When the Ebola crisis began in 2014, some recognized the fact that while much information was being shared on the Internet, those without Internet access living in the affected regions could be left to wonder if Ebola was real, a hoax, or something they should pay attention to. We knew that the lowest common denominator in global communications is a simple text message – able to reach a person directly if she or he holds a basic mobile handset.
We scrambled then to gather mobile numbers of United Methodist clergy in Liberia and Sierra Leone, assembling them into groups for cloud-based messaging. Twice daily messages reached them with both practical ways of applying health protocols within a church setting, and inspiration to help them know they were not alone. When quarantines may have prevented those pastors from getting out to phone charging stations, UMCom sent Freeplay Assist Radios – which have a solar cellphone charger, hand crank radio, and solar lantern.
The value of the program was proven among those who reported to their bishops (whose name was on each message) feeling cared for and informed during the duration of the program.
Since then, we began working with communicators throughout Africa under their bishops’ approvals, to set up a system that will cover all of Africa – and which can be expanded to cover other regions within the UMC as well. The system was tested during General Conference 2016.
In three weeks’ time, twelve countries took part, through nine operators who sent SMS in local languages using the same system. Over 80k messages were sent during the two-week period to over 3,300 people. Hugo Ngwira of Malawi reported,
In a follow up phone call, Evangelist Mikuwa who is also pastoring local churches in remote areas said he never knew that United Methodist is that big, and he was thankful for the program that has helped him get a picture of what the UMC and General Conference is all about. (Evangelist Mikuwa lives in a remote area where there is no internet and no post office, and the only way of communication is through phone)
The Reverend Daniel Mhone also reported, “One moving experience was that most of the leaders took time to pray for the General Conference especially when tension was at its highest level. Thanks for connecting us in this special way to the global church.”
General Conference was a catalyst for the system’s implementation, but its usefulness is far from over. Consider when the church wants to reach clergy to reinforce the need for Yellow Fever vaccinations, and where they can be found; when educational programs and/or scholarships come available; when daily devotions can be shared to strengthen the Body of Christ.
This system can also provide a means of monetization for publications. Phone credit can be transferred to the church’s number to “purchase” items, with links and passwords for download then shared. Donations could also come to the church in this way. As we move to testing that system, we will keep you informed.
Making sense of today’s technology for social good…that’s the focus. SMS is one component, but there are many more. I hope to write more in the days ahead. Feel free to get in touch, via firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @nneelley.