Boys in Freetown in 2008
Photo by Paul Bryant-Smith
by Gene and Marilyn Ostreicher
FARMINGTON (11/15/2010) -- In the Spring of 2007, a group from First Church of Christ, Congregational, UCC in Farmington journeyed to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to participate in the dedication and opening of the new Hope Day School. This is a recent chapter in a story that began in 1810 in Farmington and continues today. In that year, in a building down the street from the Church, a group of community and church leaders founded the Board of Commissioners for Foreign Ministries.
At that time, the church was already 158 years old. The refusal of the writers of the Constitution, adopted 23 years earlier, to deal with the question of slavery did not sit well with these men of faith and a fledgling abolitionist movement was born. Farmington soon became a major station on the “Underground Railroad” and, in 1838, some of the very same men were instrumental in founding the Connecticut Anti-Slavery Society. In 1840, they became involved in the legal efforts to free the Mende natives from the schooner La Amistad. When a U.S. Supreme Court decision freed the Mende in 1841, they were brought to Farmington to live, be educated, and earn their passage back to Sierra Leone. In early 1842, they were returned to their homes.
Fast forward to the year 1999. Sierra Leone had been engaged in the throes of a civil war for eight years when First Church was given the opportunity to resettle a refugee family from the capital, Freetown. The church had previously resettled refugees from Laos and Bosnia.
The Williams family was welcomed into the community and the church, housing was found and furnished, transportation and employment were dealt with, and the Williams settled into life in Farmington. Normally the story would end here, but not in this case.
Mrs. Williams had a brother, Victor Strasser King, who was the Principalle of Fourbay College in Freetown. During his subsequent visit to Farmington, he made the congregation aware of the difficult situation in his nation. As the result of the civil war, Sierra Leone had surpassed Haiti as being the poorest country in the world. Fourbay College, founded in 1827, had been badly damaged during the fighting.
In 2000, the church responded by forming the Sierra Leone Task Group and, in relatively short order, the first of what would eventually turn out to be ten 45-foot containers of school furniture, computers, medical and school supplies, wheelchairs, crutches, and clothing were on their way to the college and to the refugee camps in and around Freetown. In 2002, the civil war ended and, a year later, a group from Farmington and New Haven visited Freetown. They came back with the intention of providing a new building for Hope Day School.
First Church committed $100,000 and this soon swelled to approximately $160,000 with the donation of additional funds and materials. Plans were drawn, a prime contractor selected, and groundbreaking took place in 2004. The new Hope Day School building, complete with solar panels, computer room, library, and classrooms for over 300 students was completed and dedicated in 2007. Since then the Task Group, renamed the Sierra Leone Ministry Team, has refocused on the task of providing ongoing financial support for teacher salaries, supplies, and student scholarships.
It is probable that there are still future chapters to be written and First Church is committed to continue helping this story to be written. With God’s help, it will be a long story indeed.
Gene and Marilyn Ostreicher are members of First Church of Christ, Congregational, UCC in Farmington.