The Malaria-Ebola Nexus

Digba Massaquoi waits with her 5-year-old son, Lahai, who is ill, at the health clinic in Benduma, outside Bo, Sierra Leone, in July 2014. Amid fears about Ebola, many people in West Africa are choosing not to go to health clinics or hospitals for treatment of other illnesses. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Digba Massaquoi waits with her 5-year-old son, Lahai, who is ill, at the health clinic in Benduma, outside Bo, Sierra Leone, in July 2014. Amid fears about Ebola, many people in West Africa are choosing not to go to health clinics or hospitals for treatment of illnesses. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

The World Health Organization has declared the Ebola outbreak an international health emergency, with 2,000 people infected so far and more than 1,000 deaths in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria. As these countries frantically try to contain Ebola, fearful people are not going to health clinics or hospitals for other illnesses. These illnesses add to the burden created by Ebola.

Malaria is one of the diseases either not being treated or being treated through self-medication, which creates its own  problems. The rainy season is under way, when more malaria cases occur. This compounds the problem. Improper use of malaria medications can result in resistance to the drugs. The medications require a patient to follow a course of treatment, and failure to do so can result in a more drug-resistant parasite in the future.

Researchers suspect a highly resistant parasite now affecting people in south Asia is a result of haphazard malaria drug usage during the Vietnam War.

Both diseases disproportionately affect the poor and ill-informed. Because Ebola and malaria have common early symptoms, such as fever, headache and vomiting, there may be confusion about the cause of illness among both those who are ill and health care providers.

Life-saving messages needed

While malaria is curable, Ebola is not. But there is real concern that the mortality rate from malaria may rise because patients will not seek treatment. Therefore, it is critical to get accurate, life-saving messages to people in these areas.

Communication and education are two of the four pillars The United Methodist Church and its health workers are using in the fight against malaria and Ebola. Neglect of any disease of poverty is costly in human lives and productivity, which means costs to national economies, added burdens for weak national health services, and great human suffering and death.

This panel from an info graphic illustrates malaria's toll. Graphic by Work the World.

This panel from an info graphic illustrates malaria’s toll – as well as lives saved by international efforts. Please click on the infographic link in the narrative to see the entire infographic Graphic by Work the World.

An infographic by Work The World of the UK illustrates both the severity of the toll malaria takes and also the hopeful potential to reduce its consequences. Behavior change communication is essential to reducing the humanitarian crisis of Ebola and the ongoing crisis of malaria.

Responding to the crisis

United Methodist Communications has provided $10,000 crisis communications grants to United Methodist annual (regional) conferences in Liberia and Sierra Leone to help get out health education messages through printed fliers, banners and radio. United Methodist Communications is also networking with other church agencies and international and interreligious organizations to coordinate communications efforts. It has also provided training and software to local communicators to enable them to send broadcast text messages to local people.

Similarly, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the Indiana Annual Conference and the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection have provided cash assistance to affected regions for medical supplies and communications.

The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund to provide support during situations such as this one so that funding will be readily available in the event of a crisis or disaster. Your help is needed to ensure that we are able to meet these needs as they occur. You can donate here.

This situation also underlines the ongoing need to continue the malaria work the people of The United Methodist Church have supported for the past seven years. The world has made great strides in reducing deaths from malaria, but we are still working toward the goal of elimination. To give to Imagine No Malaria, visit ImagineNoMalaria.org.

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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.

 

Poverty: The Common Vector

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

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

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

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

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

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

Profits, neglect and the value of life

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

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

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

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

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

Combating information poverty

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

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

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

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

Response to Ebola counters fear, disbelief and cultural insensitivity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting ahead of the chain

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

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

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

Saving lives with communications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free flow of information is critical in crisis

An educational poster about the dangers of the Ebola virus hangs in the community center at the Jaiama Bongor Chiefdom, outside Bo, Sierra Leone. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

An educational poster about the dangers of the Ebola virus hangs in the community center at the Jaiama Bongor Chiefdom, outside Bo, Sierra Leone. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

“Fear has gripped the nation.” With those words, the Rev. George Wilson of Liberia summed up the state of his country and described the cost of not allowing information to flow freely in a time of crisis.

Rev. Wilson, who is coordinating The United Methodist Church’s response to the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, said in a conference call that fear is preventing people from taking proper steps in dealing with the deadly virus.

His report was discouraging but motivating at the same time. Speaking with United Methodist Communications staff, he confirmed that hospitals are closing as workers voluntarily abandon their workplaces, and Liberians are self-medicating diseases such as malaria because they’re too afraid to go to hospitals.

An op-ed in the New York Times by journalist Wade C. L. Williams about his experience covering the Ebola crisis in Liberia for Front Page Africa is revealing, especially because the emergency has spiraled out of control.

Williams recounted his difficulty early on gaining access to important places and people to tell the story. He was blocked by government officials.

Considering his report and listening to Rev. Wilson, I recalled a telephone call on June 7 from a member of a United Methodist Communications team in Sierra Leone. The team, including a writer from United Methodist News Service, a unit of UMCom, had discovered that Ebola was present near the site of a net distribution conducted by Imagine No Malaria.

Even then, a physician on the ground warned an outbreak was imminent. The virus had already spread from Guinea to Sierra Leone. But the story had not yet been told. “Should we tell it?”  asked the UMCom staffer.

On the face of it, the answer seems clear. Of course we should tell the world.

But, as reporter Williams documents, such situations are rarely so simple. In Liberia, health ministry officials told reporters they should avoid travel to the affected area because they could spread the virus further. But the virus is not airborne and requires physical contact with the body or body fluids of an infected person, or ingesting bush food such as bats, monkeys or similar wild meat carrying the virus.

The government ministry sought to contain coverage as it released incomplete and misleading information. Rumors and misinformation can create panic. The results, as we now know, are fearsome and tragic.

Obstacles to communicating

It’s been my experience that telling stories in situations of conflict and tragedies such as this crisis can be far more complex and convoluted than what appears on the surface.

Government officials and local workers, for different reasons, may not want to reveal details of an incipient crisis. Despite their heroic efforts, health workers trying to contain this virus lack essential resources to isolate and treat affected patients. This can put them in a bad light. At ground level, workers who talk too much can lose their jobs. At a higher level, officials don’t want to look ineffectual to their supervisors. At the national level, leaders don’t want to appear unable to manage events like this.

A crisis like Ebola can harm business, affect tourism, influence investors and destabilize governments. Of course, officials consider the obvious human suffering and grief that results, but weighing all these factors takes time, and in emergencies time is critical.

In the early stages of an event like this, telling the story comes down to negotiating with, around and through obstacles to get the word out. This is true for local journalists as well as those from outside the country.

As expatriates connected with the church, we’re always aware that we are in a country as guests of the host government and our actions can affect relationships between the government and the church in multiple ways. The ability to assist with effective health care, humanitarian aid and other significant missional efforts depends on good working relationships.

Five realizations

In the case of Sierra Leone, health officials were eager to get the story to the world and we reported quickly. All Africa News Service released a story two days before United Methodist News Service and that helped our reporting.

On June 9, Kathy Gilbert of United Methodist News Service provided a strong first-hand account of the situation in Kenema, the epicenter of the crisis in Sierra Leone. United Methodist Bishop John K. Yambasu issued an urgent call for help on June 25, and we continued to report on the situation.

Many days later, other news services began to report. And days after that, it became clear a regional crisis had mushroomed into a global hazard. The World Health Organization declared an international public health emergency Aug. 8.

By then, however, the virus had spread and an epidemic was at hand.

From this, I hope we are coming to realize:

  1. in an interconnected world, the free flow of accurate information is essential to global well-being and even to survival of life itself;
  1. the infrastructure necessary to carry information to an informed public is an instrument for the public good, and not only for commercial and entertainment uses;
  1. that infrastructure must be built out so that everyone has access to information as a basic human right;
  1. the church should advocate for this infrastructure and help to create it;
  1. the church has a role to play to ensure that stories are told. In this case, it is the story of people in a remote, under-served and overlooked place facing a public health crisis that, unchecked, has become a global health emergency.

I’ll address that in my next post.

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

 

Communication is Aid–and More

Ebola Prevention Banner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religious Leaders Task Force on Ebola, Sierra Leone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Eight Ways Pope Francis is Changing the Conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Moving Forward and Looking Back–In Summary

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

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

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

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

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

Moving forward

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

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

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

Shaped by technology and by messages

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

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

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

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

The Absent Voice

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

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

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

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

The Default Position

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

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

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

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

The Demise of Vertical Communication

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

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

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

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

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

Communication is Ministry

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

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

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

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–Giving

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United Methodist Church Giving Tuesday logo

In this third post in a series on how communication and technology are shaping life today, I reflect on the unprecedented giving that occurred in the 2-year-old initiative known as Giving Tuesday.

Unprecedented giving

United Methodists, the faith community to which I belong, gave lavishly on #Giving Tuesday, a national day of charitable giving following Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday.  The record-breaking total of donations — $6.5 million in one day — was more than notable. The resounding success of this effort leads us to new pathways for considering the value of communications strategy in support of the mission of the church as well as the power of social media.

The people of The United Methodist Church are generous and they have demonstrated that generosity over the years, but social media and the ready opportunity to give online to a variety of causes is a game changer.

Frequently, I hear in The United Methodist Church that people don’t want to provide funding support beyond the local church, but on #GivingTuesday, their willingness to support ministry beyond the local church, and in many cases in other countries, was readily apparent.

Several factors contributed to this remarkable outpouring of giving, not the least of which is the fact that people in this faith community are generous and give to those efforts by the church that they believe will improve lives. Whether it’s for education, health, or economic development, clean water, nutrition, medicines or bed nets, they have shown a willingness to give.

Factors in Success

Other factors in the success of Giving Tuesday included a wide range of choices for donors, direct access to information and an easy process for contributing, buttressed by a social media and print campaign that put Giving Tuesday before potential donors on virtually every social medium they use. This awareness led to contributions.

It’s significant that Giving Tuesday was  promoted in new media and in print. The interaction between the two gave the effort reach. The invitation to give was unavoidable; it was everywhere in the social media world. And it’s notable that people waited to give on Giving Tuesday, perhaps to take advantage of a matching grant that was available up to a limited amount.

There is still much to learn from the success of Giving Tuesday. Assessments and evaluations are still under way. Analytics are being reviewed, tactics assessed, and strategy evaluated.

As I write this, we have more questions than answers. What learnings can we glean from this overwhelming response about giving in the 21st century? What role did communications play in the favorable outcome and how did the various components of the communication strategy contribute to awareness? And finally, is this effort replicable and could it be scaled upward to include other beneficiaries important to the total mission of the church?

But one thing is clear, communication and technology have changed the game, and people will use these technologies to give generously to those things they care about when we communicate with them in the media where they are present.

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Note: Due to a typing error in an earlier version of this post, I wrote that Giving Tuesday is three years old. It is two years old.

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