Faith-Based Relief in the 21st Century: How UMCOR Continues to Make a Difference
by the Staff of UMCOR
The busy sound of planing tools scratched the hot, dusty air of an outdoor market in El Daein Town in East Darfur State, Sudan. In a short series of stalls separated only by poles holding up a shared tin roof, carpenters were creating beautiful, functional household items—building their businesses and improving the quality of life of their families.
“I’ve owned my shop since 2012, when I completed a vocational training course with UMCOR,” said Youssef Hassan, 38, formerly a farmer and seasonal laborer and now the owner of his own carpentry shop. “I developed my skills and learned a lot about business management, including the importance of coming to work every day. Sometimes the market is slow, but I continue to work so I will have items ready to sell.” Hassan’s business acumen and work ethic have translated into greater security for him and his family.
In the still volatile Darfur region, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) provides conflict-affected persons with nine-month vocational training courses. Mohammed Kabir Mia, a Bangladeshi national and manager of UMCOR’s economic recovery work in Sudan, said, “UMCOR’s vocational training program is designed so that displaced people and returnees can acquire specific skills and afterward secure employment, especially self-employment.”
A total of 120 youth and women are enrolled in the UMCOR training courses, which cover basic and advanced skills, business management, and hands-on apprenticeships in East Darfur and South Darfur states. Literacy and numeracy classes also are available for those who require this extra support.
Constance in a Changing World
The world of 1940, in which the Methodist Committee for Overseas Relief (MCOR) came into existence, was one of rigid borders. Travel was challenging and communications were slow and less than reliable.
Today, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) can reach some of the most remote areas on the planet with a simple phone call, as long as someone in the community has a working cellphone. The UMCOR staff depends on instantaneous communication between disaster-affected communities and its headquarters, sometimes thousands of miles away. Online shopping and having Facebook friends from other countries would have seemed strange to Bishop Herbert Welch at the time he proposed that Methodists should be a voice of conscience for the world, “to act in the relief of human suffering without distinction of race, color, or creed.”
But then, there are other places in the world today, like El Daein in Darfur, where the lives of displaced residents have been so disrupted, they are slow to trust any organization that has not proven itself with long-term strategies that address the real challenges of their daily living. UMCOR has built up this trust in Sudan over nine years. In this world, the only way to make an impact and a difference is to be there. This too, is the world in which UMCOR operates.
UMCOR’s 75th anniversary inspires us to ask a hard question—and seek a fair answer—of this organization that embraces the principles of integrity and resilience: In our current hyper-connected world, does UMCOR still hold relevance as a “voice of conscience,” and, if so, in what way?
Faith, Hope, and Healing
Health and wholeness and the human body and spirit are interconnected. When communities cannot achieve health and wholeness because of natural or political disaster—or because of a chronic lack of access to food, clean water, or good nutrition—UMCOR works to identify solutions that promote stability, abundance, and peace in the community. The goal is to help people in communities find their own solutions and tools.
As a faith-based organization, UMCOR understands the unique role the church and other faith communities play in promoting good health and peace. In the wake of disaster or turmoil, it is often the church—which was present before, during, and remains long after the disaster—that can wrap the community in a unifying social fabric of God’s love. Church networks not only facilitate UMCOR’s relief and development assistance, they help communities sustain change that can make their lives more stable and fruitful.
“Doing Good” Better
The UMCOR staff today is inspired by what UMCOR has done in the past and continues to eagerly look for both old and new ways to continue to meet the agency’s mission.
UMCOR helps to ensure that The United Methodist Church not only “does good,” but also “does it well.” The last 75 years have seen a changing landscape in the nature and structure of humanitarian aid. From learning the benefits of adding vitamin A to vaccination campaigns, to the creation of new and better ways of managing water resources, aid and development have come a long way from a time when charity work was unmeasured and unevaluated. UMCOR continues to learn about and apply generally accepted sector practices—sectors such as housing, health, livelihoods, sustainable agriculture, water resources—but also looks to innovate and discover new ways of working better. This, in turn, increases UMCOR’s impact in the communities in which it works and provides support to other organizations doing good so they can improve their effectiveness.
Currently, UMCOR’s team of technical review specialists processes millions of dollars of applications every year—grants that provide relief and promote development—while demonstrating and supporting adherence to best practices and lessons learned over the years. This continuity dates all the way back to the day Bishop Welch first planted the seed. Simultaneously, UMCOR field offices continue to serve many of the most vulnerable people in the world in direct ways, assisting communities in their ability to become stronger and self-sufficient.
An example of an UMCOR grant that reaches people and makes their lives abundantly better in a place that few people have heard of is a Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) grant for Enduga Egu in Papua New Guinea. While the island of New Guinea is lush with vegetation because of the large amount of rainfall it receives annually, the sources of water that people in Papua New Guinea (which takes up the eastern half of the island) have traditionally drawn from are often contaminated and dangerous to access. The people of Enduga Egu in the Kainantu District of Eastern Highlands did not want to live with the risk any longer, so they formed a community organization to help work on persistent problems that challenge their daily living. One challenge was access to clean, safe water.
Today, water pipes carry protected, clean spring water over 3.7 miles of mountainous terrain to reach the village. Villagers who used to climb 650 feet up a cliff to get water now use public taps right in their village. The project not only improved the community’s living standard, it avoided the risk of falling taken by women and children who used to climb the cliff to get water every day. Thanks to the supporters of UMCOR, more than 17,000 villagers now have a reliable water supply system that brings clean water to their doorsteps.
What makes this community truly unique is that the people have come together to advocate for their needs, manage their own solutions, and confront their own challenges. They have tackled issues such as the social and health concerns of people living with AIDS, education for the youth, basic health-care needs, and access to improved sanitation. UMCOR’s support, in the form of small grants and a lot of enthusiasm, helps these Papua New Guineans move from surviving to thriving.
The years of working in relief and development have taught UMCOR that, ultimately, the most important thing you can do with a community that has experienced a disaster is to empower it to manage future events on its own in a much better way. The correct starting point for any relief or development program has to be with the skills and capacity of the members of that community.
UMCOR finds the unclaimed disasters, responding not only to those events that make the front page of the newspaper but—by being present through its field offices and networks—also to many smaller catastrophic events that often overwhelm local communities. UMCOR’s staff members are constantly listening, monitoring, and processing information about events that receive little news coverage. To continue the commitment to alleviate “human suffering without distinction of race, color, or creed,” UMCOR actively monitors the world to know whether a group of people or a community ignored by the larger society might be in need.
UMCOR ensures the accountability of its programs—to both the beneficiaries of its work and to those who support United Methodist relief efforts with donations. Sometimes this means working with volunteers to notice and correct the tiniest detail—a necessary practice in UMCOR’s kit ministry. That consistency is important. Problems arise if, after a disaster, someone receives an incomplete kit compared to what others have received. The kits not only fill a need, they are a symbol of hope. A cleaning bucket may not seem like much when you’re facing a flooded house, but it’s a symbol that you are not alone. Someone made that kit, someone packed it, and someone’s prayers have arrived with it.
UMCOR is often among the first to respond, whether in the form of rapidly released grants to local partners on the scene so needs can be met quickly, or of country offices that encounter new challenges as new crises strike during ongoing programming. Assistance needs to be available as soon as possible, as the need is often greatest when an event is unfolding. UMCOR’s history in aid enables its staff to draw from previous experience and move rapidly without sacrificing its fiduciary duty to beneficiaries and donors.
UMCOR looks at the long term. The ever-shrinking availability of emergency funds, along with the increasing frequency of climatic and conflict-driven emergency events, means that UMCOR can’t only consider an immediate response. Over the decades, the agency has moved beyond addressing the symptoms of calamity to developing strategies that avoid and decrease the impact of disaster. Through its development and health programming, UMCOR works to strengthen communities. With its new and expanding Disaster Risk Reduction portfolio, the agency seeks to help communities prepare for, mitigate, and respond to disasters before a catastrophic event even occurs. In the United States, UMCOR’s extensive training program looks to train and equip conference response teams and partners to better address and manage the effects of disaster. Such a response may include listening to survivors and, in some cases, providing case management to get them all the way through to the brighter days of their ordeal.
UMCOR is the channel for the expression of solidarity and love generated in the UMC by the hardship of people experiencing disasters. Grounded in the raw love of its constituent churches, it channels the energy and desire to help into responses that are culturally appropriate, technically sound, and forward looking. Supporters’ passion to help is translated into aid that promotes independence, does no harm, and respects and fosters human dignity.
The ever-connected nature of the world we live in has not diminished the importance of UMCOR. In fact, with a growing number of crises impacting communities across the world, the need for a “voice of conscience” has never been more apparent. We are honored that United Methodists worldwide have allowed us to serve as that voice for 75 years and look to continue to serve for seven times 75.
Sincerely and with gratitude,
Visit www.umcor.org for updates on UMCOR’s latest activities
This article was originally published in the January-February 2015 issue of New World Outlook. Used by permission.
Youssef Hassan of El Daein, Sudan, has owned his own carpentry shop since completing an UMCOR vocational training course in 2012. Photo: Linda Unger
Mike Barbee, UMCOR’s WASH coordinator, inspects a latrine with a family in Guatemala. Photo: Courtesy Mike Barbee
A sustainable agriculture project in Zimbabwe. Photo: J. Rollins