Sister Mary Laurene Browne: Words of Hope and Challenges for the New Liberia

By Theodore T. Hodge


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

August 4, 2004

In reading the national oration delivered by Sister Mary Laurene Browne on the occasion of Liberia’s 157th anniversary, I was quite impressed by how she seemed to successfully capture a bunch of sub-themes in order to ideate a national theme. I use the word "ideate" purposefully because it is the most meaningful word that comes to mind in describing what the Good Sister did: She was able to "form an idea" and allow her audience (in my case, a reader), to envisage an image, fixed and held in the mind. And when she exhaled, her meaning was clearly and powerfully conveyed for the good of the Liberian nation.

Speaking on the topic, "Fashioning Ourselves into a People for Significant Interdependence", she narrated Liberia’s wretched and unfortunate story as a nation. However, it was not all doom as she managed to offer hope through a pragmatic reassessment of our past, present and future.

It was quite clear that unlike many other occasions where sycophants were brought in to sing praises of the self-ordained leaders and the audiences joined in ringing the choruses, Sister Mary Laurene was determined to hammer in a critical, albeit compassionate message.

Before delving into her message for the day, she took a moment to weave a piece of mental gymnastic riddle (a brain teaser, if you will) declaring, "Independence denotes interdependence". To paraphrase her, in a sovereign and independent society, the rich and the poor, the literates and illiterates, young and old must interdependently rely on each other. In essence, the idea conveyed here was that for a chain to be strong, all its links must be well oiled and tightened, because a "chain is as strong as its weakest link", to quote the late indefatigable Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

What are the consequences of failure to adhere to such basic and fundamental truths? We are doomed to self-destruct and our consciences die, she warns. This is simply wisdom to live by.

However, as great orators must do, she took the time to offer a vision of optimism: "Liberia still does have very much to offer", she declared. But to materialize this vision, the leaders must remember that the people must come first, now and always. The Good Book reminds us in Proverbs 29:18 "Where there is no vision, the people perish". Is it not correct to deduce that when the people perish, the nation also perishes?

The speaker brilliantly weaves her sub-themes of patriotism, education, human rights, empowerment, religious tolerance and reconciliation into thought-provoking personifications. For example, a kindergartener questions authority. The child, however, does not do so from a provocative and destructive state of mind, but from a natural curiosity to learn and understand. The teacher has an obligation to respond in a positive, nurturing and enabling way. For how else are children expected to grow up to be true patriots, to conquer ignorance without exercising the freedom to demand knowledge? How are they to truly exercise the freedom of choice without exercising the freedom to question? Yet many of us remember the old refrain: Do not question authority.

"Illiteracy is the scourge of any nation…" she writes. "But especially Liberia", one is tempted to add. Again, she uses Gobah to personify that affliction that affects so many. The message and challenge to our present and future leaders is to abolish illiteracy at all cost for the good of the nation.

Without missing a beat, she reminds us that human rights are a universal entitlement and governments do have a responsibility to ensure that their citizens are protected. By the same token, she warns against the twin evils of tribalism and religious intolerance. Citizens must not be dehumanized because of sectionalism or religious differences. The message is to be tolerant because as citizens of a true sovereign and independent nation, we remain interdependent. Our differences must be a strength, not a liability or the source of division.

Finally, given Liberia’s immediate past and continuing saga of agony and self-destruction, she urges reconciliation. She warns, as George Santayana did, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".

Being away from my beloved country for the last quarter century and being accustomed to the worst news, this oratory was very uplifting and spellbinding. I am inclined to believe that "Hope is on the way", in the words of Senator John Edwards, the vice presidential nominee of the Democratic Party. That ray of hope came beaming through as I read the challenging and redemptive words offered by our beloved Sister Mary Laurene Browne. Speaking from the heart, she spoke to and for many of us. I say thank you.

On a personal note, I humbly ask the Liberian people to always remember Archbishop Michael Francis in their prayers. He must always be remembered for being an unchallenged champion for human rights and a tireless advocate for peace, dignity and justice for the Liberian people. He will always be remembered as a drum major for peace.