Many thanks to our Global Mission colleague Matt Bishop for sharing these reflections!
“Nothing too gruesome,” she said, smiling.
It’s been a long year since I started working in ELCA Global Mission, and in that time I’ve more than doubled my lifetime frequent-flyer miles visiting antimalarial programs in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and South Africa (where the offices of the Lutheran Communion in Southern Africa—or LUCSA—are located). Distance is only one of the ways that my job takes me a long ways from home. So I was excited when my home congregation invited me back to the ole’ stomping grounds to talk about the ELCA Malaria Campaign.
Matt Bishop highlights the sample net used by the Westlake VBS. The red dots are the “mosquitoes” that were removed as children brought in their donations to the ELCA Malaria Campaign.
Some of the churches in Westlake, Ohio run a community-wide Vacation Bible School each summer, and for this year’s mission project, this ecumenical consortium elected to support the ELCA Malaria Campaign. The community’s ELCA congregation borrowed a mosquito net from the synod office and pinned it full of mock mosquitos: tiny cartoon bugs attached to clothespins. Whenever a child brought in a contribution for the Malaria Campaign, he or she would receive a mosquito-pin. The goal: eliminate the mosquitos from the net just as the ELCA is helping its brothers and sisters in Africa to eliminate the effects of malaria in their lives.
My job was to introduce this theme and teach the children a thing or two about malaria—an illness with which they’ve probably never interacted. I got these instructions as I waited in the sanctuary for the young crowd to arrive, along with a little advice.
“Nothing too gruesome.” We don’t want to scare anyone, and these kids probably won’t really understand. “Nothing scientific, and maybe don’t even talk about death.” I understand the sentiment and I have no wish to betray my hosts’ hospitality, especially as I return home representing both my congregation and the ELCA to this community. While I’m not personally a fan of stereotypical suburban sheltering, there are plenty of ways we can do this.
Matt Bishop speaks with Vacation Bible School participants in Westlake, OH.
“So tell me, who’s had a mosquito bite before? One, two, three…okay so everybody! Good. How about this summer? One, two…okay I get it, still everybody. I just got my first one last weekend. And what happens when you get a mosquito bite? Yes, it itches. Pretty annoying, right? It gets red, good. Yeah? Ha yeah, your mom tells you not to scratch it or it gets worse! Okay, so it’s a little different in Africa. In some parts of Africa, a mosquito bite can give you malaria. Does anyone know what happens when you get malaria?”
As I scanned the room, a little girl sitting front and center almost lost her cross-legged balance, her arm shot up so fast.
Well, the cat’s out of the proverbial bag now, isn’t it? I would have accepted fever, headaches, or nausea. Or chills, vomiting, or body aches. Even loss of productivity and malaise. But, since you mentioned it, there’s also death. And that’s why we’re doing this. Because children just like the children in Westlake, Ohio get sick and miss school. Their parents get sick and miss work. And the effects are tragically multiplicative in a context of poverty. If you’re too sick to cook you can’t just order carryout; if you’re too sick to work you can’t just tap into the savings account; if you’re too sick to collect water then there’s just no water. Maybe your children can do it for you? Or if your children are sick then they can’t go to school and get the educations they deserve—these children who are especially vulnerable to illness, one of whom dies every minute in sub-Saharan Africa alone.
Okay, so maybe a little gruesome today, sorry about that! But these Ohioan children know—at least a little bit—about what’s going on. I don’t know if they remember me, or what they remember about our brief chat at the very beginning of a busy Vacation Bible School week. But I do know two things: first, that I’ll remember them; and second, that they responded. They earned each and every one of those mosquito-clothespins and raised $775 for the ELCA Malaria Campaign. In this way they will always be connected to their brothers and sisters in Christ, even from thousands of miles away. And I think it’s safe to assume they’ll remember at least a little.