UMCOR: 70 Years of Hope
by Melissa Hinnen
What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? —Micah 6:8 (NRSV)
For 70 years the people of The United Methodist Church have put the spirit of Micah 6:8 into action through the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). By hosting sojourners, assembling school kits for children around the world, buying fair-trade coffee to ensure that farmers receive a living wage, welcoming the stranger, supporting community health-care workers and hospital revitalization, and rebuilding homes devastated by floods or earthquakes, United Methodists continue to be the hands and feet of Christ.
In the midst of war and destruction, UMCOR serves as a "voice of conscience among Methodists to act in the relief of human suffering without distinction of race, color, or creed." So said Bishop Herbert Welch at the General Conference of the Methodist Church on April 26, 1940. With the outbreak of World War II, Bishop Welch called on the General Conference to respond to the needs of human suffering around the world. On June 2, 1940, Methodists observed a day of prayer and sacrifice, with the offering being used to support the newly formed Methodist Committee for Overseas Relief (MCOR).
The committee was expected to be temporary. The General Conference delegates believed that MCOR's work would not be needed for very long. Actually, when General Conference met four years later, the United States had entered the war and delegates voted to keep MCOR active for another four years.
Recognizing the great need in the world and the unique opportunity Methodists had to reach out to the most vulnerable populations, General Conference continued to approve MCOR's work. In 1972, the committee structure was formalized and integrated into the work of the General Board of Global Ministries. For 32 years, the committee had focused on overseas relief; but as the scope of work expanded to include disaster recovery in the United States, the committee name was changed to the United Methodist Committee On Relief. (This history is taken from Love in Action by Norma Kehrberg, Abingdon Press, 1989.)
"When we look to serve, to make a difference in this world, lives are changed, including our own."
UMCOR's Ministry of Presence
Because many emergencies require extended relief, UMCOR recognized the need for many points of ministry and opened offices in various places around the world.
Sager-Brown--a mission institution in Baldwin, Louisiana, owned by the Women's Division of The UMC--was a school and orphanage from 1867 to 1978. In 1992, 14 years after the orphanage closed, Hurricane Andrew hit Louisiana's southern coast, causing major damage to the area around Baldwin. UMCOR used the Sager-Brown campus as a staging area for volunteers, and, two years later, built a relief-supply depot there.
Volunteers could come to the depot to assemble relief-supply kits and cleaning buckets to be shipped to emergency sites in the United States and around the world.
In 1993, in response to the crisis in Bosnia, UMCOR established its first office as a nongovernmental organization (NGO). NGO field offices now allow UMCOR to develop long-term projects in partnership with local communities. There are now NGO offices in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Afghanistan, Armenia, Georgia, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. In 2009, UMCOR NGO registered to open an office in Zimbabwe.
"My Zimbabwean counterpart described the contents of the school kit to the crowd: notebooks (smiles, clapping), scissors (smiles, clapping), an eraser, a ruler, crayons (more smiles and clapping), pencils (LOUD CHEERS!!!).... Never have I seen such excitement about six pencils!"
In March 2008, directors approved proposals for three new offices to increase UMCOR's ability to serve some of the world's most vulnerable people. To serve the hurricane- and tornado-prone Southeastern United States, an office was opened in Mobile, Alabama, in 2008--followed by UMCOR West, a depot in Salt Lake City, Utah, in May 2009. Working in partnership with UMCOR Sager-Brown, UMCOR West stores supply kits and offers new opportunities for kit ministry in the church's Western Jurisdiction.
UMCOR Philippines opened its doors in July 2009. Located on the campus of Union Theological Seminary in Cavite, near Manila, this field office facilitates communication with the United States and between United Methodist conferences in the Philippines.
UMCOR Philippines also offers an on-site storage facility for material goods and relief supplies. Before the opening, superintendents, disaster-response coordinators, and bishops attended workshops to develop a disaster-response plan. When Typhoon Ketsana hit the country in October, districts were well prepared to launch relief efforts and to work toward longer-term recovery.
Thanks to United Methodists who are committed to having a voice of conscience in the world, a decade into the 21st century, UMCOR continues to grow and reach the world's most vulnerable people--saving lives and transforming communities.
Melissa Hinnen is the Director of Communications for UMCOR, General Board of Global Ministries.
UMCOR in the 21st Century
By Sam Dixon
A small child held my hand as we walked through the camp. "This is my home," she said, as we paused before a canvas tent with a wooden floor provided by the United Nations for several refugee families. This child witnessed the death of her father and brothers. Only she and her mother survived--scarred, alone, hungry, sick, and scared. There are too many such stories in the world.
Since 1940, UMCOR has provided help and hope to people in serious situations. Through donations of money, time, skill, and prayer, United Methodists have supported UMCOR in its work of witnessing for peace, restoring lives, addressing injustice, and joining with others to build a sustainable future for a multitude of people.
UMCOR's future continues to evolve. In wonderful ways, it engages the church in serving others and serving with others in the name and spirit of Christ. UMCOR continues to move closer to the people it seeks to serve. In the last 18 months, offices have been opened in Mobile, Salt Lake City, and Manila.
UMCOR NGO field offices are becoming more fully integrated with the whole of UMCOR in international disaster relief and health initiatives. Additional UMCOR staff have been hired, and conference or medical staff have received support to serve the United Methodist global health initiative throughout Africa. This trend will continue long into the future.
The growth of major partnerships will also continue to expand. While The Advance has long provided a mechanism for designated giving, the UMCOR-Ginghamsburg UMC partnership in the Sudan models an increasing reality. Focused local church and annual conference partnerships make it possible to greatly expand the potential for doing good. Through partnerships, livelihoods are being created and restored, schools built, children educated, health improved, and churches developed.
Much of the emphasis on partnerships emerged from the tragedies of the current decade. Faced with Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, the 2004 Christmas tsunamis, Darfur, and the D. R. Congo, UMCOR began working in new ways with new partners to address crises at new levels. In building lasting relationships with local, state, and federal governments; developing crisis-intervention strategies; ameliorating human suffering with humanitarian aid; and managing unprecedented funding, UMCOR has reached new heights of responsible caring for vulnerable populations on behalf of the church.
Major disasters, continuing pandemics, and climate change have revealed a growing need for continued disaster-preparedness training. Recent training sessions have occurred in Honduras, Chile, Mexico, and the United States, with others planned in coming years. UMCOR will work with partner churches and organizations to develop humanitarian-relief action plans and sustainable resources.
Much of UMCOR's future work will require the expansion of established programs that continue to meet important needs. The material resources of Sager-Brown, UMCOR West, and the Manila storage facility will provide relief by replenishing food, water, and other necessary supplies. UMCOR's work in agricultural and food security will help in the transition from relief to development. UMCOR continues to work with families and communities to develop sustainable sources of food--thus advancing the denominational focus on ministry with the poor, led by Global Ministries.
As part of the denominational focus on global health, UMCOR Health is working to improve maternal and child health. From the grassroots level, with trained community health workers, to the development of fully functioning, well-staffed, regional hospitals, UMCOR will focus on illness and disease prevention as well as cure.
Immigration and refugee rights will also be a growing challenge for the church. Within the United States, UMCOR's Justice For Our Neighbors (JFON) ministry will continue responding to immigrants' needs for legal help. Refugees are particularly vulnerable, needing protection and sometimes resettlement. UMCOR will increase its involvement in this justice ministry over time.
As UMCOR stands poised to begin another significant chapter in its history, its next 70 years should be as meaningful as its first.
Sam Dixon served as the Deputy General Secretary for the United Methodist Committee on Relief. He died on January 16, 2010, of injuries sustained in the collapse of the Hotel Montana during the earthquake in Haiti, January 12, 2010.
Statements from Former UMCOR Leaders
UMCOR continues with Christ, present in the lives of people at their time of need. Through 70 years of action, ameliorating hunger and poverty, with refugees and undocumented workers, in disasters and emergencies, UMCOR has expanded and changed but always responds.
For me, the work of UMCOR is a human face. It is expressed in the eyes of a child receiving a cup of porridge in Ethiopia in 1984; the look of amazement and joy as a family watches water gush from a deep well in the Senegal desert; non-literate women gathered around a kerosene lamp in Nepal, learning to read and write. UMCOR is the love expressed in the smile of a mother as her severely malnourished child starts eating again, and the song and laughter of men and women harvesting their vegetable fields in Kenya.
Through all the tragedies in our world, UMCOR continues to have the respect and trust of the members of The United Methodist Church. And they respond, for they are the giving faces of UMCOR.
Ken Lutgen, Jr.
One of the great joys in my life was the years I spent as the executive director of UMCOR, 1992-1997. My opportunity to begin more directly implementing ministry came as the church became involved in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. Out of that involvement came the UMCOR Depot at Sager-Brown and recognition from the President of the United States. A few years later, UMCOR was given the opportunity to manage the refugee camps in Bosnia, giving birth to the NGO.
|"Amidst the calamity, the spirit of volunteerism is very much alive in the Philippines. Many responded to the call of helping those affected by Typhoon Ketsana."
--Ciony Ayo-Eduarte, office manager of UMCOR Philippines
UMCOR continued to serve through the 1990s in its role as a major player in disaster response and in recovery and development. In the countries of the former Soviet Union; in Cambodia, Haiti, and the former Yugoslavia; and across Africa, a new United Methodist presence emerged through UMCOR. During the Rwanda crisis, UMCOR responded to the fleeing refugees with major shipments of needed resources. Thus, in a short time, UMCOR moved from being an agency that funded other relief agencies to one that provided direct aid in specific situations.
What a humbling privilege it was to lead UMCOR from mid-1998 to early 2007. Those years saw the church express its confidence in UMCOR's ability to provide professional interventions in some of the world's worst crises.
In every aspect of UMCOR's humanitarian witness, we looked on suffering people not as victims but rather as survivors and implementers of assistance. We understood that those who survive are our best partners and are often, in their own way, more generous than official aid agencies. We included people of all faith traditions in our work. When we were involved in post-war return and recovery, our workers represented all sides of the conflict. We showed what peace would look like in places where people had forgotten.
God's mission was and is the best of all the places in which to spend one's life. UMCOR illustrates the point.
Interviews by Melissa Hinnen.