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Fear or Faith? The Alternative View of the World

Fear is not the only force at work in the world. When The United Methodist Church proclaimed this biblical truth by posting a building-size banner near Ground Zero in New York following the 9/11 tragedy, the church spoke not only to passersby but to the world.

By projecting its voice into the global conversation at this critical moment, the church brought reassurance and hope that despite the fear the terrorists hoped to instill there is an alternative way to view the world. The church took the message of the gospel into the streets, as Wesley did when he started the Methodist movement.

The biblical basis for this claim is 1 John 4:18,19, “perfect love casts out fear.” This brief passage is a remarkable teaching about the power of love, and its ability to overcome fear.  God’s perfect love casts out our fear.

The 2011 Global Involvement Survey by United Methodist Communications reveals that fear of terrorism has not really taken root as a major force among United Methodists in the U.S., nor a majority of the society.  Twice as many people (32%) are concerned about the state of the global economy as are concerned about terror (16%).  Undeniably, this economic concern includes a great deal of uncertainty, if not fear, but, as a church and as a society, we are not particularly bound by our fears. I take hope in this.

As I reflect on 9/11 and how it has affected us, I am reminded that the crisis compelled us to see the world and our place in it differently. The old polarity of local and global no longer holds. We live in an interconnected world in which circumstances affecting people far away can have direct effect upon us.  Approximately 60% of those surveyed agreed that the world is a more interconnected today.   Like it or not, we are citizens in a global environment.

The research also reveals a challenge. We understand connections close to home better than we understand how global interconnections affect us. That’s understandable, but it does place responsibility on us as disciples of Jesus to think of the world as our parish, as John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement said, and to see how the local and global are intertwined by the bonds of God’s love for all.

I think the tragedy of 9/11 awakened us to a new global reality. The future is neither local nor global, it is glocal, a term that captures a wide range of activities of friendship, kinship and commerce, according to its Wikipedia entry.

Nor is the future something of which to be afraid. As local and global are intertwined, we are given the opportunity to express our faithfulness and discipleship in the dynamic mix of this divine symmetry. We live in God’s Creation under the reign of God. This is both spiritually comforting and has practical application. As we do ministry locally and globally, we gain understanding of our place in God’s Creation and discover the wondrous beauty of the whole.

I thank God that we need not live fearfully in the world, but that we are called to love the world boldly. And I’m thankful that Wesley called us to have the vision to see the whole world as the place for us to do ministry.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it…Psalm 24:1-2.

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Faith Media + Culture is pleased to release the first of a series of surveys on contemporary issues surrounding media consumption, changing culture and our faith.

To download a copy of the report, please click here.

 

 

 

 

This Small Planet: The Power of Connections in a Shrinking World

A friend recently told me she had texted a colleague in Zimbabwe about travel needs for an upcoming visit. The reply came with questions and an admonishment for prompt answers. We chuckled at the reality of the need for immediacy across an ocean and a continent.

Once, a trip to Africa required long advance planning. Communication was hit or miss (telegram, telephone or weeks-long delivery by snail mail). No more. With cell phones, we’re as near as if we were next door. As a result, our expectations and behaviors have changed.

Upon entering a rural village in Sierra Leone not long ago, I discovered could send photos of our impressive welcoming celebration immediately from my iPad with its cellular capability.  From the dashboard of our vehicle, I sent photos and sounds in near-real time. We are interconnected in ways that stretch the imagination.

Globalization is about more than global supply chains and assembly lines. When we buy food, clothing, gasoline, automobiles and many other products, we’re experiencing globalization, and we hardly bat an eye. Sometimes, globalization is threatening and unwelcome, particularly when it means jobs shipped elsewhere. Despite this, the pace of globalization hasn’t slowed. On the contrary, it has sped up.

In contrast, global interconnectedness is about interaction, interdependence and cross-cultural influence. It’s not about the supply chain; it’s about the flow of information and ideas across borders.

We have Facebook friends around the world. Our children connect with peers oceans away, and some have even talked with astronauts in space. Online education is occurring across vast reaches of geography. For some, this interconnectedness has become routine, and for digital natives it is their natural state.

In a recent survey by United Methodist Communications, 60 percent of the population in the United States concur we’re more globally interconnected, but, interestingly, a smaller number seek news about global issues. The majority know we live in an interconnected world but accept it without seeking to know more about our global neighbors.

Whether that’s a bad thing or simply a fact of life in our media-overloaded world is open to debate. But it seems to me that understanding one another is more necessary than ever. At least we should know something about the injustices, inequities and abuses that feed the uprisings and instability that can affect our own quality of life and social stability. That is the change the 9/11 tragedy ushered in.

We should be concerned about this because with knowledge our interactions can create better conditions for all peoples. Interconnection can deliver positive benefits. It’s a stimulus for innovation, creativity and greater awareness of our common problems. It opens the door to cooperation. Of course, it can have harmful consequences, but that’s all the more reason to learn more, not less.

We’re on this small planet hurtling through space with a common destiny. Increasingly, we have the ability to overcome the barriers of time and geography that once separated us. For the first time in human history, we have an opportunity to interact, learn and discuss together the common good using tools widely available and remarkably empowering.

More than ever before, people are moving out of poverty as knowledge is shared and skills are transferred. The tide of history is sweeping us toward a more interconnected and interactive world. It is better to embrace this reality than to ignore it and be swept up in the current.

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Faith Media + Culture is pleased to release the first of a series of surveys on contemporary issues surrounding media consumption, changing culture and our faith.

To download a copy of the report, please click here.

 

 

Poll on Global Citizenship Released

The survey looks at American attitudes toward global citizenship.

United Methodist CommunicationsThe 2011 Global Involvement Survey, being released here, underscores the increasing sense of connection people have with international events.

The study finds that one in five U.S. adults follows international news closely, with almost half (48 percent) following international news at least once a day.  Our interest and consumption of international news seems to grow with our age and probably our exposure to the world. The heavy consumer of international news tends to be a male, over 55 years old.

Some of the major stories we have seen in the past six months have literally rocked the world – Japan’s earthquakes, Osama bin Laden’s death, struggling European and U.S.  economies, collapsing Arab regimes, famines and drug wars. These are more than regional events; their shockwaves are felt on an international scale.

The global stories that attracted the most attention in recent months were the Japanese earthquake and related disasters, and the death of Osama bin Laden.  Other closely followed stories included Libya’s efforts to overthrow Moammar Gaddafi, the Arab Spring, Mexico’s drug wars and the recent royal wedding.

Economy Trumps Terrorism as Top Concern

2011 Global Involvement SurveyBut with all these stories grabbing media space, the top international issues in the world today are economic weakness and unemployment, with one-third of respondents ranking the economy and lack of jobs first.  It appears that issues that can affect our livelihood rank higher than even terrorism, which was listed as the most important issue by 16 percent.

Those who follow news closely seek out more sources of news.  And older adults are much more likely to view traditional media, such as television and print, while young adults are more likely to get news from online sources.

Responding to Global Issues

Some 60 percent of the survey respondents agree that the world is more interconnected today.  Undoubtedly, the tremors from real earthquakes, terrorist events and tumultuous economies seem to be felt in towns throughout America. Not surprisingly, most adults expect the U.S. government to take an active role in addressing international issues related to human suffering, such as providing famine relief, ending genocide, promoting clean water and eradicating disease.

Respondents, however, felt that leadership in addressing global issues of hunger and poverty should be assigned to the United Nations, international medical organizations and governments of countries suffering from the problem.

When looking at world health and diseases of poverty, the most widespread and serious concerns were perceived to be HIV/AIDs (64 percent), malnutrition (53 percent) and obesity (49 percent).

When asked where they turn when disasters happen, 52 percent tend to turn to U.S. and International Red Cross organizations first.  Church and religious organizations were second (29 percent), indicating the important role faith-based institutions play in serving both local and global needs.

Getting Involved Personally

The top activities for personal involvement are donating money (86 percent), donating items (71 percent), volunteering time (46 percent), purchasing from a non-profit (38 percent), sharing information (36 percent) and praying for a group or issue (33 percent). Women are more likely to take part in all areas of community involvement, particularly prayer.

The survey, commissioned by United Methodist Communications, was conducted June 10-18, 2011,  and among 870 adults 18 years of age and older.

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Faith Media + Culture is pleased to release the first of a series of surveys on contemporary issues surrounding media consumption, changing culture and our faith.

To download a copy of the report, please click here.

Why Somalia Matters

A rudimentary health clinic in the bush.

Twenty years ago, I sat at a wooden table under a plastic tarp eating cereal in powdered milk made of charcoal-filtered water at a refugee camp near Luuq, Somalia. It was the sparest of conditions.

In the corner of my eye, I saw a young man and woman with an older woman sit down near a thorn fence a few hundred feet away. The young woman held a baby.

Meanwhile, my colleagues and I joked and teased each other as the sun rose.

After we finished breakfast, a Somali-speaking staff interpreter came to the doctor who sat across from me and took him to the young couple. The young mother handed her baby to the doctor.

I was startled when I heard him shouting curse words. As we had eaten breakfast, they had waited politely and the malnourished child had died.

Hearing this, I became sick to my stomach, not to mention overwhelmed with a load of grief.

That was Somalia 20 years ago, in a massive famine in which millions of Somalis were displaced from their desiccated rangelands. Herds on which they depended for survival were dead and dying. Wells they used across the entire territory were dry. Food could not be found. Famine stalked the vast Ogaden rangelands across the breadth of Somalia and into Ethiopia.

Today, the news from Somalia is as grim. How the country got there is no secret. It’s been a failed state for 20 years.

Drought and conflict

Mother cooking in Somali village near a refugee encampment.

Periodic drought has resulted in famine about every 10 years. What’s different today, according to the U.N. World Food Programme, is changing weather patterns that make drought more common, giving the people and the land less time to recover.

Drought tips the scale, but conflict has been a persistent contributing factor. Famines in 1973, 1984 and 1992 were preceded by intractable conflict.

This year, the food shortages in Somalia have been exacerbated by the lack of humanitarian access to many areas, accompanied by a sharp increase in food prices.

The 10 million estimated by the United Nations to need food assistance today does not approach the 1992 figure of 23 million, according to the BBC. However, reaching them is more difficult. The BBC reports al-Shabab, a group of Islamist insurgents who control the south, has threatened the lives of U.N. staff and imposed unacceptable operating conditions, including informal taxes and a demand that no female staff work there for the WFP.

These recurring conditions — both natural and human-caused — contribute to a sense of futility and donor fatigue that’s dangerous. Those affected by famine are the most vulnerable in this troubled region — children, women and girls, and the elderly. They have not created the conditions that threaten their lives. They are least equipped to deal with famine.

The warlord problem

E.J. Hogendoorn of the International Crisis Group counsels international donors to see the current crisis as an opportunity to establish a relationship with moderates in al-Shabab and attempt to woo them away from terrorism. He suggests the humanitarian response must empower people and not warlords. And he cautions against aid as a component of military operations.

As I traveled through southern Somalia several years ago, locals told me of their frustration with a U.N. repatriation program for warlords conducted under the guise of establishing order. The locals claimed that the United Nations helped warlords who had fled the country after Said Barre’s regime fell, enabling them to return and putting them in charge of administering regional civil infrastructure. The result was the empowerment of the very group that had fractured and destroyed the country in the first place.

Young girl at a health clinic in the Somali bush.

Despite the international frustrations, children, young people and adults are still dying of hunger and related causes today in Somalia, and the world cannot stand by without making an effort to provide the help they need to survive. Somalia is a challenge to our humanity and the conscience of the world. We must not turn away from the innocent.

Called to act

The image of the couple with their baby 20 years ago still haunts me. It motivates me. Where we can, we must prevent children from dying for lack of food. We must be agents of life.

The neglect of Somalia also reminds us that the world is no more secure than its weakest, most vulnerable people, no matter where they are located. For years after the end of the Cold War, Somalia was overlooked by world leaders and its corrupt regime ignored. Then it fell apart, and now it’s a global problem, a place where uneducated, heavily armed young men commit piracy on the high seas and terrorists train recruits to kill and terrorize.

Somalia is not a distant place on the Horn of Africa, nor is the suffering of the Somali people of no consequence to us. As a person of faith who follows Jesus, I am called by his teachings about human worth and my responsibility to my neighbor to be concerned and to act. As a citizen of the world, I know my own desire for peace and a fruitful future is at risk by the unaddressed need for peace and stability in Somalia.

For benevolent reasons, for the well-being of the Somali people and our own, and for global security,  the world cannot ignore Somalia. As I have breakfast today, I know that babies are dying, and faithful discipleship and responsible global citizenship compel me to act.


The Givewell Blog discusses giving to Somali relief with descriptions of agencies currently on the ground. The United Methodist Committee on Relief reports preparation is under way with partners to respond to the crisis.

Country Song Packs A Hell Of A Punch

Hell is losing your job six months short of 30 years, with no parachute, no shiny new gold watch and not so much as a “thank you” as you walk out the door. It’s payments you can’t make on a house you can’t sell, as your kids watch their parents split apart.

 

You don’t have to die to go to hell.

That’s one tale Brad Paisley tells in his newest album, “This is Country Music.” It’s his best work yet. When I first heard the song “A Man Don’t Have to Die,” it felt like a punch in the gut. Sometimes the best country music lyrics can do that.

It reminds me that my silence about the economic realities confronting working people is cowardly and my perspective on faith needs serious readjustment.

The song is written in reaction to the arrival of a new preacher who is warning people about hell. But Paisley counters, “We already know that hell exists.”

It reminds me of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, who preached in the streets as England industrialized in the 1700s. He went to working people – miners in the coalfields of Newcastle and the desperately poor who were left out of the Industrial Revolution. They all lived below government-defined poverty levels.

He spoke to them of personal and social holiness. He told them personal faith and social responsibility cannot be separated. And he asked them to care for each other.

He did not point them to a better life afterward, but he pointed them toward making life better now. To Wesley, the gospel was not palliative; it was prophetic and down-to-earth practical.

As a result, the people called Methodist responded, perhaps because few others cared about them. Though they were cash poor, Wesley admonished every one of them to contribute at least a penny for the aid of others. And they did!

Over time, however, the hard edge of social responsibility got rounded off and smoothed down with preaching about individual piety and comfort. Methodists grew in wealth and status. Today, few – including me — in this faith community speak the language of working people and the poor or stand with them. We speak about the poor, but we are not of the poor as the early Methodists.

As for speaking the language of working people, seminary education took it away from me, and organizational minutiae turned my focus inward toward institutional concerns.

What is needed …

Working people and the poor are among the hidden casualties of the global economic crisis. In the U.S., 28 million people are unemployed or forced into part-time jobs that don’t pay enough to sustain them.

Paisley speaks to them, but not as Wesley did. This powerful song goes where country music has always gone when it comes to religion—angels and the hereafter. And that’s not what is needed.

What’s needed is concern for the here and now. Wesley said everyone in every society is a child of God and deserves to be treated as such, according to United Methodist scholar Richard P. Heitzenrater.

Faith isn’t about reaping rewards in the hereafter; it’s about entering into the reign of God now.

God’s love is for all

We are loved of God, and called by God to love and care for each other. This connects faith to justice and places on us responsibility to ensure that everyone is treated with the dignity Gods intends for us all.

Paisley drove me to Wesley. And Wesley helped me see the need to step out of my parochial, institutional concerns and broaden the definition of community to include everyone from the top to the bottom of the economic scale.

No one – not the immigrant, chronically ill, unemployed, divorced, gay, straight, man, woman or child – stands outside this all-encompassing love and claim of dignity.

If a man doesn’t need to die to go to hell, it’s also true that no one is left out of God’s kingdom. It’s already established. We simply must live so that our lives reveal it.

In the next few weeks, I’ll be offering examples of how people are living it today. In the meantime, if you have an example – or if you have experienced hell in some way – please share your story with me.

 

2000 Churches, Two Days, One Goal to Change the World

This is a post that was featured on Huffington Post on May 11 describing the UMC Change the World Weekend. There were some 2,000 churches and countless volunteers that participated in an amazing two-day weekend May 14-15,  where the goal was just one thing – to make the world a little better for others around us.

There’s a free gas giveaway, a yard sale where everything is free, and a spa day for single moms with no-cost manicures, massages and giveaways. There are free cookies, free bikes, free breakfast, and free car washes. One church will stuff a car with food for the hungry and homeless. Community gardens will be planted, homes will be repaired, money will be raised to build wells and fight malaria.

This weekend, May 14-15, is Change the World weekend, a time when thousands of United Methodists will team up to make the world a better place.

Some of the events are new endeavors. Some are one-time projects. Some are ongoing ministries that have been scheduled to coincide with Change the World. They go by many names — “Spring into Grace,” “Fixin’ it for Christ,” “Feed Our Neighbors,” “Day of Caring” — but all have a common purpose. It’s all about helping our brothers and sisters, whether they are around the corner or around the world.

The First United Methodist Church of Saline, Mich., is changing the world for children in Zimbabwe by collecting used children’s book to start two new libraries at primary schools there. Their goal is to fill a 20-foot shipping container with books — about 500 boxes. Books are coming in from as far away as South Dakota and Ohio. The $8,000 cost for shipping the books will be provided by Morris and Ann Taber, retired mission volunteers who sent similar containers three times previously. The Rev. Laura Speiran said:

“In explaining it to the congregation, I emphasized that it is not just about collecting books (and changing the world for children in Zimbabwe); it is also about inviting people in our own community to become engaged with the church even if they have never been engaged before — that it is about planting seeds, about the love of God being big enough and powerful enough to include them. … We, as United Methodists, are all about changing the world, but through making disciples for Jesus Christ, not just doing good works.”

One event that is an ongoing ministry is a free vision clinic hosted by Oak Forest United Methodist Church in Little Rock, a church of only about 70 members that also has a medical and dental clinic. Inspired by Bartimaeus, the blind beggar who regained his sight when he was healed by Jesus, “Bart’s Clinic” provides free eye exams and eyeglasses for the working poor — people who have no Medicare or Medicaid.

Though it’s been open less than two months and operates just one day a week, the clinic has already managed to change the world for some individuals. Consider the 20-year-old girl who lost her glasses when she was only 10. Unable to replace them, she simply did without glasses. There’s the 5-year-old boy who was able to get glasses before getting behind in school. There have been two cases of glaucoma detected, which untreated would have led to blindness.

The clinic is staffed by medical volunteers and church members who take care of the administrative work of setting appointments and making reminder calls. One of the volunteers is 82 years old.

One’s age, in fact, seems to not be a factor when it comes to changing the world. The congregation at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Beaumont, Texas, where the average age is about 80, is excited about participating in Change the World. They will host a shower for a nearby urban mission. Mandarin United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., says they will have projects designed for volunteers ages 2 to 99; and at First United Methodist Church in Tempe, Ariz., the youth group will host a nail salon for homeless men and women.

The real power of Change the World is that having all the events on one weekend demonstrates the impact of what we can achieve together. Think what could be accomplished if everyone spent an occasional weekend helping a neighbor or volunteering our time.

Undergirding these activities is not just about providing social services. It’s about reflecting the call of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 25 to serve the needs of the poor, the ill and those who are oppressed as an expression of faithfulness to him. To follow Jesus is to be a servant who seeks to change the world.

 

The Buddha Was Wearing a Rolex


The Buddha was wearing a Rolex. He was filling my room. Expanding slowly but steadily. I could not get my breath, and I felt as if he were suffocating me.

I was in a hotel room in Cambodia shortly after the Pol Pot regime had fallen and Vietnam had invaded. I had read a story in National Geographic prior to travel in which a Buddha in the ancient city of  Angkor Wat had been defaced by someone who scratched a crude image of a Rolex watch on his wrist. I’ve never actually seen this Buddha, but the image stuck in my subconscious.

A couple of days earlier, our film crew had stood at the edge of a killing field, the mass graves of victims of Pol Pot’s murderous reign, as a worker unearthed human remains and counted skulls. The grass was ankle high, and I was eaten up with mosquito bites.


I had contracted malaria.
I recall awakening throughout the night feeling hot. I lay on the tiled floor of my hotel room because it felt cool to my cheek. In the morning my colleagues got me to a health clinic run by a humanitarian organization, and I was given medications that soon brought me back to a more normal state. The Buddha left. But I’ve never forgotten him.

I was fortunate. My co-workers recognized the signs of malaria and got me to medical care quickly. The medications and a skilled physician were available. Unlike the circumstances that confront millions of people sick with malaria on the African continent, neither cost nor travel were barriers to getting treatment.

Many of those who deal with the disease, particularly mothers, don’t know what causes malaria. They have no access to medicines or health services. Lacking knowledge, they act too slowly, if at all, and their loved ones die. Others seek out herbal healers who proffer remedies that risk damaging the kidneys or livers of the sick.

Bishop Nkulu Ntanda Ntambo says in the documentary, “A Killer in the Dark,” the deaths that result from this lack of knowledge are so common that his family simply considered the rainy season the season of death. The family, living in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, moved from one village to another when death struck.

But “A Killer in the Dark” also shows how community health workers who train families to use bed nets, clean up their environment and reduce standing water can stem the progress of this disease.

It also shows how the disease can be overcome as it was during the construction of the Panama Canal. The French abandoned the canal due to the toll of malaria on workers. When research finally connected the disease to infected mosquitoes, abatement measures were carried out that allowed workers to complete the canal.

The effort to combat this disease is continuing, and the documentary shows how the efforts of faith-based groups are making a vital contribution to reducing its deadly toll.

Moreover, the methods they use empower whole communities to act so they can enhance and improve community life. No more will these communities accept with resignation that malaria deaths are a natural part of the changing seasons, a part of the cycle of life and death over which they have no control. It is possible to imagine no malaria.  And to make it so.

Pauley Perrette, of NCIS fame, provides the narration for the United Methodist upcoming TV special called “A Killer in the Dark: An Extraordinary Effort to Combat Malaria.” The program, which will air on many NBC affiliates May 1 (check local listings), documents the daily struggle in Africa against malaria and highlights the work of Imagine No Malaria to wipe out a devastating disease that’s killing 2,000 people every single day. The program is presented by the National Council of Churches under the auspices of the Interfaith Broadcasting Commission and is produced by United Methodist Communication.

 

Storytellers on the Front Lines

As I lay on the hood of a Land Rover, propped against the windshield and gazing into the marvelous night sky above Luuq, Somalia, I heard a swooshing sound followed by an explosion that shook the earth. My reverie was quickly broken.

My friend, cinematographer Burton Buller, came out of a tent and exclaimed, “They’re shooting at us!”

They weren’t shooting at us, and he was joking, but they were shooting over us at a bridge not far away.

We were in a refugee camp situated between opposing Somali forces in the Ogaden rangelands, documenting conditions the world cared little about and would as soon ignore.

I thought of this as I considered the deaths of British photojournalist Tim Hetherington and Getty photographer Chris Hondros in a mortar attack in Libya yesterday. Two other journalists were injured.

Getting the story, even under circumstances that are life-threatening, is a driving force for many journalists. They are drawn to the power of storytelling, the conviction that the world must know what is happening, especially in places where life hangs in the balance.

They have an unexpressed desire to make a difference, especially for those who lack the means to tell their own story. They enable others to speak of their experiences, hoping that perhaps the world will care, the policymakers will work for change, the guns will be silenced and the people freed to pursue their lives.

We need the storytellers. They remind us of both our capacity for inhumanity as well as our capacity for human decency. They hold before us the mirror of our humanity. And in doing so they remind us of our worst, and best, perhaps, in the unexpressed hope that by knowing each other more deeply and fully, we can become more truthful, just and dignified. We can become the people we say we want to be when we are at our best.

But to tell this story they must be in harm’s way, for it is in these places, places of extremes, that the drama is played out graphically and with the risk of ultimate resolution – where life or death weigh in the balance.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says 16 journalists have died this year – 44 in 2010. Journalists are under attack in Libya. Throughout the Middle East Spring, they have been among those who pay the price for the wrenching changes that are being pressed on authoritarian, corrupt regimes.

Yet they continue to tell the stories. They continue to remind us who we are and who we aspire to be. Let us pray for them all and be thankful they are reaching out to us, holding up the mirror of reality, and sometimes making the ultimate sacrifice that we may see and know, and care.

 

 

Malaria is No More. Say What?

I got up this morning to an email that referred me to an article in the NY Times in which a representative of Malaria No More says the organization is about to close up shop. Why? Because malaria is coming to an end. Say that again? No more malaria?

Yes, according to the spokesperson for Malaria No More, their mission is accomplished.

No, the mission is not accomplished.

The fact is, children are still dying of malaria at an unconscionable rate. The provision of bednets over the past decade is reducing the incidence of malaria, and for that I am grateful. But bednets are no panacea, and they certainly have not ended this disease of poverty. What happens in three years after the current nets have deteriorated and are no longer effective?

More lasting solutions are required

  • Income generating work is needed so that people can afford to replace the nets.
  • Environmental reclamation and water management are necessary so that mosquitos have fewer breeding places.
  • Continuing research into potential immunization and effective treatment is still needed.
  • New medicines are required as the parasite develops immunity to existing combinations.
  • Training of community health workers to recognize and treat symptoms at the outset of the disease must be carried out.
  • More community health clinics are needed.
  • Rehabilitation of underfunded hospitals and national health systems and support for their overworked personnel is required.
  • Topping off salaries of competent health personnel so they don’t seek jobs in the developed world is necessary.
  • Communications programs to inform mothers and fathers about how the disease is contracted, what they can do to prevent it, how to recognize it before their children are too sick to respond to medications are needed.
  • Preventive measures such as residual indoor spraying are needed for those times when people are not in bed and under nets.

The Malaria No More spokesperson called this organization’s efforts “a project.” No, a project is making a garden planter. Ending a disease of poverty is a lifetime commitment. Preventing the deaths of 5 million children a year is not a project in which you decide after you’ve tired of it, you claim victory, fold up shop and go on to something else.

I can only imagine what those researchers who have dedicated their lives to this disease are thinking about today’s proclamation.

And this raises another significant point. One-off projects that appeal more to the self-interest of the donor than to the larger problem are not the solution to long-term diseases like malaria, diseases that have plagued humankind since we started walking upright. This is why I’m very skeptical of the anti-institutional rhetoric that surrounds entrepreneurial, individualized social do-goodism. You know, one person can change the world stuff. Maybe, maybe not.

Institutions are cumbersome, bureaucratic, frustrating and maddening. I’ve criticized the institutional church as much as anyone. But it gets the job done at scale when it comes to missions such as ending malaria. It will be present with dying children and weeping mothers for the long-term, long after I’ve gone, long after the disease du jour has passed. And with strategic partners, the institutions we call mainline denominations have the capacity to cover a continent. This is scale that will make for lasting change. In this battle, nothing less will do.

Institutions Provide Scale, Sustainability, and Systemic Change

So, hate ‘em or love ‘em, institutions are necessary because they are the way we organize to achieve scale, sustainability, long-term presence, endurance and systemic change. It’s fun and easy to kick them in the shins, they are so vulnerable to such attacks. But one-off projects that don’t seek to create lasting change, empower people to develop their own solutions, and create a living wage so they can enjoy a measure of security are just one-off projects. They vanish as quickly as the fog in sunlight.

The real risk here, however, is that a premature claim that undermines the current progress to end malaria is dangerous to the extreme. This happened once before. In the 1950s malaria was almost wiped out. The world pulled back and decreased funding. A strain of malaria developed in southeast Asia that was more virulent than the prevalent strain. This new parasite ravaged the developing world, gained a foothold and has been depleting Africa of its children, its economic gains and its health care systems for the past sixty years.

We cannot pull back from this fight and allow that to happen again. It would be disastrous.

And so friends, don’t think for a moment that the fight against malaria is over. I hope I’ve even motivated you to join this fight that takes the life of a child in Africa every 45 seconds. I hope you go to the Imagine No Malaria website and send $100 or more to help The United Methodist Church train community health workers, create and train hospital boards of directors so they can re-create more effective hospitals and health delivery systems, purchase and distribute more bednets, create agricultural development and similar programs to help people earn a living wage, educate parents about preventing malaria and recognizing its symptoms, provide medications to rural clinics at the end of the road where poor people have no other healthcare.

This fight is a long way from being over, and it isn’t a project. It’s a commitment to a healthy life for all of God’s children. And we need to see it through–to the last child, in the last village at the end of the road, and beyond.

(April 2, 2011–An afterthought. How could such a claim as this escape the fact-checking and editorial process at the New York Times?)

(April 5, 2011–Since I posted this on Saturday, April 2, the staff of Malaria No More issued a statement saying the organization has never claimed “mission accomplished,” is not closing its doors and will only close after the goal of of ending malaria deaths in Africa has been accomplished.)

The Relief Effort in Japan

Sailors aboard USS Ronald Reagan move food and water onto helicopter for Japan relief. U.S. Navy photo by Commuication Specialist Apprentice Michael Feddersen.

As search and rescue operations continue in Japan, relief efforts are under way by military and Red Cross teams. Nongovernmental organizations with medical personnel are sending doctors and nurses. U.S. religious NGOs have announced they will enter after their Asian and Japanese counterparts determine needs and make requests.

Church World Service reports on its website that it will work with the Japan Platform, a consortium of 32 non-governmental organizations, government service agencies and media outlets. The platform members are assessing how to respond. In addition, CWS, which has had a presence in Southeast Asia since before the war in Vietnam, says it will work through its Southeast Asia Regional Office with individual members of the Japan Platform.

The General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church, which has a small number of missionary personnel in Japan, issued a statement saying the board was praying for Japan and awaiting further word on how to proceed. The United Methodist Committee on Relief, the relief, refugee and development arm of the board, was similarly assessing how to respond under the difficult circumstances.

As I write this, no word has been issued by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church about how church-related colleges and universities with which it works in Japan have been affected.

The complex circumstances involved in this disaster make response immensely more difficult for even the most experienced organizations. The destruction of infrastructure by the earthquake and tsunami, plus the nuclear reactor crisis, makes it unique. These complications are challenging even the well-implemented disaster response capacity of the Japanese government.

Fortunately, most of the nations of Southeast Asia are technologically advanced and have persons with the skills necessary to cope with humanitarian needs. This, coupled with material aid closer to the scene, means that logistics of aid delivery can be more timely and less complicated than delivery from the United States and Europe.

Clearly, the rehabilitation of Japan will require long-term commitment. This is a strength of most of the U.S. religious non-governmental organizations and their constituencies. As the drama of Japan unfolds, it’s wise to contribute cash for the immediate humanitarian needs while also keeping an eye on the future and how we can contribute to the rehabilitation of the country when these various channels open.

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