Saturday, July 29, 2017

Gary Hits the Ground Running at UMCOR

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
The United Methodist Committee on Relief is part of the General Board of Global Ministries. During the 1980s they concentrated their work on relief, rehabilitation, refugee ministry, and the root causes of hunger.
Sketch by Wendy Turrentine
On October 23, 1984, Tom Brokaw broke the story of the famine in Ethiopia, resulting from a devastating drought. A million people died in the region.

"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
Gary left the house before I was up, at 5 am. He walked several blocks to the Broad Street Subway, getting off at the North Philadelphia Train Station, then he rode the train to Penn Station in New York City, where he got the subway to 475 Riverside Drive. It was a two-hour commute both ways! He was often home at 7:30 pm.

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
On the island of La Gonave, he visited a well that was funded by UMCOR. The barren island was first populated by natives fleeing Spanish colonists and later by runaway slaves under the French.
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
Gary traveled across the country and the world, sometimes going to exotic places, but usually to see the least exotic communities. He visited a garbage dump community in Kingston, Jamaica where UMCOR was providing hygiene, health care, and immunization of pigs.

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
Donkey carts are used to transport the garbage.
Ezbat Nakhl. Photo by Gary L. Bekofske
Smoke from burning trash can be seen in the photo above. The smell must be imagined.
Cairo's garbage dump where people lived.
Photo by Gary L. Bekofske
At the Caribbean Conference of Churches, he heard about American Cultural Imperialism. Satellite television from America had created a 'need' for Western goods, like Atari game systems and designer jeans and shoes. But there was no way to purchase them. People going to the States would bring back these goods to sell.

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

The Pyramids. Photo by Gary L. Bekofske

View of the Nile. Photo by Gary L. Bekofske
 Meantime, I was home alone with P.J. and watching our first color television.
"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 Kehrberg
Gary had finally found a way to make a difference, to touch the lives of the least and the lost. He saw faith in action.