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An historic text message regarding the Ebola outbreak is sent via mobile technology from Bishop John G. Innis to 20 United Methodist district superintendents in Liberia. Transmitting the message from the offices at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn., are (from left) Jill Costello, project manager, and the Rev. Neelley Hicks, director, ICT4D Church Initiatives. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications

Maeghan Orton of MedicMobile says many frontline health workers in the developing world prefer a simpler cell phone for their work. She spoke during a panel discussion on the use of information and communication technologies for health at the Game Changers Summit at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tenn. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS

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Text messages continue to provide hope during Ebola crisis

While Ebola is not making as many international headlines as it did last summer, the deadly virus and its lingering cultural effects – such as food insecurity, educational hardships and an increase in teen pregnancy rates– continue to create additional adversities for those who live in West Africa.

In August 2014, United Methodist Communications’ Information and Communications Technologies for Development (ICT4D) team began sending approved health and pastoral text messages to church leaders on behalf of Bishop Yamabasu of Sierra Leone and Bishop Innis of Liberia. 

Almost nine months later, these daily, informative and encouraging text messages continue to make a difference in the lives of those still on the forefront of the Ebola crisis in West Africa – where nearly 70% of the telecommunications market relies on mobile phones. 

Additionally, the messages have increased their reach through new partnerships beyond The United Methodist Church.

World Vision International partnership
During an October 2014 World Bank round table discussion about Ebola, United Methodist Communications’ The Rev. Neelley Hicks, director of ICT4D church initiatives, met Dave Robinson, who at the time, was World Vision International’s interim Ebola response manager. 

World Vision International is a Christian relief, development and advocacy organization dedicated to working with children, families and communities to overcome poverty and injustice.

At the World Bank round table discussion, Rev. Hicks reported how United Methodist Communications had started using SMS text messaging to spread Biblical encouragement to the fearful and suffering, as well as to advise clergy on safe prevention methods.

Realizing that this matched the approach World Vision International wanted to use in their staff care plan for Sierra Leone, Robinson and Rev. Hicks began corresponding to add World Vision staff members’ mobile numbers to the list. World Vision workers on the Ebola battlefront began receiving the text messages immediately.

“World Vision wanted to emphasize to our staff that their security and emotional and psychological health was important to us,” said Robinson. “As Christians working in the Ebola response, God’s word was really a very valuable source. This has just been a very practical, concise, efficient and safe way to encourage people from a long distance, and we are extremely grateful for this.”

Light in times of darkness
In February, Robinson met with about 40 World Vision International staff members in Sierra Leone during a weekly chapel service held in their office. During chapel, he said, “They just started surfing through their cell phones and highlighting some of the text messages they had saved that had meant so much to them.”

He recalls one person had saved the text message from January 1 that included a passage from Isaiah 60:1, which reads, ‘Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.’ 

“After the darkness of 2014 with Ebola striking, this staff member said the passage gave him real hope to start the new year,” said Robinson.

Comfort in times of grief
Bishop Yambasu and district superintendent the Rev. Andrew Forbie relayed more stories of hope to the United Methodist Communications ICT4D team during their recent visit to Sierra Leone in February. 

“A colleague of mine, she lost her son through this Ebola,” said Rev. Forbie. “Then suddenly a message came, a message came for her.”

“It said, all is not lost,” continued Bishop Yambasu. “Be strong and courageous. I don’t even know when that message went actually, but she came here [and] remember[ed] those words, word for word. And she came here and told me, ‘Bishop, thank you so much, I mean when I got that text message, I mean it so enlightened me because I was really down.’”

Local communicators take over
During the ICT4D team’s February visit, they held a training session with local United Methodist communicators about the technology so that now the text messages will be sent directly from West Africa instead of United Methodist Communications’ headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., ensuring that the messages will sustain even more cultural relevance as the Ebola crisis continues to change.

Jill Costello, project manager of the ICT4D, trained three staff members from the Sierra Leone Episcopal Office, who were chosen by Bishop Yambasu. Since February, they have sent nearly 18,000 text messages. More than 350 people currently receive the messages daily.

According to Dave Robinson, World Vision International staff is eager to remain on the contact list. “They said they absolutely still want to receive these messages, saying they are timely, inspiring and provide something they can easily go back to since it’s handy, on their phone and in their pocket.”