Remembering Bishop John Yambasu
By Thomas Kemper
August 17, 2020 | ATLANTA
Bishop John Yambasu is irreplaceable in the life and mission of The United Methodist Church. He was the voice for health, justice and peace in all matters sacred and secular. He had keen insights into the current situation and future potential for The United Methodist Church in Africa and around the world. His lifelong experience in the church – growing up in mission schools, attending Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, serving as pastor, teacher and missionary—prepared him for outstanding leadership across boundaries.
As I said in a message to his wife Millicent and his five children, John Yambasu was one of the finest human beings I have known. His integrity and courage, his African pride and solidarity with all people were outstanding. I depended on him for wisdom and counsel in matters professional and personal. He helped me to sort out the pros and cons when, in 2009, I was struggling with the decision whether to apply for the position of Global Ministries’ general secretary. He helped me and the Global Ministries’ directors understand and respond to crises and opportunities in many places. He promoted collaborative mission in Africa, notably in response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014 and in development of church land for agricultural productivity. He helped to facilitate United Methodist reconciliation in Burundi in 2018, following a twelve-year schism.
To me, he was colleague, friend and brother. Born on the same day and month in the same year, we often joked that we were twins, only born by different mothers, he in Bo and I in Hamburg. The last time we met in person was when he was in Atlanta for medical treatment early this year. We spent many hours talking about family, Africa and the church.
John Yambasu strongly believed in the unity of the church. While responsible for the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation,” his objective was not to divide but to raise options preserving unity. His last email message to me, on August 6, expressed a powerful African voice:
“All I know, Thomas, is that Africa has already decided to remain United Methodist, and that is who and what we are. No amount of buying over with money or intimidation can change that. Our history as a continent is a history of manipulation and colonialism with its divide-and-rule tactics. We did not only learn this from history books, but we suckled it from our mothers’ breasts. So no one needs to teach us about colonialism. It was brought to Africa from the West. It died and was buried in Africa. It will never resurrect in the Church of Jesus Christ in Africa.”
My last recorded interview with the bishop was in April – the first in a series of interviews on how the church around the world was coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. In concluding that conversation, the bishop pointed toward mission and ministry beyond fear, disease and death.
“Hallelujah for hope,” said Bishop John Yambasu.
Hallelujah for John Yambasu.
Thomas Kemper is the general secretary of Global Ministries.