Bishop George Daniel Browne’s episcopacy (1970-89) that the Liberian church severed ecclesiastical and canonical ties with the American church and joined the Church of the Anglican Province of West Africa. The vision and action of these men, and many more, shaped the Episcopal Church of Liberia. The church helped shape the modern nation while also being affected by the peoples and cultures of the land. It was this church in which Harmon, and his ancestors before him, was tutored and nurtured.

Bishop Harmon’s History

Harmon was born the youngest of 10 children on November 16, 1964, to parents of typically mixed ancestry — in his case, Grebo, Bassa, and repatriate heritages. His mother, Annie Klade Wilson Harmon, was a seamstress and homemaker, socially active in Grebo community affairs in Maryland County. His father, Henry Gargar Harmon, was of Bassa ancestry and a ward of the prominent Harmon family. Upon moving to Cape Palmas, where he would meet his wife, Henry trained as a goldsmith. He would practice his trade along with becoming a postal worker in Harper.

It was at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church that Harmon began his improbable journey to the priesthood and the episcopacy. Of the clergy who provided early tutoring and nurture were the Rev. Vanii Gray (1911-92), the Rev. Samuel Yanqui Reed (1940-91), and Bishop George Daniel Browne (1933-93). Gray baptized him, Reed prepared and presented him for confirmation, and Browne confirmed him.

Young Harmon received his early education in Liberia, at the government Nathan Barnes Kindergarten school, at Harper Elementary Demonstration School, and at the Bishop Ferguson Episcopal High School.

The death of his mother in May 1980, a month after the coup d’etat, led to John’s brief relocation to Monrovia. As political instability deepened and many fled the country, John’s siblings apparently began plotting his exit.

He arrived in the U.S. in 1981 into the care of his elder brother, Henry Harmon, and his family. He entered Vailsburg High School of Newark, New Jersey, as a junior in 1982, graduating in 1984.

Affiliation with the Episcopal Church of St. Andrew and Holy Communion in the Diocese of Newark soon began to open doors for the young man. His next call was to St. Paul’s Episcopal College in Lawrenceville, Virginia, where he obtained his bachelor’s degree, cum laude, in 1988, majoring in English literature and political science.

The next year he entered Virginia Seminary. Liberian Archbishop George D. Browne asked his colleague, Bishop Charles C. Vache (1926-2009) of the Diocese of Southern Virginia to take Harmon through discernment leading to ordination on behalf of the Diocese of Liberia.

Other interesting developments followed. As seminarian at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. from 1989 to 1991, John was following the path of Bishop Dillard H. Brown, who served as rector of St. Luke’s before becoming the ninth missionary bishop of Liberia. Later, as assistant rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Norfolk, Virginia, from 1991 to 1993, he followed another Bishop of Liberia, Bravid W. Harris, who had previously been Grace’s rector.

Bishop Harmon is quintessentially Liberian with deep roots in Liberian soil. He is also a proud result of the efforts of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, which planted the Episcopal Church in Liberia almost 200 years ago. Only my best prayerful wishes go to Bishop Harmon as he embarks upon his new ministry. May God be glorified.

• Related reading: “Arkansas Bishop-Elect Got His First Vestments at Age 11,” by Kirk Petersen, September 11, 2023

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