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Conversation sparks energy around life-and-death issue

Have you ever been in a conversation that gave your thoughts permission to soar? One that you knew was important and filled with meaning even as it continued?

I was in a conversation like this recently. We were talking about the creative treatment of the Imagine No Malaria campaign.

This campaign seeks to put an end to deaths caused by malaria. Every 45 seconds, the disease takes the life of someone in Africa–a child, mother or father. It’s been around perhaps as long as we’ve walked upright.

The conversation brought us to discuss new ways of bringing the message to those of us in the U.S. and Europe where malaria isn’t a problem.

The challenge is how to convey the seriousness of its effects.

The conversation was focused and everyone engaged. There were no side comments or cynical diversions that undercut the concern, as often occurs in meetings.

It became a conversation about life and death and how to communicate about it. Strange as it sounds, it was not heavy and ponderous. In fact, it was uplifting, creative and soaring.

It was a conversation about life and how to contribute to and engage with others in a mission to make life better—not in a way that is self-gratifying, but by comprehending how we are all interconnected and responsible for each other.

Conversations like this make my day.

More on Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

In a previous post, I referred to the phrase, “Think globally, act locally.” It’s become a bumper sticker cliché, yet it remains meaningful in our shrunken, globally interconnected world.
We are connected in ways unknown to earlier generations–from global economic policy to national governance to local community organization to the education and training of individuals.

No single entry point is sufficient, and no small-scale, independent effort is adequate.

In Imagine No Malaria, the people of The United Methodist Church are partnering to achieve scale while also rebuilding local infrastructure to support community health and social development. They are thinking globally, acting locally.
The fight to end deaths caused by malaria is global, but it will be won, neighborhood by neighborhood, one family at a time. Viewed in its totality, the effort substantially to reduce deaths caused by malaria is a huge undertaking. Only a couple of years ago, it was considered an impossibility. But in the years since the people of The United Methodist Church have become involved, a global movement has developed that sees this goal not merely as a vision but as a target.
When then-General Secretary Randy Day hung a bed net at a meeting of the Board of Global Ministries, he put the challenge to the church. Then he and Bishop Joao Machado spoke at a Summit on Global Health sponsored by TIME. The bishop held up a hand-cranked radio and explained how it could deliver information to help prevent malaria. Immediately following this, Dr. Day and I spoke to the Council of Bishops about the challenge to end malaria.
These fledgling efforts led to General Conference affirming the Four Areas of Focus with the Global Health area, including a campaign for $75 million to provide bed nets to combat the disease. This decision followed a mesmerizing speech by Bill Gates Sr. Mr. Gates called the church to join a global movement to end the tragic effects of this disease. And the delegates responded.
Two years later, the people of The United Methodist Church are taking the challenge into their own congregations, acting locally on this global problem. They have raised $10 million, the first goal set by the campaign plan. And they are moving forward.
Last week, a delegation of three bishops, guests and general agency staff participated in two launch events for Imagine No Malaria with the three bishops of the Democratic Republic of Congo in two cities there. The striking thing about this was the crowds that turned out to hear the blunt speeches and the wonderful singing of Yvonne Chaka Chaka, a singer of continent-wide renown.
When she asked the thousands of people surrounding the stage in Kamina in central Congo if they wanted nets, they responded with a roar of affirmation. What is significant about this is that only a few short months ago, many did not know what causes malaria and were not interested in bed nets as a result. The educational message has spread quickly, and the response is immediate. These conditions–of awareness and desire for nets–are yet another important step forward.
However, small-scale efforts cannot achieve the goal of continent-wide coverage. This requires multiple partners and geographic reach. In Kamina, for example, The United Methodist Church has already distributed 15,000 nets. This is important. These nets will protect thousands of children. But 450,000 people in this region alone remain without. This illustrates the challenge. It’s one of scale.
With partners, including the United Nations Foundation; the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and a host of others, The UMC must scale up to cover the region. Coupled with other important changes, the goal of reducing malaria deaths in Kamina and the whole of Africa can be achieved.
In Austin Sunday, people danced and celebrated World Malaria Day and the formal launch of the campaign Imagine No Malaria. It was a glorious afternoon of celebration, and we celebrated surpassing the first fundraising goal of $10 million. We are a part of a global movement that is making history. And more.
Jesus said, “Bring the children to me, for of such is the kingdom of God.”
I have seen God’s kingdom in little feet dancing and kicking up dust to the mellifluous singing of a beautiful African woman in what only a day earlier was a trash dump in a forgotten neighborhood of a resource-deprived African city. And I have never been more firmly convinced that the transforming love of God does not operate within the limits of local or global. It happens wherever and whenever we have the eyes to see, the ears to hear and the hands to join in the work of transformation in Jesus’ name.
God is already about the work of transformation. God is present in our lives teaching us to be about, no, calling us to, the leading causes of life, as Gary Gunderson has so aptly stated it.
Challenging us to see that a trash-laden field with fetid standing water can become God’s kingdom. Challenging our imagination. Imagine, no malaria.

Malaria battle is won a family at a time

April 22, 2010

The Teeming City of Kinshasha.

The first thing that struck me about Kinshasha, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is the crush of people. On the way from the airport, you pass markets teeming with people. People line the roads waiting for transport vans, walking and selling their wares.

As war progressed across the north and east, people came to the city for safety and stayed. Today it’s a mass of people and clogged streets with vehicles jockeying for inches of space in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
While construction projects are underway in nearly every section of the city, run by Chinese engineers, people are making do. Nearly everything is recycled for another purpose—bricks, wood, auto parts, even plastic jugs. Many of the city’s streets have been neglected for years and are barely passable in four-wheel drive vehicles. Our driver drove into an unmarked section of concrete that had been removed from the street and our vehicle dropped to its front axle.

Sewers run with foul drainage, and some hold standing water. Trash is not collected and lies everywhere. A heavy rain flooded local neighborhoods and roads. As we sat in a traffic jam, I watched a woman clean her home and shop only feet from the street where we were immobilized. She removed soaked cardboard that had lined the walls of her living area. She carried out a small water-logged table, and laid out bedding, clothing and food boxes.

Beyond the daily struggle to survive under these conditions, I thought how challenging it would be to take on health care in these neighborhoods. People live literally on top of each other with inadequate sanitation and substandard housing. Where would a community improvement effort begin? How would you distribute bed nets to these teeming masses in these terribly congested neighborhoods with no basic services?

That is the challenge of scale and it’s an enormous challenge. It highlights that we must think about engaging at every level of relationship from global economic policy to national governance to local community organization to educating and training individuals. No single entry point is sufficient, and no small scale effort independent of others is adequate.

What we are trying to do in Imagine No Malaria is partner to achieve scale, while also rebuild local infrastructure to support community development. The fight to end deaths caused by malaria is a global fight, but it will be won neighborhood by neighborhood, one family at a time.

Celebration brings tears of joy, hope

April 15, 2010

It was already an emotional day for me. The past two years had pointed toward the launch of the campaign by The United Methodist Church called Imagine No Malaria. It had been a long, sometimes frustrating journey. And this day symbolized for me the first milestone after General Conference initiated this effort to end the preventable death and suffering that results from malaria.
The stage was set in what had been, a day earlier, a filthy trash dump surrounded by pools of fetid water. I could not have imagined workers could clean up this place so quickly and so completely. It was testimony to the high value placed on the net distribution that would take place here.
But first we were holding a public celebration to emphasize the importance of sleeping under the nets, keeping the environment clean, draining standing water and recognizing the symptoms of malaria.

Photo by Lynne Dobson

Yvonne Chaka Chaka, an African singer of continent-wide renown and adoration, was the celebrity attraction. When she called the children to come toward the stage, there was a rush of tiny limbs and legs the likes of which I’d never seen before. They screamed and reached out to her, they danced and created a dust storm, they smiled and the day seemed to come alive in a new way.

And I lost it. I think the tears were my own expression of thanksgiving, joy and hope. This is what we have been working for. It’s about these little children having a fair chance to live full, long productive lives. To experience the words that Jesus spoke, “I am come that you may have life, and live it abundantly.” 
It’s clear in their innocence, with their bright smiles and dancing feet, these little faces deserve that chance. They deserve to have a future in which life is more than a struggle to survive each day. They deserve to have the opportunity to grow and develop into the full, productive people God has created all of us to be.
In my 30 years of communicating about faith and the abundant life, this day will stand out as one of the most meaningful and moving. Through the movement to end malaria deaths, the people of The United Methodist Church have truly joined in the work of establishing the kingdom of God in the most forgotten places among the most overlooked people. Here is where we will find God, and here is where our faith will be confirmed.

Nets distribution signals time for change

April 14, 2010

As we stepped into the classroom at a mission school, I was surprised at how many mostly young adults listened intently to the instructor. He explained how to speak to residents of the poor neighborhood about the use of bed nets.
A list of points was written on a blackboard. He spoke each in a single sentence and asked a volunteer to repeat. Then he asked the entire group.
What struck me was that this effort had never happened before in this resource-deprived community. I was taken aback by how many community health workers had volunteered for this duty. More than 150 had volunteered to take bed nets into homes and teach people how to use them. And the volunteers in the room weren’t the full complement.
For the demonstration project, only six workers were needed. It was unusual to have more volunteers than needed. However, after the celebration that would follow and the demonstration for dignitaries, this small group would be taxed to deliver and train residents in the community to use the nets properly. They had their job cut out for them because nets had never been available to people here.
In fact, the community has barely any services to sustain and enhance life. Not clean water. Not proper sanitation. Not paved streets. Nothing but rudimentary health services.
But perhaps these enthusiastic young people revealed at least the start of an essential asset that can provoke change. They were here, they were willing and they wanted to learn and act. This alone is worth celebrating.

Community-Based Development in Congo

A boy in Lumbumbashi looks at contaminated water that is a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Photo by the Rev. Larry Hollon.

Last month, I had the opportunity to visit Lumbumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo to participate in planning for a World Malaria Day event that will feature a distribution of insecticide-treated bed nets.

The infection rate from malaria is high in Lumbumbashi. Standing water, open sewers, a contaminated water table and scarcely any economic infrastructure for jobs or businesses makes this place one of the poorest suburbs in the world.

While there, I sat outside in the late afternoon before an impressive stand of bamboo listening to a conversation about community-based development.

Actually, the conversation was about how this interfaith group of clergy and physicians would provide bed nets to two of the most resource-deprived neighborhoods in the city. They were devising a bold plan, giving thought to other partners, how to distribute nets, train residents in utilization, recruit volunteers and get media coverage.

They will recruit 150 volunteers, survey the neighborhoods, conduct community meetings and organize in-home distribution.

It is a grassroots group organizing to tackle a common enemy that knows no boundaries and affects everyone regardless of faith, gender, age or location-malaria. The people of The United Methodist Church will be one of the partners.

They had met earlier in the day with the regional minister of health to begin the process of establishing a relationship with this essential government partner. In the late afternoon, the UN Special envoy for malaria met with them as well.

The neighborhoods they serve have never had a bed net distribution. When we visited them the following day, it was clear they lack virtually every basic service from clean water to paved streets to sewers to trash pickup. Fetid, rotting garbage lined drainage ditches flowing with sewage and rain water. Children walked barefoot and played in the pockmarked dirt road amidst standing water and garbage. No wonder outbreaks of diseases are common here.

The clergy and physicians know the problems firsthand. They live or work here. They discussed how community residents might react to the bed net distribution and how to train them to use the nets properly. They know the people, their fears and capacity. This is the value of community-based organization. It is organically connected to the realities on the ground.

I came away from Congo more optimistic than I was going in. I had a media-created image, accurate but incomplete. The meetings under the bamboo gave me a bigger picture, and a belief that solutions to seemingly intractable problems are possible.

I left thinking new thoughts about community-based development and hopeful that as this small group of committed leaders continue their work they will experience a success and in due time move from net distribution to other activities that empower them and their communities, and make life better for the kids walking barefoot through the fetid trash and foul water.

Change the World

As followers of Jesus, we are a people who know change individually and collectively. Jesus embodied change and called his followers to be changed because they live within the embrace of a loving God. To know Jesus is to be changed—in a redemptive, soul-renewing way.

Recently I sat in a meeting in which people discussed unselfconsciously and with a sense of realism how to change the world by eliminating malaria, a disease of poverty. I spent the day bouncing between awe and amazement. It was emotional because they have already made substantial progress by creating a movement called Nothing But Nets which is an effort to provide bed nets to people in malaria affected zones, mostly in Africa.

It was not a theological discussion, but I reflected upon it from the perspective of my own faith and it provided me with a humbling set of learnings, plus a call to deeper commitment. So, as I look forward to a new year, I reflect on this partnership and what I can learn from it.

The first learning is that as followers of Jesus, we live in the hope of a changed world, a world in which every child has the opportunity to live the abundant life God intends for us. No child need die from a preventable disease. We work toward a world in which we identify the “leading causes of life,” to borrow the wonderful phrase Gary Gunderson and Larry Pray have given us. And we seek to bring life where death imposes its presence with such terrible results as malaria, HIV/AIDS and the other diseases of poverty.

The second learning is that if we come to the table as a community of support with others who share similar concerns and work together, we can, under God’s grace, partner with God and others in an ongoing action that leads to life. We are created for relationship with God and with others, and we are called as disciples of Jesus to bring the life-giving light.

And the third learning is that we can do remarkable things if we forget about who gets credit and get on with carrying out the work we are called to do. It is God’s world, and we are at best weak reflections of the power and redemptive possibilities of God at work in the world. But we are reflections. The changes we seek do not result from our own doing, but from the presence of a redemptive and loving God who precedes us and beckons us to come into those places where God is already at work.

There are those who are writing and speaking of the past decade as one to forget. That’s understandable. The stresses and suffering of these past years are painfully real and have caused great hardship for millions around the globe. We should not minimize this nor let it pass unnoticed and unattended. But it’s not enough to conclude that this is the way world is and it can be no other. Nor that this is the whole story.

As a journalist and a person of faith, I came to believe some years ago that there are many small, dramatic stories that reveal world-changing qualities but they don’t have the conflict or drama that draws attention. The challenge of journalism is to tell the stories, large and small, in which the human drama is played out.

And the challenge of faith is to understand that it is because of our brokenness that we are called to engage in serving others and being the light of change in places of darkness where people struggle, suffer and endure. We are not called to give in to the forces of evil but to overcome them.

I look to the coming year with great hope, energized by the thought that we in the church can be a part of a world-changing, life-sustaining movement that could very well end a disease of poverty by 2015. So I look forward to telling the stories of life, big and small, that point to the potential for, and the reality of, change. To know Jesus is to be changed and to work toward a changed world.

Nothing But Nets Third Anniversary

Just returned from a partners meeting of Nothing But Nets, the movement to provide bed nets to prevent malaria. It was an inspiring meeting, almost like a religious experience. Progress is being made in the battle against this disease that kills a child every 30 seconds. We’re at a hinge point in history. It is possible that these deaths could be significantly reduced, if not eradicated in the next five years.

Distribution in Ethiopia, Zambia and Rwanda shows that bed nets can significantly reduce cases of malaria. We must not lose the momentum. We have to keep at this task. The world got to this point once in the 1950s and relaxed, only to see the malaria parasite become more virulent and resistant. So we must celebrate the gains and keep working.

This progress itself is inspiring, however, and I came away feeling something equally compelling.

As I listened to various “champions” speak about their involvement in Nothing But Nets, I was deeply moved. The United Nations Foundation, with backing from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has sparked a movement toward life that is inspiring.

What this movement demonstrates is vitally important in this day of skepticism about global change.

When organizations agree to partner, they bring tremendous assets and creativity to the task far greater than any one can do alone.

When these resources are aligned and focused, they can achieve scale that is truly significant. In this instance, millions of lives can be saved, the heavy economic burdens of this disease on national economies can be reduced, and the significant drain on national health care systems can be slowed.

When organizations partner with mutual support and seek the good of the whole, everybody wins. The partners get the individual goodwill they need, the cause gets the benefit of broad support and messaging it needs, the constituents associated with the partners get the involvement they desire, and the people who are benefited by the cause get the services they need to improve their lives.

After hearing the personal stories of the various partners, I’m sure everyone left the meeting feeling a bit better about themselves and optimistic about the effort to bring life to children in malaria afflicted regions of the world. When we do good, we feel good about ourselves. This is a nice benefit but it’s not sufficient, however. We do good not simply to feel good, but to bring about meaningful, lasting, sustainable change.

Bed nets are one simple input that opens the door for this kind of change. They are not the whole solution. But they are a start. A simple technology that if used properly can lead to much greater and quite significant change. Ten dollars to save a life. What a bargain. What a movement.

Video update from Global Fund Summit


The power of partnership


As I fought off jet lag this afternoon, my mind raced with ideas. The meeting with executives from the Lutheran denominations and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria was more stimulating than even I had expected, and I was hopeful going in.

The whole day was a lesson in the effectiveness of partnership. Together we can make good things happen. We can save lives. In Global Fund lingo, it’s about scale. Combine resources and skills with a strategy for national coverage and you can make a dent, a significant dent, in the diseases of poverty.

Ethiopia has reduced mortality from malaria by 50 percent in a just a few years with national bed net distribution. Other nations are seeing similar dramatic life-saving change. This happens when resources and skills are aligned, a national plan is created by those who will implement it, and adequate funds are made available. When this happens at scale, the effects of the diseases of poverty can be reduced, if not eliminated.

United Methodists and Lutherans bring much to the table. We are present in remote areas far beyond the end of the road. We’re in rural, under-served villages that lack financial resources but have deep community connections. The people in these villages, our brothers and sisters, are United Methodists and Lutherans. They are us, and we are them. One global community.

I was reminded of this system we United Methodists call our connection. And I kept thinking about what a transforming potential it holds. When we align, focus and partner with others at scale, we can change the world. Even if you’re addled by jet lag, that’s exciting to consider!

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