Lilly Paya lies on a cot in the photo from a September 2012 United Methodist News Service story.
The little girl in the green, gingham-checked dress is neither smiling nor frowning, but her dark, solemn, staring eyes offer a certain stoicism to the malaria that plagues her body.
Her image drew Tom Hancock, pastor of Harrison United Methodist Church, to ramp up his interest in the child's home of Ligitolo, South Sudan, where she is the daughter of a pastor in the African town. He saw the photo just before a trip to the country last fall.
"It became personal," he says. "It became real."
Though Lilly has malaria, she's one of the lucky ones, Hancock says, because through a partnership of churches she is able to get treatment.
Unfortunately, he says, it's a disease that may come back. Even if people survive the onset of the disease, they're susceptible to fevers throughout their lives.
"Once God breaks your heart," Hancock says, quoting fellow local United Methodist minister Barry Kidwell, "you can't help but do something about it."
That something is a bicycle ride with his son,
Brian Arnold, next week from Chattanooga through the Nantahala Gorge to Lake Junaluska, N.C., where the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church is holding its annual meeting. Hancock is raising money with per-mile donations and lump-sum gifts through the Facebook causes page Break the Cycle. All the money will go to the Imagine No Malaria campaign, the denomination's effort to end preventable deaths by mosquito-borne malaria in Africa.
"For every $10," he says, "a life is saved. The money goes toward prevention, education, research and treatment. It may go to help with a (mosquito) net; it may help educate a village."
The Holston Conference is attempting to raise $1 million by December to save 100,000 lives. The international goal is $75 million by 2015. Hancock is the incoming mission chairman for the Holston Conference.
Hancock, an outdoorsman and competitive swimmer, first wanted to organize a 5K run to raise money, but abandoned that idea with the proliferation of such runs in the area. An event connected to a bike seemed more feasible.
"I used to bike when I was younger," he says. "I even made a cross-country bike trip from La Crosse, Wis., to New Orleans."
To strengthen his legs, Hancock began using a bike trainer in January, ramped up his swimming and now has graduated to daily 25- to 30-mile rides.
His son, he says, is a former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football player who, at 30, has remained in good shape.
"I think he thought I was a bit nuts," Hancock says. "He says, 'You can't do that [ride] alone. I've got to go with you.'"
Arnold already had been on a mission trip to South Sudan with his father and understood his desire to help the people there.
The route to Lake Junaluska is somewhere between 162 and 180 miles, depending on the source checked, Hancock says. He and his son will travel 80 or 90 miles to Andrews, N.C., on Saturday, then about the same number of miles the next day.
His wife, Jody, will be the duo's support vehicle the first day, then she'll return home, collect the rest of the family and drive to Lake Junaluska on Sunday.
Hancock says the narrow, twisting, climbing portion of the route through the Nantahala Gorge is daunting but doesn't scare him.
"It doesn't bother me too much," he says. "I try not to think about it. We have reconned the route."
Cars may be the biggest worry in the gorge.
"You have to be very, very careful," he says. "Most of the time there's at least a little bit of shoulder. I'm feeling good about where we're at."
Hancock says he hopes to save 1,000 lives through his and his son's efforts and adds that they are nearing pledges for 450 lives saved.
The people of South Sudan once knew only war -- in addition to food and sanitation issues -- but now have an opportunity for a generation that knows only peace, he says.
"The people themselves broke my heart for what they have to deal with and struggle with on a daily basis," says Hancock. "[God's] given me a heart for these people. They're so filled with joy, with hope. It's inspiring to interact with them, to be with them, to worship with them, to develop these friendships with them."
To learn more, visit the Break the Cycle Facebook page, which has a link to make a contribution. Or mail a check to: Harrison United Methodist Church, 5621 Highway 58, Harrison, TN 37343, and indicate that it's for the Break the Cycle effort or the Imagine No Malaria campaign.
Contact staff writer Clint Cooper at ccooper@times freepress.com or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to his posts at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...