Archive - October, 2005

Finding Hope in These Days

Malaria–The Preventable Scourge

Every thirty seconds malaria takes the life
of a child around the world. Seven of nine deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa.
The tragedy is compounded by a stark reality–malaria is preventable. These
deaths are not beyond our ability to prevent them.

Every thirty seconds malaria takes the life of a child someplace in the world. Seven of nine deaths occur in Africa. The tragedy is compounded by a stark reality–malaria is preventable. These deaths need not occur. We have the ability to prevent death by malaria. We have the ability to eradicate malaria.

The Time Global Health Summit, funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is addressing this harsh reality and looking at solutions. It’s a worthy and hopeful summit bringing together community-based organizers, health specialists, politicians and other leaders, and non-governmental organizations to share information about prevention and treatment.

On the first day of the Summit, The United Methodist Church is announcing a community-based pilot program to be implemented in Sierra Leone beginning Dec. 5. The pilot will be replicated in Liberia, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, Angola and Zimbabwe as funding becomes available.

A key component of the community-based program is providing health information to people in cities and towns within reach of radio. Radio is a key medium for distributing information people can use to improve their quality of life.

In partnership with The Sierra Leone Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, the health program will be implemented by the Health and Welfare Unit of the General Board of Global Ministries. The community-based radio infrastructure will be implemented by United Methodist Communications.

An important part of interpreting the reality of malaria’s toll is to inform people in the developed world how they can help in this life-saving effort. Assisting in the purchase of bed nets, radios and medicines are among the ways we can help. In addition, medical professionals and others can volunteer to staff clinics and prevention programs when the time is right.

Malaria is not a complex public health issue. It is a relatively simple disease to prevent through mosquito control, protection and treatment. The technologies are available and well-tested. Bed nets treated with mosquito repellant are effective and affordable. Medications are formulated and effective. Information is available and can be disseminated with relative ease.

The United Methodist Church has infrastructure in place. The church has been in Africa for 105 years and has functioning hospitals and health clinics situated across the continent. United Methodist congregations in Africa are among the fastest growing in the denomination. Beyond the health infrastructure, these churches are also located in cities and villages throughout the continent and they represent an invaluable infrastructure that can be mobilized to end the suffering and death.

Malaria is a health problem that can be addressed. Progress can be measured in the most important metric available–the saving of human lives. We can put an end to the scourge of malaria in Africa and Asia, as surely as malaria is contained and controlled in the developed world. It’s a matter of will, resources and commitment. The Time Global Health Summit will identify the means and the capacity of the world to bring life to children who otherwise face unnecessary infection and death. Let’s hope it awakens the world, the church and people of good will everywhere to malaria, the preventable scourge.

General Secretary R. Randy Day, General Board of Global Ministries, Bishop Jao Soame Machado, leader of the Mozambique Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, Dr. Cherian Thomas, director of the Health and Welfare Unit of the GBGM, and I will attend the Summit.
I intend to blog from the Time Global Health Summit over the next four days.

A Melancholy Moment

Driving into New York this evening led to a
melancholy moment that caught me unexpectedly.

As I rode the cab ride in from LaGuardia this evening I experienced unexpected feelings of melancholy. A clear Fall night in Manhattan is a real gift. The air is warm but cool enough for shirtsleeves. The light slices differently at this time of year illuminating profiles of buildings in a way it doesn’t reveal in other seasons. The orange glow of sunset gives a softness to the city’s skyline that is warmer and more compassionate than in any other season.

Having worked in the city for more than a decade in the past, I’ve enjoyed the cycles of change that mark the island and its surroundings. But the melancholy was the result of what I won’t see as I attend the Time Summit on Global Health.

I won’t see some colleagues with whom in the past I worked to change conditions that keep people in many parts of the world in abject poverty, colleagues who shared a commitment to a better world and who refused to accept that the way the world is today is the way it must be. They believed life can be better; especially for those who live at the edge of survival and who struggle everyday just to get through. They believed we who are twice blessed, and more, have a responsibility to work in partnership with those who by accident of birth live in places where poverty and disease drain the human spirit of energy, health and well-being.

Dick died of cancer. Steve, of complications from AIDS. Al, of an aneurysm. Ron, of cancer.
Each in his own way stood for peace and justice, worked for economic development for the poor and for better health care for all, put his life on the line literally by going into situations in the United States and around the globe where violence was destroying lives. I miss them. I miss their courage, their commitment, their embodiment of values that are necessary for us to preserve our humanity. They called us to our best. They opened their arms and included people into the conversation about a more humane future, so different than the conversation we’re hearing today, a conversation that excludes and condemns and closes out options for humanity.

There is so much talk today that instills fear, demonizes others and excludes. These friends I remember embraced possibilities and stood for a world quite different from this. I thought of them as the night approached and I felt glad to have known them and to be influenced by their lives. I felt a measure of sadness that as we meet to consider how to end the scourge of malaria, I will not be able to talk with them and make plans. But I know that they would be encouraged to hear that others are taking up this cause. They would be excited to hear that Bill and Melinda Gates have pledged $230 million dollars to the fight against malaria. (We never had an announcement of that kind of generosity at any of the meetings we attended.)

And on a day when the news brings more reason for sadness, when the institutions of our society embody injustice and exclusion, there is a measure of hope that some are saying the world need not be this way. Healing is possible. Prevention of death-dealing disease is a priority. Humanity deserves better than neglect, exclusion and death.

In this, I place great hope.

Out of Control Budget Processes

I like the conference treasurers I know. I
think they are good, responsible people. I don’t think they are communicators,
and some don’t seem to be, how shall I put it, politically
astute.

I read with a bit of shock a memo from a conference treasurer announcing the passage of a resolution by the treasurer’s association calling for reform of the General Church budgeting process.

The resolution calls for a process that would create a unified budget and take it to General Conference to be voted up or down. At General Conference the process would not allow items to be added. The memo explaining this action by the treasurers says “the budget process is out of control”

As one charged with marketing the funds and offerings approved by General Conference and raising funds for the general budget of the church, I must say to the treasurers. Friends, your motives are good and pure. Your communication, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Here’s why.

The budget process at General Conference is messy, confusing, difficult and frustrating. But, out of control. No. Some people came to the last General Conference with a percentage increase for the total budget that was their target. They dominated the process. It was very unfortunate because they left a lot of hurt in their wake. They were viewed by some as bullies and by others and heroes. Whether intended or not, this debate fed an anti-institutioinal bias that is rampant in the church and that is truly unfortunate because it diminishes our understanding of our common mission and ministry. This saddens me because The United Methodist Church is the one institution that has given me hope for a reconciling and healing community over a lifetime disappointment with other institutions.

Rebuilding After Katrina

The United Methodist Church is calling for
rebuilding after Katrina to be done through conversation around a table that
includes everyone who is concerned.

The United Methodist Church is calling for rebuilding after Katrina to be done through conversation around a table that includes everyone who is concerned. The text of the paid commentary follows:


In Rebuilding, Set a Place at Table for All

As the humanitarian crises caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita gradually slip off the evening news and front pages of our newspapers, the hard work of rebuilding communities is just beginning.

Following the catastrophic losses of these tragedies, people came together in remarkable ways, showing concern, compassion and generosity in very concrete ways. Across the country, people banded together and lived the biblical call to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We all learned that communities are not just places where we live and work, communities are the people who make those places unique.

We pray that this renewed understanding of community will inspire the rebuilding of the devastated areas. In order to rebuild a community, not just a city or town, it is crucial that those people who live there have a voice in the reconstruction. And it’s equally important that local companies share in the work and local residents are hired to do the labor, and are included in the planning.

Restoring communities also means encouraging and respecting all the voices of the community. By supporting equal access to housing, education, employment and medical, care, rebuilt communities will be even stronger than before.

By incorporating local residents and business in the rebuilding process and laying a foundation of respect and equality, communities will not only be renewed, but the efforts to reach their reconstruction goals will also enhance human values, encourage personal and political involvement and open neighborhoods to people of all races, ages and income levels.

In the aftermath of the hurricanes, the outpouring of support was compassionate, fair and inclusive. and it is with these values that communities will be rebuilt.

The people of The United Methodist Church. Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.

Contributions to hurricane relief may be made at www.MethodistRelief.org . One hundred percent of donations made through The United Methodist Church on behalf of communities damaged by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita will be used in the rebuilding effort. To obtain more information and add your voice, visit www.umc-gbcs.org/afterthestorm .

United Methodists and Gays

In a New York Times article under the byline
of Neela Banerjee, the debate about gay and lesbian ordination and the
disciplining of a pastor in Virginia for refusing a gay man membership in a
local congregation is reviewed.

A New York Times article by Neela Banerjee this morning presents a balanced review of the discussion occurring within The United Methodist Church about the ordination of gays and lesbians.

Two days ago Bishop Scott Jones of the Kansas Area spoke cogently about the need for the church to pay more attention to poverty and less to the issue of gay marriage. He made the point that the Bible says more about poverty than about this divisive issue of human sexuality and that the church needs to recognize this biblical priority.

Eventually this will be sorted out. I believe it will be sorted out in a way that is both biblically sound and affirming of all peoples who are genuinely searching to live faithfully.

The description of the discussion in the Times reveals a dialogue that is deep, yet one that has focused on issues and principles. I take more than a little hope in this. United Methodists have not gone the way of personal attack and invective. The debate remains centered on important issues of biblical interpretation and moral values. We see these differently, to be sure. But we don’t conclude that those who differ are in some way less faithful. This is one of the great gifts these people who are called United Methodist are offering to the public dialogue.

In its own way this dialogue embodies inclusive community. Yes, it is strained. Yes, we are living in tension. And yes, it could lead to division. But, at this moment at least, we are still struggling together.

On the other hand, while women and children are traumatized in Darfur and Iraq, families huddle in the cold in Kasmir and the people of the U.S. Gulf Coast struggle to rebuild their lives, the people of The United Methodist Church are present with them, offering shelter, comfort and support. On the important issue of meeting human need, we stand together. We know that it is urgent that we take seriously the biblical call to compassion and justice. We are addressing critical human needs in a biblically faithful way.

In light of these clear challenges to faithful discipleship, is it is possible, as some who are quoted in the Times article say, that a great denomination would divide over this issue?

A Good Week

It’s been an interesting week. A good
week.
(Revised 10:30 am)

It’s been an interesting week, a good week. We’ve been working on getting the voice of the church into the public dialogue. We learned this week that a community-based anti-malaria program to be launched December 5 in Sierra Leone in partnership with the General Board of Global Ministries Health and Welfare of The United Methodist Church and the Sierra Leone Annual Conference will be featured at a press conference at a Global Summit on Health sponsored by Time Magazine, ABC News, PBS and the Gates Foundation.

It’s great news because the scourge of malaria can be mitigated if not eliminated. Malaria kills more than one million people each year, four-fifths in sub-Saharan Africa. Both a cause and a result of poverty, malaria consumes 40% of public health spending in and accounts for more than half of hospital inpatient admissions in the most affected countries, and causes a net loss to African economies of $12 billion.

This disease can be contained, yet for lack of knowledge, medicines and preventive measures it continues to cause suffering and death. It’s so good that these major information and funding organizations are seeking to bring this to the attention of the world and to address the problem.

The press conference will feature The Rev. Rick Warren, author of A Purpose-Driven Life, The Rev. R. Randy Day, General Secretary of The General Board of Global Ministries, Bishop Joo Somane Machado, The United Methodist Church, Mozambique, and a senior executive from Time whose name was not available to me as I write this post.

The General Board of Global Ministries and United Methodist Communications (UMCom) will partner to provide information about the program in Sierra Leone and to interpret its community-based actions to audiences in the United States. Radio will be a major channel for delivering information in Sierra Leone. In the U.S. a variety of media will be utilized.

A second public voice is being heard, or read, today in a paid commentary appearing in the Washington Post, New Orleans Times-Picayune, Baton Rouge Advocate, Jackson Clarion Ledger, Biloxi-Gulport Sun Herald, Hattiesburg American and Mobile Register in addition to www.umc.org. Rebuilding after Katrina and Rita is more than an issue of reconstructing physical buildings. It’s also about re-creating inclusive communities in which all people who have a stake are heard. The church is calling on those who are responsible for convening these inclusive conversations to give attention to all the voices of the community in order to re-create thriving, participatory, renewed cities and towns.

The ad lists two web-sites readers can access for contributing to hurricane reconstruction and for additional information for action. The ad is based on the Social Principles of the church, the social witness that is rooted in our theological and biblical heritage. It invites civic leaders to create an inclusive conversation about re-building.

I’ll post the copy here later this morning.

All-in-all, it’s been a good week for the communications efforts of the church, I think. But I’d like to know what you think about such communications initiatives. Drop me an email and let me know.

The Communication Challenge

Today it’s necessary to deliver messages in
several media, or to decide to rely on a few media and not serve the audience
that doesn’t use those media.

Recently as I stood in a line at a meeting a man asked me when UMCom, the organization I work for, is moving to cellphone-based message delivery. He then pulled out his cellphone, dialed into his ISP and showed me how he uses the phone to retrieve information.

In a post yesterday I noted the blossoming of new media and new distribution systems. Technological change is a well-documented fact of our lives today. This creates a dilemma for organizations such as the one I work with. It means we have segments of our various audiences who want information delivered in the medium that they use, which is reasonable. However, it also means that different segments use different media. We are expected to utilize a variety of media to deliver information.

At first glance this might seem simple. In practice, however, it isn’t. It means we must format content for different media to meet different expectations, sometimes at considerable expense. The emphasis shouldn’t be on cost, it should be on the audience’s expectation and use of the information.

Our mission is to provide information that informs, inspires and engages the reader or viewer in a search for a more meaningful life as a person of faith. The challenge is to do this in an environment of conflicting claims, competing media and multiple expectations. When I read the news that I summarized in the post preceding this, I see the challenge laid out very clearly.

New Media

One day’s news provides a window on the pace
of change as new media slip into our lives.

The change wrought by new media is unrelenting. The news on any given day can provide a window through which we see how profoundly new media and new incarnations of old media slip into our lives and change us.

For example, here’s a compilation of news from the past couple of days.

Item one: Palm and Blackberry are pairing the Blackberry operating system for wireless e-mail with Palm’s hardware for a new personal instant messenger and e-mail device. The ultimate goal will be a device that carries both instant messages and email. What’s intriguing about his is that RMI, the Blackberry people, see it as a shot in the arm for their company that has reached the end of its current technology. Palm has apparently needed an instant messaging operating system, so the licensing serves both companies well. For the end-users instant messaging is becoming more important for both personal and business communication. Some are predicting the end of email as more people move to instant messaging.

Item two: Microsoft and Yahoo are announcing today, according to reports this morning, an agreement to allow interconnection between their competing instant messaging platforms, adding momentum to wider adoption for both.

Item three: CNN reports that the cell phone industry, which barely existed in Africa 10 years ago, today is a $25 billion industry that is providing communication for Africans in a uniquely African way. By slicing through the government bureaucracy and long delays for land lines and offering service through the informal economy, one hundred million Africans are using cellphones today. And the numbers are growing at an astonishing pace. Africa is leap-frogging over landline-based telephony.

Item four: The video iPod is not even widely available but producers are already preparing small screen video productions. The challenge they face is to fit productions on the small screen. Unlike the iPod, cellphone video will likely rely on short-form productions while some marketers say the video iPod will be capable of serving long-form viewing targeted at commuters, for example, who watch an hour or two on the train into the city and another hour or two on the ride home.

Wherever it’s used, on a commuter train or in an airport waiting area, the nature of the small screen medium will change production values and messaging.

Item five: Several utilities around the country are implementing broadband over power lines (B.P.L) to compete with cable and phone companies for broadband service. Besides affecting price point, BPL should also make broadband almost universally available in the U.S. because it uses existing infrastructure.

Each of these will result in rather fundamental change by providing mobility and portability of content, and different production values. These are lifestyle changes in addition to changes in communication style.

Communication is About More Than the Delivery System

The discussion of communication at the annual
meeting of the United Methodist Association of Communicators this weekend
reminded me of my experience several years ago when I worked for the National
Council of Churches as the communications officer for Church World Service. I
learned very quickly that the concern within the Council in those days was not
to get communication out to people, it was to control
communication.

The discussion of communication at the annual meeting of the United Methodist Association of Communicators this weekend reminded me of my experience several years ago when I worked for the National Council of Churches as the communications officer for Church World Service. I learned very quickly that the concern within the Council in those days was not to get information out to people, it was to control communication.

On the day I was welcomed to the staff with a reception, General Secretary Claire Randall, in our first meeting, tapped me on the lapel and said, “You don’t release statements to the press. Those go through the NCC Information officer and he approves all copy. We try to balance releases here so that all the divisions get equal attention.”

The NCC in those days was more concerned about limiting communication to the outside world than it was concerned about communicating with the world. The results were predictable in some ways, and totally unpredictable in other ways.

For example, even during major natural disasters the information office looked at the apportioned number of releases and determined if Church World Service would be able to release information about floods, famines or hurricanes.

I recall being told that because we’d used up our allotment of releases in a month we couldn’t tell donors what we were doing to respond to a famine in Ethiopia or an earthquake in Italy. It was a control strategy designed to serve the needs of the organization (every division got an equal amount of attention). But it didn’t serve the needs of the audience.

And worse, it meant that CWS was invisible in some of the major crisis events in the world. The agency, in reality, was responsive and making a difference in the lives of people affected by disasters, but it was unable to tell this story.

This control mechanism might have worked well when the distribution system was based on a news cycle that was slower and more routine than the 24/7 wall-to-wall coverage today. But even then, it was simply bad strategy.

What happened was individual staff would leak information, make speeches to constituent groups or send advisories so that messages were tailored to the audience or the needs of an individual office. The central control function was subverted and multiple messages were delivered.

There was no focused proactive communications strategy for the whole organization because there were as many strategies as there were individuals providing information through informal channels.

It’s understandable that the NCC’s leaders wanted to manage information to best advantage. However, communication is about a relationship between the audience and sender. Ultimately, it has to be about an exchange, not simply about the delivery system.

The old NCC strategy did not take into account the needs of the audience, nor the demands of the media for immediacy and responsiveness. Invariably, the media moved the stories along, far ahead of the NCC’s ability to respond. Moreover, while NCC staff discussed which right word to use and how to compile a statement, someone else from another organization spoke to the media, got quoted and the story moved to the next phase.

Usually in those days that meant a couple of media savvy detractors of the NCC were first out of the gate framing stories to the disadvantage of the NCC. The NCC was mischaracterized and terribly misunderstood because this centralized control function blocked a coherent proactive communications strategy.

Fortunately, it is run by a leader who understands media today and the communications staff are much more savvy.

But the lessons I learned from those days remain helpful. Timeliness and proactive communication are critical. Those who aren’t timely get passed by. Those who don’t plan ahead for the contingencies fall behind and rarely catch up. Those who don’t speak to audience needs and relate to them don’t get a favorable hearing.

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