Let Your Light Shine

The groundwork for her future occurred several decades before her birth by a man she never met. In 1925, American Methodist missionary and physician Dr. George Way Harley began working in Ganta, Liberia. He established a new hospital, dispensary, church, school, and several residences. Ganta United Methodist School, a free public school, offered Kindergarten through 6th grade only. Gertrude Kehleay regularly attended that school as well as the Ganta United Methodist Church.

Although born into a large poor family, Gertrude’s father encouraged her to achieve. He observed vast differences between the lives of his own siblings — those with education and those without. He resolved, “My children will have the best thing in the world — an education.” Gertrude describes him as a strict and loving father, but in consideration of his high hopes for his children, she worked hard.

A missionary couple, Mr. and Mrs. Crow (now deceased) who worked for and attended the church, fell in love with Gertrude. They invited her to their home for lunch and offered to pay for her tuition, books and clothing from 7th through 12th grades. She ran home and told her amazed dad. Gertrude says, “Everything I prayed for came true.”

From 7th through 9th grades, Gertrude attended the Ganta United Methodist Mission School, a tuition based school. For high school she boarded at the Zorzor Rural Teacher Training Institute located in northern Liberia. Along with the college-prep curricula, she received teacher training. Following graduation, Gertrude returned to Ganta and taught for four years in a Kindergarten to 3rd grade public school.

Next, she took another teaching position in a self-contained iron ore mining company town owned by the Liberian-American-Swedish Minerals Company (LAMCO). It consisted of a bank, supermarket, and school. Gertrude describes it as “a life journey and a faith journey.”

While in Ganta, she met, dated and married. Her husband immigrated to the US first and after saving funds for two years, she followed. Together they had one son and one daughter, but divorced after 18 years.

Determined to be independent, Gertrude got an Associate Degree in Early Childhood Education from Essex County College and student taught in Newark, New Jersey. However, based on her accent, which proved to be a barrier, and greatly differing methods of discipline between Liberia and the US, she set her focus on other careers.

While raising two children on her own, Gertrude worked full-time and attended college part-time, paying her own tuition. After obtaining a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Psychology from Kean College in 1997, she affirms, “I was determined to earn a four-year degree.”

One Sunday while attending Calvary-Roseville United Methodist Church (now R.I.S.E. Church), in East Orange she heard an announcement that piqued her interest. A representative from United Methodist Communities’ Home Office came to recruit. After reviewing the job description, Gertrude applied for the open position, and prayed. Following a train journey to Asbury Park and car ride to the Home Office, where she was interviewed, she waited.

The Weleyan Kehleay BHM
At The Wesleyan’s annual Black History Month celebration, Gertrude (center) greets Lawrence Johnson, III (right), member of the community’s governing board, 9 Wall Street Corporation, and his wife, Terita (left).

As a lover of working with people, Gertrude felt the job would be a perfect fit. Despite her belief that many others had also applied, in her heart, she knew an offer would materialize. Sure enough, about three weeks later, the phone rang and a voice asked, “Would you like to start the job?” She answered, “Yes,” and thanked God. 

To get oriented, Gertrude trained at the Home Office with Margaret Barton, who ironically spent time as a missionary in Liberia. In October 1989, Gertrude became the housing administrator at Bishop Taylor in East Orange and remained there until 1998.

Then Gertrude completed training in Red Bank in preparation for The Wesleyan’s opening. While under construction, Gertrude helped people complete applications for residency, as HUD requires full occupancy within 60 days of opening. She had an office in the Red Bank United Methodist Church, one of the two sponsoring churches and traveled from Newark to Red Bank about three days per week until it opened.

Further training at the Newark HUD office focused on the paperwork requirements. Besides learning calculations, regulations and technical information, she made many friends. She became the housing administrator at The Wesleyan and has worked for UMC for over 29 years. Gertrude treats others as she wants to be treated and acknowledges that UMC has been a good partner.

In the spirit of “paying it forward” Gertrude paid a younger sister’s nursing school tuition in Liberia — and still sends money to relatives there, including funds saved throughout the year and given at Christmastime. She happily sacrifices for others and compares it to the Lord’s sacrifice.

She is a member of several organizations which do charitable work in Liberia, including the Ganta United Methodist School Alumni Association, which works to provide funds, books, and school supplies for its students. According to Gertrude, “These vital funds help with everything imaginable.”

Gertrude realized her dream of homeownership six years ago. She met the criteria for and enrolled in a first time homebuyers’ class, hired a realtor, viewed lots of houses, chose and bid on one. Coincidentally, the realtor, a Christian, shared that his mother lived on a United Methodist Communities’ campus and her closing lawyer was a former Catholic priest. All the pieces fit together, leading not only to a sale at a reduced cost, but also a low interest rate. “My whole life has been orchestrated by God and I pray it pleases him,” Gertrude humbly reflects.

An additional blessing arrived in 2017 — a grandson. Gertrude says, “I thank God for everything. Let your light shine so people will see what He has done. God always answers prayers.”