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Litany of Disasters, Devotion of Partners

UMCOR & Ecumenical Partners

by Linda Beher

Children in Catalina, Colombia, raise poultry in a program sponsored by Church World Service and UMCOR.
Children in Catalina, Colombia, raise poultry in a program sponsored by Church World Service and UMCOR.
Image by: Samuel Lobato/CWS
Source: New World Outlook
Lindsey Lovvorn-Zimmerman teaches Quie and Adau Matiok a new game. The Matiok family, from Sudan, was resettled in Centennial, Colorado, with assistance from Church World Service, UMCOR, and Smokey Hill UMC.
Lindsey Lovvorn-Zimmerman teaches Quie and Adau Matiok a new game. The Matiok family, from Sudan, was resettled in Centennial, Colorado, with assistance from Church World Service, UMCOR, and Smokey Hill UMC.
Image by: GBGM
Source: New World Outlook

New World Outlook, November/December 2006

A litany of disasters since 1940 can be placed side by side with a list of ecumenical partners noted for their devotion to vulnerable beneficiaries. Working in partnership, especially across denominations, has been a value of United Methodist Committee on Relief since its founding.

Beginning with refugee resettlement in China, Methodist Committee on Relief, as it was formerly known, enlisted the help of the YWCA and later a fledgling Church World Service to partner in what would become a long-term response. Today, recovery efforts in far-flung places like Indonesia, Cambodia, Colombia, Pakistan, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo benefit from the synergy of UMCOR’s collaborations with other Christians and faiths in delivering humanitarian service.

Indonesia: “That Was My Mother’s Village”

Indonesia was swamped by the tall, long waves and lethal debris that hammered people, homes, belongings, and the land itself in the tsunami of December 26, 2004. Two UMCOR aid workers drove a visitor to see the tsunami damage in Banda Aceh. Even in April 2006, the land showed evidence of the battering delivered by the onrushing seas. One of the workers pointed to the left side of the road, an open field. “That was my mother’s village,” he said. They drove further, and he pointed to the right, where rubble soaked in stagnant water surrounded the shell of a single concrete house. “That was my father’s village.” Then he pointed to a driveway leading to an empty lot. “That was my house.”

In a long-term recovery effort with many prongs, UMCOR is working with Indonesian survivors to help them make their plans for a future. One prong is UMCOR’s own operations in Indonesia and other tsunami-affected locations. New houses, roads, and schools dot the landscape now, built by UMCOR engineers and contractors.

But a disaster of such magnitude requires many hands. In a second prong, UMCOR is helping to fund Church World Service (CWS) building programs. Earlier, in the relief phase of the response, CWS distributed thousands of gallons of fresh water, bales of saris and dhoti (the region’s indigenous clothing), emergency food, and medicines. These supplies were funded in part by UMCOR grants. United Methodist health and school kits mingled with packages assembled by other denominations and went to Indonesia as well as Sri Lanka in a CWS transport for distribution to tens of thousands of survivors.

God Saved Me
The first earthquake awakened Lenni on Sunday morning. The second drove her outside, where she saw people running toward town, away from the ocean. Lenni and her husband put their children on a truck going toward their grandmother’s house in town; then they got on their motorbike to follow. They moved slowly because there were so many people.

Then the wave came and the motorbike went down. Thrown some distance, Lenni saw her husband struggling to free himself from the motorbike when the next wave came. In the dark wall of water swirled pieces of concrete, roofing, tires, and tree branches. Lenni heard her husband calling to her to hang on to anything she could grab, then crying out to God for Lenni’s protection. It would be the last time she heard her husband’s voice.

The water seemed hot, black, and sulfurous. It pulled her under, toward the sea, snapping her right leg. Then came the third wave. She tried to swim, but her injured leg was too painful. She clung to a tree trunk, not knowing whether she was sleeping or unconscious. She awoke to a man’s voice. “Hold on to the tree or you will fall into the water.” The tree had run aground on a mountainside. Her right leg was useless. She found a wire and some sticks to make a splint, and limped to an empty house where she slept. Overnight there would be repeated quakes strong enough for people to feel, renewing Lenni’s panic and fear.

The next morning she heard voices and cried out, “I’m here.” Someone called back, “Are you a ghost or a person?” Lenni had hidden in the shadows so the rescuers could not see her—the force of the waves had torn all her clothing away. They covered her and took her to a medical post. Her children found her there. They were safe because they had gone ahead on the truck.

UMCOR and ecumenical agencies are helping survivors like Lenni begin a new life. Lenni is now able to walk with the help of a prosthetic leg. She would like to resume her business of baking cakes for local shops to sell. Temporary and permanent housing, jobs, and other services are all part of the holistic approach in the coordinated long-term recovery from the tsunami.

Cambodia: Hope Comes Home as a Cow

“My children and I sold our labor in exchange for borrowing oxen from other farmers,” Mrs. Rath Phai begins. “My family had a terrible life. Sometimes, we slept with empty stomachs because of the lack of food.”

Mrs. Phai lives in Cambodia’s Svay Rieng province. Cambodia continues to be one of the least developed countries in the world. She’s 47 with a son and daughter still living in the family home. She is among the 36 percent of Cambodians who live below the poverty line. Like her neighbors, she depends on rice cultivation for her livelihood.

In 1997, Phai’s husband became ill. To cover his medical treatments, the family decided to sell a hectare of their land (about four acres) and buy a mortgage on another 1,500 square meters. Even with treatment, her husband died. Phai spiraled deeper into debt until she had only a few square meters of land remaining for her hut.

When Church World Service, with funding from long-time partner UMCOR, began activities in her village of Nhor, Phai and her family were selected as one of the most vulnerable families. They became members of the cow bank. CWS workers also provided wooden columns and thatch for the roof to help her build a small house. She planted rice that season and sold porridge. She carefully nurtured the cow from the bank.

Her cow had two calves in 2002. Phai was so excited! She returned one calf for another vulnerable family to raise and sold the other for 580,000 Riel—about US $145. She invested the money to buy one small pig to raise and bought a bicycle. With the remaining money, she was able to repay the mortgage and reclaim her land. She even had some money left to repay debts owed on her daughter’s wedding.

UMCOR combats hunger and poverty with solutions—often through ecumenical partners like Church World Service—that build on the knowledge, ingenuity, and courage of beneficiaries. Sustainability and self-sufficiency are key.

Today the Phai family has a thatched house and some other assets. Mrs. Phai operates a small business selling rice porridge. Between her earnings and those of her son, the family has risen in self-sufficiency. They fall asleep these days on full stomachs. And the cow is about to have another calf.

Colombia: From Basic Survival to a Better Life

One hundred children no longer have to work in the mines in the Colombian community of Catalina. Their families have benefited from a partnership between UMCOR and Church World Service. They’re raising poultry now.

They are members of about 250 poor rural families—more than half of them headed by women—that are improving their basic survival conditions by working together.

Many families in parts of southwest Colombia live in extreme poverty despite their region’s resources. Historically, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities have been exposed to extreme poverty and conditions of marginality—both expressions of institutional racism.

Problem: Conflicts Over Resources
Armed factions and investors covet the region because of its natural resources and its access to the Pacific Ocean and principal highways. Civilians are often subjected to violence and repression, and many have fled their homes and ancestral lands for other areas. Youth, besides being the target of violence, are often coerced to join the armed conflict by insurgent and paramilitary groups or by the army and the police.

Solution: Keeping Families Intact Through Cooperation
To keep their families intact, women are working together to improve their living conditions. UMCOR and Church World Service are partnering to support three groups in implementing a three-year Food Production and Income Generation Project for Poor Rural Families. The United Methodist portion of the funding comes from an UMCOR global hunger and poverty Advance.

Participating families have increased their food production, and have created and maintained four plots on which to grow medicinal plants. Forty-six families (236 people) have seen improvements to their income. The children are raising poultry and also attending school.

Adapted from an article by Church World Service, April 25, 2006. Used by permission.

Pakistan: Diary of an Earthquake Intervention

As the president of Pakistan appealed for international help on October 8, 2005—the day of that region’s largest earthquake in 100 years—relief workers from Inter- national Blue Crescent (IBC) were quietly mobilizing.

UMCOR’s partner in the 1999 Turkey earthquake, IBC began serving the injured and the displaced in the early days of the response. UMCOR provided an emergency grant and a longer-term gift to support extended rebuilding in one of the leveled villages.

Aid workers faced inaccessible roads. Harsh winter winds and snows in the 14,000-foot mountain passes complicated aid distribution. Few transport companies wanted to take the risk with their equipment.

Still, 3,000 people received emergency food and winterized shelters in rural areas of the Bagh district. Temporary schools and child-care centers were established. IBC workers set up nearly a dozen health clinics in tents located around the centers of four villages.

Now IBC, with UMCOR’s help, is building about 300 homes to replace those destroyed in the earthquake. The homes are earthquake-resistant, and IBC engineers and architects are training others in the technology that will prevent such widespread destruction in future quakes. New schools, also employing the earthquake-resistant technology, are rising from the rubble. Workers are offering psychological and social support to combat the trauma of deep losses.

In the Jammu and Kashmir regions of Pakistan, UMCOR also funded the recovery work of Church’s Auxiliary for Social Action and Church World Service.

Colorado: Loving a Refugee Family as Your Own

Sixty young people from Smokey Hill United Methodist Church in Centennial, Colorado, fell in love with Achuil Matiok, a Dinka tribeswoman from southern Sudan.

She taught them the value of being thankful for life’s most simple blessings. Thrilled about being part of the church’s mission team to resettle the family in Colorado, the young people jumped in from day one, said youth pastor Bobbie D’Addario. “They were excited about picking up the family and collecting all the household goods that would make the apartment as comfortable as possible,” said Ms. D’Addario.

Language Not a Barrier
Even with the language differences, the family’s children, aged three to ten, immediately connected with the youth. Matiok, her own three children, and the three children of her brother were the first to arrive. Her husband Peter was to join them later.

Soon it became common for youth to stop by the apartment to play with the children. They became frequent “sitters” when other volunteers drove Matiok to appointments. They helped the children learn English.

There were outings. The young folk introduced the Matiok family to new experiences like a day at the zoo or a water park, as well as trying new foods and going to the bank. “The smiles on their faces were all the thanks we needed,” remembers D’Addario.

The Colorado winter came earlier than usual. Brittnee DeVries, a seventh-grader in confirmation class, used all of her baby-sitting money to buy each child and Matiok a pair of sturdy, warm shoes. Another confirmand made sure the family had grocery certificates and money for rent when a temporary assistance form was lost. Another family helped with Christmas decorations and putting up a tree.

“I Thank for You”
Lindsey Lovvorn-Zimmerman, 18, remarked, “At Thanksgiving we asked them, ‘What are you thankful for?’ and the reply was simple: ‘I thank for America…I thank for you!’ The Matioks have taught me what it means to be gracious and thankful for life’s most simple blessings.”

UMCOR cooperates with Church World Service and affiliates all across the United States to resettle refugee families.

 Democratic Republic of Congo: “Bullets to Seeds, Guns into Plows”

Just past a cool glade with wooden tables scattered under the spreading trees, a narrow path led into a wooden footbridge. The bridge took a visitor across a small stream into a lush garden. Chinese cabbage, soya, lettuce, radishes, and cucumber vines mingled in neat rows. The foliage was a jumble of brilliant greens.

Under the strong Congo sun, a hand-lettered sign read: “UMCOR SA&D [Sustainable Agriculture and Development] Foods Resource Bank—Christian Response to World Hunger.” The sign and the garden
it points to are located on the grounds of Commune Kinshasa, an army base near Kamina in the Democratic Republic of Congo. On this July day, at the edge of the garden, soldiers milled around, at ease with the agronomists and trainers who teach them how to use land-friendly technology to grow cash crops.

Foods Resource Bank is a Christian response to world hunger. Unlike historic feeding programs, FRB is neither emergency aid nor disaster relief but a humanitarian helping hand for the most vulnerable—usually women and children—to produce enough to feed their own families. Sixteen denominations, including The United Methodist Church, participate. The program in Congo is a collaboration using UMCOR trainers and FRB grants.

Gardeners are learning pest management using organic methods and cultivating moringa, a fast-growing tree that supplements the local diet and acts as effective treatment for a variety of ailments. The cash crops in the garden provide fresh greens during the dry season when the main staple, cassava, does not flourish.

Why an army base? It’s all about peace and reconciliation. Soldiers will eventually become civilians, said United Methodist Bishop Ntambo of the North Katanga Episcopal area. “If they are well fed, they won’t have to use guns to get their food.”

The général de brigade, Félix Budja Mabe, concurred. “I hope we can turn bullets into seeds, and guns into plows.”

How Can You Help?

  • Write UMCOR for more information to: 475 Riverside Drive, Room 330, New York, NY10115, Attn: Communications Department
  • Prayerfully consider giving a gift. All of the programs described depend on the generosity of United Methodists. For some suggestions on specific programs, visit us online at, and click “How to Give.”
  • Consider joining a team responding in a disaster zone like the Gulf Coast in the United States. Volunteers are needed after natural disasters to help with clean-up, debris removal, and rebuilding. Call the Volunteer Line at 1-800-918-3100 to find out about current volunteer opportunities and to register your interest.
  • Send relief supplies. Find out more at by clicking “Get Connected.”


Linda Beher is the Communications Director for the United Methodist Committee on Relief.


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Date posted: Nov 06, 2006