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Jake and Mark Bennett attend the April 9 session on information and communications technology for development, held at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York. Photo by Neelley Hicks, United Methodist Communications.

A United Methodology: Reflections on Infopoverty ‘14

By Jake Bennett*

It is a curious phenomenon that those groups with the smallest voice in an argument are often also the groups most affected by its outcome. 

The largest institutions are frequently populated by the most powerful and influential of people, often with no interest in helping their opposites on the socio-economic scale. For oppressed persons to gain a foothold in the foundations of power, they must have a kindly benefactor to champion their cause and bring it to the forefront of the social arena. Someone or something is needed to act as a bullhorn for those whose voice is so small amid the brasher voices of others, and though it may be all but drowned out, it remains pleadingly calling nonetheless. For ages, these patrons have been dismally too few and far between. 

After witnessing firsthand one of The United Methodist Church’s numerous efforts to improve the lives of others, I know now more than ever that it is leading the fight to improve the lives of the millions of people around the world.

Recently, I was invited to attend the 14th annual Infopoverty World Conference and ICT4DF Leaders Summit at the United Nations in New York. The irony of the circumstances leading up to my great adventure is not lost on me in the least. I first met the Rev. Neelley Hicks in her role as deacon of 61st Avenue United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn. 61st Avenue United Methodist serves a rather underprivileged populace and is not the type of place one would expect to be offered such an opportunity. Nonetheless, in a true display of Christian benevolence and kindness, Rev. Hicks showed me the same grace and compassion that she shares with the congregation of 61st every week. 

I had long heard of her fascinating travels and work around the world with her work for United Methodist Communications through Facebook and was in awe of the amazing things the church was doing through her. I expressed an interest in learning more about the international work of the church, and she immediately invited me to visit her at her office. She took time out of her busy day to meet with me and presented me with the incredible prospect of accompanying her to New York.

However odd it may be for a freshman in high school, the pinnacle of my interest is international law and foreign relations. So this invitation from Rev. Hicks was as if my wildest dreams had come true. I immediately went home and looked up anything and everything I could about the conferences and any person I could remember that she had mentioned. The more I typed into the Google search bar, the more I began to realize The United Methodist Church does far more than I had ever realized. This research prompted more and more until finally I was up to my ears in an enormous number of missions and forward-thinking projects ranging from deploying information and communication technology to some of the poorest communities in Africa, to lobbying efforts in Washington for the better treatment of God’s people.

The challenge of infopoverty

The conferences I was in town for tackled an issue most people wouldn’t necessarily see as particularly pressing upon first glance: the problem of infopoverty. Infopoverty is the lack of access to information and communication technologies (or ICTs). This can range from computers to mobile phones and can have far-reaching effects in our modern world of instant information. 


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Critics of the ICT for Development (ICT4D) movement claim that other needs such as medicine or food should be addressed before turning attention to problems such as this. However, ICTs can be highly effective in preventing many problems, such as famine or outbreaks of disease. By being able to efficiently communicate to remote areas oncoming problems and issues, isolated communities can be more prepared and ready to handle tough concerns. Essentially, utilizing technology to allow people to help themselves. 

The ICT4D movement is growing quickly and obviously has gained the attention of organizations such as the United Nations and related agencies. Conferences like the Infopoverty World Conference and the ICT4DF Leaders Summit are the principle meetings to address these problems. 

The first in the lineup was the ICT4DF Leaders Summit. This was a gathering primarily of faith-based leaders in the field of ICTs for development. Held at the Church Center for the United Nations, the summit was immensely fascinating for me. I was able to see the vast impact churches and religious groups can have on the world around them and how important it is for churches to take an active role in global affairs. 

I met an extraordinary array of people, including one of the most amazing teams assembled for a specific task: the United Methodist Communications team for ICT4D. Rev. Hicks had accumulated a superlative grouping of experts in numerous fields of development and their presentations at the summit were clearly well received and respected by the gathered authorities. 

This portion of my trip was particularly special to me because I was able to witness the cooperation and trust of numerous different denominations and faiths for a common goal. Not only that, I was also able to see the starring role The United Methodist Church plays in this cooperation — leading others and setting a precedent of perseverance and sustainable thinking for others to follow. Sitting in those meetings, I was prouder than ever to be a United Methodist. 

The next segment of meetings was held across the street at the United Nations complex. These meetings were to be more centered on informing the assembled delegates and guests of the work being done, and the needs still as yet unmet. Being able to attend these meetings and see the various characters and personalities of the U.N. and the represented entities was a phenomenal introduction to the world of international relations, and the centering of my faith the day before allowed me to view things through a more Christian-based perspective than I might have earlier.

Once again, with the presentations given by Rev. Hicks and her team, as well as those given by other prominent United Methodists, such as the Rev. Liberato Bautista, assistant general secretary for United Nations Ministry with the General Board of Church and Society, I was excited to be able to claim a shared faith with these impassioned and courageous champions of human rights and the spreading of Christ’s love.

Seeing God at work

Oftentimes, our associate pastor at my home church, Franklin First United Methodist, will begin meetings by asking us where we have seen God at work in our lives. I most definitely saw God while I was in New York. I saw God in Rev. Hicks, who was inundated by professional obligations, yet still always found time to speak with me several times a day to discuss the day’s events. I also saw God in Rev. Bautista. He invited my father and me to meet him at his office and carefully listened to every comment I had, responded to all of my questions and concerns, and provided insightful perspectives into almost all of my interests for more than two hours. I saw God in John Steffens, who had the insight and passion for the infopoverty cause to help start the conferences and everything to come from them. And lastly, I saw God in my dad. He selflessly spent vacation days, frequent flier miles and hotel points to help fuel my dreams and aspirations. 

When I left the conferences, I was amazed and awed by all that The United Methodist Church was doing. However, as I looked more into the matter per tips and suggestions from Revs. Bautista and Hicks, I found that the church had been doing this since its founding. For centuries, we have been at the forefront of the world stage, fighting for what’s right and for God’s will. It’s a Methodist tradition to be involved. 

From our founders to our modern leaders, The United Methodist Church helps to carry out God’s will for the world. So the amazing things being done with the U.N. are still awe-inspiring, but not unique: They’re merely a part of a historic methodology of doing things, a United Methodology. 

*Bennett is a high school student who resides in Middle Tennessee. He and his father, Mark Bennett, attended the XIV Infopoverty World Conference 2014, April 10-11 at United Nations Headquarters in New York.