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Methodist Healthcare advancing United Methodist mission




March 15, 2004

By Linda Green*

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (UMNS) - Methodist Healthcare is committed to its connection with the United Methodist Church and to the denomination's mission, according to its top official.

That commitment to mission led the hospital system into a partnership with Africa University and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital to help health care providers respond to HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases across Zimbabwe and eventually, the rest of Africa. The United Methodist-related university is based in Mutare, Zimbabwe.

"We are trying to do what we can to help the church carry out its priorities, and this is certainly one of them for the broader church," said Gary Shorb, president and chief executive of Methodist Healthcare.

"The church came to us with an opportunity to become more connected through Africa University," he said. "We embrace that commitment and are working with Africa University leadership to determine their needs. We recognized that St. Jude could be a partner in this connectional effort in helping the university's health care mission come to fruition."

Africa University was a logical choice for a partnership "because it is related to the United Methodist Church and (because of) the emphasis the church places on the institution," Shorb said.

Methodist Healthcare and St. Jude have been in a partnership since 1991, following the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries' call for the church to become involved in Russia after the country became democratic. Methodist Healthcare, St. Jude and Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center have trained 33 pediatric oncologists from Russia.

"Our partnership with Africa University began from an interest in what St. Jude was doing in their research in AIDS," said the Rev. Elvernice "Sonny" Davis, a chaplain who heads Methodist Healthcare's Health and Welfare Ministry unit. "It is a blessing for all of us. Our goal is to be a medical training resource to Africa University on the continent of Africa."

Africa University has students from many different countries, Davis noted. That, combined with the university and hospital's shared United Methodist ties, makes the partnership "a beautiful marriage with many possibilities."

Numerous Methodist Healthcare systems operate across the United States, but Shorb said all are separate organizations, though they are connected to the United Methodist Church. The Africa University Health Science Partnership involves the Methodist Healthcare System in Memphis, comprising eight hospitals and subsidiaries.

The bottom line is to increase health care first at Africa University and in Zimbabwe, Shorb said. "You have to start with small successes - that has been our history and our philosophy," he said.

"We are trying to improve the quality of life for people in Zimbabwe," he said. As a major provider of care to the poor in Tennessee, Methodist Healthcare demonstrates its commitment to mission locally, and through its outreach efforts, spreads mission abroad, he said.

Not only are the students and people of Zimbabwe being impacted by such a program but the students return to their home countries and share the training received from Africa University, Davis said. "I see Africa University as a nucleus to assist and impact the problems for the whole continent of Africa.

"I cannot foresee the extent of the possibilities when you bring together one of the largest children's research hospitals in the United States and one of the largest health care systems in the United States with one of the most unique and growing universities in Africa," Davis said. "Only God knows the possibilities if we let him use us as resources in this."

A United Methodist minister for 45 years - including serving as an Army chaplain and church pastor - Davis said the partnership is especially meaningful to him.

"This is real for me," he said. The hospital system serves as the "the medical arm of our churches, and through our churches and in our churches, we are doing great things."

"This is a ministry for us and a real important part of what we are all about," Shorb said. "We are about providing health care in a manner that is consistent with the teachings of the United Methodist Church and the Social Principles of the church, and … providing health care to anybody who comes through our doors." The hospital system is "ensuring that we are doing all we can to outreach other parts of the world," he said.

The partnership has been a learning experience for Shorb and others. "What we've learned is that the problems are very similar no matter where you are in the world," Shorb said. "There are commonalties that we all can learn about."

What Shorb learned personally "is once you do train people who are well motivated, they can make a difference, even if they do not have the resources. The knowledge is important, and with that knowledge, people can generally find access to resources that we have not even thought about."

As the need arises, he sees the partnership being broadened.

Methodist Healthcare in Memphis has already been successful in getting other Methodist Healthcare systems involved. Methodist Houston has provided support, and conversations are being held with the Clarion health care system. Shorb hopes other Methodist health care providers will join the initiative with financial and other assistance.

Having a son in the Peace Corps in Africa allows Shorb to see this partnership as a ministry of equipping people to enhance their quality of life. He sees the linkage between Methodist Healthcare, Africa University and St. Jude as ongoing.

"I see us broadening the interaction, with the number of our people going over there increasing and increasing the number of professionals coming back here," Shorb said. The hospital system is also interested in supporting brick-and-mortar development as well as intellectual talent at the university. "We feel … like a mother entity in this effort, and we feel a sense of caring and commitment to this effort," he said.

Davis foresees broadening the hospital system's horizons with not just the utilization of distance-learning programs but by sending physicians, nurses and other care providers to Africa University.

"I am thankful that this opportunity came to us," Shorb said. "It is the exact kind of opportunity … we need to be involved in. Resources, no matter how large you are, are something that is a consideration, and you have to set priorities. For me, this really is a high priority because of the great work being done.

"As a follower of John Wesley, we see the world as our parish. Wesley truly believed that the sense of community has to extend well beyond the community we have right (here) in Memphis."

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer in Nashville, Tenn.  News media can contact her at (615) 742-5470 or

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