by Rev. N. Neelley Hicks
The book of Genesis tells the story of The Tower of Babel, describing how many languages came to be. Paraphrased, it goes like this:
“There once was only one language, but people began building a tower to reach the heavens—serving their own egos rather than God. God confused their languages—creating many out of one. Without the ability to communicate with one another, they could not finish what they had begun.” (Genesis 11:1-9)
Today, we speak in one language again—the global language of “digital communications;” however, confusion and chaos are found everywhere. From Twitter, Facebook, and all forms of social media—separating gossip from fact, propaganda from news—knowing what is real and true can be difficult.
Yet the greatest opportunity awaits: using this one language of “digital” to improve societies throughout the world—with peace-building, education, healthcare, job skills development, gender equality, and so much more. What will you share with the world? The gifts that God has given you, however small they seem, may be the greatest gift to another. You live in a day and age where it’s possible to impact lives everywhere, without even leaving your home. What will you share with the world?”
Excerpt from “Share: Communicating for a Better World,” © Rev. N. Neelley Hicks
Just so you know, I’m 53. My work life began when I became a part-time cashier at the Sears department store in Jackson, Mississippi, at the age of 15. Not really knowing or understanding my gifts, I went to college, then began working in offices, which at the time were transitioning from mainframes to “personal computers.”
I didn’t have a passion for technology, but I had the aptitude needed to solve computer problems and I delighted in implementing innovative solutions. When one of my sisters invited me to work as a trainer with her company, I found joy in helping other women learn things that could improve their chances at career advancement. I also realized that I could hold people’s attention as a public speaker.
Sitting at Galloway United Methodist Church in Jackson one Sunday morning, I felt a call to ministry. It didn’t make sense: I had a good job as vice president, director of interactive media at GodwinGroup Advertising. Certain that others would try to talk me out of going into ministry, I was startled that others weren’t surprised at all!
The education needed for ordination took several years, and in the final year I made my decision. I would become an ordained deacon, as opposed to elder. Push-back on that decision was greater than my decision for ministry, but “connecting the church with the world” described perfectly who I am. I am a connector—a joint in the Body of Christ—and one who wants to convey the very best of church to others who may not even know they are loved by God.
Traveling to Africa in the late 2000s, I met a young girl whose mother died after the United Methodist clinic ran out of the medicine she needed to treat her HIV/AIDS. I remember looking out at the roadway and thinking that surely other clinics along that road would have had the dose she needed for survival. If only they had a communications system with proper points of connection among providers who used it to monitor their stock, a request could have been made before their pharmacy ran dry. Someone could have transported it along the roadway. Communication itself could have served as aid among the faithful—people who care about helping others.
Communicating for a better world became my passion. The digital age offers the means for doing so through mass communications, technology, and faith communities who want to improve lives.
It’s more than telling the story of what happened. It’s sharing information to affect the outcome of the story.
In 2016, I heard about the East Congo Episcopal Area’s response to the rape crisis there. They wanted to build a women’s center for survivors of sexual violence. I volunteered to help lead the effort, thinking that my experience in communications could help raise the funding. Along the way, it became so much more.
The director of communications for East Congo Episcopal Area, Judith Osongo Yanga, and I began developing communications that could be used by the church to help women arise from stigma due to rape. We worked with Firdaus Kharas to produce the animation “A Plea to My Father” and broadcast it on television in East Congo, reaching at least half a million people. This became a catalyst for the church to discuss stigma through local media. It’s now available in nine languages.
Thanks to a grant from United Methodist Women, our team expanded so we could produce more materials: no-stigma text-messages for clergy, a drumming and drama guide, radio program, workshop guide, and a symbol that would be understood by those who can or cannot read. Named “Esther” by Rev. Dr. Betty Kazadi Musau because “she changed the minds of men and saved lives,” she will be printed first on T- shirts, then on fabric to spread messages of hope and courage.
Harper Hill Global has been forming inside me for a long time. God took my life’s experiences and is helping me apply what I learned. God is the Great Recycler, taking all the things (trash and treasure) from our lives and turning them into something beautiful. Nothing is wasted. Nothing.
For us deacons, being responsible for finding our own full-time appointments, starting a non-profit isn’t easy. Health insurance is costly to find on one’s own. The benefits of holidays, vacation, and pension, are lost, at least in the beginning. If successful, these things can come in time.
Fundraising in all its forms is essential, so get ready for grant writing! Doing side jobs that don’t require a lot of emotional energy can help pay bills along the way. To me, it’s all worth it.
The United Methodist Church can continue to grow far beyond sanctuary walls through deacons who reach out in creative and unusual ministries. It takes courage, faith, and a supportive network.
Women arise when our voices are heard and respected and when we live into the image imprinted inside us: God’s own image. What began for women in East Congo is helping women now in Uganda, Northern Nigeria, other parts of DR Congo, and in the United States, for I too have arisen. No matter what comes your way, by God’s grace, you will too.
Rev. Hicks, a deacon in the Tennessee Annual Conference, is executive director of Harper Hill Global in Nashville, Tenn.