A Mustard Seed Multiplied
by Linda Unger
Pouring over the history of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), it is hard to resist the image of the mustard seed—that “smallest of all the seeds on earth” that Jesus uses to describe the kingdom of God. From a tiny seed, new life grows from obscurity to become “the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32)
Now, UMCOR itself may not be the kingdom of God or “the greatest of shrubs,” but, like the mustard seed, its beginnings were small and humble. At its founding, it was not intended to survive much beyond World War II but to help and comfort those who were impacted by the violence of that period. Nevertheless, nourished by faith and self-giving love, it has sunk deep roots in Methodist soil and extended leafy branches both to those in need and to all who would partner with them to respond.
Over the course of seven and a half decades, UMCOR has modified its size, reach, and approach. Yet, certain constants have developed within the organization from the days when the seed was first sown to the present. Those constant concerns are:
• Responding in faith
• Partnering with others
• Alleviating human suffering
• Serving refugees
Responding in Faith
In September 1940, just a few months after General Conference approved the formation of the Methodist Committee for Overseas Relief (MCOR), the forerunner of the present-day UMCOR, Bishop Herbert Welch, who is credited with its founding, made the public case for faith-based relief agencies.
While holding up the good work of secular agencies for war relief, he said, “There is, in this critical time, [a] need for church agencies of relief, to bear their part and make their distinctively Christian contribution to a suffering world.” That contribution was one of “mercy and reconstruction” among the affected civilian population, Welch wrote. It could make no distinction “of race, creed, or color” among those it sought to assist, and would “bear witness to Christ by serving all in the name of Christ,” he said.
Even in 1942, when MCOR began to prepare for its role after the end of World War II, MCOR leaders foresaw the extension of relief work to include a continuum of recovery and development. A report on the 40th anniversary of the agency, written in 1980, described this shift as “evidence of a radical change in the Church from a mode of faith that emphasized the relationship of the individual to God to a mode of faith that emphasized the relationship of belief to social interaction.” In other words, United Methodists felt called by their faith to respond as long as there was need.
That sense of obligation to be the “hands and feet of Christ” for no other reason than Christian call, continues to motivate United Methodists in their support of UMCOR and their solidarity with people in need around the world.
Partnering With Others
When Bishop Welch made his case for MCOR as a faith-based relief agency, he didn’t see it as one more religious entity working in the field of relief in competition with others. On the contrary, MCOR’s activities were to be “primarily aimed at reinforcing the efforts of relief agencies of an interdenominational character.”
MCOR had been created as a successor to the Methodist Committee for China Relief, with an expanded mandate. It was meant to appeal for funds and disburse them for relief aid through an initial six approved Methodist or other denominational and ecumenical agencies.
Far from being in competition with other Christian denominations, MCOR was expected to work alongside them. UMCOR has continued and expanded this collaboration to include interreligious partnerships. UMCOR’s work with organizations such as Muslim Aid and International Blue Crescent have allowed it to extend assistance to communities served by these partners in Pakistan, Somalia, and Syria, among others. UMCOR also partners with secular organizations, such as GlobalMedic, pooling knowledge, capacity, resources, and expertise.
UMCOR’s first partners in the wake of a disaster, though, are the impacted communities themselves. Their insight and local knowledge help UMCOR to target aid effectively to the populations most in need.
Alleviating Human Suffering
When MCOR was founded, war raged in Europe and Asia. Methodist missionaries were often caught in the crosshairs, and some of MCOR’s early work was to “bring out stranded missionaries from war areas, to send supplementary subsistence to pastors and Bible women whom it had called out to do the church’s work, to feed teachers fainting from malnutrition in their classrooms,” says a report on the organization’s 20th anniversary.
“But,” the document continues, “its task was bigger than this because the need was bigger. The need was staggering. MCOR undertook to do everything in its power to succor suffering people anywhere, of whatever race, nationality, creed or no creed….No one knew then that [MCOR] would last so long or extend its mercies so far.”
By the time that report was written, MCOR had taken on “a sad permanency.” Originally founded to respond to the exigencies of World War II, MCOR’s mission was renewed by seven more general conferences, for a total of 32 years, before it became a permanent fixture in The United Methodist Church.
While carrying out relief work, the agency always felt the tug toward long-term, sustainable recovery. The need for reconstruction, rehabilitation, repatriation of the displaced, and reconciliation following not only the war but the many other kinds of emergencies to which UMCOR continually responded, became evident.
In 1960, MCOR was responding to 14 or 15 appeals for funds annually; by 1980, the number had risen to 30 or 40. Today, UMCOR responds to about 100 disasters a year, around the world and in the United States.
UMCOR began providing disaster response in the United States in 1972, and today conducts a rigorous schedule of training events for early responders, case managers, emotional and spiritual care providers, and others at the conference (regional) level. Today, both internationally and in the United States, UMCOR is helping communities identify hazards they can address before disaster strikes, thus helping them to reduce casualties and costs of recovery after a calamity.
United Methodists and others participate directly in disaster response after training in any of these areas. They also extend support through UMCOR’s material resources ministry, by purchasing supplies and assembling relief kits either in their home congregations, at the UMCOR Sager-Brown Depot in Baldwin, Louisiana, or at any one of a network of eight United Methodist depots in different parts of the United States. Relief supplies are shipped around the world and across the United States.
UMCOR is perhaps best known for its work in response to disasters—including major disasters such as the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004; Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Ike in the United States in 2005; and the Haiti earthquake of 2010. These events generate displacement, and UMCOR has helped provide services—and in the case of the US hurricanes, case management—for communities forced by these disasters to evacuate.
Since its founding, UMCOR has also worked with communities displaced by war—from Europe and Palestine after World War II, to Central Americans who sought refuge in the United States in the 1980s, to today’s displaced persons and refugees from Syria, Sudan, Ukraine, and Iraq.
From 1948 to today, UMCOR has worked with Church World Service to resettle war-displaced persons in the United States and has supported the efforts of individual congregations to welcome these refugees.
UMCOR also is currently working with United Methodist conferences and congregations along the US-Mexico border to provide food, shelter, and legal services for the thousands of women, children, and unaccompanied minors who are fleeing gang violence and a dearth of livelihood possibilities in Central America.
Mustard Seed Multiplied
The tiny mustard seed sown 75 years ago has not only grown but multiplied, as the spirit that moved Bishop Welch and 1940 General Conference continues to nurture the church in collaboration with UMCOR today.
Linda Unger is the senior writer for the General Board of Global Ministries. This article was first published in the January-February 2015 issue of New World Outlook magazine. Used by permission.
Students react to American visitors in their classroom at the Methodist School in Furcy, Haiti. Photo: Mike Dubose/UMNS
A GlobalMedic staffer takes buckets through a throng of curious onlookers after Typhoon Haiyan, Leyte Province, Philippines, 2013. Photo: Jack Amick
Would you like to comment on the story? Send a letter to the editor, email@example.com