President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf captured headlines around the world as the first elected female President of an African country and now one of the most powerful political leaders on the continent in recent history. But there is another Liberian female who is trailblazing in the global religious community.
She is the Rev. Dr. Katurah York Cooper, one of Liberia’s most powerful and influential preachers and an internationally acclaimed speaker and lecturer. Dr. Cooper could be on the verge of becoming the first African female bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church—an ambitious dream which she has been harboring for the past four years, though her quest for a bigger role in the church of Christ has been there since she was a child.
Speaking in an exclusive interview with the Daily Observer last week, Dr. Cooper, founder and pastor of the Empowerment Temple A. M. E. Church and also Vice President for Academic Affairs of the AME University, said she will be contesting the bishopric in the church’s forthcoming 50th General Conference, due to take place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of America, where six new bishops will be elected by delegates. The Conference will be held from July 6 thru 10, 2016, during the AME Church’s 200th anniversary celebration.
In more than 150 years of its mission in Africa the AME church has never had a female candidate from Africa or the Caribbean contesting for the post. Dr. Cooper is convinced that she has the requisite experience and academic credentials to turn a new page in the history of the AME church.
“I have a lot of water under the bridge. Experience matters a lot in leadership and I think I’m indeed prepared for this task,” she told this newspaper.
In the AME Church, only an itinerant elder with the requisite qualifications can contest for the post of bishop, although he or she has to go through thorough vetting to be eligible.
“Several candidates came out, not only from Africa, but around the globe. I think that for Africa—East, West and South—we were six to seven candidates, but only I and another candidate from East Africa were certified to contest.”
Prior to that, Dr. Cooper was unanimously endorsed at a caucus meeting by the seven countries of the 14th Episcopal District in West Africa—this being the first time for an endorsed candidate to contest from the region.
The current bishop of AME’s 14th Episcopal District is Dr. Clement W. Fugh. He is the 136th consecrated bishop sent here to take charge of the district.
The AME church hosts a general conference every four years when thousands of delegates meet to review the activities of the church and make major decisions. At these conferences, the delegates elect bishops to be assigned in the various districts of the 41 countries in which the church operates.
“Bishops are elected for life and there are 21 bishops globally, but every conference year, a certain number of bishops are elected based on the number of bishops that have reached retirement age and had been duly retired. For this conference year, we will be electing six new bishops,” Dr. Cooper said, adding, “Sometimes the newly elected bishops are assigned to their districts, but you can also be sent elsewhere.”
Dr. Cooper said she declared her intention to contest for bishop in November 2012. “I have been telling them my story, making myself available and I have sought for fulfilment of the qualifications required of candidates and was successfully accredited to contest for the office of bishop,” she intimated. “I believe that for such a high spiritual office, one’s preparation (should have) started a long time ago. It starts out with God shaping and molding you in preparation for that position.”
After pursuing a teaching career for many years, Dr. Cooper entered into the holy ministry in 1995 while in exile in the US, where she was ordained an itinerant elder in the Baltimore Annual Conference. It was at that time that she preached her first sermon and began her training in ministry. “I later enter into theological seminary and obtained my second Master’s because my first Master was in Biology, which I have been teaching for years at Monrovia College and at the University of Liberia,” she explained.
Katurah York Cooper is a 1975 graduate of the UL, majoring in Biology, and a 1978 graduate of New York University, where she obtained her Master of Science (MSc) degree in Biology. She recalled that her ordination as an itinerant elder marked the actual beginning of her life as a pastor.
“My preparation for ministry, even though crystallized by being ordained, started a long time ago as a youth leader in the church into which I was born, the ninth of 11 children and the seventh daughter of my parents, James L. and Louise C. York. My preparation also began with my involvement with the Women’s Missionary Society of the AME Church on Camp Johnson Road, Monrovia,” she recalled, adding that the nurturing that she received from her parents had a greater influence in shaping her life.
“I felt myself called to Christianity at an early age and I thank God for the nurturing of my parents who guided me into my spiritual formation,” she said.
Dr. Cooper told the Daily Observer that the news of her intent has been warmly received by AMEs globally, especially her brethren in her district and other districts in Africa.
“Even though it is a spiritual leadership position, it yet comes through elections so the will of the people comes into play. So as much as we know and pray depending on God, knowing that this is a high spiritual position with greater responsibilities that we are aspiring to, we also have to let people know who we are.”
As a result, she indicated that since 2012 she has been travelling among AME churches globally, visiting conferences and conventions and sharing her vision with the people. “I have been letting my fellow AMEs know who I am, what I have done, what I’m doing and what I’m capable of doing. It has indeed been a very hectic four years since the declaration of my intent,” she acknowledged.
Dr. Cooper is highly optimistic that with the level of interactions she has had with her colleagues, she stands a better chance of being elected in July.
“I believe my chances are very good. I believe this because first of all, within your heart and spirit, seek God’s face through sincere prayers, which I have been doing. I am now settled in my spirit and believe God has spoken for me to move forward.”
Dr. Cooper further indicated that she has prepared herself over the years for this position spiritually, educationally, emotionally and psychologically, or in whatever manner the position requires.
“As much as I believe that God has spoken, I have also prepared myself for this over the years. I went back to school and obtained my doctorate in ministry from the Ashbury Theological Seminary in the USA.”
She believes that with her experience and education, she can offer the best to her parishioners, her denomination and the Christian community at large.
Campaigning for a New Kind of Christianity, Dr. Cooper set to take a Vision Global
Dr. Cooper is also a visionary Christian leader who transformed a 16-member Empowerment Temple A. M. E Church, that once worshipped in a tiny bank lobby in downtown Monrovia, to a seven hundred plus membership now worshiping in a US$800K multi-complex building with a capacity for over one thousand. Many of the church members are young people.
She believes in the holistic ministry, which promotes saving the souls of the individuals and as well as lifting them out of poverty and ignorance. “The ministry that God has given us is founded on the holistic approach to the salvation of the souls. As much as you saved the soul of the person, you must also save them from poverty, ignorance, disease and other vices.
“Though we minister to the people to spiritually enable them to develop a relationship with Christ, yet at the same time they need good education, good food and a healthy environment in which to live.”
As a result, she has initiated educational and economic empowerment programs at her church that currently benefits several hundred children and young people. She started the Jamal Bryant elementary school in 2009, and began an economic empowerment program known as the Empowerment Young Entrepreneurs Ministry (EYEM), which targeted the youth, giving them seed money to enable them to reestablish their lives after the war.
“Many of my members are young people and they needed helping hands; so we successfully did that years back and we are set to resume shortly.
“This is the kind of vision that we believe should be extended beyond our church into a more global setting.” This is how Madam York Cooper sees her vision for the Bishopric post.
“Whatever we do wherever we might be assigned upon our election we must not only preach the Gospel, but must make sure that we have programs and ministries that lift the people up.” She termed this perspective of Christianity as socioeconomic Gospel.
Dr. Cooper considered herself an advocate who comes out with innovative and new ideas of solving problems and creating systems that bring improvement to the individual, the community and the country at large.
Both of Dr. Cooper’s parents are deceased. Her father was one of the few successful Liberian businessmen; and her mother, whose footsteps she followed initially, was a renowned educator. Mrs. Louise York served as teacher and principal at Monrovia College (MC) and also taught for many years at UL, and was founding president of the AMEU.
“My father was a very hard working man. He was one of the few Liberian businessmen who were competing with the Lebanese at Waterside, the nation’s largest commercial district at the time. He traded in imported dry goods such as shoes, clothes and others.
“My mother taught physics for several years at UL before becoming the first female president of MC, and before establishing AME University as its first president,” Dr. Cooper said. The first African female candidate also found herself in education at the tender age of
20, beginning her teaching career at MC.
“I think I followed in my mother’s footsteps when I started teaching the sciences, particularly biology and chemistry at MC at the age of 20. I later taught at UL for several years before the civil crisis.” She is in a 36 year marriage to Dr. James S. P. Cooper, former President of the Liberia Bank for Development and Investment. The marriage has been blessed with 10 children, both natural born and adopted.
Ellen as an Inspiration
Dr. Cooper acknowledged that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf serves as a huge inspiration in her quest for the bishopric.
“The fact that Madam Sirleaf is the first elected female president in Africa has a major impact on how the world sees African women, especially Liberian women. People are actually going to say ‘Oh! Dr. Cooper is from that country where the President is a woman,” she noted, “but at the same time, you need to know that as a female you need to have the credentials.”
“So I can sit and say ‘Oh! I’m a female and the President is a female, so automatically I need to be in that position, but that needs to be backed up with your ability and proven leadership skills, your credentials and whether you have made the requisite sacrifices to prepare yourself. Leadership is too important for people to just get into it without going through the trenches. You have to be prepared because it is incumbent upon you to craft a vision that will take the people somewhere.
“So yes, Madam Sirleaf is an inspiration and I’m happy that we have a homegrown example that we can look up to. And I hope that as the delegates will be examining my credentials, they will say, ‘this is coming from Liberia, the country of EJS (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf).”