As the need for help increases following the tragedy in South Asia and Africa, United Methodist officials say that online giving is providing a new way of responding quickly.
The donations are sorely needed in a recovery effort that some observers say will cost billions. The Dec. 26 earthquake and resulting tidal waves in the Indian Ocean struck at least 12 countries, washing away entire communities.
"The count of dead right now is 124,000 - only 16,000 less than Hiroshima - and I would not be at all surprised if the final count is higher," said the Rev. Kristin Sachen, head of disaster response for the United Methodist Committee on Relief. The Japanese city of Hiroshima was obliterated by a U.S. atomic bomb during World War II.
Despite the overwhelming need, the Rev. Larry Hollon, top staff executive of United Methodist Communications, is encouraged by the initial response he's seen in donations made online. UMCom developed the MethodistRelief.org link for people to support UMCOR's efforts.
"Fortunately, we were online quickly and were able to offer people an efficient, functioning site within a few hours of the first news reports," he said. "The response since that time is heavy. Over a million people have viewed our messages, (and) several thousand have come to the site and made a secure donation. This is an amazing response."
By Dec. 31, online donations through MethodistRelief.org were $445,000. But that figure is dwarfed by the tremendous need. Sachen noted that one agency in India alone is requesting $13 million in aid.
"All players are reporting that pre-positioned material goods are depleted; we need to restore their supplies, plus continue to address emergency needs," she said. "For at least a month, the focus is going to be on emergency relief, which will require huge amounts of money."
The funds given to UMCOR will be used quickly, Sachen said, with 100 percent of the donations going directly to the relief and recovery efforts. "As soon as they are processed in a batch, they are sent into the bank, and our account is credited in 24 hours," she said. "By Tuesday (Jan. 4), with the upcoming holiday, we will be clear to withdraw and send.
"Meanwhile, we are using a limited amount of funds on hand to send (an) initial $100,000 in relief," she said.
Online giving has turned out to be popular among many United Methodists. UMCOR's phone lines would probably be overwhelmed if the online option didn't exist, Sachen said. The online giving option also meant that UMCOR didn't have to wait until the first Sunday church offerings after the disaster - Jan. 2 - for donations.
The MethodistRelief.org link will remain in place as long as it is needed, Hollon said. He added that he's never seen anything like this tragedy in his career. "The loss of human life and scale of destruction is unlike anything I've seen in many years of covering humanitarian issues for the church."
The online giving reflects the importance of new media, he said. The response to the Indian Ocean disaster "will be remembered as a hinge point in which the Internet came into its own."
"My guess is that in the future, slower, less responsive forms of giving will be evaluated by comparing them to the capability made possible by online giving," Hollon said. "Apparently, people want to give immediately, and they want their donations used as quickly and possible."
UMCOR is providing the funds to church partners in the affected regions. Those partners already have networks, resources, leadership and people in place to guide the recovery effort. While gifts of cash are the greatest need, UMCOR is asking for a rapid response in the form of health kits. Information on how to provide the kits can be found on the UMCOR Web site at http://gbgm-umc.org/umcor/kits.cfm.
U.S. churches, including United Methodist congregations, have already sent 75 medicine boxes to Indonesia, and Sri Lanka has asked for 100. Each box costs $425. Donors have also offered to send canned goods, clothing and toys, but UMCOR is discouraging those types of donations for now.
UMCOR's rule of thumb is that unless someone overseas requests a specific item shipped, the agency does not send it, Sachen said. Cash allows the aid professionals to buy exactly what they need. Operating this way helps reduce the burden on scarce resources, such as transportation, she said. In addition, by providing funds, UMCOR helps support the local economy of the stricken region and ensures culturally appropriate assistance.
Please give to Advance #274305 and designate "South Asia Emergency" on the memo line of your check. Give through your local United Methodist church or mail contributions to: UMCOR, 475 Riverside Dr., Room 330, New York, NY 10115. Call 1-800-554-8583 to make a credit card donation. One hundred percent of every donation to this appeal goes to support recovery efforts in the disaster-stricken regions. UMCOR also needs donations of health kits, school kits, and Medicine Boxes for this response.
Jan Snider is a freelance producer for United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tennessee.
Source: United Methodist News Service.