Beating Malaria: Local Methodist Churches Bite off $1 Million Project and Exceed Their Goal

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Middle-aged and senior women at a Knoxville church did a Harlem Shake dance, while a Kodak church's staff plans to jump out of an airplane.

These activities may seem a little out of the ordinary, but they are being done by area United Methodist church members to allow one very normal activity letting more people in Africa enjoy everyday life without the fear of malaria.

Since the worldwide United Methodist Church decided to try to raise $75 million in the fight against malaria due in part to the urging of Microsoft president and philanthropist Bill Gates, the local Holston Conference agreed in 2012 to try to raise $1 million.

Holston officials were not initially sure if the money could be raised among the churches.

So when the announcement was made during the annual June gathering of the conference's lay and clergy members that the $1 million goal had been met and surpassed, a thunderous roar filled Stuart Auditorium at Lake Junaluska, N.C.

"It was crazy," said Andy Ferguson, senior minister of Church Street United Methodist Church in Knoxville and the chairman of the Holston Conference's "Imagine No Malaria" task force. "It was like the whole crowd jumped to their feet. It was a delightful moment."

As of earlier this week, the fund-raising efforts -- which actually run through December -- totaled nearly $1.144 million. Because health organizers have estimated that a $10 donation will save a single life, 114,362 lives in Africa have been saved so far due to the money, officials said.

While helping beat a preventable disease is an appealing cause, Holston officials have still been taken aback by how the entire conference -- from Southwest Virginia down to the Tennessee-Georgia line -- has so enthusiastically embraced this mission project.

"To me, it was exciting to see how churches who have gotten so inward focused or locally focused get so involved in this need halfway around the world," added Ferguson. "Most of us will never get to Africa, but they still cared about it."

Not only was the fact that they met the goal gratifying among Holston members, but so also was the way they did it. Minor gifts greatly outnumbered major gifts, and small churches as well as large churches took part.

For example, Bookwalter UMC in North Knoxville and Peck's Memorial UMC in Maryville managed to raise roughly $10,000 and more than $16,000, respectively, despite having 100 or fewer members each.

In total, 725 Holston churches, or 81 percent, have given to the efforts in some way.

Older adults as well as children and youth and their parents contributed or helped raise money.

"It has been multi-generational," said LeRae Collins, who was hired late last summer as the conference coordinator for the effort. "Our children and youth have been able to lead the way, but it has been something the entire faith community can come together on."

Collins became almost a human equivalent of a vaccine against malaria as she traveled countless miles to various districts and churches in the expansive conference to encourage Holston members about the fund-raising efforts.

"She was the one who was in every district and a lot of churches," said Ferguson. "She carried it to everywhere they would let her in."

Collins, who moved to Knoxville after her husband, Ben Collins, took a teaching and coaching position at Gresham Middle School, said she was simply trying to follow the conference's theme from Ephesians 3:20 in the Bible. It says in part that for those able to do more than is asked or imagined through the power of God, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus. …