An African choir dances it way to the front of the church, leading song after song of praise.
A succession of speakers then shares emotional testimonies and vivid remembrances, punctuated by more song, spontaneous dancing and heartfelt prayer.
The service of memorial and thanksgiving lasts more than three hours.
It is the fall of 2021, and the place is the Liberian capital city of Monrovia. Hundreds of mourners are gathered at the Stephen Trowen Nagbe United Methodist Church to honor a deceased Methodist minister, help his daughter grieve her loss and join voices in the sorrow of death in a community celebration of shared faith.
The gathering was a decade in the making.
When she applied for a Passing the Torch renewal leave grant, the Rev. Margaret B. Kartwe was both reaching into the past and laying groundwork for future ministry. She was seeking support for a pilgrimage into grief — to travel to her native West Africa to engage the deeper rituals of mourning North American Christians often don’t experience.
“Grief expressed makes you more beautiful,” Kartwe said. “We learn that grief is open in our (Liberian) culture. When a person dies, we have a mat — a place to sit and cry, to go from and come back to. The community takes care of people coming to grieve. Food, shelter, everything — the community will take care of them. The community sits with them, and they cry together.
“Western culture perceives crying as weakness. But there is a place for this. We learn how to cry. We grieve openly. At the end of the day, we know we are not alone.”
This is true for everyone, Kartwe says, and all people have a story to tell.
“When you leave a culture, you assimilate and leave behind what you knew,” Kartwe said. “But those of us here can learn there are things to continue in grief. Grieving is not personal and private. It involves extended family and community. When you do that, it makes the process a little bit easier.”
This was Kartwe’s goal in renewal. The best way to help grieve is to remember, she said, and the best way to remember is to tell the story.
Kartwe’s father, the Rev. Jacob Nimeju Kartwe, died at a refugee camp in Sierra Leone during Liberia’s civil war, a 14-year conflict that began in 1989 and led to the deaths of nearly 250,000 people.
Because of regional unrest, Kartwe could not attend his burial, and the circumstances of his death remained both a mystery and an emotional pain.
Jacob Kartwe was a leader in the Liberia United Methodist Conference. He was a pastor at Ganta United Methodist Mission Station, which was started in 1926 as a medical mission by missionaries from the United States. His wife, Joanna, was a nurse. Today, the mission includes a hospital, school and church.
Margaret and her three sisters and one brother grew up at the mission. Later, she moved to the capital city of Monrovia.
“My calling to ministry came from seeing missionaries come to Liberia and give of themselves,” Kartwe said. “I wanted to be an educator, but I knew I had to be in the church.”
In 1978, Kartwe travelled to Nashville to attend college. Eventually, in response to what she describes as miracles and the maneuverings of her father — himself a Gammon alumnus — she enrolled in the Interdenominational Theological Center at Atlanta’s Gammon Theological Seminary.
“God is always right,” Kartwe said. “But sometimes we are fooling ourselves. Though I was called to ministry, there were stumbling blocks.”
Even after seminary Kartwe dodged her call. She returned to Nashville, which she calls her comfort zone, and became involved at Brentwood United Methodist Church.
“I learned so much and grew so much there,” Kartwe said. “Everybody said, ‘Stop running, Margaret!’”
Eventually she moved to Florida, where she completed her ordination process, becoming an elder in 2002.
“I’ve been at Norland UMC in Miami for eight years,” she said. “The Lord is speaking to the people. They are doing the best they can.”
It’s been 30 years since her father’s death, yet Kartwe felt a sense of spiritual incompleteness because she hadn’t been able to grieve in the tradition of her native Liberia with her father’s community.
A $10,000 renewal leave grant from the Passing the Torch Fund — a cooperative effort between the Florida United Methodist Foundation and Florida Conference to provide resources to clergy — helped make that possible.
The attention to detail and the ceremony of community grieving is noteworthy. Traditionally, grieving begins at 4:30 a.m., continues with prayer and shared stories, and then moves into singing, dancing and thanksgiving. Evening rituals include prayer and praise, a community meal, and words of testimony and encouragement. Finally, there is more singing and dancing.
“This leave has been in my heart 10 years,” Kartwe said.
The best-laid plans run into challenges, however, and the trip into Liberia’s interior was thwarted by accessibility issues.
“Everything did not happen the way I planned it,” Kartwe said. “But it did happen the way God wanted it to be. Yes, I was able to do everything needed, and God had the villagers come into Monrovia for the ceremony instead.”
Kartwe’s daughter, Eunice, attended the memorial. It was her first time on the continent.
“The experience was very helpful,” Kartwe said. “Just as a baby is presented to the community and belongs to the community, when a person dies, that person — that grief — is still theirs. The community comes together like extended family. We celebrate together the gift that God has given, and we tell a story of the life. All that took place.”
Kartwe says the community surprised her. “They were so grateful to God. I felt surrounded by love,” she said. “He wasn’t just my father, he was everybody’s father, everybody’s mentor. These were all his children, children by influence.”
Renewed and at peace
Kartwe said she was finally able to grieve, but it also gave the community — her extended family —space to grieve and celebrate. It also reminded her no one is alone.
Now, she feels she has returned to Miami “a whole person.”
“This has made me a better person, stronger,” Kartwe said. “There is no excuse but to do what God wants me to do — to love people, to be kind, to go out of my way. My father shared Christ through his actions. I pray I can be who God wants me to be and to love people.”
A member of her church think she already is.
“Just as a baby is presented … and belongs to the community, when a person dies, that person — that grief — is still theirs. The community comes together like extended family.” — Rev. Margaret Kartwe
“One man said, ‘Pastor Margaret, thank you for being strong and remembering your father,’” Kartwe recounted. “‘I know now my daughters will not forget me and forget what I taught them. You as a woman are showing a strong example — that they too can be who God wants you to be.’”
Most challenging about the trip, Katwe said, was the excursion into Sierra Leone. She had a hard time finding her father’s grave.
“But this is how the Spirit works,” she said.
Eventually, in Freetown, they found a rusty gate bordering an unkempt cemetery. After searching and scraping and moving debris, she and others found her father’s grave and were able to learn more about the accident that led to his death.
“We cleaned it all up,” Kartwe said. “That was when I broke down and started to cry. If it wasn’t for that grant … . I am so grateful.”