United Methodist Committe on Relief Mission Statement:
Compelled by Christ to be a voice of conscience on behalf of the people called Methodist, UMCOR works globally to alleviate human suffering and advance hope and healing.
|Gary; UMCOR photo|
|Sketch by Wendy Turrentine|
"Before the world's media outlets broke the story, UMCOR was working with Church World Service on relief effors with the Ehtiopian Orthodox Church. A Bishop's Appeal for Africa provided funding." from the UMCOR website
Gary started work at UMCOR in November. As the Secretary for Specialized Ministries and Emergency Response Officer, he had to hit the ground running.
That January he was in Haiti for the winter conference meeting. His boss Norma Kehrberg accidentally introduced him as her "executive disaster."
I, of course, was home alone every January. After leaving Philly I told Michiganders that there were six weeks of winter in Philly, January and into February. While Gary went to the Caribbean I shoved snow.
|UMCOR photo of Gary|
But he made the most of the commute time, reading and listening to music with headphones. He got to know some of the other commuters. There was a group who worked in the World Trade Center.
It was a small department. Director Norma Kehrberg, who took over the position in 1983, had been a missionary in Nepal. There were an associate director and a woman whose specialty was refugees. Their secretary, Lydia Chao, as a girl during WWII had been interned in a Japanese prison camp. She also had cradled Malcolm X's head when he was assassinated.
UMCOR projects are funded with 100% designated donated funds. Even salaries and office costs were from designated funds. When an emergency arises churches across the world take up collections and the money is used to address needs arising from that crisis. A yearly collection for UMCOR is used to operating costs.
Norma went to Ethiopia very early. She told the story of seeing the endless stream of refugees heading toward a feeding station at a relief camp. She stopped and talked to a woman who told her story. Her husband had first gone to the camp and disappeared. Then her children died of starvation and her thirteen-year-old son was killed in a car crash. "How do you find the strength to go one?" Norma asked. "I'm pregnant." The woman answered. Gary was moved by that story of hope.
When Mexico City suffered a major earthquake in 1985, UMCOR worked with the UMC of Mexico to rebuild homes. Gary made a trip there.
After tornados struck across Ohio and Western Pennsylvania UMCOR went to discover what needs were left unmet by FEMA and the Red Cross. A woman at the relief center was angry and would not talk. She finally told her story to a volunteer: her son had been killed in the tornado and her husband's business destroyed. Her husband then died in a car accident. The mortgage on their destroyed house was due and she could not pay. She was angry at God. The worker told her to return the next day. When the woman returned, the volunteer presented her with a receipt showing payment of her mortgage. The woman was finally able to cry. "Anyone can rebuild a house," Gary would preach. "Only the church can rebuild a life and a soul."
In 1985 and 1986 the Haitian people rioted against Duvalier. Gary was there just after the riots. He visited a school high in the mountains. Children walked long hours and across mountains for free education and the only meal they would have that day.
|UMCOR funded this well on La Gonave in Haiti.|
Photo by Gary L. Bekofske
|Well on La Gonave, Haiti. Photo by Gary L. Bekofske|
|Goats in Haiti. Photo by Gary L. Bekofske|
|In a Haitian classroom. Metal was flattened and cut|
to make the scene on the wall. Photo by Gary L. Bekofske
He gained a sense of perspective when he was proudly shown the water taps and indoor latrines--a cement trough in the corner--new luxuries made possible by UMCOR programs.
He visited Cairo's garbage dump where health care and sanitation projects were funded.
|Ezbat El Nakhl. Photo by Gary L. Bekofske|
People living in Cairo's garbage dumps sorted and recycled for a living.
|Ezbat El Nakhl|
photo by Gary L. Bekofske
|Ezbat Nakhl. Photo by Gary L. Bekofske|
|Cairo's garbage dump where people lived.|
Photo by Gary L. Bekofske
He went to Mexico City several times, once with Norma. At the home of a peasant, they were offered them cactus juice to drink. Gary whispered to Norma, "What do we do?" He did not want to get sick from the local water. Norma replied, "You drink; you eat; you smile; and pray hard." It would have been offensive to turn down hospitality. Another time an impoverished family proudly offered a meal, which went down hard knowing the sacrifice being made to honor them.
It was a high profile job. Gary's name frequently appeared in the United Methodist Reporter. He traveled with Bishops and important United Methodists across the world and the country. He visited Mission Fairs across America to talk about how the money raised by local church impacted the lives of strangers in need.
Gary had two back-to-back conferences in San Franciso and I flew out to join him. Several times I visited his office in New York City, once for a Christmas Party. I had my office friends to the house for several parties. But our worlds mostly stayed apart.
As Gary stayed in a beach front cottage in Belize, or rode a camel to the Pyramids and Sphinx, he felt sad and lonely wishing he could share the experience with me.
|The Pyramids and the Sphinx. Photo by Gary L. Bekofske|
"UMCOR makes a difference simply because people of faith believ they can make a difference by sharing God's gift. The 'body broken for you' is Christ's gift to us. This gift frees us to participate--frees us to empty ourselves for others, frees us to make incarnate that which we have received." Norma KehrbergGary had finally found a way to make a difference, to touch the lives of the least and the lost. He saw faith in action.