A United Methodist church member said something to me recently that inspired a time of pondering. “You know,” he said, “I’m getting a little bit tired of hearing about this whole ‘Imagine No Malaria’ thing.”
“Why do you think that is,” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “it seems like we’re being coerced to give a whole lot of money to people who are a world away instead of using that money to help the people who are right outside our doors.”
I asked him what his church was doing to help the people “right outside [their] doors.”
“Well…uh…um…well…we hold a great Vacation Bible School every year.”
“That’s wonderful,” I said. “I’m glad to hear that. What else?”
“Well…uh…hmmm…we collect food for the local food bank every month.”
“Excellent! You’re helping to feed the poor. What else?”
Silence. Followed by more silence.
Then, this response: “I’ll have to look at our church’s budget or bulletin for the specifics. But I’m sure we do a lot.”
That conversation reminded me of how compartmentalized and myopic the Church can be in its ministry and mission. We often fall into the trap of believing that our mission is to reach THIS person or THAT person instead of embracing the biblical mandate to go into “all the world” with the Gospel—not to mention the Wesleyan idea that the entire world is our parish.
Those who have a genuine heart for the church’s mission already know that the church’s mission field is always “both/and”—it is both the house next door and the house on the other side of the world, and both houses are inseparably linked in the beautiful and mysterious unity of the Holy Spirit. The body of Christ, in other words, cannot afford to be territorial in its mission and outreach.
This became clear to me a few years back when I had the opportunity to visit and pray with patients in a hospital in the village of Ankaase (Ghana, West Africa). On that day, I prayed with a mother and her small child, both of whom were seeking treatment for malaria. We did not speak the same language, of course. However, in those sacred moments, we found unity in the shared vocabulary and intonation of prayer. The mother wept during that time of prayer. She wept, I assume, for the sick child that she held in her arms. Her tears became something sacramental for me—a baptismal water that flowed into the depths of my soul.
When I think about the ministry of “Imagine No Malaria,” I don’t think first of dollars and bed nets (as important as they are). Rather, I think of that mother and child in Ghana. I think of their faces and souls. I think of their tears. Most of all, I think of the truth that, if one person in the body of Christ suffers, then the entire body of Christ suffers.
As a District Superintendent in that portion of the body of Christ called the United Methodist Church, when I speak with excitement about a ministry like “Imagine No Malaria,” I have found that some people are eager to assume that I am doing nothing but towing the party line or kowtowing to an Episcopal leader who happens to be passionate about global health. Such assumptions are particularly common among those with a proclivity to cynicism (and there is certainly no shortage of those in the contemporary church). While I appreciate the opinions and convictions of my colleagues, it saddens me that some will dismiss this blog post before they even finish it, seeing it as more of a commercial than a personal testimony. “Sure, we get it. You’re talking about ‘Imagine No Malaria’ because you HAVE to.” (wink, wink)
The fact of the matter, however, is that my passion for “Imagine No Malaria” has far more to do with personal conversion than it does with episcopal mandate or ministerial responsibilities. After a recent presentation on the suffering caused by malaria among our sisters and brothers in Africa, my wife Tara and I were inspired to enter a two-week period of prayerful discernment concerning the issue of how best to support the ministry of “Imagine No Malaria.” When we spoke about the matter after that two-week period, I suggested to Tara that we become a part of the “Impact 100 Society” (a plan to save 100 African lives by giving $28 per month for the next three years to “Imagine No Malaria”). As is often the case, Tara pushed me on the issue. “We have the wherewithal to do something more than that,” she said, “and I can’t shake the feeling that God wants us to risk a deeper investment with this ministry.” As a result, we became part of the “Impact 500 Society” (a plan to save 500 African lives by giving $83 per month for the next five years to “Imagine No Malaria”).
Are you put off by my eagerness to report the specific numbers related to our decision? Don’t be. The numbers simply help to clarify the nature and depth of our personal conversion. The numbers, in other words, serve to add a sense of concreteness to the personal testimony I am offering.
I do not share this information with you for the purpose of patting myself on the back for my good work. (Believe me, the evidence of my own shallowness and selfishness could occupy the next thousand blog posts.) Nor do I share this information for the purpose of manipulating sentiment for another denominational effort. Rather, I share this information in order to help you to understand that I am a frail and feeble Christ-follower who has been brought to his knees and completely undone by the realization that millions of our African sisters and brothers are suffering with a disease that is perfectly preventable and treatable.
I am grateful to be part of a church that dares to see the world as its parish, that dares to see Africa as being more “here” than “there.”