|Thomas Bickerton preaches at Annual Conference.
By Holly McCray
The bishop held a baby girl in his arms and prayed for her during his recent tour in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Two days later, the baby died.
Imagine a world with no malaria.
"Think of the heartache of a mother. Think of the hopes and dreams and aspirations for that child," said Bishop Thomas Bickerton, father of four and guest preacher for the 2010 Oklahoma Annual Conference, in an interview.
A million people die from malaria every year—75 percent of them children younger than 5, Bickerton said. He is passionately driving forward the denomination’s "Imagine No Malaria" campaign, launched in April. One-half of the annual conference offering supported the cause.
"I live under the conviction that every one of God’s children deserves to live a healthy, sustained life," he said.
Children affirm that statement when they visit his Pennsylvania episcopal office during confirmation tours. "They’re in tune that the world isn’t as privileged as our kids are," Bickerton said.
"We are the country of abundance; we have great resources. We’ve got the technology to do away with this killer disease. We have the know-how to prevent it. Why aren’t we getting rid of it?"
He described a mission trip to Africa in the 1980s as "a second conversion" in his life as a Christian. "I prayed about what could I do to offer something back to people who have absolutely nothing materially but everything spiritually. I live where there’s everything materially, and we struggle for joy."
Bickerton’s prayer was answered when he was asked to lead "Nothing But Nets," a precursor to the new campaign, for the denomination. "Imagine No Malaria" is more comprehensive. It continues the $10-mosquito-net distribution project and adds components of education, water removal work, and more.
The goal is lofty: elimination of malaria-related deaths by 2015. The United Nations Foundation is founding entity. The bishop said 40 faith-based groups have joined with secular partners from around the world to accomplish it.
"It’s working," Bickerton said. Tanzania reported a 62 percent reduction in malaria-related deaths 18 months after a countrywide distribution of mosquito nets. A New York Times article in May noted child mortality rates "are nose-diving" in Africa.
"It’s working because of a comprehensive, coordinated, integrated program—because of connected churches working together, not independent of one another," he said. "One church in Oklahoma may get excited about providing a generator for a hospital. But that generator may not be compatible with the wiring system, the hospital may not have the money for the fuel—and the effort of that church has gone by the wayside."
He continued, "In Africa, in the midst of corrupt government, economic depravity, and more, there is one trusted vehicle: the Church. The eyes of Africans are turned toward the Church because it’s demonstrated it is concerned about saving their physical lives and their spiritual ones."
He heard Mrs. Nelson Mandela testify she was born in a Methodist hospital, came to know Christ in a Methodist church, and was educated at a Methodist school.
"Our people want to be wise in their giving," Bickerton said. "When they sense the need, they respond. I don’t think people want us to be talking about mosquito nets in 2020. They want to give the money, know it’s been used for the right purpose, and see the job done. We have a window of opportunity; the global community has converged."