The worst Ebola outbreak in history — along with The United Methodist Church’s mobilization to ease suffering and fight the spread of the deadly virus — was the biggest story of 2014, according to a United Methodist News Service poll of communicators.
Top 2014 United Methodist stories
The tragedy of Ebola in Sierra Leone and Liberia received 11 first place votes out of 25 ballots cast by conference communicators in the United States and Africa, and news service staff.
Other strong contenders were the Rev. Frank Schaefer’s fight to remain a United Methodist clergy member and the debate over how the denomination should deal with human sexuality, second and third respectively. The church’s progress in its Imagine No Malaria initiative was fourth.
Three stories — church unity, immigration, and the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries’ planned move — each got one first-place vote. Using second-place votes as the tiebreaker, church unity rounded out the top five stories.
Top story: Ebola
The first case of Ebola was reported in May in Guinea, and by June, Sierra Leone had 24 cases. Bishop John K. Yambasu warned more than 1,000 people gathered for the dedication and opening of a church in Monghere about the need to seek immediate medical attention if anyone became ill.
The disease soon spread to Liberia and by Dec. 11, the death toll in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone was more than 6,500. More than 18,000 people have been infected, according to the World Health Organization.
The church mobilized quickly, providing medical supplies, food and communication to spread the word about how to prevent the disease. The United Methodist Committee on Relief disbursed $401,138 in grants for the denomination’s Ebola response by November. United Methodist Communications collaborated with Chocolate Moose Media and mobile-health-education innovator iHeed on an animated Ebola-education video in seven languages and gave communication grants for Ebola education.
United Methodists have used various forms of communication — text messages, radio broadcasts, drama and song — to relay facts about Ebola. They have carried prevention information and supplies for sanitization to remote villages. They have left food and supplies at the homes of infected families.
Ebola’s toll on West African health care systems was brought home by the death of Dr. Martin Salia, the only surgeon and chief medical officer at United Methodist Kissy Hospital in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Salia died after he was airlifted to the United States for treatment.
“He was everything to us,” Bishop Yambasu said, adding Salia was one of only a very few surgeons in the country.
Many United Methodists in both Liberia and Sierra Leone have died, as well as other health care workers, even though no United Methodist hospitals are Ebola treatment centers. Deaths included a nurse at United Methodist Mercy Hospital in Bo, Sierra Leone, and two other staff on the cleaning crew.
Second: The Rev. Frank Schaefer
The church’s top court in October allowed the Rev. Frank Schaefer to remain a United Methodist clergyman. It was the last in a line of church rulings that began when a complaint was filed against the Pennsylvania pastor for performing a same-sex wedding for his son in 2007.
After a year of defrocking and refrocking, the Judicial Council upheld a June decision by a regional appeals committee to reinstate Schaefer’s ministerial credentials. The appellate committee had modified the penalty imposed after Schaefer was found guilty in November 2013 of violating church law.
“I will continue the fight alongside thousands of others in the reconciling movement for full inclusion and an open altar for all. I know the day is coming when this dream will be reality and I don't think it is that far in the future,” Schaefer said after the ruling.
Some hailed the decision as a step toward full inclusion of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning) individuals within the denomination. Others said the ruling implied pastors could ignore church law as spelled out in The Book of Discipline.
Everyone agreed on one thing: The debate isn’t over.
The denomination’s debate over human sexuality has intensified as more states in the U.S. and more nations around the globe have legalized same-sex civil marriage. While Schaefer’s ups and downs grabbed secular headlines, other complaints were settled without trials.
A complaint filed against 36 United Methodist pastors who officiated at the 2013 same-sex union of two men was resolved in October.
Two pastors in the Pacific Northwest Conference were suspended without pay for 24 hours for officiating at same-sex unions.
The Connectional Table, which coordinates The United Methodist Church’s ministry and resources, held two interactive, online conversations about sexuality. The group decided to draft legislation that could change church law “to fully include LGBTQ persons in the life and ministry of the church.” But it won’t make any final determination until next year about whether to submit such legislation to General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body.
Fourth: Imagine No Malaria
The United Methodist Church is close to the goal of raising $75 million by the end of 2015 for Imagine No Malaria. The global church has raised an estimated $64.5 million in gifts and pledges for the campaign to eliminate needless death and suffering from malaria in Africa. Forty-two conferences have participated.
Pittsburgh Area Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton, who chairs the denomination’s Global Health Initiative, told the Council of Bishops in November that the average individual gift for Imagine No Malaria is $96 and the average pledge is $800.
“I’ve seen the connection come alive,” Bickerton told fellow bishops.
Fifth: Church unity
Earlier this year, a group of United Methodists who champion the church’s current stance on homosexuality suggested the church might consider an “amicable” split over the differences. In the summer, those United Methodists met again. They stopped short of calling for a split, but issued a statement saying bishops must enforce and publicly support church law restrictions against same-sex marriage if the denomination is to hold together. More than 8,400 United Methodists had endorsed the statement as of Nov. 4.
But as conferences began meeting, clergy and laity in the North Georgia Conference, with the largest membership of any conference in the U.S., signed a covenant calling for unity.
Similar statements were crafted in other conferences, including Holston, Louisiana, Mississippi and the new Rio Grande Conference.
United Methodist bishops at their November meeting issued a statement saying their “hearts break because of the divisions that exist within the church.” The Council of Bishops, which is not all of the same mind on sexuality, committed to be “in ministry for and with all people.”
The bishops added: “We are also united in our resolve to lead the church together to fulfill its mandate — to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
Brown is news editor for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at [email protected] or 615-742-5469.