UMCOR at Seventy
by Linda Unger*
June 1, 2010—Seventy years after its founding as a short-term response to suffering, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) continues to respond to people in need, to stand with them through natural and human-made disasters, and to support their hopes for development, security, growth, and healing.
In this way, through UMCOR, United Methodists and other people of goodwill are “the eyes, the ears, the very heart of conscience in our time,” said UMCOR director Rev. Cynthia Harvey.
Harvey was referring to the rallying cry of the organization’s founder, Bishop Herbert Welch, who in 1940 called on his US denomination to create an agency that would serve as a “voice of conscience among Methodists to act in relief of human suffering without distinction of race, color, or creed.”
Welch’s concern initially was for those who were experiencing the violence and hardships brought on by the Second World War, especially in Asia, Europe, and parts of Africa. But when the war was over, his “voice of conscience” continued.
Every four years, General Conference approved and extended the work of what began as the Methodist Committee for Overseas Relief (MCOR). It was not until 1972 that UMCOR became a fixed institution, part of the then recently configured General Board of Global Ministries.
From Transitory to Permanent
Today, UMCOR works in partnership with communities and congregations in more than 80 countries, from Chile to Cambodia, South Africa to Bosnia. It has field offices in Afghanistan, Armenia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Georgia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Haiti.
In the US, UMCOR coordinates with the Annual Conference Disaster Response System, created in 1970, and runs two relief supply depots: UMCOR Sager Brown in Baldwin, Louisiana, and UMCOR West in Salt Lake City, Utah. The depots collect emergency supplies, from school kits to cleaning buckets, which are sent in response to crises across the globe and at home.
While humanitarian needs in the US and abroad continue to be great, they’re not the only reason UMCOR has continued for seven decades, Harvey said. “When you begin to change one another’s lives, you can’t just stop,” she reflected. “Our ability to connect with and impact the world goes on.”
Every experience of UMCOR’s service—resettling Chinese refugees in the 1940s, responding to drought and famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s, offering earthquake relief in Haiti, Chile and China today—is built on the foundation of what has come before, Harvey said.
“We constantly learn to respond more effectively and efficiently,” she added. “This has to do with vision. When you see what is possible in responding to one challenging situation, there’s little that is impossible the next time around. If we can respond to the tsunami in Indonesia (in 2004), then we can respond to one of the greatest disasters ever in the western hemisphere, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.”
The January 12 disaster in Haiti killed more than 230,000 people, injured another 300,000, and displaced at least one million. The quake took a personal toll on UMCOR, when it took the life of Harvey’s predecessor as director, the Rev. Samuel Dixon, Jr.
UMCOR’s ability to reach out to those in need today is “greater than it ever has been,” Harvey said, attributing the increase to the accumulated experience over 70 years, but also to the partnerships UMCOR has developed with annual conferences, congregations, and nongovernmental organizations.
When we partner together, we pool resources, leverage efforts, and have a greater impact than any one of us could have singly,” she said. “And that means we will have an even greater impact over the next 70 years.
UMCOR’s connection with annual conferences and congregations is particularly important, Harvey said. The question into the future, she underscored, “is how do we empower, engage, and equip each other for service.
Another priority going forward, she said, is to build capacity in the communities UMCOR serves, so they will be prepared to lead in the face of a calamity, such as the February earthquake in Chile or this spring’s historic flooding in Tennessee.
UMCOR makes the biggest difference when we work side by side with local communities to respond appropriately and build their capacity, so the next time there’s a disaster, they can confidently respond to the immediate circumstances,” she said.
That is one way UMCOR can expect to build on the heritage of these past 70 years and “look to a greater future,” Harvey said.
Watch UMCOR’s 70 Years of Hope slideshow. See a timeline celebrating UMCOR’s seventieth anniversary. And give to UMCOR Undesignated, Advance # 999895, and help meet the most urgent needs around the world.