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Q & A
Q&A: Bishop urges persistence in malaria battle Sam Hodges, Dec 2, 2011
Bishop Thomas Bickerton
Bishop Thomas Bickerton of the Pittsburgh Area chairs the United Methodist Church’s Global Health Initiative. He has been the UMC’s spokesperson and leader in its anti-malaria effort, first through the Nothing But Nets campaign, and now through the successor program, Imagine No Malaria. In October he attended a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation forum on malaria, and last month he reported to the Council of Bishops that the United Nations Foundation is giving $3 million to Imagine No Malaria. The gift will help cover administrative costs as the UMC tries to raise $75 million for that campaign. About $15 million has been raised so far.
During a break at the recent COB meeting, Bishop Bickerton, 53, answered questions from managing editor Sam Hodges.
Review for me how you got engaged in this issue. The United Methodist Church was approached by the United Nations Foundation about being a founding partner of the movement called Nothing But Nets. So we kicked that off together. And there were a lot of conversations about the role of the church in all that. But the reality was that the United Methodist Church had the delivery systems in Africa that people like the Gates Foundation and the U.N. Foundation knew that they needed.
The reality is that 60 to 70 percent of the delivery systems in Africa are faith-based. And so for the malaria work to find its full flower, there was a keen realization that the church had to play a key role. So we were invited in, to be a founding partner. And then from Nothing But Nets, we got serious at General Conference in ’08 about improving our delivery systems, our communications, our treatment, and that’s when Imagine No Malaria came about as the United Methodist Church’s specific response to the Nothing But Nets campaign.
As to your personal involvement—is it just an issue that grabbed you, or were you positioned to get involved? I was president of United Methodist Communications. Larry Hollon [top staff executive of United Methodist Communications] was approached by the U.N. Foundation people. It was just discerned at that point, in the growing collaboration with the General Board of Global Ministries and UMCOM, that we needed to have a person who was leading that effort, and that’s when I was approached about it. If you’d asked me 10 years ago if I was going to be working to end malaria-related death across the world, I’d have said, “You’re crazy. I don’t know anything about that.” But it’s been such a blessing for me. It’s a way to actualize my ministry in a way that I could have never imagined.
What would be your progress report? We can point to anywhere from 38 percent reduction in malaria-related death to 68 percent reduction in malaria-related illness in places like Tanzania and Sierra Leone—places where we’re working actively. The work is bearing fruit.
Eighty percent of the continent of Africa can now be blanketed with mosquito nets. We have them in hand. But only 50 percent of them have been distributed. That’s where this fundraising campaign of $75 million comes into play, because we’ve got to continue the fight. We found out at the Gates symposium that a vaccine is in third-stage development and may be released in 2014 or 2015. But because of distribution, it’s probably going to be the end of the decade before the vaccine really begins to show impact. So we have to somehow get from now until then. And the way we do that is to continue this research and development around vector control, which involves nets, pesticides, ointments and cutting-edge research.
Back in the 1960s malaria took a big dip, and then funding went away and it immediately reared its ugly head again. We can’t replicate that now. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and we see it. We’ve just got to continue to commit ourselves not to give up this fight.
I must say that at that Gates symposium, the only faith-based organization present was the United Methodist Church. There’s a line I’ve used frequently in this campaign: “We not only know the names of the people who give the contributions; we know the names of the people who receive the contributions.” That’s what the world community recognizes, that the United Methodist Church goes where the road ends. Literally there are United Methodist churches and clinics in places where there are no roads. That’s how you get to the point of being able to eradicate malaria, is getting into the nooks and crannies where other people are unable to go.
What has this meant for the United Methodist Church in terms of a focus point for service? Our research reveals that in places where the Imagine No Malaria campaign has been, it has sparked vitality in congregations that have been struggling. We have some small congregations in western Pennsylvania, for example, who were about ready to give up hope and have found renewed hope because they’ve been able to raise money for a cause that’s going to save lives.
I think the young people of the church have been enlivened by this. I know they have been because of the responses I get. They’ve said things like, “This is what I’ve wanted out of my church all along,” because they want to find a way to integrate faith with action.
As for the continent of Africa, Bishop [John] Yambasu [of Sierra Leone] tells a wonderful story about how, after the countrywide distribution of nets, a series of tribal chiefs came to his office, asking him to start new congregations. And when Bishop Yambasu inquired about why, those tribal chiefs, who are kind of like mayors, said, “You brought nets to us, and we entrusted you with the care of our bodies. Now we’d like for you to start churches, because we’d like to trust you with the care of our souls.”
So there’s an evangelism component to this that we haven’t talked enough about. When you care about someone’s body, you invite the opportunity to care for their soul.
Do you worry that with all the attention to “vital congregations,” Call to Action reform, budget cutting, etc., there might be fatigue with or diversion from the malaria effort? We’ve had to deal with donor fatigue all along, and this issue remains so relevant that people are giving to it in substantial ways. So while that’s always an obstacle, I’m not worried about fatigue. What I am worried about is a diversion of attention. I have been trying to be as clear as possible and invite leadership to think about this with me.
The Interim Operations Team report and the Call to Action really is a way to integrate the Four Areas of Focus into the life of our church in a more significant way. The Four Areas—poverty, global health, new places for new people, leadership development—are all critical if the Call to Action is going to find its full flower. So they can’t be in competition with one another. They have to be integrated.
I would call everyone to realize that if we want to have vital congregations, those congregations are going to have to have significant leaders, those congregations are going to have to deal with how to reach new people in new ways, those congregations are going to have to understand that the context of their community will involve the poor, and they need to understand that, globally, the world is becoming smaller every day.
From an economic standpoint, somebody’s problem in Greece is our problem. Likewise, somebody’s problem in a tiny village in DRC Congo is our problem. Because if there’s one child out there who doesn’t have the same opportunity that we have in the United States—that is, to provide a long, healthy, sustained life for our children—if that’s not universally done, then, ethically speaking, we’ve got some real questions to ask. Because we have the know-how to enable those children to live long, healthy lives.
I do worry about people being diverted by working so hard to find vitality in their congregations, when in fact the Four Areas of Focus are ways in which they can find vitality in their congregations.
Finally, do you think in your lifetime malaria will be wiped out in Africa? When I come out of a meeting like the one I came out of in Seattle, at the Gates Foundation, and I hear about vaccines being developed, and I see where there are communities in Africa where there’s a 60-70 percent reduction in malaria-related illness, I like to think that, yes, in my lifetime, this is possible. And I’m just committed to working toward that goal.