United Methodists lead dialogue at global health summit

Dec. 20, 2006

By Deborah White*

WASHINGTON -- Singing "nza mu ranza" from an African praise song, an advisory council of United Methodist bishops, pastors, agency executives and lay leaders demonstrated their support for a global health initiative by spontaneously placing $868 on a conference podium.

With hands raised and singing in unison, they responded to a challenge to save lives issued by Bishop Thomas Bickerton during the Global Health Initiative Dialogue Dec. 18-19 at the National Press Club. Sixty United Methodist leaders and health experts met to raise awareness of global health issues and to mobilize United Methodists for action.

"Buy a net. Save a life," said Bickerton, president of the United Methodist Commission on Communication. He was referring to the Nothing But Nets campaign to buy anti-malaria bed nets for families in Africa. Partners in the campaign include the people of The United Methodist Church, the United Nations Foundation, Sports Illustrated, the National Basketball Association's foundation NBA Cares, Millennium Promise and the Measles Initiative.

"We are in a denomination of predictability that has become an institution," said Bickerton, who leads the denomination's Pittsburgh Area. "Let's make it a movement again! What do you say? This can help."

The Global Health Initiative Dialogue was organized by United Methodist Communications, the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church and the United Nations Foundation. A grant from the United Nations Foundation
helped underwrite the meeting.

"It's a time for children to celebrate," said the Rev. R. Randy Day, chief executive of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. And yet children affected by malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS don't have the chance to celebrate holidays, he said. "The children aren't able physically to do that. They don't have the chance to live. They don't have a chance even to be children. I think that's part of what pulls us together."

"This is a conversation among leaders about a potential major initiative to invite the people of the United Methodist Church to help end the diseases of poverty," said the Rev. Larry Hollon, chief executive of United Methodist Communications. "Together we may do collaboratively what we individually could not do alone."

Momentum is building for a global health initiative.

Strong support from participants in the Global Health Initiative Dialogue came on the heels of Bishop Janice Riggle Huie's presidential address to the Council of Bishops' meeting in Maputo, Mozambique, in November in which she called on the church to "stamp out the diseases of poverty, particularly malaria and HIV/AIDS." The church's general agencies and members of the Connectional Table, the denomination's program coordination group, are also developing a global health proposal in addition to emphasizing leadership development, new church starts and congregational renewal, and caring for children by addressing poverty.

"It's timely that we meet on the issue," said Hollon, pointing to Dec. 18 editorials in The New York Times and The Washington Post lifting up concerns about global health. On Dec. 14 The United Methodist Church's commitment to eradicating malaria was recognized at the White House Summit on Malaria in Washington. Day was among the participants.

On the first day of the Global Health Initiative Dialogue, health experts and church leaders described global health challenges, including malaria and HIV/AIDS, that affect millions of people. Experts included Michael Madnick, senior vice president of the UN Foundation, Andrea Gay, director of children's health for the UN Foundation, and Todd Summers, senior policy officer for global health at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In Africa, approximately 800,000 children die every year of malaria, a mosquito-borne disease that can be prevented and treated effectively. Approximately 39.5 million people are living with HIV, and about 2.9 million people have died of AIDS-related illnesses in 2006, according to the United Nations Foundation.

The Rev. Kent Millard, senior pastor of St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, described a challenging question posed to him by the rock star Bono during a tour stop: "What will you tell your children and grandchildren in 20 years when a whole continent wasted away with AIDS?"

Then Millard asked participants, "What will we say The United Methodist Church did?" The church needs to focus in the same direction together, he said. "Not only will it bring the good news of Jesus Christ, it will bring us together as a denomination."

AIDS and malaria are interrelated and they are both connected to poverty, Day said. "People want to do something. They want to save children.".

To help move forward a global health initiative, participants spent the second day of the meeting working to suggest action steps. They emphasized partnerships and making global health a priority. "Our compelling vision will unify and pull us together," said Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher, who leads the Illinois Area.

Action steps suggested include:

  • Use the Nothing But Nets campaign as a launching point for a global health initiative addressing diseases of poverty, such as malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and measles.
  • Create a new coordinating entity with global representation to focus on global health.
  • Form partnerships within The United Methodist Church, with other faith groups and with outside organizations.
  • Involve every aspect of the denomination, including hospitals and universities.
  • Develop clear messages that resonate with people in the pews and stimulate local church participation.
  • Make global health a priority at General Conference in 2008 and educate leadership in advance.
  • Use the Advance for Christ and His Church as a fundraising and delivery system.

Two participants announced support for Nothing But Nets during the meeting.

The Rev. Timothy Bias, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Peoria, Ill., pledged to raise money for 1,000 nets. Bishop Janice Huie of the Houston Area, president of the Council of Bishops, said, "I am prepared to make Nothing But Nets the priority for the Texas Conference."

One of the highlights of the meeting was the presence of two bishops from Africa. Bishop David Yemba of the Central Congo Area, said, "I know in my heart that our church can be a leader in bringing health and wholeness to Africa." Bishop Benjamin Boni, resident bishop of the Cote D'Ivoire Area, also attended.

Consulting frequently with bishops and networks in Africa is crucial to a global health initiative, said Bishop Joel Martinez of the San Antonio Area, president of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. "It's about justice and equality and hearing the call of Jesus to that," he said.

"I'm involved in a two-day hope meeting," said James Salley, associate vice-chancellor for institutional advancement at Africa University. "The Holy Spirit unites us all. They said we would never build Africa University, but The United Methodist Church has done it. You have done it."

Participants responded with clapping -- and a shout of "nza mu ranza." That's the beginning of a song in the Xitswa language of Mozambique that means, "I worship Christ. There is no one like Him."

*Deborah White is associate editor of Interpreter magazine, a ministry of United Methodist Communications.

News media contact: Ginny Underwood, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

 
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