A UM Missional Future: Focus Area 4

Part 21 of 21...

Focus Area 4:
Stamping out killer diseases by improving health globally. Conditions of poverty cause illness and death. The lack of access to doctors, nurses, medications and appropriate facilities is deadly, especially among those who live in conditions of poverty. But the diseases of poverty are not inevitable. We believe the people of The United Methodist Church can play a significant role in educating others about diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria, and treating and preventing their devastating effects.

As with the previous focus area about engaging in ministry with the poor, it's hard to say much more than a hearty Amen!

The target sought for the reduction of malaria in partnership with others who are working on this is very ambitious-- a reduction of 66% in death from malaria in just a few years.

That's huge. Malaria remains one of the leading killers of people in the world. It doesn't need to be. It can be treated if caught in time, and it can be prevented from happening in the first place through simple measures such as nets around bedding (the Nothing but Nets campaign that the UMC has joined with many other global partners) or more permanent fixes like ensuring safe water supplies and good drainage that would reduce the number and reproduction rate of disease carrying mosquitos.

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While I served as Director of Community Impact with United Way of Madison County in Anderson, IN (2002-2005), I also became a member of the local chapter of Rotary, International. In case you're not aware of it, Rotary took on a major health initiative itself-- to rid the world of polio.

And its 1.2 million members around the world have largely succeeded. Less than 2000 cases were reported worldwide in 2007. That's down from over 1000 new cases per day reported in 1988, when Rotary began their focused work. (Source).

Part of the genius of Rotary's plan was the fact that it already had chapters in many countries around the world where polio was still an issue. A significant portion of the dues and meal costs for each meeting, paid by every member, went to this cause. And its members had relationships with business and other leaders locally and internationally who were glad to help in a variety of ways-- supplying funds for vaccine, transportation to get it where it needed to go, people to supervise operations on the ground with the support of governments and local NGOs and health agencies.

Rotary is a network of small to large groups, all contributing not just at their group meetings, but by their additional networks of relationships, to see this mission-- eradicating polio-- to its conclusion. I have every reason to believe they'll get it done. And soon.

With all the talk going on in many quarters about how the UMC is dying, we may sometimes forget that we still have about 35,000 "branch offices" in the US, and thousands more in other countries. Through our larger networks in the World Methodist Federation, we're in many, many nations on the planet. Through our ecumenical networks-- which take in nearly all of Christianity, we have networks that include relationships with people in every nation on earth.

One of the things I really appreciate about this focus area is how it absolutely gets this. It does not say that the AGENCIES of the denomination will do this FOR United Methodists. It says "the people of the United Methodist Church" can educate and work with others to get this job done-- to educate others and treat and radically reduce the conditions that make malaria the killer it still, and unnecessarily, is. And it pledges us-- the people of the UMC-- to work on radically reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other such diseases as well.

If we really can pull off such focused work-- probably led though not solely brokered by our General Agencies-- this could be great good news to the poor. It would be, to use the words of the Great Thanksgiving from our Word and Table I, an example of the church being part of announcing "that the time had come when [God] would save [God's] people."

But let's just keep remembering how this works. It's the distributed chapters, the networks that the people that compose them can activate, PLUS whatever centralized leadership there may be.

Rotary has not by any means accomplished their incredible work to eliminate polio just themselves. They can take credit for deploying their chapters and the networks that members of their chapters have to get it done-- and they can credit their own leadership for keeping their own networks focused on attaining this goal. But they can't take credit for doing it all themselves. And they don't.

Right now, the basic units of UMC networks are congregations. Unlike Rotary chapters, most of our congregations do not have a sharp focus on what they want to accomplish. (No, I'm not going all "purpose-driven" here). Most of them DO donate the the work of the General Agencies and the Annual Conference, and many of them include a good number of folks who would no doubt love to be involved in a project as big and ambitious and transformational as this one. But as structures themselves, that culture of "let's really get this done" may not be in place in most of our congregations.

But it would be in place, for sure, in renewed Methodist missional groups alongside congregations. Early Methodism had within it a very sharp focus on being accountable to each other and to God to make sure that prisoners and the sick were visited and cared for, that social ills (such as the rapid rise of alcoholism with the advent of cheap gin in England in the early Industrial Age) were addressed, and that social evils (such as slavery and the slave trade) would be stopped. They didn't do these things alone, either. But they were able to deploy their networks of class meetings and societies alongside other organizations and organizers-- religious and "secular"-- to get it done.

But let us remember again that our calling is not only to bring this good news of elimination of such killer diseases. Just like we can (and often do) see "the poor" as "objects" for "us" to change, so also we may see the people who are being killed by such diseases as malaria as either victims or potential victims primarily. That's not an entirely bad perspective to bring-- that is part of the reality, and we have to take that seriously. But just ending malaria for folks who may have succumbed to it before we got involved must not be the end or even the goal of our involvement.

If it is, we're missing a significant part of the heartbeat of God's mission-- in the words of Ephesians, "to make one new humanity in place of the two."

The problem with malaria or HIV/AIDS from our angle as Christians isn't simply or only that it kills people. It's that by doing that, it both reveals and perpetuates the lack of community we experience in the world. It sustains a permanent underclass in the "under-continents." In Trinitarian terms, it commits Arianism-- ontologically subordinating one part of humanity in the two-thirds world to another, just as Arius proposed that Jesus/Son/Word was ontologically subordinate to the Father.

No, what we are invited into as those who hear, are baptized, and seek to follow the way of Jesus is not some project to fix everyone else who is deemed inferior in some way. It is rather to enter into the eternal Love of the Divine Life in the God we know as Three in One. It is to enter and be transformed by the Love that calls the universe into being, moves in all hearts and all things, and restores the world. It is to enter into the Divine Community of ceaseless giving and receiving of Love from Father to Son to Spirit and back again and round and round. It is to join the Primal Dance, the Eternal Perichoresis of Love.

Living and fed by that Community, we learn and see the possibilities for such community with all around us, and especially the poor and those who suffer. We see suffering not to turn away from it, neither to overlook it, nor simply to remove it, but to remember that this is our sister, this is our brother, and in love to do all love can do with her or him and pray for what is beyond our capacity. And we keep doing this with these sisters and brothers, even after what may have been our first act of love-- perhaps curing or preventing a disease, or offering safe water-- is complete. And they, in the Eternal Perichoresis of God's love, will continue to do the same with us.

Not "fix it, chalk up the brownie points, and move on to the next thing."

No-- love, love to the uttermost, perhaps in part by fixing such things as we can, deploying whatever networks and resources we ourselves may have or can encourage others to use-- but then more love, more giving and receiving of love.

Always, always, eternally, Love.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards