The International Christain Fellowship Celebrates Birth Of A Vision

By Tewroh-Wehtoe Sungbeh

When a Liberian arrives in the state of Georgia - Atlanta, Georgia, to be exact - one of the unique features about which that person is briefed, I am sure, is that the Liberian community offers its own international church.

That is the kind of influence the International Christian Fellowship (ICF) wields among Liberians in the greater metropolitan areas since its inception many years ago. Not too bad for a church that started October 5, 1986, with a total of 15 determined individuals, whose leader only had a vision, and dreamed of starting a church known later as the International Christian Fellowship (ICF).

William "Bill" Benjamin Harris, who is the Senior Pastor of ICF, shared with those at that meeting what he referred to as "the ICF vision about what the Lord had urged" him to do. Rev. Harris interpreted that vision by establishing a ministry that meets the "spiritual, cultural and social needs of the international people."

The International Christian Fellowship (ICF) celebrated its 11th anniversary during the week of October 5, 1997, with a banquet and other activities. The celebration was climaxed with a worship service. The faithful came out united and celebrated the birth of a vision. Minister Dr. Andrew J. Hairston, co-founder of Wells-Hairston High School in Monrovia was the guest speaker.

The International Christian Fellowship (ICF) has come a long way, from a sleepy institution comprising 15 individuals talking about a vision, and struggling feverishly to find a niche in the religious community, to a church that can now boast of 400 plus members and counting. But not everything has been rosy for ICF over the years. The International Christian Fellowship, like any other church, has had its ups and downs.

Rev. Harris was asked recently whether there was ever a time he thought of quitting his dream of building ICF when things were not going well? "Yes." He responded. "There were times we were discouraged when people didn't understand the vision. Even though I didn't take a salary, it was said that I wanted to get rich. However, we were determined."

The construction of the church's sanctuary seems endless. The snail-like pace the completion of the church has taken is raising concerns. Rev. Harris blames it on the U.S. bureaucracy. "We are just unable to get a loan that could speed up completing our church." At press time, ICF meets at a community Center in Southwest Atlanta.

Some church members believe the issue is more than just the bureaucracy. Some suspect there is more than what they have been led to believe. These parishioners think church officials are withholding crucial information about the church's finances. One member who asked not to be identified said: "Why will a bank refuse to give us a loan now when we did not encounter problem in obtaining our first $20,000.00 to purchase the lot?"

When further asked what could be the reason behind the church's failure to obtaining additional loans, he said, I frankly don't know. But I hope our leaders will make financial records available to members, so as to avoid raising suspicion which is not healthy for the establishment.

Rev. Harris answered the question by saying the church was denied the larger loan because of ICF's inability to get co-signers who would guarantee repayment. Another reason that Harris cited for the incompletion of their sanctuary is structural problems. He said the first church building was demolished because of the structural problems. "Our contractors misled us", Rev. Harris lamented.

Similar views were expressed by a senior member of one of the church's governing boards. This senior church member voiced concern about the church's involvement in a number of projects without the full participation or knowledge of the congregation, until after the fact. He made reference to the purchase of a failed Japanese restaurant and a house belonging to one of the members. In both cases, the decisions were made by Rev. Harris and a select few. And with respect to the house, the membership has not seen any documents establishing the church's ownership. Yet, the congregation has been funding its mortgage and maintenance.

The senior member added, "while I am not opposed to any of these undertakings, I believe those whose money is being spent to acquire them should play a part in such major decisions and know all the facts."

Some members are convinced that such decision making process of the church has contributed to members' reluctance to make meaningful contribution to the building fund. Besides, it heightens unnecessary suspicion and creates mistrust. They hope the leadership will take these views in positive light, and help improve our communication process.

Addressing the property issue, Rev. Harris acknowledged the piece of real estate, but insisted it was donated to the church by one of their members. He also indicated that ICF received equipment worth $180,000 as donation from a retired Japanese restaurateur.

Another problem is the "Roland Barcon issue." Rev. A Roland Barcon, ICF's first assistant pastor was fired over policy differences he had with Rev. Harris. Rev. Barcon's firing or resignation, as one church member calls it, "divided the church on many lines. Some of our members left with Rev. Barcon in protest. It was a very tough experience, but we had to move on to do the Lord's work," Rev. Harris added. Rev. Barcon was replaced by Rev. Theophilus Massaquoi.

When Rev. A. Roland Barcon was contacted for this article, he admitted the differences he had with Rev. Harris, but he respects him as his elder. He also applauds him for his "desire to help the Liberian people. We disagreed on spiritual and non-spiritual issues. The business of the church is winning souls for Jesus Christ. The church should not be in the business of cultural awareness."

Calling ICF's annual practice of bestowing African names on African-Americans as hypocrisy, Rev. Barcon asked: "How can an African church with African members with western names bestow African names on their African-American honorees when some of the Liberians (Africans) are not inclined to change their western names to African names." Barcon suggested leaving what he called "cultural awakening to the Liberian Community Association of Georgia, and not be mixed with the church."

With the "Roland Barcon issue" behind them, ICF had to regroup and refocus itself on their ministry "dedicated to serving ordinary people with an extraordinary mission."

But observers in the Liberian religious community saw the removal of Rev. Barcon in a larger context than mere disagreement over policy issues. They said it had to do with control. Unlike mainstream churches which are governed by established norms, the International Christian Fellowship and other vision-based churches are tightly controlled by their leaders. Decisions emanate from a select few. Rev. Barcon did not fit the compliant follower mode, so he had to go.

Certainly, there can never be an International Christian Fellowship (ICF) without the devotion and dedication of a Rev. Bill Harris.

Regarded as a pillar of strength by his church and many in the Liberian Community of Georgia, the ubiquitous 43-year old electrical engineer turned preacher of the gospel has been there for many when the going gets rough.

At a time when many successful Liberians are staying away from Liberian communities across the U.S., for their own selfish reasons, Rev. Harris has always found time to attend community meetings and other events geared towards helping his people and country.

Mabel Jaryenneh Green, former president of the Liberian Community Association of Georgia (LCAG), sees Rev. Harris and the role of ICF in the Liberian Community in the following way:

"Rev. Bill Harris is truly a man of God, whose invaluable services to the Liberian Community of Georgia is undisputed. ICF has played a very positive role in our community. Of all the churches in Georgia with Liberian pastors, the International Christian Fellowship (ICF) is the most active in terms of dealing with Liberians and their problems. And that is because of Rev. Harris", she concluded.

Siahyonkron Nyanseor, vice chairperson of the church's board of elders, sees "a bigger and brighter future for the church in terms of expansion." Nyanseor credits the church's growth to Bill Harris and his "Afro-centric" approach to the ministry.

While Rev. Harris has been cited for his tireless and unselfish devotion to causes in the Liberian Community of Georgia, not everyone sings praises of him. Many detractors, both in and out of the church, say he is the sole decision maker. Some say it is not his nature to incorporate others' views or support ideas which do no originate with him.

Often accused supposedly for being politically biased in a Liberian Community saturated with radical politics, and polarized by extremists at both ends, Rev. Bill Harris and ICF contend that they have worked hard to stay above the political fray by being in the middle.

But critics see the "middle ground" ICF and Bill Harris have charted in Liberian politics as nothing more than support for old order supremacy laced in hollow rhetoric of inclusion and balance.

For example, during the recent Liberian presidential and general elections, two of the presidential candidates visited Atlanta at different times. Cletus Wotorson met with Liberians at a local diner (Mina's Place), while his opponent, Ellen-Johnson Sirleaf, who visited later, was embraced with fanfare and enthusiasm by the church leadership. Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf met with Liberians at the church.

A spokesperson for the Johnson-Sirleaf campaign in Atlanta, who was contacted for this article denied any form of favoritism on the part of ICF, arguing that it was the idea of Ms. Sirleaf's campaign to meet at the church.

Responding to those allegations of favoritism, Rev. Harris said he is not aligned with any political party, but will "give my support to anyone so desired. Even if I invited Ellen, don't I have that right as a Liberian citizen? My people, let us not be narrow-minded."

So far, the marriage between the International Christian Fellowship (ICF) and the Liberian Community Association of Georgia (LCAG) seems genuine with the latter donating funds to ICF's church building project.

The International Christian Fellowship (ICF) is here to stay, perhaps for a heck of a long time. With the church striving hard to succeed, the original l5 individuals who braved those humid and wintry days with the hope of being part of history ought to be proud of themselves for their vision. For without them there would be no International Christian Fellowship (ICF) today.

See Letters to the Editor for ICF Response