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We must support Dr. Salia, Ebola caregivers

Dr. Martin Salia, shown at the United Methodist Church's Kissy Hospital outside Freetown, Sierra Leone, in April, has tested positive for Ebola. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Dr. Martin Salia, shown at The United Methodist Church’s Kissy Hospital outside Freetown, Sierra Leone, in April, has tested positive for Ebola. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

In an interview with United Methodist Communications in April, Dr. Martin Salia explains why he works in Sierra Leone. He provides health care to all who come to the hospitals where he serves. “I took this job not because I want to but because it was a calling and that God wanted me to,” he said.

Like many health care workers across the African continent, Dr. Salia’s motivation is deeply religious.

Dr. Salia is a key figure at Kissy Hospital run by The United Methodist Church of Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone has three physicians for every 100,000 persons in the country. Kissy is one of the facilities that Dr. Salia has been serving.

The average income in Sierra Leone is $347 per year. According to the U.S. State Department, this translates to “over 72 percent of the population living on less than $1 a day, in extreme poverty.”

Kissy serves those who cannot afford to pay for medical care. It is one of the faith-based hospitals that provide 40 percent of the health care across Africa. In the course of my work in reporting on Africa, I’ve been in clinics and hospitals like Kissy. I’ve seen people pay for services with chickens, goats and mangoes.

The world owes a debt of gratitude, and more, to health care workers like Dr. Salia. We should do all in our power and our resources to assist them.

At great personal cost, Dr. Salia’s spouse has arranged for him to come to the U.S. for treatment for Ebola. A physician who has given so much of himself in treating others, Dr. Salia is now an Ebola patient himself. Kissy Hospital has been forced to close temporarily.

This complicates the challenge of controlling this virus. It also adds to the burden of untreated cases of malaria, diarrhea and other killer diseases of poverty.

Tragedy upon tragedy. And yet, heroic individuals like Dr. Salia put themselves in harm’s way to bring well-being to West Africa.

Dr. Salia is going to the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha for treatment. I’ve had intimate experience with this medical center. It’s among the nation’s best. I think the state can take great pride in its personnel to care for Dr. Salia.

We know that with proper care, equipment and interventions, the survival rate for Ebola patients treated in the U.S. is favorable. It’s understandable that people fear Ebola, but we know that control of the virus is possible. And after missteps in Dallas, the health care community has shown it can self-correct. It has demonstrated a capacity to care for this disease responsibly.

If ever there were a time for welcoming and hospitality, it is now. And if ever there were a time for the world to contain its fears about Ebola and act responsibly toward those who are working under extraordinarily difficult conditions to contain this virus, this is it.

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The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

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The Great Plains Conference of The United Methodist Church has established a fund to receive gifts toward the cost of his transportation to Omaha and related medical costs not covered by other sources.  Contributions can be made through any United Methodist church, or sent directly to: Great Plains Conference Office, 4201 SW 15th, PO Box 4187, Topeka, KS 66604.   Please put “Dr. Salia Fund” on the memo line.

The Music of My Youth as a Commercial Shill

Union Bus Station, Oklahoma City

Union Bus Station, Oklahoma City

I wrote my master’s thesis on the interaction of media, culture and theology. My point was that culture and theology intersect. We can learn much about the human condition by listening to cultural expressions such as contemporary music, and reflecting on them theologically.

The idea wasn’t well-received by my review committee. They asked me to re-write it. I argued and won small concessions. But they rejected the basic proposition that popular culture and theology intersect.

They did not buy my argument that Paul Simon’s song “America” held theological content. I said it is about the search for meaning. It informs our understanding of alienation, loneliness and the search for community. We seek relationship with each other and with God.

The song describes this search, not for God, but for relationships; about how tentative and faltering they can be. It draws a plaintive word picture of youth searching for America. Young adults trying to find their place in the world.

I like to think my struggle with the committee just indicates I was ahead of the times. But whatever the case, I defended Paul Simon and his songs. They meant something more than jukebox background music, or so I thought.

When I heard this song used in a commercial for a credit card company recently, my heart sank. Paul Simon shilling for corporate America. Is this where the search ends? Is this what the young man was looking for–a lucrative licensing fee?

This is America?

I’m wondering. Is this what I fought for, or was the committee correct after all?

No one should live outside the web of connectivity

The national health systems of Sierra Leone and Liberia are barely functioning, and increasing pressure on them risks a complete meltdown, according to reports in popular media. Coordination of services to contain the Ebola outbreak remains fragmented and under resourced.

A woman uses a smartphone in contact tracing, a method used to trace people who have had contact with Ebola patients. Video screen shot, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

A woman uses a smartphone in contact tracing, a method used to identify new Ebola cases quickly and isolate patients as soon as they show symptoms.  Video screen shot, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In an article as tragic as it is frightening, Adam Nossiter of the New York Times details how people are dying from Ebola in Makeni, Sierra Leone. The article reads like the script from a horror movie with no happy ending in sight.

The story sent shivers down my spine, and it coincided with my return from a meeting near London of IT and communications professionals with major international agencies gearing up to meet this crisis at scale. The fact is, the response is far behind the spreading virus, and while this is belatedly being addressed, it will take long-term, sustained attention to bring the contagion under control. Time is an enemy, and the complications of scaling up are many.

International agencies are dealing with major crises from Syria to Gaza to the Central African Republic. The World Health Organization currently lists eight Grade 3 emergencies, which are situations that require substantial international response. They are: Central African Republic, Guinea, Iraq, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and The Syrian Arab Republic.

This means the various agencies designed to deal with such emergencies were already being stretched before Ebola struck. Equally frustrating is the fact that this crisis graphically demonstrates how the lack of reliable communication today is a matter of life and death, but communication infrastructure lags behind human need.

The tipping point

Nearly every input imaginable is needed for this crisis from skilled personnel, to vehicles to transport the ill and the deceased, to a supply chain for materials, to communications for internal operations and external messaging, to technical personnel to support the technology, to facilities for isolating ill persons and myriad other physical and personnel needs.

What is called for now is urgent placement of skilled staff in the affected regions, facilities to support isolation and treatment, and material resources such as gloves, disinfectants, medications, body bags, protective suits and equipment.

But too many leaders, including global leaders and church leaders, have underestimated the significance of communication and the infrastructure necessary for it to work. We have reached a tipping point in our understanding of humanitarian aid. It is no longer limited to food, shelter, clothing, water and medicines. Lack of communications capacity has exacerbated this crisis.

The ability to communicate and the quality of the information delivered are matters of life and death. Pure and simple, communication is aid.

And humanitarian aid, like so many other necessary daily functions, is becoming digitized. This means that globally, communication infrastructure, messaging and personal communication devices will become essential for daily affairs, much as they already are in the global North.

Text messages, such as this one from United Methodist Communications, represent the new form of digital aid being used in the international response to the Ebola virus outbreak. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

Text messages, such as this one from United Methodist Communications, represent the new form of digital aid being used in the international response to the Ebola crisis. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

A paradigm shift

In the short-term future, we will see a paradigm shift toward digital humanitarian aid through the use of smart cards and mobile services. And this is changing older methods of providing aid because the new model is faster, more efficient and more economical, and it will reach more people. It also makes aid customizable and personal. And this means it is measurable, and the delivery system can be made more accountable.

This may seem like a pipe dream, but we are, in fact, already seeing how digital tools are being used in refugee settlements in the Middle East, and this will only grow as the systems become perfected.

The Ebola crisis is demonstrating that in this new age of pervasive technology, no one on the planet is so isolated that they can exist outside the global web of connectivity that delivers life-enhancing, and life-saving, information. And it is demonstrating that those concerned with humanitarian assistance to people in crisis situations must be at the forefront of this new era of technology for good because to do otherwise is to allow events to spiral out of control, with tragic results.

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The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

Their problems are our problems

As the Ebola epidemic continues to spread amid warnings by Doctors Without Borders that it is out of control, Dr. Michael T. Osterholm writes that health professionals are not talking publicly about the potential for Ebola to mutate into an even more dangerous form by developing the ability for airborne transmission. This has not happened yet in humans, but he says controlled studies have confirmed respiratory transfer of the Ebola Zaire strain from pigs to monkeys.

In addition, Osterholm says Ebola Reston, a different strain, passed through air transmission in a study group of monkeys in 1989 and the animals were euthanized to contain the virus.

If the virus reaches the megacities of Africa, he says, the opportunity for mutation could lead to more dire consequences, endangering many more people. Even without this speculative possibility, one mapping model predicts the number of victims will far exceed WHO estimates and could take a year or more to contain.

The rising rate of infections and deaths is cause for more than words of concern. It’s a call to action.

Poverty must be addressed

The Ebola virus carries the disease, but the disease is transmitted by ignorance, mistrust and resistance to proper care by ill-informed people. Ebola gains its foothold in poor communities where lack of understanding of the virus and how it is transmitted is widespread.

It gains momentum because these communities lack basic health care services and medical staff. It roars forward where people do not trust the information they are given by government officials. This escalating pyramid results in a contagion that threatens communities, nations, and potentially, the world. The underlying culprit is poverty.

Obviously, the immediate crisis must be contained. But we cannot stop there.

We must address poverty in a systematic, comprehensive way. Too many people are still dying of malaria, HIV/AIDS and other diseases of poverty. This will require a more effective, coordinated approach than we’ve mustered so far. Small one-off projects and uncoordinated development efforts will not get at the problem of poverty.

We need to provide people with access to accurate information, better education, more effective, well-staffed and well-equipped health facilities, treatment and immunization that cover the entire population, clean water, sanitation systems and economic opportunity.

This requires global resources. We know this, but we don’t approach it holistically.

What we don’t talk about

This neighborhood in Bom Jesus, Angola, is representative of many communities in sub-Saharan Africa.

This neighborhood in Bom Jesus, Angola, is representative of many communities in sub-Saharan Africa. Photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist Communications.

The poor have no constituency. Their voices go unheard. And yet, they are not invisible. Faith organizations have been working with poor people for decades, and within faith communities, poverty is seen for what it is, a dishonoring of the sacredness of the human spirit.

But faith organizations have been focused on limited goals and have admirably addressed human needs within this limited perspective. Today, however, the need is for a broader approach and advocates who seek to change public policy in addition to performing their own good works locally.

Before they head for their destination, every mission team should make it a priority to be briefed on the conditions that contribute to the poverty that afflicts those they go to serve. And they should commit to addressing those conditions upon their return by advocating for public policies to alleviate the root causes.

We need to see the social, economic and political context in which Ebola, malaria, HIV/AIDS and other diseases of poverty thrive. This is what we in faith communities don’t talk about.

Thinking – and acting – globally

Palliative measures will ease the immediate suffering, but they do not change the conditions that are at the root of human ignorance and suffering. These roots are structural and systemic. They result from poor governance, economic inequity, lack of empowered citizens and corporate responsibility.

We must build out the digital infrastructure that carries reliable, useful information, make it accessible to everyone and train people how to use it. This infrastructure has not only shrunk the world, it contains the store of the world’s knowledge, and everyone needs access to it.

We must change our thinking that diseases like Ebola, and those affected by it, are remote from us. We must foster a global understanding. We think of Ebola as thousands of miles across the ocean, but it’s all-too-clear today that it’s really only  a six-hour flight away.

Like it or not, we are global citizens, and “their problems” are our problems.

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The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

Ebola: Texting hope and busting myths

Ebola text message from Bishop Innis

The first Ebola text message from Bishop John Innis addresses both health and spiritual needs. Photo courtesy of Julu Swen, Liberia Annual Conference.

Ebola is real. It kills with little warning. Please adhere to health messages to safeguard your family. Let us be in prayer. God is with us. – Bishop John Innis

This first text message coming from Bishop John Innis to people in Liberia was not only history-making, but more importantly, it addressed a popular rumor that Ebola is not real but a ploy constructed by the government to get money into the country.

Ludicrous as this sounds, it was used as the pretext for gunmen to force patients from an Ebola isolation unit in a Monrovia suburb a few days ago.

The bishop’s message encourages people to follow the officially recommended precautions. It calls people to use their spiritual resources, and it says God is with us — that Ebola is not a punishment inflicted upon us by God.

Trusted voices must be raised to encourage people to take the threat of contagion seriously and seek medical attention when symptoms appear. And religious leaders can affirm our spiritual resources, as Bishop Innis has done.

Julu Swen in Monrovia, Liberia receving text message on Ebola from Bishop Innis

Communicator Julu Swen in Monrovia, Liberia, receives a text message on Ebola, written by Bishop John Innis. Photo courtesy of Julu Swen, Liberia Annual Conference.

When trusted leaders address rumors and misinformation, it’s more likely the rumors can be deflated. Texting is not the only way to do this, but it’s important in this crisis in particular. Mobile messages can reach a significant segment of the population. Sixty-nine percent of Liberians have a mobile phone, and texts can be received by conventional mobile phones, not just smartphones.

In addition, mobile messages can span broad distances. This is especially important. Text messages can reach people in affected areas that have been cordoned off by the military. They can remind people they are not forgotten.

Recognizing this, United Methodist Communications has been laying groundwork for the distribution of messages through mobile technology in areas where the need is great.

Now, for the historical part of this post. Because the communicator in Liberia was experiencing difficulty preparing and sending texts from the conference office, he requested United Methodist Communications’ assistance. A list of names provided by the conference was uploaded to a cloud-based database, UMCom staff got the message from Bishop Innis, and the text was sent on his behalf from Nashville to people in Liberia. The software used is open source and cost-free.

It was a first for us, and perhaps a first for a faith-based organization. It reveals how the world has shrunk, how information and communication technology contribute to our well-being and how valuable the connection of The United Methodist Church is as a strategic asset, especially in circumstances such as this.


 

The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

Poverty: The Common Vector

Health worker Kadie E. Koroma (right), part of a team with the United Methodist Church's Imagine No Malaria campaign, processes a voucher that will provide mosquito nets for the family of Gbassay Foday (seated at left) for her home in Baoma village, near Bo, Sierra Leone. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Health worker Kadie E. Koroma (right), part of a team with the United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria campaign, processes a voucher that will provide mosquito nets for the family of Gbassay Foday (seated at left) for her home in Baoma village, near Bo, Sierra Leone. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

While the Ebola outbreak continues, media coverage, at least on television, seems to be waning. Print media continue to provide stories that enlarge understanding about how the crisis is being managed and its effects on people across the region. But this too will fade, and that’s part of an ongoing problem.

In this crisis, a familiar pattern of media coverage has emerged: Ebola has been presented as a mysterious viral disease with a horrific reputation. An outbreak is news. Blogger Michael Byrne, whose blog influenced the title of this post, attributes the mystery to the fact that the virus occurs in remote Africa and not in countries with facilities to provide the supportive care necessary for the body to rally its own protective measures. It’s there, not here, and it’s horrific. That’s sensational.

But once the sensational elements have been covered, unless a new angle appears, the media moves on. And the suffering continues out of sight.

Ebola, malaria, cholera and many other diseases that plague sub-Saharan Africa and other low-income regions are diseases of poverty. Whether the disease is borne by a virus or a parasite, the common vector is poverty.

Profits, neglect and the value of life

Diseases of poverty occur in places where life expectancy is already low and well-being already compromised by inadequate health care, sanitation and economic development. They are in locations where communication and education are weak. And these conditions are long-term, ongoing results of poverty.

In addition, more than one commentator has noted that research and development of drugs to prevent and treat Ebola lags because there is little profit in saving the lives of poor people in rural Africa. For example, Sierra Leone has three doctors per 100,00 population, Liberia one per 86,275, Guinea one per 10,000 and Nigeria one per 2,879 people. Pharmaceuticals and health care follow the money.

Beyond this neglect, corruption, poor governance and wars have kept these countries from building strong economies with an informed citizenry. And, as blogger Lindsay  Hilsum writes after decades of development schemes poverty persists.

This makes it more important to tell the story of people in these circumstances as well as address the conditions that persist and affect their quality of life. Otherwise, they will continue to be overlooked until another crisis strikes.

But in the 21st century, it may be even more critical to build the communication infrastructure that will enable people to gain access to information they need to improve their own lives and to communicate with each other and the outside world.

Combating information poverty

The Ebola crisis demonstrates that information poverty is a significant contributor to the spread of infectious diseases that can destroy whole communities. It points to the need to strengthen educational systems as well as national health systems. And it points to the necessity of major international organizations and partner governments to push for accountable governance and an end to corrupt practices.

At United Methodist Communications, we are providing skills training as we introduce technology after assessing needs with local partners. Technologies can be as complex  as servers and wifi systems or as simple as solar chargers for mobile phones. The technology must fit the day-to-day realities of climate, environment, power source and maintenance. But these are not insurmountable problems. The key is skills training and appropriate solutions for long-standing problems of info poverty.

Ebola is neither mysterious nor inevitable. With information, adequate facilities and procedures, it, along with the other diseases of poverty, can be contained if not eradicated.

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The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

Response to Ebola counters fear, disbelief and cultural insensitivity

Misinformation and lack of understanding are contributing to the spread of Ebola. Photo courtesy of United Methodist Council of Bishops

Misinformation and lack of understanding are contributing to the spread of Ebola. Photo courtesy of United Methodist Council of Bishops.

The Voinjama region near the border with Guinea is in the epicenter of the Ebola crisis in Liberia.

“This area is overwhelmed with fear, disbelief, and cultural insensitivity to the disease,” the Rev. Cecilia Burke Mapleh, superintendent of the Voinjama District of The United Methodist Church in Liberia, said recently. “At the moment, most of our preaching points stand abandoned if we do not act quickly with preventive messages to and for our members.”

The Ebola crisis has exposed not only the under-resourced health systems in the economically deprived countries of West Africa but also the lack of communications infrastructure essential to everyday survival, contributing to the negative effects of misinformation, superstition and denial.

As the crisis spirals in widening circles, misinformation, mistrust and disbelief not only spread the virus but also contribute to the risk of death from other untreated diseases, as people avoid medical clinics and health care providers.

In the struggle against this virus, information and communication are significant tools.

Getting ahead of the chain

Ironically, modern transportation has contributed to greater mobility among rural peoples in isolated regions, leading to the spread of communicable diseases. Without early detection, tracking and reporting, it’s difficult to identify and isolate those infected with Ebola. Diagnosing Ebola  has been haphazard and slow. Without more health workers, it’s nearly impossible to get ahead of the transmission chain.

But as modern transport contributes to the spread of the virus, so must modern communication be used to contain it. At United Methodist Communications, we are working with African episcopal leaders and their staffs to support communications work they’re already doing and to meet new challenges. We’ve made crisis communications grants to the Sierra Leone and Liberia annual conferences, and we’re in contact with episcopal leaders in Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria.

African religious leaders have engaged the crisis in several ways. They have prepared messages for radio, funded posters and billboard messages, conducted training for pastors to deliver messages to their congregations and distributed print materials, and they are exploring other ways to communicate accurate information. Bishops have released pastoral letters to assure people God is present with them in this crisis and not the cause of it. Bishops in Sierra Leone and Liberia are also participating in interreligious coalitions and working with national and international health organizations, in addition to local chiefs and other officials.

Saving lives with communications

We’re connecting church-related communicators on the ground with tools they can use for same-day, real-time communication. We’re introducing FrontlineSMS, an open source text-messaging service that allows a sender to broadcast text messages to a wide number of contacts at minimal cost. Sixty-nine percent of Liberians have cell phones, as do 67 percent of people in Sierra Leone and 38 percent in Guinea. We’re also supporting the creation of illustrated print and audio messages for those who are illiterate.

We’re networking with the major international organizations and connecting them with church communicators in the region to address both the myths and the truths of Ebola and will be used by health workers, on TV, DVD and internet video.

 We’re prepared to purchase printers and solar power supplies to print fliers for distribution by hand.

And we’re also supporting person-to-person communications. In Liberia, we’re helping with portable sound systems that local young people can carry as town criers to communicate relevant information.

We will also assess the needs of annual conference offices in the affected areas and develop plans to upgrade their communications capacity, including Internet connection.

Many health officials are saying this outbreak will take several months to get in check. We are working with producers for animated messages that can be used in the future on TV, the Internet and in local villages by health care workers with laptops to illustrate hygiene and prevention.

As important as these tools are, the crisis is revealing something even more important. Clear, accurate messages delivered by a trusted voice in a timely manner  to those who need information can save lives. Communication must be viewed for its strategic importance. It is not simply a support function; it is central to the mission of the church.

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The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

Communication is Aid–and More

Ebola Prevention Banner

Workers hang an Ebola banner in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Photos courtesy of Bishop John K. Yambasu.

Liberian Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee writes that her mother showed up at her office recently dressed head to toe in a winter coat and headdress in 82ᴼ temperatures. Her mother explained that she wanted extra protection against the Ebola virus.

Misinformation and misunderstanding along with superstition about Ebola abound. The virus is not airborne.  According to medical experts, it spreads through contact with the body fluids of an infected individual or the body of a deceased victim.

Lack of information is the fulcrum on which the spread of the virus tilts toward epidemic. With information about sanitation, abstinence from eating bush meat, and awareness that the disease results from a virus and not from evil spells or spirits, the Ebola outbreak can be contained. But this depends on timely, accurate and effective communication.

The role of communication is being recognized as critical to the well-being of people no matter where they live in the world, and no matter how well connected to the communication networks they are.

When Hurricane Yolanda struck the Leyte region of the Philippines a year ago, one of the first needs the Philippines government identified was for the restoration of the area’s damaged communication capacity.

Similarly, the Religious Leaders Task Force on Ebola in Sierra Leone, chaired by United Methodist Bishop John K. Yambasu, listed a comprehensive communications strategy as its first priority in a longer document spelling out response to the crisis.

Religious Leaders Task Force on Ebola, Sierra Leone

United Methodists in Sierra Leone are working with the Religious Leaders Task Force on Ebola to share information.

We live in a connected world, and lack of accurate information, coupled with incomplete communications infrastructure, is a matter of life and death. Ebola, as the world now understands, is only a plane ride away, no matter where you live.

At United Methodist Communications, we live by the phrase, “a clear message saves lives.” But we also understand that the ability to communicate is equally important.

In the Philippines, we helped to restore Internet connectivity and provide aid agencies with tablets, software and training to enable them to identify where aid was needed, coordinate with each other, and communicate with and distribute aid to survivors.

In the Ebola crisis, we are supporting the efforts of those already at work disseminating accurate information in the countries affected. We are also consulting about infrastructure and distribution tools that can reach the most people with accurate information.

Today, the ability to communicate and the quality of information that is communicated are critical to well-being in local communities and to people in every other part of the world. Communication — and the ability to communicate effectively — is not a simple matter of technology, tools and software. It is a matter of strategic importance.

In many emergency situations, communication capacity precedes other forms of critical aid. In the Philippines, communication preceded material aid. Communication had to be restored to get food, medicine and construction supplies to those isolated and stranded in places cut off from others.

In the Ebola crisis, communication precedes prevention and treatment. The contagion cannot be contained without greater effort at sanitation, isolation of sick people, and proper handling and burial of the deceased. And this has to be communicated effectively and widely. In these circumstances, a clear message saves lives.

Over a lifetime of covering natural and human-caused disasters and writing stories about poverty and development, I’ve come to see that communication is more than the tools we use, more than the software that powers them, and more than the technology that drives the devices. It is a strategic asset that is important to our well-being.

In some circumstances, communication is aid, as a wonderful video produced by Infoasaid demonstrates.

And, if we believe (as I do), that it is God’s intent for all people to find meaning and purpose in life, and to flourish, then communication is actually doing theology. It is a way to fulfill our beliefs and follow our values.

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The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

Eight Ways Pope Francis is Changing the Conversation

Pope Francis is being celebrated for his ability to change the conversation of the Roman Catholic Church. His communication skills coupled with the stature of the papacy have brought a new tone to discourse within the church and captivated those of us outside that communion.

Pope Francis. Photo from presidencia.gov.ar via Wikimedia Commons
Pope Francis is reframing the conversation through strategic communicationsPhoto from presidencia.gov.ar via Wikimedia Commons.

Francis has, at least for the time being, put Christians and the Christian faith in a better light in the wider culture as well.

How has he done it? I suggest a few ways:

1. Scripture not subject. Francis frames his comments with Scripture and not with the hot topic of the day. This shift from subject to Scripture places him on a firm foundation to critique the culture without starting from a reference point in the culture wars, a point that is sure to polarize. This frees him to bring Scripture to bear on issues, rather than starting with issues and pulling Scripture into the conversation. He leads with values.

2. Theology not ideology. He refers to theological teaching in past encyclicals. Like Scripture, theology is part of his conversational foundation. This allows for consistency in his teaching, and it integrates the moral instruction of the church with Scripture. Equally important, it gives him the ability to speak without using the language of ideology.

3. Personal not provocative. The pope has personalized those matters that have high cultural sensitivity such as human sexuality, and other matters. He has made it clear he believes in the sacredness of human personality. Identifying people by labels is provocative but not his way, nor the way of Scripture.

4 Future not past. He speaks about what might be. He points to a vision of a social order that includes the poor. He has written about encountering those who are on the margins and embracing those who are left out. He has issued a call to Roman Catholic Christians to reach out and serve. This is not new, but Francis is issuing the call in a way that has not been heard recently, and it points to a vision of God’s preferred future.

5. Inspirational not institutional. He frequently refers to the joy of the gospel rather than starting his cultural analysis with existing conditions. He has spoken sharply about the harmful effects of consumer culture and the unfettered free market economy. His critique, however, is based on the theological precept that we are born to be in community with God and with each other, and in this relationship we find joy and inspiration for life. He says consumer society creates its own form of individualism. The free market economy diverts and isolates us from this joyful and inspired life with God. As a result, we become estranged from others, from God and, tragically, from our own true selves. Francis has reminded us that we are more than consumers, especially in God’s eyes.

6. Compassion not condemnation.Who am I to judge?” he asked when speaking about homosexuality. This is the most divergent path he could take from condemning persons of same-gender relationships. Francis has created an image of humility by speaking compassionately, even as he is the personification of the authority of the church.

7. Communication not exhortation. The pope has used multiple media to encourage the church to evangelize by encountering people in the culture. He is speaking in a communications environment in which we are present and comfortable. He has taken his message to Twitter. His outreach through church media and public media reveals strategic planning. He believes in communicating strategically.

8. Colloquial not complex. His language is more colloquial than academic. He has gotten attention, in part, because people understand him. His personal style has created a sense that he is speaking in the same language that we the people use.

While he has only begun, his communication style is a refreshing change. He is being credited with changing the conversation.

However, it is only a start. Institutions change slowly and resistance from within is great.

Church laws and procedures have not changed, and stories about human sexuality and clergy sexual abuse continue. He cannot control his narrative when these stories capture our attention as well.

Francis, by virtue of his position, is a celebrity. In a celebrity culture there is a pattern. What goes up also comes down. It’s as true for popes as for rock stars, a position Francis attained when he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone.

We can hope that Francis’ papacy does not follow this trajectory. And we can be thankful that he is leading from his values and communicating thoughtfully with strategic purpose.

 

Moving Forward and Looking Back–In Summary

In the past four posts, I’ve pointed to how information communication technology and communications strategy have been employed to encourage transparency as we discuss how new media influence us and the practices of the church.

Training staff of disaster relief organizations responding to humanitarian needs in the Philippines following Typhoon Yolanda.

Training staff of disaster relief organizations responding to humanitarian needs in the Philippines following Typhoon Yolanda. UMCom Photo/April Mercado

We’ve seen how the power of social media can unleash giving and provide a way for us to contribute to changing the world.

And we’ve reviewed how strategic use of communication and various technologies can connect us and be used to express how Christians understand our global responsibilities.

Moving forward

I attempted to provide a theological framework for why communication can be viewed as an expression of the mission and ministry of the church in the post yesterday. I believe communication is more than a technical support function and when we fail to see it in this more complete role, we reduce our capacity to communicate the Good News of God’s love for the world. Communication is ministry.

From the perspective of the practice of communication, the thread that ties these four posts together is that they are all about communicating with people using the media with which they are familiar (whether that is mobile technology, social media, low-wattage radio or other channels) in an environment in which they are comfortable.

We live in a communications environment that is shaping us and our unique cultures, no matter where we live in the world. For example, messages by global corporations are tailored to different contexts, but the use of media to deliver those messages and our response to the messages affects us in similar ways.

Shaped by technology and by messages

In this mediated process we are shaped by both the technology and the messages that are exchanged within the process.

More than ever, we in the church need to view communication as an integral part of the mission and ministry of the church. How we communicate–the technology we use and the conversations we engage–is extremely important.

Communication is more horizontal today than ever before. I’m not naive about who owns the transmission towers: large corporations do, and as Egypt proved, threatened governments can shut down these media when the government is under duress. As the NSA story has shown, these media can also be used to invade our privacy, so they come with a substantial downside as well as a positive upside.

But it’s clear that we can work within this corporate/government reality to interact with each other more easily and immediately than ever before. Therefore, we can be better informed and we can act globally with greater ease than at any time in human history. And we should.

The Absent Voice

We should tell our own stories and assist others to tell theirs. A significant change in mainline Christian communions in the U.S. in the past several decades has been their persistence in reducing their capacity to communicate by cutting communications budgets and staff. By abandoning the field, they have left it to others to tell their story.

And some storytellers have an agenda contrary to the well-being of the denomination, while others lack essential understanding and have been less enlightening.

This failure to be in the communications environment with adequate resources, creativity and consistent presence has left them marginalized. It is often said about my denomination, The United Methodist Church, that no one speaks for the church but an elected body that meets every four years. Thus, we have no “spokesperson.”

While that is true, it is also revealing. There are spokespersons by default. They are often detractors who speak about the church and whose critiques, inaccuracies and agendas go unchallenged.

The Default Position

Out of this default position, perceptions are formed and opinions about the church are expressed, but, too often, the voice of the church is absent because no one is sanctioned officially to speak for it. But those who are unabashedly willing to authorize themselves to speak, do so, often presenting a viewpoint that reflects a narrow slice of the church’s full teaching, or worse, bending the teaching to fit a particular agenda.

It has also meant that we have not given attention to communication as a legitimate field for doing theology. Thus, humane values and the ethical and moral witness of the church have been absent. I believe faith is formed in the interactions we have with each other in the world and out of this interaction we deepen our understanding of God at work in the world, and within us.

This is also where we come to terms with the sacredness of life and Creation. When we are disengaged from a significant part of the exchange that is taking place in the public conversation, and cultural and social interaction, we exclude a significant piece of the quilt that makes up the fabric of our lives.

While I’m not an academic theologian, I hazard to suggest we cannot do theology apart from the conditions in which people live, nor apart from the powerful influences that affect our lives through culture, commerce, governance and many other dynamics that shape life. This is the gritty stuff of life that the apostle Paul used to shape the earliest teachings about what it meant to follow The Way, as the earliest followers of Jesus were known.

The Demise of Vertical Communication

Paradoxically, the world has moved beyond the age of vertical communication in which edicts were issued, a receptive audience awaited them, and the edicts were received and followed. While this is much too simplistic, it’s a way of saying that more people are communicating more ideas in more ways than ever before, and top-down communication must compete with the noise and distraction of a media environment that is as participatory as it’s ever been. Several years ago, Jay Rosen made the point clearly when he said “the people formerly known as the audience” are no more.

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New media provide new ways to practice old spiritual disciplines such as Bible study on tablets with online connection for referencing additional content electronically. UMNS Photo/Kathleen Barry

We’ve also seen how the gatekeepers of the old media are being challenged to adapt to the new environment and come up with new ways of delivering information and interacting with the users of the information.

This is the environment in which Christian values can be projected, and where those values can participate in shaping the culture and, hopefully, humanizing the conversation.

The ease with which we communicate today is deceptive. The communication environment is more complex and fraught with risk than it’s ever been. This is why mainline communions should give more attention to strategic communication, and not disengage from the field.

Communication is Ministry

More people are producing and sharing information, and in the process finding their voice. Sometimes this is for good, sometimes for ill. When the church enables communication in places where people are off the grid, it is engaging in an important mission. When the church introduces communication technology to provide spiritual development, education, health information, connection and empowerment, it is offering ministry. Access to information has become a human right and an expression of justice.

I hope that 2014 will bring the development of more communication networks, more use of social media tools to communicate more widely, and a continuing effort to add new technology as it becomes available to build on these efforts started in 2013. While I believe the technology and the messages shape us, I believe that communication rooted in Christian community is not just about tools and technology, but about reaching out to people with concern and compassion as an expression of our ministry.

As always, I invite your comments, insights, or corrections.

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