Denver man’s school in Liberia on hold till Ebola threat fades

Julie Filby

Growing up in the African country of Liberia, Ebenezer Siefa Norman saw a need for change. He saw women mistreated and abused, and recognized that too many people, women in particular, were not educated.

“Women were treated so poorly,” Norman, 33, told the Denver Catholic Register. “They didn’t believe they could do anything better. My goal is to change that mentality.”

He wanted to leave Liberia, he said, get an education, then go back and “start a movement.”

That movement began in 2010, for the Christian man living in Denver, when he started A New Dimension of Hope. Norman’s nonprofit was established to address the issues of poverty and illiteracy through education. Specifically, he has been working to open a school in Troyah, one of the country’s poorest towns. However, that project was halted when Ebola broke out in western Africa. The outbreak is the largest and most complex Ebola epidemic since the virus was first discovered in 1976, according to the World Health Organization.

“God put this big dream on my heart. I’m just a vessel,” said Norman. “Now I have to trust in him and he will give me the details.”

Norman, the eighth of nine children, left Liberia in 2000 and came to the United States where he played soccer for the University of St. Mary in Bismarck, N.D. He moved to Denver six years ago, where he continued his education at Regis University, graduated in 2012 and is now studying for a master’s degree. He plans to attend law school next year.

In the four years since he launched A New Dimension of Hope, he has raised the funds needed, approximately $25,000, to open a school. The building for 350 students was built, teachers and funding were in place, and the school was set to open last August when Ebola hit.

His home country has been the hardest hit so far, recording nearly 3,000 confirmed, probable and suspected Ebola deaths since the outbreak per WHO figures.

Norman hasn’t visited Africa since the outbreak. But prior to that, he traveled to Troyah many times. Until the threat diminishes, opening the school is on indefinite hold. While it has proven to be an obstacle, he feels confident it is one that will be overcome.

“There is hope and I believe it will get better,” he said. “It will come together.”

A Nov. 24 report indicated that efforts to fight Ebola in Liberia were improving. U.S Army Brigadier Gen. Frank Tate, deputy commanding general of U.S. Operation United Assistance, told Reuters news service that daily cases had fallen to around 20 from close to 80 in September.

“It’s a dramatic improvement,” Tate said.

In the meantime, Norman continues to trust in what he believes is God’s plan for the school, and to raise money for the venture through fundraisers and speaking engagements.

“It’s what God created me for,” he said. “Someone has to stand up. Maybe I can inspire a little girl to take up the cause. Maybe she will inspire three more, and it will grow.”

For more information on A New Dimension of Hope, visit Mailing address: 5755 Danube St., Denver CO 80249.

COMING UP: Radical living and my friend Shelly

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

I saw my friend Shelly the other day, for the first time in 28 years.

Back in the day, she was Shelly Pennefather, basketball phenomenon. She led Denver’s Bishop Machebeuf High School’s women’s basketball team to three undefeated seasons, a 70-0 record. In her senior year, her family moved to Utica, New York, where she led the Notre Dame High School team to a 26-0 season, giving her a no loss record for her entire high school career. She remains Villanova University’s all-time scorer — men’s and women’s — with a career total of 2408 points.  She also holds the women’s rebound record, at 1171. She is a three-time Big East Player of the Year, the first All-American out of the Big East, the 1987 National Player of the Year, and a winner of the prestigious Wade Trophy. She’s been inducted into the Philadelphia Women’s Big Five Hall of Fame, and Villanova has retired her jersey. After college, she played professional women’s basketball in Japan. She was making more money than anybody I knew.

She doesn’t go by Shelly anymore. These days, she is Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. She lives in the Poor Clares Monastery in Alexandria, Virginia. She joined their community in 1991 and took her final vows in 1997. They are cloistered, which means that they don’t leave the monastery, except for medical emergencies. Her only contact with the outside world is through letters, and very limited visits with family and friends. She’s never used the internet, doesn’t know what Facebook is, and when she saw a visitor answer a cell phone, she asked “What is that?”

Why? Why on God’s earth would a basketball star of this magnitude just walk away from the game and the fame, or go from being one of the world’s highest paid women’s basketball players to taking a vow of perpetual poverty? Why would an attractive, funny, vivacious 25-year-old woman renounce marriage and family to lock herself up in a monastery? Why would a loving daughter and sister embrace a religious discipline wherein she could only see her family — through a screen —a few times a year, and hug them only once every 25 years? Why would anybody voluntarily live a life in which they could own nothing, sleep no more than four hours at a time (on a straw mat), eat no more than one full meal a day, and use telephones, TV, radio, internet and newspapers — well, never?

It all boils down to this: We’re all gonna die. And when we do, all of the money and the prestige and the accomplishments and the basketball awards are going to fall away. All that will be left is us and God. If we play our cards right, we will spend eternity beholding his face and praising him. And, as St. Augustine says, that is where our truest happiness lies — in this life as well as in the next: “Our hearts were made for Thee, O Lord, and will not rest until they rest in Thee.”

Cloistered sisters like the Poor Clares make the radical choice to live that way now — to begin their eternal life here on earth. As religious sisters, they are brides of Christ, and they focus their lives entirely on their bridegroom, without the distractions of all the stuff that’s going to fall away after death anyway. They spend their lives primarily in prayer — praying for you and for me and for this entire mixed up world and in deepening their own relationship with Christ.

This, it goes without saying, is a radical way to live. It is not for everyone, or even for most people. It is a free choice on the part of the sisters. But they do not take the initiative. God himself is the initiator. He calls them to this life, and they freely respond. Sister Rose Marie herself told her coach that this was not the life she would have chosen for herself, but it was very clear to her that it was the life God was calling her to.

I finally got to see Sister Rose Marie last weekend, as she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her solemn vows. I had the privilege of witnessing the once-every-25-year-hugs she gave her family. I spoke to her briefly, from behind the screen. She was always a cheerful person. But I saw a joy and a radiance in her that day that I have rarely seen ever, in anyone. It was beautiful.

The great gift these sisters give to us, aside from their prayers, is that they remind us that this life, and all its pleasures and distractions, will not last forever. And their dedication and their joy give us a small glimpse into the joy that is in store for us, if we can only imitate in some small way their singular focus on their Bridegroom.

Pray for them. And pray for the grace to do what they do — to rise above the distractions of this world and look toward the life that never ends.