By Emily J. Weitz
Last Friday night, a concert in the United Methodist Church in Sag Harbor was one of the small embodiments of a giant mission: to eliminate malaria in Africa by 2015. This mission is shared by the worldwide organization of United Methodist Churches along with the United Nations, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and others. The Sag Harbor United Methodist Church, led by Pastor Tom MacLeod, has pledged to contribute $20,000 to that effort.
Since they began working towards this cause last year, the church has held bake sales, car washes, and concerts. The trustees of the church have promised that for every dollar raised, they will contribute 50 cents. Last year they raised almost $3,000, and this year they are augmenting that. They raised over $800 Friday night as people came from far and wide to listen to singer/songwriter Donald Bracken, of Aquebogue, play original songs as well as covers of contemporary Christian music. With the trustees’ promise to add about $400 to that figure, in one evening, without anyone having to dig too deep in their pockets, the Sag Harbor United Methodist Church added $1200 to their growing pot of money dedicated to eradicating malaria.
Worldwide, the United Methodist Church has committed to raising $75 million to work towards the goal of eradicating malaria. And progress is being made.
Sometimes it’s difficult to see progress when malaria is so rampant in Africa that someone dies from it every minute, said Pastor MacLeod.
“It’s been eradicated in this part of the world since the 1950s,” says Pastor MacLeod, “but there’s still a major problem on the continent of Africa.”
There are four primary ways that the United Methodist Church organization is working towards finally ending the existence of this deadly disease in Africa – prevention, treatment, education, and communication.
Along with the organization Nothing but Nets, they have been providing bed nets to people to help keep mosquitos out. Mosquitos act like dirty needles in the spread of malaria. If they bite someone who is infected and then bite someone else, they will spread the disease. So keeping mosquitos out is key, as is limiting the breeding of mosquitos.
“The next step is empowering the people of Africa to learn about proper drainage,” says MacLeod. Mosquitos breed in standing water, so simply draining standing water can have a huge impact on the rate the disease spreads throughout a community.
Even if mosquitos are limited by these simple actions, there will still be malaria. But that’s where the treatment comes in.
“There is medication,” says MacLeod, “and it is inexpensive.”
The United Methodist Church already has hundreds of facilities across Africa, which can be used for both treatment and education.
“These can become resource sites to get and receive drugs and nets and knowledge and power,” says MacLeod. “It’s more than just throwing money at the problem.”
For MacLeod, there’s a personal understanding of how rampant malaria is. His daughter was working on a mission in Africa when she contracted the disease.
“She was in the Congo three days when she contracted malaria,” MacLeod says. “She got to a field hospital within 24 hours and was immediately put on medication. Now she has no symptoms.”
But for people who don’t know what they’re looking for, or for people who don’t know where to turn for help, malaria can be deadly. The most susceptible are the very young and the very old, and the effects of malaria are complex.
“It has a devastating impact on the family,” says MacLeod, “and not just the grief issue.”
Mothers are typically the caregivers and often the providers in some African cultures, says MacLeod. So when a mother needs to be caring for a sick child, water and other necessities may not be available to the rest of the family.
While the fact that someone dies from malaria every minute in Africa is a scary statistic, in 2007 is was twice as bad, someone succumbing to the disease every 30 seconds.
“This disease is curable, treatable, and preventable. This work goes deeply into my faith,” says Pastor MacLeod. “I believe I am supposed to do everything I can to improve the quality of life for all people. I’m just doing what I believe I can do in Sag Harbor, in New York, in the United States, and in the world. I consider the world to be my parish. It doesn’t end with the church.”