United Methodist bishop's second calling is ending malaria
For several years, Bishop Thomas Bickerton has been the head of a national effort by United Methodists to end malaria around the globe.
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Maybe it was because he was the youngest United Methodist bishop in the United States, with the energy for a huge challenge.
Maybe it was because Bishop Thomas Bickerton's 6-foot 7-inch frame fit the basketball term Nothing But Nets.
For whatever reason, since the year after he was appointed to the United Methodist Conference of Western Pennsylvania in 2004, Bishop Bickerton, 51, has been the denomination's global point man for wiping out malaria. The tall bishop has had a low profile here because he spends so much time in Africa, overseeing distribution of insecticide-treated mosquito nets.
Last week he launched a new $100 million Imagine No Malaria campaign that also will include other methods of prevention, education and treatment of malaria.
Two weeks ago, when he arrived in Kamina, Democratic Republic of Congo, the streets were lined with children singing and women waiting to present him with armloads of flowers.
"We've done such a good job of helping African communities understand that they don't have to have malaria," he said. "Africans have been resigned to the fact that they are going to get malaria at some point in their lifetime, and that one or more of their family members is going to die from it. We've done an effective job of helping them to understand that does not have to be."
Each year 1 million people die of the mosquito-born disease, 75 percent of them under age 5.
"Imagine the worst flu you've ever had, multiply it by 10, and you've got malaria," the bishop said.
He has brought 15,000 bed nets to Kamina, a city of 450,000 people.
"It's almost an injustice because there are so many people who don't receive one," he said.
That's why the United Methodists are ramping up their efforts.
The church didn't invent Nothing But Nets. That was the inspiration of sports writer Rick Reilly, now with ESPN, who'd read that a $10 net could save a life and thought it was a natural cause for a sports world built around nets.
He enlisted many partners, ranging from the National Basketball Association to the Orkin pest control company to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. United Methodists have given $6 million of the $30 million that Nothing But Nets has raised.
They got on board after members of a United Nations Foundation fact-finding mission saw that nearly every African town had a United Methodist church, clinic or hospital, and asked the church to get involved. It appeared to be a match made in Heaven.
"We've always been a go-and-do kind of denomination," Bishop Bickerton said.
His pitch is simple: For $10 you can save someone's life.
When he spoke in 2006 at a large youth rally in Greensboro, N.C., comparing the price of a life to a meal at McDonalds, something hurtled from the audience and landed at his feet. It was a $10 bill. Seconds later he was in a spontaneous green hailstorm as the young people threw bills totaling $15,000.
"The $6 million we've raised in the last four years has basically been a grassroots campaign," he said. "This hasn't been through major donors. It's been the people in the pew."
The church will continue to work with Nothing But Nets, but also has created its own $100 million Imagine No Malaria campaign, which already has raised $10 million.
"If you're going to eliminate malaria, you've got to do follow-up, you've got to work on a vaccine, you've got to enter into partnership with other faith-based organizations. You've got to deal with standing water where mosquitoes are bred," he said.
Imagine No Malaria will contribute to all of that, alongside many other organizations. Education and follow-up is critical, he said, because too many recipients of the nets didn't understand how vital they were. Aid workers discovered some had been put to use as fishing nets, and at least one was made into a wedding veil.
Bishop Bickerton is excited about new projects and new partnerships.
On his recent trip to Congo he distributed nets with an interfaith group of Methodist, Anglican, Muslim and Jewish leaders. He went house to house in Lubumbashi with a Muslim leader, wielding hammers to encase beds in enormous canopy nets.
"The people in Lubumbashi said, 'We have never seen cooperation like this before,' " he said.
His sixth trip to Africa will come in August to lay groundwork for an effort to distribute nets to every person in Sierra Leone. A similar effort in Tanzania led to a 62 percent drop in malaria deaths over the past 18 months, he said.
"In our work we've been saying that every 30 seconds a child dies from malaria, and the clock is ticking," he said. "Now we're able to say that every 35 seconds a child dies from malaria. My goal is to be able to say a year from now that every 40 seconds a child dies from malaria. As we become successful, the clock slows down."
He will help to establish health boards to oversee the project.
"These will be driven by Africans who will provide the accountability we need to inject this kind of money into the country," he said.
He has been appalled by the poverty he has seen, but transformed by the faith and hospitality he witnessed in the midst of it, he said. He was humbled by people who gave up their only meal of the day so they could honor him with a meal, and awed by lepers who had lost limbs but told him they needed nothing from America because they had God.
"In the midst of this deprivation, you find joy. There is a deep appreciation for everyday life. There's an abiding faith that sees them through all of the struggles that they face," he said.
"We live in a country where we are wealthy materially, but there is a real void of spirit. There is an absence of joy among our people because we have invested in things that go away. An African has no choice but to invest in a faith that says there is something more than this."
He would like to see such faith renew the churches of Western Pennsylvania, and admits that some local Methodists probably wish he'd stop talking about what he's learned in Africa. A native of Moundsville, W. Va., who grew up rooting for the Pirates and Steelers, he saw his father lose his job in the glass industry and understands how people here remain scarred by the collapse of the steel industry.
"I like to come back and tell these stories about perseverance and hope in the people of Africa, because I think our folks here in Western Pennsylvania need encouragement that there is a way through."
Being bishop of Pittsburgh and bishop for a global health initiative is "like having two full-time jobs," he said. Travel also means time away from his wife, Sally, and their younger sons, who are in the ninth and 10th grades in the Seneca Valley School District. They also have a son in the Peace Corps and a daughter who teaches Spanish-speaking children in North Carolina.
At both his home and in his office he keeps a photograph of a 2-year-old girl who died of malaria days after he prayed with her family in Sierra Leone.
"I use her as my focal point in prayer every day," he said. "In the midst of negotiating relationships with companies and businesses and faith-based partners, in the midst of the internal bureaucracy of the United Methodist Church ... I have to keep my bottom line in mind.
"My bottom line is that little girl."
First Published May 2, 2010 12:00 am