John K. Yambasu, the West African bishop who brought factions of the United Methodist Church (UMC) together to agree on a plan for their split over homosexuality, died in a car accident outside Freeport, Sierra Leone, over the weekend.
The 63-year-old is remembered as a gentle diplomat in the church and a faithful advocate for Christian education in Africa.
Yambasu, the resident bishop of the Sierra Leone area and president of the United Methodist Africa College of Bishops, “stood like a giant in the worldwide mission of the United Methodist Church,” said Bishop Hee Soo Jung, president of the denomination’s General Board of Global Ministries.
Yambasu organized the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace, a proposal announced in January 2020 and to be voted on in August 2021.
After several stalemates over what to do about the UMC’s decades of division over same-sex marriage and gay clergy, the protocol brought together key leaders from all sides and is expected to be the final chapter in this decades-long battle when the denomination’s legislative body convenes at its postponed conference next year.
Yambasu trusted God as determining the outcome of their prolonged denominational efforts.
“I strongly believe that we don’t own the church, it is God’s church, and God is just using us as instruments of his grace,” he said. “No matter what we do, no matter how much money we spend, no matter what conversations we do, in the final analysis it’s God’s church, and God will lead his church to where he wants his church to be.”
Methodist leaders on both sides of the anticipated split paid tribute to him after the news of his death on Sunday.
Jan Lawrence, executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, which focuses on welcoming the LGBTQ community, said Yambasu “became a friend during our meetings,” and “The United Methodist Church will miss his leadership and his positive energy.”
Keith Boyette, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a group that advocates for a traditional view of marriage and against LGBT clergy, remembered his “wise counsel and gentle spirit.”
The UMC missions agency notes that Yambasu’s calm, uniting presence and diplomatic leadership allowed him to negotiate the end of a 12-year schism within the Burundi church in 2018. He was also instrumental in rallying faith communities from all across Sierra Leone to help prevent the spread of Ebola as it moved across West Africa in 2014–2016.
Born in southern Sierra Leone, Bishop Yambasu received his primary and secondary education at United Methodist mission schools. He earned a bachelor’s in agriculture from Njal University, a passion that continued into his ministry as a bishop as he called for better stewardship of church land in food production.
He received his master’s of theology from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. Last year, he was elected chancellor of Africa University, a Methodist institution in Zimbabwe.
Yambasu pastored churches in Freetown and Moyamba, but ultimately focused on Christian education and youth ministry.
He founded the Child Rescue Center to care for children whose families were left impoverished by more than a decade of civil war. “The dream was to provide hope for many children that were abandoned and languishing on the streets of Sierra Leone during the war. Most were either orphaned or displaced by the civil conflict,” the bishop said in 2017.
While he was known for his recent involvement in debates over sexuality, Yambasu also challenged Methodists to think about their responsibility to also address poverty, illiteracy, and starvation in places like Africa.
“I would only want to appeal to the general church that we pause for a while and rethink our calling as a church,” he said in 2018. “Is that what God has really called us to do, to spend his resources legislating sex? Or has he called us to be on mission to the whole world?”
Yambasu is survived by his wife, Millicent, and their children Rebecca, Adima, John, Emmanuel, and Elizabeth.