10:00 p.m. Thursday night: it’s one of my favorite times of the week, but not just because Friday is my day off. I crawl into bed with Sports Illustrated, which always arrives in my mailbox on Thursday. Because I am usually so weary from the week that I can only keep my eyes open for a few minutes before falling asleep, I turn directly to the last page, where I read Rick Reilly’s column. His articles are witty, provocative, sensitive, challenging and often poke fun at our national obsession with sports heroes.
Last Thursday, Gary heard me audibly gasp as I learned that, after writing 850 columns over 23 years, Rick Reilly was leaving Sports Illustrated. My favorite magazine was never going to be the same again. The next gasp was even louder. In reflecting over the past 23 years, Reilly said that his all-time favorite column was the one he wrote introducing the idea of Nothing But Nets (May 1, 2006). This man, who has been voted National Sportswriter of the Year 11 times, a man who has hobnobbed with the most famous athletes in the world, said that the article of his which has had the most profound effect upon him and our world was about a simple $10 net.
Playing off the use of nets in sports such as basketball, soccer and ice hockey, Reilly wrote in 2006 that in Africa, where effective window screens are lacking, insecticide-treated bed nets are the most cost-effective way to prevent malaria transmission. One bed net costs just $10 to buy and deliver to individuals in need. Such a net can safely last a family for about four years, thanks to a long-lasting insecticide woven into the net fabric.
The response to Reilly’s challenge for the 28 million subscribers to Sports Illustrated to donate at least $10 for a net was immediate and enormous, prompting the United Nations Foundation to create the Nothing But Nets campaign. It didn’t take long for the United Methodist Church to become one of the first partners, and, to date, the only Christian denomination formally affiliated with the campaign. Other partners include the National Basketball Association, Major League Soccer, Sports Illustrated, The Measles Initiative, Union for Reform Judaism, AOL Black Voices, and Rotarians Action Group on Malaria. Last January, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pledged to match up to $3 million in donations – dollar for dollar, net for net. They originally allowed three years to fulfill the matching grant, but the goal was met in only eight months.
To date, 16 million dollars has been contributed toward Nothing But Nets. That includes $36,580 from the West Michigan Conference in 2007, of which $7,779 has been given by 27 churches in the Grand Rapids District. This past summer South Wyoming UMC held an ice cream social and open house in their new facility for 250 people from the church and neighborhood. They put out a bucket advertising Nothing But Nets, and the children and youth wore BuzzKill t-shirts. They raised $350, sent 35 nets to Africa and potentially saved 35 plus lives. We took an offering at the Grand Rapids District Bishop’s Day last March and raised $680.
Like you, nets have been a big part of my life. I played field hockey and basketball in high school and college. I coached my kids’ soccer teams, caught butterflies in nets, and landed dozens of fish with nets. For many summers, I fished on a lake in Canada wearing a net over my head because mosquitoes and black flies have always taken a liking to me. I surf the Net occasionally, and last Saturday I even helped cut off the net holding our Christmas tree together so we could get it in our car.
Little did I know, however, that nets also save lives. 1 million children die from malaria each year, children whose lives might have been saved by a simple net. Nothing But Nets may be the most amazing global, collaborative and grassroots campaign to combat a major disease that our world has ever seen.
Why did Rick Reilly’s last article touch me so deeply? Maybe it was this sentence near the end of his column, “I’m leaving to find out if my little voice can carry in a whole new way.” It all started with one little voice, the simple image of a net, and a challenge to sports fans to demonstrate teamwork and change the world.
I am proud that the United Methodist Church is playing such a prominent role in Nothing But Nets. It’s so natural, given our desire to engage the world, witness to the world, love the world, transform the world, learn from the world and be changed by the world.
During this Advent season, I wonder about Jesus. If Jesus had been born in Africa, would he have succumbed to malaria? Wrapping him in swaddling clothes wouldn’t have been enough. He, too, would have needed a net. But God’s children are born in Africa every day. They, too, are beloved by God. They, too, are made in the image of God. They, too, deserve a chance to grow up, find their voice, and change the world themselves.
Can you, too, find a way for the little voice of your congregation to carry in a whole new way this Advent? Go to www.nothingbutnets.org and order BuzzKill tshirts for your youth group. Include Nothing But Nets in your Christmas offering, or make it part of your Lenten mission offering. Sponsor a charity basketball game in your community, with $10 donated every time a basket is made. Put a basketball net in the sanctuary. Send a net to Africa every time you buy a Christmas gift for a family member. Partner with other churches and local organizations to raise money. You could even preach wearing a mosquito net!
I lament the fact that I won’t be reading Rick’s column anymore. I may have to find a new routine for Thursday night. But I will sleep more soundly knowing that at 10:00 p.m. on Thursday night in Africa, 1.6 million families – children, youth and adults – will also be sleeping soundly under their anti-malarial nets.
Buy a net. Save a life – and a voice.
P.S. I am deeply grateful for the wonderful gift certificates I received last Friday at the district clergy Christmas party. There was also a check for $400, which I have decided to donate to Nothing But Nets. 40 plus more lives saved. Thank you.