Following the success of Imagine No Malaria, Global Ministries is inviting United Methodists and their congregations to unite once again around a new health focus, Abundant Health: Our Promise to Children.
"We want to see children survive and thrive and communities transformed because of this work," Dr. Olusimbo Ige said. "We also want to see the church come together around this the same way the church came together around Imagine No Malaria. We hope Abundant Health will be a rallying point for the church, something we can all agree on." Ige is executive director of the Global Health Unit for the General Board of Global Ministries.
General Conference 2016 adopted "Abundant Health" as one the denomination's Four Areas of Focus for the 2017-2020 quadrennium.
John 10:10, "Jesus' promise of abundant life to all," is the basis of the emphasis, Ige said. In addition, the initiative reflects "our Wesleyan heritage (making) health a very integral part of our mission."
Thomas Kemper, top executive for Global Ministries, said health ministry was visible early in the Methodist movement when preachers carried two books in their saddlebags: a Bible for addressing spiritual health, and John Wesley's Primitive Physick, which guided them in addressing physical health.
Just as Wesley emphasized "body and spirit and mind, that's the kind of wholeness we want to reach with this campaign," Kemper said.
In 2014, as the Imagine No Malaria campaign was entering its final years, Global Ministries conducted a survey to ask what the priority should be for the Global Health Unit in the future. The survey received more than 5,000 responses to the question "What are the health challenges and health problems The United Methodist Church should tackle next?"
The responses indicated a need for a common theme that could encompass the whole church, Kemper said.
"We were really trying to find a campaign that would be relevant not just for one part of our church," he said. "We wanted something that affects us all."
Reach 1 million children
That central focus came in the form of emphasizing children, specifically to reach 1 million children with lifesaving and health-promoting measures by 2020.
"Health and children's wellbeing is a priority in every culture, every place, everywhere. There is no culture where children are not important," Ige said. "In the world of public health, we also know that children are the most vulnerable. They are not in a position to negotiate for their rights or defend themselves."
Based on research of what most affects child health, Global Ministries developed areas of emphasis for its efforts toward health and wellbeing around the world.
Priorities in the developing world include maternal-child health, specifically reducing complications around birth and infectious diseases such as malaria, pneumonia, diarrhea and HIV. For the United States, the emphasis is on nutrition, physical activity and disease prevention.
"We don't want it to be separated U.S. and international, but with some of the health needs, it automatically shakes out like that," said Kathy Griffith, program officer for child and maternal health at Global Ministries.
Regardless of those regional differences, Global Ministries' staff said the overall goal is the same.
"Our core message is that children's health should be a priority," Ige said. "It needs to be contextualized and specific to each location. We want people to have the option to choose what's relevant to them and what the priority is for their own community."
As organizers move forward, they are not just focused on survival but on helping children thrive.
Involve 10,000 churches
In order to reach 1 million children with lifesaving and health-promoting interventions, Global Ministries is leading a 10,000-Church Challenge to get congregations involved in making health a priority.
Griffith said she hopes churches will join the initiative both "to reach children in their own back yard and (to) be a part of praying or doing something else for children in another back yard."
Specifically, these efforts will include promoting children's health and wellness, ensuring safe births, promoting breastfeeding and good nutrition, and preventing and treating childhood illnesses.
As a precursor to wider efforts around the world, Global Ministries has been operating pilot programs in Mozambique and Liberia. These countries, selected because of their strong United Methodist presence and their low ranking for child and maternal health, have experienced lifesaving change already through this work.
Ige said there are now two functional clinics in Liberia and in Mozambique that have served more than 1,000 children so far.
"To the best of my knowledge, we haven't lost any babies in either of these countries," Ige said of the new locations. "Being able to provide these services to women and seeing these children has been so exciting. We are energized."
As the initiative expands, Ige said the ministry is continuing to identify vulnerable communities in countries such as Nepal, Nicaragua, Haiti, Guatemala, Nigeria and others.
"We are very excited about the response we've seen so far," she said.
The possibilities found in this initiative also excite Griffith.
"I've had an exciting life, but this is one of the most wonderful programs to be a part of," she said. "I call it being part of changing the world."
Regardless of where they live, Ige said she wants to encourage people to make a commitment to health.
"We're shifting the message that health problems are only in developing countries or that we don't have a health problem here [in the U.S.]," she said. "In your own family even, there is always room for prioritizing children's health. We want everyone to see themselves reflected in this focus."
At www.umcabundanthealth.org, congregations can find ideas for how to get involved. Ige hopes those suggestions will be a springboard to encourage churches to be creative.
"We're hoping this initiative will give everyone an opportunity to participate with whatever means they can," Ige said. "We want to move away from thinking the only thing you can do is give money. Give prayers, accompany someone to the hospital, find a way you can contribute. Everyone can do something about improving health."
Promote health, implement strategies
In addition to engaging churches in promoting health, Global Ministries' staff offers technical support to partners as they implement health strategies in their communities around the world.
"A lot of times we feel passionate and called to do something, but because health is a technical field, there is a right and wrong way to do it," Ige said. "It's not enough to want to do good. We want to do good in a way that is ethical, in a way that falls within approved standards of healthcare and health ministry, ensuring that whatever work we do adheres to standard practices."
As congregations begin to participate in Abundant Health, Kemper said he hopes it reshapes people's view of church.
"I hope that we really see the church as something that is not there only on a Sunday, but as something that encompasses every aspect of our lives, including being a community of people striving for health in their own lives and also in the communities around them," Kemper said.
"This is important because people look for the churches to really transform their whole life," he said. "It's what we call sanctification, where you grow in your faith. Health is really part of it."
As a global denomination, Griffith said she sees The United Methodist Church as having a unique opportunity to address health needs. "We can go to the end of the road where other services don't."
For Griffith, reaching people with Abundant Health is all about relationships.
"Life, and particularly our lives in Christ, are built on healthy relationships," Griffith said. "We can all make a difference in other people's health through relationships, through passing on what we know, through learning together, through increasing others opportunities to be healthy."
Emily Snell is a freelance writer living in Nashville, Tennessee. She writes frequently for Interpreter and other publications.