Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Up Close and Personal with Darjeeling Tea Farmers and Equal Exchange

Jack Ong, West Los Angeles United Methodist Church, visits Potong Tea Workers, one of Equal Exchange's fair trade tea producers. World Fair Trade Day is May 12.
Photo: Emma Van Pelt
Jack Ong, member of West Los Angeles United Methodist Church, won Equal Exchange’s  contest for most creative tea promotion. Equal Exchange is UMCOR’s partner in the UMCOR Coffee Project .  Ong’s reward was a trip to Darjeeling, West Bengal, India, where he visited the Potong Tea Garden, one of Equal Exchange’s fair trade tea producers.  Ong shares his experience below:

 April 3, 2012

            The president of the Potong Tea Workers Welfare Committee answers one of our questions through a translator: “How do I feel about being elected president of the Potong Tea Workers Welfare Committee? I feel honored. I also feel very responsible. I want to motivate all the members, all of us working together to make a productive and profitable success of Potong Tea Garden.”

 Potong Tea Workers president Sashila Subba.  Photo: Jack Ong

            Then, all business and occasionally smiling, speaking in a soft, even voice, she shares with the eight of us from America about the tough work and living conditions in the high-altitude, remote Himalayan foothills of Darjeeling.

        “When we first joined to form this worker-owned tea collective, we knew from experience that it would be hard work. Sometimes we didn’t have food to eat. Our young people left to go work in the cities. Many died. Some brought new diseases back to us. We have never acquired the right medications to combat these diseases. And who could have predicted the drought that is so seriously upon us now? Very serious.”

            We hear a sudden commotion that interrupts the cool calmness of the late afternoon, which punctuates her remarks. We smell smoke from the hills just as we learn that another fire has erupted. The men of the Potong hamlet rush to action, preparing to fight the flames.

            Now the president’s sorrow is palpable, the pain obvious on her serene, elegant face. She quickly uses both hands to wipe her eyes, then politely places them back on her lap as she continues to talk about the present drought, workers’ goals for irrigation, more efficient harvesting of tea leaves and production, better education for their children, and the cooperative’s gratitude for the support and encouragement of Equal Exchange.

            “We understand that we must first develop, to the best of our ability, our main product – Darjeeling tea,” she says. “We cannot focus on further progress or development of our tea farm until then. We still need more development funds. And Fair Trade means trade, so we are continuing to try to improve on our part as we develop this valuable relationship with Equal Exchange.”

            She glances at the other woman and eight men of her committee; they give the president their approval of what she has told their American guests with silent nods.   The dynamic Deepak Khandelwal, Equal Exchange tea product manager, then passes around sample boxes of Darjeeling teabags using leaves from small tea farms in India.

            The president and her fellow leaders murmur their admiration for the way Equal Exchange is marketing their product. As the meeting concludes, she presents handmade silk scarves to us, and then we convene outside for photos amidst a growing congregation of smiling village boys and girls—many eager to practice their English. Then, after dinner, we are all served steaming cups of “the champagne of all teas,” of course!  We drink Darjeeling black tea, from a “first flush” crop that has been expertly cultivated: fragrant, intoxicating, and wonderfully refreshing! We’re sipping it “on location,” right where the tea was planted, nourished, harvested, withered, processed, inspected, taste tested, and exported.

            Earlier in the day, our group had hiked five miles up (and I do mean UP) to arrive at the Potong tea terraces, where we observed the women hard at work plucking leaves.  Then, in a very special ceremony, we planted new tea shrubs ourselves. It took us four hours to climb, half that time to descend. Now, exhausted but exhilarated and utterly fascinated in Potong, I tell myself that I will never take a cup of tea for granted again, whether loose leaf or teabag. I have a completely new admiration and respect for all the human effort that is required prior to my sitting back and enjoying a sip. Also, I have an enhanced admiration and respect for Equal Exchange and the organization’s commitment to small farms and farmers throughout our world!

Jack Ong is a Los Angeles based actor/writer/activist who represented the West Los Angeles United Methodist Church on a fact-finding mission to the Darjeeling tea country in India, traveling with Equal Exchange March 18-23, 2012. Ong is a licensed minister of The Missionary Church, Inc., and Executive Director of The Dr. Haing S. Ngor Foundation.


Imagine No Malaria? Who Could Have Imagined…

Mbayo Ndala waits to see a doctor with her mother, Mimi Madika, at the United Methodist Church's Shungu Health Center in Kamina, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Many of the children seen at the clinic have malaria.
A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

By Jim Fay, Wesley Church and Foundation of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference.

The birth of the Imagine No Malaria campaign is well known. The United Methodist Church's efforts to fight malaria in Africa had partnered them with allies from the United Nations to the National Basketball Association, to Bill and Melinda Gates, to Islamic and Jewish charitable institutions. Those efforts were so successful The United Methodist Church decided to launch a $75 million campaign to eliminate malaria in Africa by 2015.

It should be understood that in many cases, malaria is only the tip of the iceberg. Malaria may be the most common reason people of Africa seek medical help, but dealing with chronic malaria also often entails dealing with a host of other problems: malnutrition, diarrhea, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, etc. Considering the vast array of problems the Imagine No Malaria project is addressing so effectively, perhaps, in retrospect, a more appropriate name for the project would be "Who Could Have Imagined…"

"Who Could Have Imagined…" that village-level training efforts addressing malaria would prove to be so doable and so successful that they affected everything from sustainable agriculture to economic development, to HIV prevention and treatment.

The Kamisamba United Methodist farm in the Democratic Republic of Congo offers an example of the Imagine No Malaria effort leaving its mark on a variety of other subjects. One of these subjects is the Moringa tree, which can be an enormously valuable resource to combat poverty and malnutrition. (From Wikipedia: "The leaves contain all essential amino acids and are rich in protein, vitamin A, vitamin B, vitamin C, and minerals....The seed[s] ... is 61% protein…"). Learning to cultivate the Moringa tree is only a minor side effect of malaria prevention efforts. But it means that the people have better nutrition, farmers have products to sell, cows produce 50 percent more milk, children are able to return to school again, and on and on.

Another "Who Could Have Imagined…" story concerns the tilapia fish that currently is a very popular imported fish in America. One of the very modest strategies of the Imagine No Malaria effort is for the people to make certain any local stagnant water is stocked with fish that eat mosquito larvae. One such fish is the tilapia.  As a result, many ponds or marshes in Africa that used to raise malaria-carrying mosquitoes now raise tilapia, bound either for the market or local consumption.

But the "Who Could Have Imagined…" stories are not limited to villages in Africa. They come from the American mass media and major research institutions, too.

"Who Could Have Imagined…" that at this time when journalism seems to be limited to the loud and argumentative, a documentary about malaria narrated by Pauley Perrette of NCIS fame would not only be aired on NBC network stations but win several prestigious awards. The documentary is A Killer in the Dark, produced by United Methodist Communications and presented in conjunction with National Council of Churches and the Interfaith Broadcasting Commission.

"Who Could Have Imagined…" that after decades of disappointing efforts to develop an effective malaria vaccine, clinical tests of one vaccine seem to indicate that it is indeed the long sought-after breakthrough. Time magazine dubbed it the #2 medical breakthrough of 2011. It might be noted that a downside of this story is the cost per vaccine that is a real obstacle to the vaccine being used on a wide scale.

But then "Who Could Have Imagined…" that Texas A&M researchers would ever develop a milk goat genetically modified to carry a malaria vaccine in her milk. But they have. And they look forward to the day when vaccines and pharmaceuticals need not be produced in the lab at significant expense, but are instead produced by the “pharm animals” the people grow themselves.

Learn more at

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Imagine No Malaria...The Dangers of Early Success

 An insecticide treated mosquito nets protects this family in Cote d'Ivoire from Malaria, a deadly, yet preventable disease.  Photo: Mike DuBose

By Jim Fay, Wesley Church and Foundation of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference.

The early efforts of the Imagine No Malaria campaign and its partners have been dramatic and exciting indeed: malaria deaths reduced by about one third, participation by NBA and television stars, and other success stories few people would have imagined. Indeed, few people could have imagined the clinical laboratory applications the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation managed to put into a cell phone. The value of these cell phone innovations goes far beyond Africa or malaria.

But these early successes open the door to a couple of diametrically opposite dangers.

Danger 1 is short-changing the regular, permanent, everyday United Methodist responsibilities in order to contribute to the exciting, gratifying success stories. Admittedly, it is hard to get terribly excited about paying the monthly church light bill, or the staff medical insurance premiums or the conference apportionments some of us might be a little hazy about. But there is an irony here. The recent dramatic success stories in Africa are possible because The United Methodist Church already had the organizational, charitable, and medical infrastructure on the ground across Africa and around the world to ad-dress the problem.

That is why the United Nations asked The United Methodist Church for help with malaria prevention in the first place.  That is why 100 percent of malaria prevention contributions goes to malaria prevention. We've already paid the everyday administrative costs.

Today’s exciting, dramatic changes in the world were made possible in large part because of the ho-hum, everyday, charitable nuts-and-bolts Methodists have been taking care of for a couple of centuries. (That's why they call us "Methodists.") For example, the most effective anti-malarial drugs (ACTs) cost about 40 or 50 cents per treatment through public or charitable health facilities. They — or worthless counterfeits — costs about ten or twenty times that when purchased through private facilities or pharmacies, which, in the past, was often about the only way to get the drug.

Danger 2 is assuming that, because of some early success stories, the problem has been solved. It is true that in a fairly short time the Imagine No Malaria campaign and its partners have cut the rate of deaths due to malaria in half, from every 30 seconds to every minute. But a death from malaria in Africa every minute is a horrendous and unacceptable statistic.

Those who have already contributed or pledged have every right to feel gratified and exhilarated about the successes their contributions have accomplished. And those who have not contributed still have time to get in on the excitement and exhilaration. Much more remains to be done.

Got a minute? Make a difference. (Or if you already have contributed, continue to make a difference.)

Go to  and click on the "Donate" tab. It only takes a minute.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Cherry Blossoms and Hope

UMCOR’s International Disaster Response chief, Melissa Crutcfield, stands beside a cherry tree during her recent visit to Japan.

Photo by J. Rollins

Melissa Crutchfield, UMCOR executive in charge of International Disaster Response, first offered this reflection last spring at the close of a meeting in Seoul, South Korea, in support of recovery in Japan. The meeting was held just two months after the devastating triple disaster there. On her recent return from her second visit to the disaster area, Crutchfield was again reminded in this Holy Week of the hope we share even in the midst of crisis and devastation. Below is an edited re-issue of her reflection.

When I began to contemplate what might be appropriate words to share on such an occasion as this, I kept thinking about cherry blossoms. Perhaps they were on my mind because I could see them outside my window in Washington, DC, as I worked, calming in their simplicity yet inspiring in their abundance.

Or perhaps it was because the annual National Cherry Blossom and Japanese Cultural Festival had just taken place down the street – honoring the gift of the cherry blossoms from Japan to America many years ago, symbolizing friendship and solidarity between our nations….

Perhaps I kept thinking of cherry blossoms because they are an iconic image of spring, renewal, rebirth, hope… after a long winter – or, after an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster – when the earth looks as desolate as it might have to [the prophet] Jeremiah; all we need to do is have faith in God’s word that the land will be restored to life, will flourish as before. Or as the Gospel tells us in the story of the Resurrection – we just need to believe that life which we thought had ended has, in fact, begun again.

The cherry blossoms – the first sign of spring – consistently reassure us, the small pink and white flowers a signal to us that life goes on, grows, blooms, replenishes, recovers from the harsh winter of previous months. Embodying optimism and hope in their very existence.

Through my work with UMCOR, responding to other disasters across the globe, what has always struck me is the cycle of renewal and hope that abounds after every crisis. Especially working with and through the church, we see firsthand how faith in action inspires, restores, revives. A little over a year after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, progress is indeed slow. But there IS progress. All around, we see the hope of renewal, of life begun again: literally tons of rubble removed, families with new homes, women with new jobs through a microcredit program, crops and trees replanted, students returning to school in classrooms built back better and stronger than before. Recovery in Haiti is taking advantage of the opportunity to build back better. We are committing ourselves to standing in solidarity with the Haitian people as they map out their future and the long road ahead. We are committed to being there, being a manifestation of hope.

In a world plagued by devastation, doubt, destruction; a world of natural calamities and man-made crises, it is easy to see the world as a place without hope… a world that looks more like Good Friday. But we are an Easter people who live with the conviction that land can be restored, that lives can be restored. That even in the face of death and despair, we have faith that life and hope are the final word.

With this conviction, together, we can change the landscape of Japan’s future. Together, we can raise awareness, and raise buildings. Together, we can repair and replenish lives and spirits. Together, we can nurture the support and momentum to carry us forward on the long road to recovery.

And so, we are again called to be like the cherry blossoms, to be Easter people in a Good Friday world, to be in God’s name that beacon of hope and promise of renewal and solidarity, for our friends, for our partners, for all of the people in Japan.

One Mission of Hope

Children in Armenia are delighted to receive UMCOR school kits.
Photo by Zaven Khachikian
Where is God in the midst of suffering? When the earth shakes and cities crumble? When groups are forced to flee their homes from religious or political persecution? When children and adults die needlessly from health issues and hunger?

UMCOR, as the humanitarian arm of The United Methodist Church, is called to bring relief. This assistance is directed toward a set of problems that are not only environmental or social but, also, theological. As a faith-based organization, UMCOR is uniquely situated to address both material and spiritual needs in times of suffering. These are not two separate missions, but one unified mission.

“Be there, be hope” must mean access to clean water, health care, sustainable agriculture, and disaster-relief supplies, but it also signifies something more—it is also spiritual renewal. UMCOR is hope for people around the globe—across nations, cultures, and religions—tormented by the fear that they have been forgotten.

Inspired by our faith, we are called to shine a light in dark places. Between despair and joy, faith gives birth to hope as a means of renewal. Only hope is strong enough to take us through tragedy, beyond tragedy, and toward a heavenly Kingdom. Yet, faith is also the source of our humility. As servants, we come equipped with the knowledge that we have been sent by, and are accountable to, the will of God. This one mission of hope is not ours alone, we are merely its instrument.

What is the future of humanitarian relief and development? UMCOR provides an indispensable model for that future. Through faith we rest assured that God does not abandon us in the midst of suffering, but God can surely provide a way out.

Joya Colon-Berezin currently works for the Ministry with the Poor program of the General Board of Global Ministries.