UMCOR: On Behalf of All United Methodists to a World in Need
By Thomas J. Bickerton*
Growing up in the Methodist Church, I can joyfully say that the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) was a big part of my corporate memory. In my local church in West Virginia, our pastors and laity did an effective job of communicating the connectional nature of our church’s disaster response ministry through UMCOR. I learned at an early age that we Methodists could be part of something much bigger—more than my congregation could do on its own. I knew that 100 percent of our gifts went to these ministries and I got the sense, early on that—wow, if you give something to this branch of the church’s life, it could truly make a difference.
I think UMCOR first came to life for me, most especially, in 1985, when a major flood hit West Virginia. I was deeply involved in the recovery efforts there. We can take great pride knowing that when a need arises and The United Methodist Church thoughtfully arrives on the scene, it does so with a wealth of connectional partners and it may well be the last to leave—often because of the work of UMCOR.
In the Congo Central Conference area—a practitioner takes blood from a baby at the Kananga Clinic, one of the health facilities of the UM conference. PHOTO: UMCOR DRC
Role with UMCOR
I’m now serving with the Global Ministries’ board of directors as chair for UMCOR—and I am thrilled about that. Over the last eight years, serving with United Methodist Communications, I helped to raise $70 million for Imagine No Malaria. Now, with UMCOR, I am able to help spend it. The real joy for me is that I can see many of the benefits of the money that was raised.
At one time, we used to throw bed nets off the back of pick-up trucks. People were using them for fishing nets and wedding veils, and all sorts of other things. So we decided a better direction was to get deeply personal. With UMCOR’s help, we started training traditional birth attendants to install and monitor bed-net usage. This method began to build relationships with people in African communities, and, because of those personal relationships, people listened. That’s when they got it.
In my heart of hearts I am an evangelist. I was called into a ministry that I believe was informed by God’s call to be a participant in making the world a different place. And that means you try your best to inject grace, hopefulness, new possibilities, and ways in which dreams can be realized by the people that you are serving. It’s the opportunity that we have, both in ways that respond to tragedy, but also in the ways that we respond with sustaining development ministries over a long period of time. We have the chance to change people’s lives—and that’s much more than just providing relief.
Getting the Job Done
My work over the last decade has taught me that the power to impact lives is dependent on deep collaboration. Younger generations are not concerned about preserving an organization as much as they are about preserving the hearts and souls of people. They don’t want to have a whole lot to do with institutions that don’t collaborate well. They want to get the job done.
When it comes to providing significant relief for people across the globe, United Methodists do not have a corner on the market, but we have a distinct role to play. We can mobilize people and resources in a way that few other organizations can. We can mobilize rural, suburban, urban, liberal, moderate, conservative, domestic, and international congregations around a common cause. Imagine No Malaria had just one $1 million gift. The other $69 million came from the dedicated, faithful giving of many, many of our people.
Community health workers undergo training in the Kakua Chiefdom, outside Bo, Sierra Leone, prior to a distribution of insecticide-treated mosquito nets by The United Methodist Church's Imagine No Malaria campaign. PHOTO: MIKE DUBOSE/UMNS
It is not possible for this one faith-based organization to eliminate malaria-related deaths. What is possible is for our faith-based organization to partner with other sacred and secular partners around the world who share a common vision. When we were able to buy-in to that collaboration, we began to sense that together, we could eliminate malaria- related deaths.
When I think about where UMCOR is heading in the years to come, I see big issues to address—diseases, more natural disasters of greater intensity, climate change—the world is really in a challenging cycle. I think the only way we can maintain sustainable impact is to find and accentuate the kinds of collaborative partnerships that we need to get the job done.
At the heart of my calling, I am a communicator. You can never underestimate what the simple act of telling a story will do. You mobilize people when they find the commonality with the story that you are telling. When we effectively tell the story of mission and give people reason to believe they can be a participant in that story, that’s when we begin to build a wider base of support. In a day and a time when communication is more important than ever, we at times have not done a very good job of telling our story or creating a place where people can identify with our story.
We need every dedicated pastor and layperson to be a strong communicator of the connection. If we do not effectively accentuate ministries like UMCOR’s, we give our denomination reason to believe that we don’t need one another.
United Methodist Bishop Thomas Bickerton (right) is welcomed in Kamina, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Bickerton was part of a delegation from the United States that traveled to the DRC in observance of World Malaria Day. PHOTO: MIKE DUBOSE/UMNS
But when we tell the story about how we pulled together to do something that we could not do on our own, we then begin to create a space in which people start to realize, “we need each other.” We can’t do without one another, because the kind of impact we can make for Christ and for others in the world is very much dependent on our ability to come together. That crosses theological boundaries and issues because it gets to the heart and soul of meeting people’s needs where they are. We don’t meet the needs of people in a particular category. We’re a church for all of God’s children. Our theology backs that up.
And so our mission outreach is not just to United Methodists—it’s on behalf of all United Methodists to a world that is broken. We’ve got to tell that story. I long for the people under my care to be theologically sound and confident to communicate that story—one that excites the imagination—of what an agency like UMCOR can be.
*Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton serves as the episcopal leader for the New York Annual Conference and on the executive committee of the General Board of Global Ministries’ board of directors as chair of the United Methodist Committee on Relief.
Copyright New World Outlook magazine, Spring 2017 issue. Used by permission. Email the New World Outlook editor for more information.