As the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe, lockdowns and quarantines intended to prevent the virus from spreading halted travel, leaving many stranded. Among those stuck en route to their destinations were four students from Sierra Leone who were traveling to Japan to participate in the Asian Rural Institute (ARI) Rural Leaders Training Program.

Based in Japan, ARI is a program supported by ELCA Global Mission that trains grassroots leaders to more effectively serve those who are poor, hungry and marginalized in their communities. Training focuses on sustainable agriculture through integrated organic farming techniques, community building and servant leadership. The ELCA provides support to the program through scholarships funded through ELCA World Hunger.

“Many ELCA companion churches are engaged in rural development,” said Y. Franklin Ishida, ELCA area program director for Asia and the Pacific. “ARI offers not only an environment to hone holistic agricultural skills, but even more to build up leadership capacity for persons to return and lead their churches and communities. It’s almost like double the impact as we walk with our companions.”

Due to pandemic travel restrictions, the ARI participants from Sierra Leone found themselves in Ghana, unable to continue to Japan or return home.

“Being stuck in Ghana is an episode I consider to be a challenge,” said John Tucker, one of the students. “We faced it, and by the grace of God we were able to overcome. At first it was a very bad moment, but ARI, being a very caring organization, gave us the opportunity to study in Ghana.”

That opportunity came from John Yeboah, a 2018 ARI graduate who lives in Ghana. He stepped up to offer the students training while they were grounded.

“Our graduate became an important resource in offering them the opportunity to do something rather than remain in a hotel room,” said Manosi Chatterjee Abe, ARI program coordinator for admissions and recruitment. “We did not anticipate the depth of the program that John eventually designed, but this was a great blessing.”

With assistance from ARI staff, Yeboah helped the participants find housing while they studied servant leadership and organic farming with him. He also assisted them as they acclimated to their new surroundings, which sometimes proved challenging due to the pandemic.

“The Yeboah family was such a loving and caring family,” Tucker said. “At one time our neighbors accused us, because we were foreigners, of having the coronavirus. The next moment, we saw immigration and health officers at our door for questioning. We called Mr. Yeboah, and he came immediately to our rescue.”

Yeboah also served as a critical conduit between the students and ARI staff in Japan and elsewhere. “Since all we had was communication by email, it was important to be open to contact and sharing from our side, as well as theirs,” Abe said. “It was also essential to keep receiving and sending feedback. John’s ability to lead the group also shined through during these times.”

Abe credits the students, too, for having a positive attitude and never wavering from their mission of learning, even in the face of adversity. “For the participants, a big part was their ability to adjust to the situation by being open-minded,” she said. “We were also able to have one web presentation, where we connected the Sierra Leone participants and the ARI community on campus. They shared questions and opinions and overall shared their enthusiasm in all that they were learning.

“One key factor of every ARI participant is that they are grounded by their dedication to their community. This allows them to remain focused and motivated and make the best of the situation presented to them.”

The program itself is doing just that as it grapples with the pandemic. Some study trips have been canceled, classes have gone online, and the organization hasn’t admitted as many overseas volunteers and guests. But learning to adapt and remain focused even under difficult circumstances is an integral part of ARI’s mission and training.

“Passing on the ARI training, being resilient and creative in times of crisis, taking initiative, giving hope and practical experience are exactly the goals of ARI,” said Kathy Froede, ecumenical relations for ARI. “Usually it is with their community members. However, this situation has shown it can be done anywhere with anyone.”

For the students from Sierra Leone—who have since returned home—learning that lesson might have been more challenging than anticipated, but it also proved more meaningful.

“Our experience in Ghana, I believe, has equally added to the experience of ARI in this uncertain situation,” Tucker said. “What I admire most is that ARI never moved away from their core value. They fulfilled all their promises to us and were constant as the northern star.”

Jennifer Bringle
Jennifer Bringle is a writer, editor and lifelong Lutheran who lives in Greensboro, N.C., with her husband and young son.  

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