Ala. woman overcame malaria, worked to save lives

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Gloria Holt never remembered being bitten by the mosquito that gave her malaria, a disease that is a leading killer of children in Africa.

It was on a mission trip to Zambia in August 2005, while she was there to promote kind treatment of AIDS victims who were often put into the wilderness to die. “The kind of malaria she had, you had 48 hours to treat it,” said her husband, Zollie Holt.

She was taken to a copper mine clinic nearby with four beds. She was treated there for four days.

“It was really a miracle that got her out of that,” Zollie Holt said.

When she recovered, she had a new sense of purpose.

“I can tell you firsthand that malaria is a terrible disease,” she said later. “I cannot imagine a small child suffering from the symptoms I experienced – that’s why so many children die from malaria. Malaria kills a child every 30 seconds. I feel that God has challenged me to help spread the word about this devastating disease and raise money to eradicate it.”

She campaigned to have the North Alabama Annual Conference send its mission offering to Nothing But Nets, a campaign to save lives by preventing malaria. A $10 donation pays for one insecticide-treated bed net, the distribution of the net and education for a family to learn to properly use the net.

“Because of my experience I believe that God is calling me to raise awareness about this devastating, but preventable disease,” she said.

Holt, a member of Huffman United Methodist Church for 37 years who then helped found ClearBranch United Methodist Church in Argo, died last month, at age 73, from complications of breast cancer diagnosed a year earlier. Holt was born in Birmingham, graduated from Ensley High School and, after her children were grown, earned a degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 1978.

For years she was the top lay leader for the United Methodist Church in North Alabama, and she became the top lay leader for United Methodists worldwide.

Her activism and leadership inspired many, and her malaria campaign may have saved lives.

Last fall, the North Alabama conference launched a new campaign, “Imagine No Malaria,” that focuses on education about eliminating conditions that lead to the spread of malaria. Conference officials met with Holt.

“She helped us to focus on the idea that this is not a campaign to raise money, it’s a campaign to save lives,” said Linda Holland, director of connectional ministries for the conference.

In a rare occurrence, Holt couldn’t take a leadership role, because she was battling cancer.

“She was such a fighter, she didn’t want anybody to feel sorry for her,” Holland said.

Holt first took on church leadership as a 21-year-old with two small children at Huffman Methodist. She joined a women’s circle that offered a nursery for children, just so she could have a break from the kids. Soon she was a president of the United Methodist Women chapter.

She was elected a lay delegate from North Alabama to five General Conferences and Southeastern Jurisdictional Conferences, from 1996 through 2012. She was chair of the Southeastern Jurisdiction Committee on Episcopacy, and president of the Southeastern Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders and the International United Methodist Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders.

In the North Alabama Conference, Holt served as conference lay leader from 1997 to 2006.

“There were all these jobs people asked her to do,” Zollie Holt said. “She never turned it down.”

She gave the Laity Address at the 2004 General Conference in Pittsburgh – essentially speaking to the worldwide leadership of the United Methodist Church that gathers every four years.

In her speech, Holt chided bishops and clergy to share leadership with non-clergy.

“She was preaching to the bishops and ministers, saying, ‘We’re supposed to be one body. What do you all not know about one?'” Zollie Holt recalled.

She made a proposal that conference lay leaders be included in cabinet meetings. Many bishops and clergy opposed the idea and tried to block it, but she spoke from the floor of the General Conference, gathered support, and got legislation passed.

Holt also wanted more women as clergy.

She was instrumental in the North Alabama Conference getting its first woman bishop, Debra Wallace-Padgett.

Since she was chair of the committee that picked and assigned bishops, and had worked closely with Wallace-Padgett, she was basically able to choose her own bishop.

Holland, the first non-clergy person to be the director of connectional ministries, said Holt promoted the idea that ordinary church members should run the church, just as much as professional clergy.

“She was a huge inspiration to me,” Holland said. “Gloria was always leading the charge. Her heritage will be far-reaching. It’s that can-do attitude, that eternal optimism. That will be an inspiration for many years to come.”

In 2011, Birmingham-Southern College President Gen. Charles Krulak called Holt to the stage at the North Alabama annual conference and gave her an honorary doctorate. The award was a surprise to Holt, who was called onstage and given a graduation robe. “I had no idea,” she said. “I thought, ‘What do they want me up there for?'”

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