Eight years ago, United Methodists were asked to “Imagine No Malaria” and they have — raising more than $68 million for a denomination-wide program to help eradicate the disease.
Now, the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries is asking delegates at General Conference 2016, which meets May 10-20 in Portland, Oregon, to endorses its “Abundant Health” campaign to reach 1 million children with life-saving interventions between 2017 and 2020.
For Dr. Olusimbo Ige, director of the mission agency’s Global Health unit, the campaign is a logical and necessary continuation of the church’s successful impact on malaria prevention.
That success included the distribution of more than 2.3 million nets, covering about 7 million people and building an infrastructure that includes 13 health boards, 300 renovated health clinics and some 10,000 health workers. The work has directly benefited some 4.6 million people.
Nearing a malaria goal
As the denomination’s roving ambassador for malaria prevention, United Methodist Bishop Thomas Bickerton has heard “story after story” about people energized around a cause where they can make a difference.
He also has personally witnessed the results while in Africa. “I’ve had a mother put a baby in my arms who had malaria who died while I was there. I’ve also had people introduce me to their children who, because of a (mosquito) bed net, are still living,” he said.
The work of church members and volunteers has been “amazing,” Ige said. “Between 2012 and now, there has been such remarkable progress. I think the greatest joy for us is seeing health boards start from scratch.
“We have renovated close to 300 health facilities, many of them in Congo that had been so impacted by the civil war,” she added. “These clinics are up and running, some of them seeing 20,000 and up to 30,000 patients a year who ordinarily would not have access to health care.”
But, as Ige — a public health physician from Nigeria who has consulted with the World Health Organization and USAID — pointed out, “Children don’t just die from malaria, they die from diarrhea and pneumonia.” Her field experience taught her “the scale and the scope of services need to be expanded to reach the priority diseases.”
Surveying needs and envisioning a plan
In 2014, the Global Health unit started a “participatory envisioning” process, surveying bishops, the health boards and other partners and nonprofits working in global health. About 5,224 responses were received from 59 countries, said Thomas Kemper, top executive for Global Ministries.
“We heard in this survey international health challenges that centered on maternal and child health, water and sanitation, hunger and nutrition and access to healthcare,” he said. “We also heard the top U.S. health challenges are mental health, non-communicable diseases, substance abuse and aging and the elderly.”
Child health issues emerged as a common theme, Ige said. “Nutrition is as much a challenge here (in the U.S.) as it is in other places,” Ige said. “Childhood obesity was named as one of the biggest public health challenges of the 21st century.”
Partnering with United Nations
When the U.N. decided in 2015 to focus on child health, The United Methodist Church was invited to participate. “We were one of the two faith-based organizations that said yes, we’ll pitch in,” she said. The other faith-based group was World Vision.
“Abundant Health: Our Promise to Children” is affiliated with the United Nations program, “Every Woman Every Child: The Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescent’s Health.”
The campaign’s name and theme, Abundant Health, is taken from the Gospel of John 10:10: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” Kemper said.
The United Methodist Church’s accomplishments in its Imagine No Malaria campaign led to this new partnership with the United Nations. “Being a faith-based organization engaged in the public conversation about global health has given us a seat at many international health tables, such as the global strategy,” he said.
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Abundant Health makes five promises to children: to ensure safe births, promote breastfeeding and nutrition, prevent childhood killer diseases, encourage treatment-seeking behaviors and provide treatment and lifesaving commodities.
The goal of reaching 1 million children with lifesaving interventions by 2020 is focused on communities, primarily in Africa, with high child mortality rates from preventable causes. In particular, the campaign will support efforts of faith-based partners in Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Mozambique and Sierra Leone, as well as Haiti.
In addition to volunteer time, Global Ministries is committing $10 million in medications, supplies, and commodities and $30 million to faith-based partners working in rural and underserved communities.
But U.S. church members play an important role. “In the U.S., we’re calling on as many churches as possible to help us participate in global health work by addressing congregational health issues and reaching beyond the congregation to the community,” Ige said. The goal is to engage 10,000 congregations, utilizing the church’s U.S. network of 1,700 parish nurses.
Noting that fundraising strategies devised by church members for Imagine No Malaria “were phenomenal,” Ige said she would like to see the same kind of creativity applied to Global Health goals and to get people involved in a broad range of health activities.