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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.

USAID and ZunZuneo

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 1.48.04 PMThe news that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) surreptitiously sponsored a text messaging service in Cuba created a storm of criticism last week when the service stopped and the secret sponsor was revealed. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said it was “dumb, dumb, dumb.”

It was also duplicitous and damaging, if not dangerous to others attempting to deliver humanitarian services.

Those who provide humanitarian aid, such as nongovernmental aid organizations – including those of religious groups – meticulously maintain a nonpartisan stance within the countries where they work. This is especially important where partisan conflict is rife and where governments are suspicious of such aid being used for partisan purposes. These agencies are compromised when they are viewed as extensions of U.S. foreign policy.

Humanitarian agencies cannot operate in a country without consent of the host government. Such duplicity adds to the perception that they are agents of external forces.

This cuts both ways, of course. Where governments are not popular and rule by coercion and force, the humanitarian organizations must also be seen as  functioning independently. It’s often a delicate dance.

This nonpartisan stance can be a matter of life and death. If  humanitarian workers in conflicted settings are viewed as agents of partisan agendas, their lives can be put at risk. Examples of kidnappings and murder of aid workers underscore this risk.

Beyond this life-and-death reality, the ZunZuneo texting service, as the Cuban SMS service was known, proved to be unsustainable. Sustainability is a key outcome of successful development, but perhaps ZunZuneo failed because development wasn’t the driving mission. The technology was implemented for other reasons.

In other difficult social situations, open-source texting services have been put to use in local contexts, and with adequate training and support, they have achieved much greater success at a much lower cost. These were implemented by small nonprofit organizations operating on shoestring budgets. Perhaps there’s a lesson here.

USAID has been an effective partner for humanitarian and nonprofit organizations, including The United Methodist Church, in different parts of the world. Let’s hope this episode is an anomaly and that USAID will make the adjustments needed to ensure that its mission and work are not compromised again.

Moving Forward and Looking Back–Connecting

UMAC 2012

Wayne Rhodes, General Board of Church and Society, leads a workshop titled, “What You Need To Know About the UM Connection” at the 2012 United Methodist Association of Communicators meeting. UMNS Photo/Kathleen Barry

In this fourth post in the series, I reflect on how communications technologies make it possible to connect with people half a world away, and why that’s important.

Connecting continents

New mobile technologies make it possible to connect with others in ways that were not previously possible. In The United Methodist Church, in which I am ordained, we often speak of ourselves as a connection.

The term is not well understood. It comes from the organizational system in which clergy and laity can conduct ministry and service as part of a global system. It is not a congregational-based organization.

Congregations are connected with each other in a regional organization called a conference. The conference is led by a bishop who is elected from within a larger regional area made up of conferences, called a jurisdiction.

Connection as asset

I believe the connection is one of our greatest assets. It gives us scope and scale that allows us to carry out mission and ministry that is consequential, the kind that can make a difference because of its reach and depth. Often, it is said about some rural parts of the world that the church is in places that even government ministries don’t reach, for example.

By this, it is meant that a local faith community exists beyond the end of the road in places that are not likely to get much attention, places where isolation can lead to poverty, lack of health care, educational services, and basic services. These conditions create stress and suffering that discourage the flourishing life that I believe God intends for all persons.

It means that ideas and resources can be shared in ways that would not happen otherwise. And it means people who might not otherwise be able to do so, can share at a scope that has greater result. This is undergirded by religious values that reflect a commitment to human dignity and belief in the sacredness of all life under God.

Haiti 2013

Teacher Sylné Guerdy works with students in the computer lab at the Thomas Food Project in Thomas, Haiti. The program is part of a United Methodist Communications effort to use technology for development. UMNS photo/Mike DuBose

It is an outgrowth of our understanding of the meaning of discipleship, to follow the teachings of Jesus to care for the world and for each other because we believe we are connected by the love of God and are responsible to and for each other.

Connecting for the common good

In a world of global messaging and influence by governments and corporations, a globally connected world, the means for people of goodwill to carry out works of religious value is needed. When religion is humanizing and compassionate, it contributes to the common good, and a connectional system that can offer, through its communications capacity and through its organizational mission, a deeper understanding of our humanity, a way to reach out with compassion, and to advocate for justice, is a valuable asset.

As we grow in members around the world, we are having conversations about an emerging understanding of how we are connected globally.

At its best, this connection means that we can do more together than we can do independently of each other, as individuals or as single congregations. It  allows us to achieve scope and scale, as when we give to Imagine No Malaria, which results in the provision of medicines, bed nets and health training that can affect whole regions and nations.

It also enlarges our influence for the common good, which is a direct outcome of our commitment to follow the teachings of Jesus to heal the world and reach out to those who are sick and in prison, poor and neglected, no matter where they are.

Connecting through global mapping

About five years ago, Bishop David Yemba of the Central Congo Episcopal Area and I discussed his concern that there were local churches, as well schools and health clinics operated by the church in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that could not be identified. Lacking a developed road system or effective communications, these facilities were unconnected.  The options available at that time to map those locations were both limited and expensive.

In the last 12 months, United Methodist Communications initiated a pilot project to map the geographic locations of churches outside the U.S. and add them to a global database available to everyone online. This effort began with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Philippines, and will extend to other countries within Africa, the Philippines, eastern and central Europe and Scandanavia in 2014. (United Methodist Communications began to provide communications tools and training to connect these conferences several years ago. A network of communicators has been created and the networking of conferences is continuing.)

For the first time, people looking for United Methodist churches, schools and health care facilities in Africa, Europe and the Philippines will be able to find them online and learn more about their ministries. This information is being gathered through the use of technologies that reside on mobile phones and take advantage of GPS and software called Ushahidi, an open source project that allows crowd source emergency information to be sent by mobile phones.

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Sam Perales configures link in Tacloban, Philippines to enable communication for humanitarian agencies while UMCOM representative April Mercado, and Randy Baido looks on. UMCom Photo/April Mercado

Ushahidi has never been used like this, so it’s innovation to the max. It’s also easy and cost free.

It’s important to understand where local churches and other facilities are located as we continue to grow into an understanding of ourselves as a global church. It will allow for more careful and informed planning, as well as better opportunities for sharing information, training, resources and personnel.

Global mapping is in its initial stages as I write, but as it progresses, we will have for the first time a visual database that offers a view of the geographic position of the mission and ministry of the global United Methodist Church.

Global connection is essential

There is real value in the phrase “think globally, act locally,” especially for Christians who inherit a theology spread by a global evangelist named Paul and the teachings of Jesus, who broke down regional and cultural barriers  through his actions and preaching.

Christian teaching calls us to open ourselves to our place in the world as well as our relationship to God and to each other. We are called to take responsibility for the whole of Creation. To be a follower of Jesus is to be connected through relationship with others and with God. We are called to consider the health of the entire planet and those with whom we share it, and to take action in our own communities and cities as well.

When we use information and communication technologies to connect us, they can serve as tools for ministry, and the outcomes, when they bring positive, transformational change, are ministry. I believe building an understanding of our global connection is important to the work of doing theology in the connected world of the 21st century.

Moving Forward and Looking Back–Communication is Aid

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Training to re-establish communications system in the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda, sponsored by United Methodist Communications. UMNS photo

On the threshold of a new year, information and communication technology plays a more critical role in shaping life than we have experienced before. This is especially true in nations with emerging economies, many of which have leap-frogged over hard-wired communications infrastructure and moved into  wireless infrastructure.

When Typhoon Yolanda, as it was known in the Philippines, devastated the central Philippines, one of the first calls for assistance from the government was for help to re-establish communications infrastructure. Without it, emergency aid could not proceed at the scale necessary to meet the widespread needs of the people.

In the second part of this series on how communication and technology are shaping the church today, I explain why I believe that in such crises communication is aid.

Communication Is Critical Aid

Communication is a form of aid when the need to communicate is critical to saving lives. This was boldly underlined by the Philippines government’s call for assistance to reconstruct the communication system following the typhoon. Communications had to be re-established to control aircraft that were delivering humanitarian aid, rescue and military personnel, and to tell people where they could receive food and medicine.

Without the ability to communicate, people were isolated and at greater risk of disease, lack of medical care, hunger and exposure. Communication in the aftermath of a disaster is as important as food, water, shelter and medicine, according to a project supported by the BBC called “infoasaid.”

Information is necessary to life-saving efforts, while inaccurate information can be costly in terms of human life.

Following the typhoon, United Methodist Communications worked with technology partner Inveneo to do a site assessment of church communications needs to help people recover from the devastating damage, including mobile and satellite phones, WiFi, and low power radio.

Along with other partners, United Methodist Communications provided communications training, software and hardware to assist in the humanitarian effort, as well as assessment of the  long-term communications needs of The United Methodist Church in the region.

Solar cellphone chargers and combination solar lamps and chargers were distributed to local clergy in the affected area. Mobile phones and satellite phones were provided to United Methodist staff  and 50 tablets donated by Google were equipped with apps and maps in order to help 25 non-governmental organizations distribute aid and relief more effectively.

Tablets loaded with apple and maps were provided to  organizations providing humanitarian aid.

Tablets loaded with applications and maps were provided to organizations providing humanitarian aid.

United Methodist Communications also worked with NetHope, a collaboration of 41 leading international humanitarian organizations providing the best information communication technology and best practices, to coordinate a training event for the non-governmental organizations on the ground, including NetHope, Americares, CARE, Concern Worldwide, Catholic Relief Services, International Medical Corps, International Red Cross, Mercy Corps, Oxfam Great Britain, Plan International, Relief International, Save the Children, SOS, Children’s Villages, World Vision International, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, and United Methodist Communications field staff.

Plans have been made to follow up with training participants to document how the tablets are being used to enhance recovery, looking particularly at emphasizing getting aid to areas that were ignored because they were “off the map,” or unable to communicate with the outside world.

The goal is to transition from assisting in the emergency to creating a sustainable communications system that will serve the church into the future.

Information has become essential to achieve a meaningful, productive life. United Methodist Communications is providing training and communications tools in areas where people have been left out of the communications revolution. Under the banner of information and communications technology for development (ICT4D), people are being trained to utilize sustainable communications tools that can be used education, health, agriculture and spiritual development.

In the 21st century, communication is aid.

In South Sudan An Urgent Need for Change

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Wikimedia / Steve Evans. Creative Commons.

As I watched a video news story online this morning about the flight to safety of displaced people in southern Sudan I was struck by a paradox that seems irreconcilable.

The paradox is that the world is changing rapidly for some and for others it seems to never change.

As I watched the Sudan video, I could place myself on the land where the people were gathered, bone dry, dusty, littered with the remnants of plastic bags, the sunburned grass and weeds brown as a cardboard box and even more brittle.

Children sit on blankets on the ground, huddle over wood fires, and women cook in old dented, beat up pots perched on rocks, conditions  I’ve seen before. It seems little has changed despite the birth of a new nation and the opportunity to make great change.

A woman whose meager possessions include a plastic chair and a blue gallon bucket maneuvers in a large boat preparing to cross the river to relative safety. A little girl around nine or ten years of age watches the scene with a baby brother or sister perched on her hip. Women arrive carrying bundles on their heads.

The scene could as easily be Ethiopia in the 1980s, or Somalia, Liberia, Mozambique, or numerous other places across the continent over past decades. The faces, the stories and the conditions are the same.

In south Sudan, people barely surviving in their villages, many of them partisans of neither side, are caught between the guns. They are burned out, shot down, the women raped, and the children, babies and old folks lost in the chaos of an attack.

In the frenzy, the fearful flee into the bush and the vulnerable are left behind to fend for themselves, if they’re not murdered to make a grisly point–if there is a point to such mayhem–that the militia are all-powerful.

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Wikimedia / Steve Evans. Creative Commons.

I wonder how many times this depravity will be repeated, and why such evil seems to pass from one generation to the next and travel from one region to another with depressing consistency? And of course there is no easy answer.

I know that the hard, cold reality is that only Africans can change Africa. Sudanese religious leaders have spoken out against the tribal violence and called for international help.

Their plea is a call for change, and for those of us far removed by geography to be agents of change.

We can assist those who are  easing the plight of those affected, we can press governments and international agencies to seek justice for those left behind, vulnerable, abused, and exploited. We can act to bring change.

How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1 John 3:17-18 NRSV)

Insidious Corruption Destroys Trust

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Government officials and business operators have extracted millions from government coffers in Malawi, one of Africa’s poorest nations. This money could have gone into roads, education and health care, but instead it went into private wallets of the privileged and well-connected.

According to a recent report, the re-election of reform-minded President Joyce Banda is in peril because she has been willing to clean up government corruption. Sixty-eight people, some officials in her own government, have been arrested in a scandal known as Cashgate.

Often it is argued that this money circulates through the economy, as if graft is merely another way of keeping an economy running, but it isn’t. A hospital administrator reports that medicines and medical supplies are in dangerously short supply.  She tells of a young woman who died for lack of supplies to administer a blood transfusion after childbirth.

In fact, corruption is not harmless, it’s lethal when it drains funds for health and welfare, education and infrastructure. It undercuts effective, efficient governance. It adds to the cost of doing business. 

Corruption is insidious. It works its way through a society and becomes so seamless that it can seem to be the oil that keeps the wheels of society turning. Too often, it’s accepted as the way things work.

It tarnishes the institutions of society, institutions that are designed to enhance quality of life–education, health, government, religion. When the leaders of these institutions accept corruption as inevitable, they work against their own mission of uplifting and empowering people, and they contribute to the on-going injustice and oppression that keeps people down.

Transparency International says “corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. It hurts everyone who depends on the integrity of people in a position of authority.”

Recently, traveling from Blantyre to Lilongwe our vehicle was stopped at an intersection by a smiling, friendly uniformed policeman who asked, “Do you have a small gift for me?” He was smooth as butter, his smile bright and toothy.

We resisted giving him money. After a few minutes, he agreed to another gift, a book. A prayerbook.

Our response was inadequate. It still pricks at my conscience. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve been shaken down in Africa. I have more than 30 years of experience with it.

Perhaps that’s why I’m impatient and frustrated. Corruption seems intransigent. And corruption keeps people in poverty. It breeds the diseases of poverty and illiteracy.

The one institution I can influence to avoid corruption is the church. I’ve seen how the church working in partnership with other organizations committed to transparency and ethical behavior can make a difference.

It’s not easy. I know it’s a difficult challenge to confront corruption, sometimes it’s dangerous, especially when corruption has become embedded in the fabric of the society.

But so long as corruption is tolerated, Africa will struggle and people will die, and that should weigh heavily on every person who seeks to follow the teachings of Jesus.

College Debt and the Search for Financial Freedom

I am concerned that the debate by politicians about student loans is actually distracting us from the critical need for financial aid for deserving young people who lack the resources and experience to achieve higher education. The debate focuses on the mechanics of loans, interest rates and what types of educational enterprises should be eligible to offer loans, while it minimizes the need for loans for deserving persons.

Thinking about this takes me back to my own college days and my struggle to survive financially, and it highlights why, for some, financial aid is critically important.

My family made no provisions for me to go to college, much less seminary. If you are the first generation of your family to go to college, no one in the family has any idea what it takes to pay for tuition, fees, room and board, books and other living expenses.

To get to college in the first place, I worked summers at all kinds of jobs. I’ve hauled trash, mowed weeds on the roadside, been a lifeguard.  When I got to college, I sold subscriptions door to door to make ends meet. These jobs did not provide a reliable source of income.

Church aid makes difference

In those days, I was hungry a lot of the time. I gave up my meal ticket in college because I couldn’t afford it.

If I went home on the weekends, I would bring back whatever food I could, but in those days before there were dorm refrigerators, I would buy a bag of cinnamon rolls and try to make them last all week, allowing myself only one in the morning and one at night.

8.19.13infographic-design_1After my freshman year at a private university, I had to transfer to a less expensive public university. I took an appointment as a supply pastor and commuted 50 to 60 miles a day so I could live in the parsonage and save on room and board.  I’d leave at 4 a.m. and wouldn’t get back home until 10 p.m. And later, when I attended seminary, I took a position as a student intern with a paid salary.

But the critical difference came in the form of United Methodist student loans and scholarships that helped my wife and me to get by. A United Methodist student loan was the most affordable loan I could get, and it filled in the gap between the individual scholarships I received and the income I was able to earn.

That loan made it possible for me to get an education. The term of the loan was long enough and the interest rate low enough that the payments were manageable on a pastor’s income after graduation.

Education must be affordable

The United Methodist Church has a long history of helping students reduce college debt through scholarships and low-interest loans.  In fact, the 146-year-old United Methodist Student Loan Fund is the oldest student loan fund in the United States.

In a sense, this track record is a prophetic public witness to the need for accessible financial aid for deserving but resource-limited persons. The scholarship and loans were vitally important to me, and I’m deeply grateful that I was able to get them. They made all the difference for me, but the church can’t do this alone.

In the current debate about financial aid and student debt, my hope is that we can find ways to make higher education affordable for all, especially for young people who lack resources and whose families lack the experience of higher education and its costs.

 

Sandwich Race and Hungry Kids

Sandwich RaceIt was both fun and inspirational to read the social media posts yesterday from United Methodists in Georgia who had committed to making sandwiches for hungry children across the state. The Georgia United Methodists partnered with major corporations and Action Ministries to provide 200,000 healthy lunches to children in communities across Georgia. According to John R. Moeller, Jr. of Action Ministries, 800,000 children qualify for free or reduced fee lunches when school is in session but don’t get the same nutrition over the summer. As a result, Action Ministries is working in 22 north Georgia communities feeding hungry kids five days a week.

A secondary fun goal in this Rethink Church event for United Methodists was an attempt to break the world record for the number of sandwiches made in one hour as verified by the Guinness Book of World Records. In a more serious vein, the church was also demonstrating that Christian faith has an active expression. As Sybil Davidson of The United Methodist Church said, this event was an effort of United Methodist Christians to get outside the walls of the church and meet the needs of the communities through acts of service.

The event brought media focus to an important need that is easily overlooked in the summertime. Mark Hellman of Action Ministries says that social workers tell Action Ministries some of these children return to school 15 t0 20 pounds under weight when school begins and he notes that this can affect their ability to learn. This is the underlying reason for the Smart Lunch, Smart Kids campaign conducted by Action Ministries with volunteers from Georgia churches.

Nationwide, Bread for the World, an ecumenical citizens action group, is calling attention to the on-going problem of hunger in the United States through Preaching to End Hunger workshops by the pastor emeritus of Riverside Church, The Rev. Dr. James Forbes, Jr. Dr. Forbes is preaching and leading homiletics workshops across the country to call attention to the problem and provide pastors with resources to address it from the pulpit.

Bread provides a fact sheet on the effects of budget sequestration on hunger and development programs funded by the U.S. government. The fact sheet makes clear that not only children but vulnerable seniors and others are at risk of hunger and related health problems due to Congress’s inaction to address the budget in a more careful and responsible way.

The efforts of Georgia United Methodists to both address the problem of child hunger and call attention to it through the Smart Lunch, Smart Kids partnership carries a message I hope legislators hear. Christian people don’t want to see children go hungry and they are doing what they can in different ways to change this reality. In Georgia on Saturday they took direct action. In meetings around the country they are focusing on how to talk about ending hunger with theological and homiletical training, and through Bread For the World advocacy they are attempting to influence public policy. Each method is needed and provides strong witness to the values of Christian faith.

And by the way, while it’s not yet official, the Georgia United Methodists believe they crushed the existing sandwich record by making over five times more sandwiches than the current record. Way to go!

 

 

 

 

Sharing our lives in a connected world

Villagers in Manjama, Sierra Leone, welcome a
group of United Methodist visitors in August.

Two weeks ago as we drove into the village of Manjama, Sierra Leone, after a four-hour drive from Freetown, I tapped notice of our arrival into my iPad and posted it on Twitter and Facebook. The import of this led me to flashback more than 20 years ago.

I was in a remote village in east Africa. Back home, my son was in need of emergency surgery and my wife was attempting to reach me to discuss how to proceed. I was two days from the nearest telephone service, which was housed in the post office of a regional city.

A Lutheran World Relief staff person got the message from Sharon, drove two days to reach me, and I went to the post office to schedule a telephone call. All told, the effort took three days.

By the time I would return to the U.S., my son would be recuperating. That’s what life was like before cell phones and satellites. For rural Africans who could not get to a post office, it was a disconnected, isolated world.

Now, using a relatively inexpensive device and equally inexpensive airtime, I was messaging my arrival at a remote point in the most unremarkable way. Moreover, I had spoken with Sharon earlier using the iPad and a free app called Whistle.

Beyond noting the obvious — my, how things have changed — there is within this tale a more significant learning. The world has shrunk. We are not disconnected. Our destinies are interwoven in ways never conceived by our parents and grandparents.

Our hopes and aspirations, dreams and desires — even our arrivals and departures — can be shared globally. Knowledge is no longer contained in hierarchical institutions or organizations. Relationships are no longer limited to the people in our geographic village. We are influenced by an emerging global culture that sometimes battles with and sometimes complements our own local culture. We can tell our stories without the mediation of professionals who add their own judgments and analyses.

How we understand ourselves and our place in the world is changing, and it will continue to change and evolve as new technologies become affordable, dispersed and accessible. Forms of this technology have already penetrated the most isolated places. It’s no longer just the elite who are connected.

The key question that will be answered, perhaps generations from now, is this: How will this technology change the quality of life, especially for those who have been isolated and voiceless? We don’t know how. We’ve only scratched the surface.

It’s a theological question. A faith question. A question about community. As I looked into the faces of the people of Manjama, I thought, “Things have changed. And it’s only just begun.”

Could U.S. unemployment reach 10%? The people hunger for hope

If the recession is easing, as this morning’s headlines suggest, we still have a long way to go. Today, I read that U.S. unemployment is on the rise yet again. Columnist Bob Herbert recently wrote the effective unemployment rate–counting those who’ve given up seeking work, those working part-time but seeking full-time jobs, and those recently laid off–could be as high as 16.5 percent. Staggering.

If the official rate reaches 10 percent, which is possible, it could set off yet another economic contraction. Anxiety is high. People seek sources of hope.

At the 2008 General Conference, Bishop Mary Ann Swenson called The United Methodist Church the “cup that runneth over.” As people hunger today, are we sharing our bounty of hope? The hope we know in Jesus Christ? Are we going out into our communities to reach people who fear the worst, to be the community Jesus calls us to be even amid despair?

As everyone knows, church membership in North America is in decline, and spiritual seekers are looking elsewhere. It is a trying time for we who hold dear the Wesleyan principles. But it’s also a time of opportunity. We must seize this as an opportunity to do what God calls us to do … to leave our church buildings and go to the people who hunger for hope.

United Methodist Communications is trying to do our part. We have invited the people of The United Methodist Church into a conversation to Rethink Church. Its goals include gaining the attention of spiritual seekers, to engage, invite and offer the message of hope that United Methodist Christians believe in.

If unemployment worsens, people will be desperate for connection, community and, perhaps, evidence that God is present with us, and that this makes a difference. In community we embody that hope, and through community we live the evidence. How might we share it?

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