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Photo courtesy of Phileas Jusu

This year’s J2J celebrants cut a birthday cake on June 26 at Bishop Baughman UMC in Freetown.

Photo courtesy of Phileas Jusu

A special feature at the 2016 J2J celebrations at Charles Davies Memorial United Methodist Church was a contest to crown the best school in the country. Worshippers voted with their money and the one with the highest total won. The honor went to Freetown’s Grammar School, Sierra Leone's oldest secondary school.

Photo courtesy of Phileas Jusu

First United Methodist Church in Makeni, northern Sierra Leone, is extending its church building in preparation of hosting the 2017 annual conference. Proceeds from recent birthday celebrations at the church will support the project.

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Birthday parties a gift to the church

By Phileas Jusu
Aug. 25, 2016 | FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (UMNS)

Churches in the Sierra Leone Conference have good reason to celebrate.

Thanks to some healthy competition, annual birthday celebrations are bringing in big money for area churches, with proceeds going toward a variety of church development programs.

Each year, two main groups within the churches compete to outdo one another in giving and promoting church growth. The “J to J Family” (J2J) represents church members born from January to June, while “JASOND Family” represents all members born between July and December (Those months form the acronym JASOND).

Celebrations take place on the last Sunday of June for J2J and the last Sunday in December or first Sunday in January for JASOND. 

“We come together every year to celebrate our birthdays. One reason we celebrate it that big is because everyone thinks he or she is returning thanks to God for a birthday,” said Sylvanette Tawah, J2J music director and lead vocalist at King Memorial United Methodist Church in central Freetown.

“It is also an activity that brings us together. It is an occasion we use to raise huge sums of money for the church. So, we put all our efforts together to make sure that we raise funds that are used for the development of the church.”

Upgrades and expansions

At King Memorial United Methodist Church, which gave birth to the competitive celebrations, proceeds have been used to build a new parsonage for the assistant pastor. More funds are being raised for a church expansion project as the congregation has outgrown its current sanctuary.

After its celebration in January 2015, the JASOND Family donated 200 million Leones (equivalent to $40,000 U.S. dollars at the time) to the church building project — the largest known donation from a birthday group in the conference.

It has become a competitive game with each group wanting to outdo the one before it, said Safea Moiwa, president of J2J at King Memorial.

J2J raised the stakes when they donated 120 million Leone ($24,000 U.S. dollars at the time). “JASOND had no option but to fight hard to beat our record,” Moiwa said.

At its 2016 celebrations in July, J2J raised 100 million Leones ($17,000). Moiwa blames the lower giving on a financially difficult year when inflation in the country is in double digits.

Charles Davies Memorial United Methodist Church in western Freetown has used a significant part of its birthday proceeds to build a new permanent sanctuary.

First United Methodist Church in Makeni, northern Sierra Leone, is using birthday money to expand its church building before hosting the region’s annual conference in 2017.

With the 2015 January to June celebration money, Bishop Baughman United Methodist Church in Brookfields, Freetown, upgraded its public-address system.

A low-key affair no longer

Before the division into two groups more than 10 years ago, birthdays were not well coordinated or celebrated in the church. Those born in a particular month, for instance, would ask for special prayers and the pastor would call them to the altar and pray for them.

Now, birthday celebrations draw mammoth crowds and not only create competitions within individual congregations but also between nearby churches.

Visitors from neighboring churches often observe with rapt attention the birthday fundraising at other churches and return to adjust strategies in their own congregations.

Fun and games

Celebration days are unique with honorees in uniform or special attire. In most churches, the birthday celebrants form the choir, do all the readings, act as stewards, and take part in special fundraising features — often a song or drama during which worshippers are encouraged to support the month in which they were born.

Ministers of state, diplomats, business leaders, clergy and lay from other church denominations also are invited.

Some activities begin in the six months leading to the grand celebrations, Moiwa explained.

“We do a fun sport where the elderly play soccer. We organize dinners. We raised 10 million Leones (about $2,000 U.S.) at our last dinner. We organize a revival in church where family and friends are invited and even members of the (rival) family attend. We all come and revive our souls spiritually.”

Moiwa said the Rev. Sylvanus Chapman, a former pastor-in-charge who now lives in Dallas, came up with the idea of the J2J and JASOND competition after he graduated from United Methodist Africa University in 2005 and returned home to Sierra Leone.

Chapman said in an e-mail that King Memorial “was in turmoil and on the brink of collapse as she lost most of her members to other churches in the city in protest against an episcopal decision that denied them a pastor of their choice after the retirement of their long-serving pastor in 2002.

“We badly needed programs that would hold the congregation together and to assure them of a leadership that was committed to enlivening the church,” he said.

Jusu is director of communications for The United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone. News media contact: Vicki Brown at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.