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Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > Archives Web Exclusives > Director of Global Health Initiative challenges church to be healthy and whole

The Rev. Gary Henderson

Director of Global Health
Initiative challenges church
to be healthy and whole

Executives of general agencies of The United Methodist Church have started planning a campaign to raise $75 million to $100 million to fight diseases of poverty after receiving approval for the Global Health Initiative  from the 2008 General Conference. The Rev. Gary Henderson, executive director of the Global Health Initiative for United Methodist Communications, discussed the campaign and challenged church members to make health a priority during a recent interview with Deborah White, associate editor of Interpreter.

Q. Why should local churches get excited about the Global Health Initiative?

A. My initial response around why local churches ought to be involved in global health is a recognition that no matter where we come from in North America, we come from a place of blessing and privilege.

When we talk about giving $10 to buy a malaria net and to save a life, it's a small gift, but yet a big gift at the same time. In the midst of our own struggles around apportionments and all the things that we deal with, it's an opportunity to look beyond our most immediate and pressing needs and see a larger need, a larger human family and to understand that, even now, we can make differences. Just a $10 gift is significant. There are others who will give much more, but every gift literally saves a life.

The other piece for me, with malaria in particular, is a real awareness. I remember the spraying -- we called it the "spray man" -- where I grew up down South. They were spraying to kill mosquitoes. Malaria is no longer an issue in North America, and it used to be not so long ago. If we can eliminate malaria in North America, certainly I think we have some responsibility to look at the world and say they, too, ought to enjoy the same sort of place.

To ground it biblically, there is a place in Matthew's gospel that I run to often, when Jesus says bring health to the sick:

As you go, proclaim the good news, "The kingdom of heaven has come near. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment" (Matthew 10:7-8, NRSV).

Q. Now that we're at the beginning of this campaign, what is the next message you want to get out?

A. Our church has embraced the big picture. We understand the concept of the Nothing But Nets campaign. We understand the $10. We understand it buys a net. We understand we save lives. But there's a bigger picture in terms of awareness-building and education.

Between now and September, we are laying out a plan that will help people to engage the fund-raising piece. We have talked about a group of ambassadors who we will train and educate to go around the country talking about this issue. We have talked about the need to develop print material, to develop Web resources, to engage United Methodist Women.

We've really got to get the word out to the rank and file in ways that are compelling. We've found stories. You know stories make a difference. Pictures make a difference. When people see the pictures and hear the stories, we found people respond. People care.

Q. If you could speak at every annual conference, what would you want to tell them? Would that be the place to try to motivate them?

A. It would simply be a denominational challenge to be healthy and whole. We really have a responsibility as Christians to be healthy and whole, a responsibility to help others be healthy and whole and a responsibility, I think, to share that message as often as we can.

We've been talking a lot about malaria. That's one challenge around being healthy and whole. If we're to think about the backdrop of the diseases of poverty, in North America I would maybe coin a phrase -- something like the "diseases of wealth" -- and talk about heart attack, diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure. I could go on and on in terms of the issues that we deal with mainly out of affluence.

So the large message to annual conferences would be healthy and whole. I really dream of a day when from our Board of Pension we might hear that message in a clear way. We are addressing clergy health issues  in a lot of ways through that board. In the Mississippi Conference, for instance, I am very aware of an initiative around clergy health. The same is developing out the Minnesota Conference as well.

I think we see the handwriting on the wall in our own lifestyles in North America. And the church has to sound that alarm, too. I think when we sound that alarm among nations of wealth, and when we deal with issues of poverty as well, there is a more holistic approach and we indeed embrace everybody in the whole world.

Q. If you could sit down and talk to an individual member of The United Methodist Church, would it be a two-fold message -- we need to take care of ourselves and the world?

A. It would be a two-fold message. The first message would one be around the malaria piece because that has been a huge entry point. There has been a lot of excitement around that. But while articulating that message, what I would say is something I said often as a pastor in a local church to the person across the desk from me, "When was the last time you had a physical?" If it was a man across from me -- men are notorious for not seeing a doctor -- I would fuss.

We live in a land where access to health care is an issue. That's an issue that we hope to address around global health. We also live in a land of privilege where many people who want to and need to see a doctor, can. But many of those same people don't. And because of the lack of routine preventative things, people are dying younger than they need to be of all sorts of things because they simply refuse to do preventative things.

So in a local church in North America, I would say, "When's the last time you went to see a doctor? And the people in your family? What did you eat for dinner last night? What kind of green vegetables? Did you get any exercise today?" Those are basic kinds of things that we have control around.

I was really impressed at General Conference the day they had the health screenings. In a course of less than an hour, I had several simple tests and an opportunity to sit with a health professional to discuss my results. A delegate from one of the central conferences had his blood pressure taken. It was off the charts. A health professional shared some potentially life-saving information that he probably did not have because he was from a part of the world where that kind of access simply was not available to him.

This was made possible by one of the local Dallas/Fort Worth hospitals. If we take that model to the local church, to the annual conference, to the district gathering, to the jurisdictional gathering, those events are easily replicated.

There are all sort of creative things that can happen. And I think part of the challenge around the global health initiative -- going back to healthy and whole again -- is to issue the challenge for all of us to do something. You know we can't do everything. I'm quoting a new friend of mine, Shane Stanford. He says you may not be able to do everything, but you can do something. I think that is so true. We can all do something.

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