Poverty drove up tsunami fatalities, delegation member says

Jan. 14, 2005

A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert*

Before the earthquake and tsunami, a wave of poverty had already swept through Indonesia and other Asian as well as African countries, setting them up for the devastating number of deaths, said a top United Methodist executive traveling in Indonesia.

That is one clear impression the devastation has made on the Rev. R. Randy Day, top executive with the Board of Global Ministries, during a Jan. 12-16 trip to Indonesia.

Day is part of a United Methodist delegation that also includes Bishop Joel N. Martinez of San Antonio, president of the mission board; Kyung Za Yim, a director and president of the Women’s Division; the Rev. Larry Hollon, head of United Methodist Communications; the Rev. Paul Dirdak, director of the United Methodist Committee on Relief; the Rev. David Wu, an Asian specialist with the mission agency; the Rev. Henry Leono, a pastor in Willingboro, N.J., who is a native of Indonesia; Linda Bloom, a reporter with United Methodist News Service; and Mike DuBose, a photographer with United Methodist Communications.

"A lot of poor people were forced to live as squatters near the water because there was no other place for them," Day said Jan. 14. "Folks are saying the tsunami was the first wave, and then the potential outbreak of disease is the second wave, but I think it was preceded by the wave of poverty.

"If we look at this right and we work with other NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and we really have a clear vision, then I think there doesn’t need to be a wave of poverty coming after all this," he said.

Poverty forces people to live in "terrible conditions, much, much too close to the water in many parts of the world, and we can’t be blind to that," he said. "The church has a paramount duty to lift that up and be concerned about it because that poverty literally killed a lot of people. I don’t think the fatalities would have to be nearly as high if people were not living that close to the water."

The delegation has visited Sumatra, Indonesia, near the epicenter of the disaster, and reported still seeing bodies being recovered.

"Seeing the children and their parents was really a difficult thing for me, not only as a United Methodist agency person but as a father and a pastor for 30 years. Just seeing what they are going through was very hard."

Hollon, who will return to the United States with video interviews, described meeting a woman who had lost two daughters and two grandsons, and her home and is now living in a camp for displaced persons.

"She was in a state of shock," he said. "Her home was destroyed. The only thing she has to her name is the clothing she was wearing when she fled from this water. I asked her what she will do now, and she said, ‘I have no plans; I have no life to look forward to.’

"What strikes me is that behind every person is a dramatic story."

The delegation has visited camps, hospitals and Methodist churches. The United Methodists brought 100,000 doses of antibiotics and anti-diarrhea medicine with them.

At one Methodist church, they visited teams of doctors and nurses had just arrived from Taiwan and were in need of the medicine. "Medical relief is what they see as most critical, and so our gift of antibiotics fit right into what they perceive as the most immediate need," Day said.

The church will share the supplies with 11 refugee camps serving about 8,600 people.

Both Day and Hollon said the Methodist Church is on the frontlines of helping the survivors with food, shelter and pastoral care.

"If there is a counterpoint to the tragedy, the counterpoint is seeing what the Methodist Church has done," Hollon said. In Banda Aceh, the Methodist Church organized a relief group called Agape and immediately provided medical care and food, he said.

"The pastor of the Methodist Church in Banda Aceh told us yesterday that it is important for the church to rebuild in order to be a sign of hope for people who have been devastated."

The generosity of the United Methodist people is making a difference, Day said. "I would say a big ‘thank you’ to United Methodists for their generosity in responding right away. The gifts came flowing in, and so we are really thankful for that and hope the spirit leads them to continue. We could use millions of dollars to rebuild not just in Banda Aceh but in Sri Lanka, Thailand, India and all the other countries."

Hollon said the power and presence of the church is being felt.

"The power of the church has been in reaching out to people regardless of their religious affiliation. It has provided a presence that says to people there are those in the global community who care, and we are with you and we will stand with you."

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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