IMA's Frank Dimmock, at left, moderated the session, and Dr. Alice Mudekereza and Dr. Larry Sthreshley facilitated the workshop. (Photo courtesy of CBC Health Services)
IMA's Frank Dimmock, at left, moderated the session, and Dr. Alice Mudekereza and Dr. Larry Sthreshley facilitated the workshop. (Photo courtesy of CBC Health Services)

By Kara Eberle/IMA World Health

Yaoundé, CAMEROON — When Ebola broke out in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1995, most health organizations fled the country. But faith-based organizations, led by local churches, remained with the people of Congo and were able to shut down the outbreak in 11 weeks.

Dr. Larry Sthreshley, who was among those early Ebola responders, mentioned this story to demonstrate the vital and unique role faith-based organizations play in times of crisis and in providing access to primary health care to vulnerable people throughout the continent of Africa. His colleague in the DRC, Dr. Alice Mudekereza, echoed the sentiment.

“Church organizations are the most permanent, most able and most willing to respond to the needs of the community,” she said.

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Sthreshley and Mudekereza, who oversee IMA World Health programs in DRC, shared these insights during a pre-conference workshop leading up to the Africa Christian Health Associations Platform’s 9th Biennial Conference. This year’s gathering focused on the relationship between faith-based organizations and access to primary health care on the continent.

IMA, which was founded on the Christian call to serve one another nearly 60 years ago, has always recognized the importance of faith-based organizations and has built strong relationships with the grassroots organizations in the communities it serves, said Jim Cox, executive vice president of health and emergency programs for IMA and its integrated partner, Lutheran World Relief.

“The church has a long history of promoting public health work,” Cox said.

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In eastern Congo, where rape is often used as a weapon of war and gender-based violence is a regular horror, churches are often the only organizations that are able to help survivors after an attack, Mudekereza said.

Because faith-based organizations are already trusted by their community, they are able to act quickly to help and also support survivors rebuild their lives by providing therapy, job training and legal assistance.

“FBOs are guided by faith principles and look at the people, not just the numbers,” Mudekereza said. “They have better reach and are quickly accepted by the people because they’re already in the community.”

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IMA’s partnership with faith-based organizations has led to its involvement in responding to the current Ebola outbreak in northeastern Congo, which is now the second largest outbreak ever. Initially, dozens of humanitarian aid and health organizations arrived in Beni in a rapid response effort, but the community didn’t trust them and revolted, in some cases burning down clinics that were caring for Ebola patients.

The Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance turned to IMA for help because they knew it was a trusted organization in the region with a history of working with the community and faith leaders, Sthreshley said. As a result, IMA has been able to fill critical gaps in response to the outbreak, which has included working with faith leaders to share life-saving messages to their communities, and progress has been made.

Hopefully, this approach is as effective as it was nearly 24 years ago when the brave faith leaders and their organizations battled Ebola in DRC — and won.

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About our experts
Dr. Larry Sthreshley is a PC(USA) missionary and IMA’s DRC country director, based in Kinshasa. He oversees the DFID-funded Access to Primary Health Care project, which impacts the lives of nearly 9 million people.

Led by her faith, Dr. Alice Mudekereza works with survivors of sexual and gender-based violence through the Tushinde Ujeuri program in eastern Congo. The counter-gender-based violence project is funded by the United States Agency for International Development.

The session was moderated by Frank Dimmock, senior technical consultant for IMA World Health.

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