Courage to Lead in Sierra Leone

By Kerry Kind Photos by Kory Pence

God wants me to be there. If we die, we die. Rev. Usman Fornah first began his ministry under extreme persecution in Sierra Leone.

REV. USMAN FORNAH was one of the younger pastors in the Makeni area when the rebel army reached the city. The Revolutionary United Front (R.U.F.) had the reputation for ruthlessly terrorizing people in areas they occupied, so Rev. Fornah felt he had no choice but to flee into the African “bush” with his family. For five days they hid in a remote location more than ten miles distant. But there was no safe location. After prayer, the Fornahs felt led to return to the city.

My people are there, and they need me. God wants me to be there. If we die, we die.

Rev. Usman Fornah

Instead of hiding, Rev. Fornah began to move around the city to visit his members and encourage them. Several times he was arrested by the rebel soldiers. He was beaten mercilessly, and only God’s grace saved him from mutilation and death suffered by others.

On one occasion, Rev. Fornah heard that the rebels had arrested seven high school boys. The word came that the rebel leader, nicknamed Superman, had ordered the innocent boys to be executed. Rev. Fornah knew the families, and although they were not members of his church, he knew he could not stand idly by. He prayed, then marched to the rebel headquarters and asked for Superman.

He walked through the gates of the compound so boldly that the young rebel soldiers must have thought he was one of their own officers, and he was not even questioned. The same thing happened when he entered the large house where Superman ran his operations. Before he knew it, Rev. Fornah found himself in the presence of the terrible, ruthless man who had absolute power locally. The sadistic commander was surprised, though, and allowed Usman to speak.

Rev. Fornah explained that he was a minister of God and came to speak on behalf of the seven boys. He advised the commander not to make God or the population of Makeni angry by killing the innocent boys. Rev. Fornah knew there was a chance he would be executed along with them. But God had another plan. During the conversation, something that was said caused Superman to reconsider, and Rev. Fornah left the compound taking the seven boys with him. From that day forward, Rev. Fornah spoke openly and publicly all over Makeni and was never beaten or harmed again. He spoke like a biblical prophet, condemning the evil that he saw and calling townspeople and rebels alike to God. Even rebels began attending services.

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Makeni is home to a Catholic cathedral. But no priest remained and the people were without a shepherd. During the rebel occupancy, Rev. Fornah met with the Catholics and offered to come very early every Sunday morning. He would preach God’s Word there just to keep the flock together and encourage and feed them. So all of the Catholics came to the cathedral each Sunday and it was always filled to overflowing.

The Catholic bishop returned to Makeni after the war and discovered all Rev. Fornah had done. He was so grateful that he took Rev. Fornah to the Vatican in Rome where he met and was blessed by Pope John Paul II. In addition, Rev. Fornah preached in Catholic churches all over Italy.

When asked how he summoned the courage to risk his life over and over again for the gospel during the war, Rev. Fornah simply says, “I was not myself. No one ever thinks they could do something like that. I didn’t either. But when placed in that situation, when you pray, God just takes over and you act in obedience to God, knowing that you are in his hands whether you live or die.”

The Rev. Dr. Usman Fornah, as he is now known, is the most prominent Wesleyan minister in Sierra Leone today because he is the current national superintendent. But remarkably, his commitment and courage are not totally unique among our church leaders there. Desperate times have provided the context for greatness in godly leaders over and over again.

REV. JOSEPH Y. KONTEH is another such leader. In fact, the Rev. Dr. Usman Fornah looks up to Joseph as the pastor who discipled him and mentored him when he first converted from Islam as a teenager. Rev. Konteh also served as national superintendent, immediately preceding Dr. Fornah.


Rev. Joseph Konteh

According to Rev. Warren Fornah [no relation], no Wesleyan leader in Freetown did more to encourage the Western Area pastors during the eleven-year war than Joseph Konteh. “Joseph said, ‘Preach! Serve! Be Faithful! As I am!’ And he was very motivating and comforting to all of us pastors.”

During the war, and immediately after the war, the church was under threat. Rev. Konteh united the church. He is known as a deeply spiritual, humble leader, trusted by everyone. A pastor-leader, Rev. Konteh invests in people and leadership development more than projects. He is gifted at bringing peace through conflict resolution. At a time when great divisions threatened, he brought peace. His experience and trust were sought beyond The Wesleyan Church. During the same era, he helped chair and guide meetings for the United Brethren in Christ and the Missionary Church denominations. Today, many say that no more godly leader has led our church there.


Rev. Solomon and Binti Sesay

All of the church leaders mentioned here have outstanding Christian wives with leadership ministries of their own. But REVEREND SOLOMON AND BINTI SESAY are a special ministerial couple: both are ordained and both are senior pastors of churches about three miles apart in Freetown. Solomon pastors Kissy Grassfields, one of the largest churches in the country. Binti pastors Kissy Dockyards, where the President of Sierra Leone is a member and worships.

Rev. Binti for eleven years led the World Hope International micro-enterprise program in Sierra Leone. During that time, she organized the Lookingtown Wesleyan Church and has also pastored the Goderich Wesleyan Church and was district director of Wesleyan Women. She has a humble, sweet personality, but does not hesitate when it comes to preaching God’s Word with conviction and power. When asked what gives her the courage to lead in a patriarchal culture, she said, “When it comes to leading, God helps me so much. I can actually feel his pleasure in me, and I know I am in the right place and on course.”

Binti’s husband, Rev. Solomon Sesay, was eager for advanced theological training early in his career, but the needs of the church came first. According to others, he served in difficult, but important, assignments for nearly twenty years, solving huge problems and serving troubled churches with persistence, patience, prayer, and totally surrendered leadership. His close friend, Rev. S. D. Kanu, was national superintendent during part of that time, but he never asked him to be re-assigned or to be sent for advanced training. God had given Solomon a vision that his time would come. Indeed it has, for he now holds the Th.M. degree from Trinity Seminary in Accra, Ghana, so he can follow his passion and teach at TECT (The Evangelical College of Theology) in addition to his pastoral duties.

Solomon also served six years as the full-time national director of evangelism. He hesitated to accept the somewhat undefined role at first. Also it was during the war, and there were dangers. But he prayed, and the Lord gave him a vision which guided his decision. His vision was of Jesus saying, “Go, I am with you!” During Solomon’s time in that office, they began the JESUS film ministry with the help of Global Partners, recruited students, trained the teams, and in three years planted seventeen new churches.

The JESUS film ministry has soared to new heights under leadership of Rev. Warren Fornah.

In more recent years the JESUS film ministry has soared to new heights under the extraordinary leadership of REV. WARREN FORNAH. Rev. Fornah was already an experienced church planter, having planted the Brookfields Wesleyan Church and Ginger Hall Wesleyan Church. prior to taking over the position of national director of evangelism from Solomon. During the war, while many around him fled to Guinea for safety, he stayed and braved the dangers of rebel occupied Freetown to hold the church together and minister to traumatized families. It was during that same time that National Superintendent Rev. Y. M. Kroma was assassinated by the rebels in Freetown. Warren had 25-30 people whose homes had burned staying with him in his two-room apartment for many months at a time, with little food, and anarchy outside their doors.

Today Warren keeps at least two full-time teams fully trained, equipped, and operational for showing the JESUS film. He is passionate and directly involved in going into new, Muslim-dominated areas and seeing new churches planted. He is constantly amazed and touched by the power of the film to begin the process of transforming hearts and lives. In a recent, typical three-month period, a team in a Muslim area showed the film to over three thousand viewers and had seven hundred people come forward for counseling, prayer, and decisions. Warren has had other tempting life opportunities cross his path, but he is convinced he is exactly where God wants him right now—and he is so grateful to see the lives made new and the expansion of the church. Christian courage is given deeper meaning for us, modeled by friends and leaders such as these!