Ebola is ravaging West Africa killing roughly 45% of those infected.
The worst Ebola outbreak since the virus first appeared in the 1970s, according to the CDC there have been 6 countries affected, 7,494 total cases and 3,439 deaths. Underreporting, however, has led the CDC to state that as of September 30th there were likely 21,000 cases, the number of cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone is doubling every 20 days, and that by January 20, 2015 there will be a total of 1.4 million cases.
A recent New York Times article depicted a scene of a “hospital from hell”:
A 4-year-old girl lay on the floor in urine, motionless, bleeding from her mouth, her eyes open. A corpse lay in the corner — a young woman, legs akimbo, who had died overnight. A small child stood on a cot watching as the team took the body away, stepping around a little boy lying immobile next to black buckets of vomit. They sprayed the body, and the little girl on the floor, with chlorine as they left.
Perhaps no country has been more profoundly affected than Liberia, home to 4 million people. Established in 1822 by the United States as a country for freed slaves, poverty remains an all too pressing reality where 80% live below the poverty line and 85% are unemployed. In a recent memorandum, Richard Wilson, president of Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary, described the compounding impact of Ebola on the nation as a whole:
The demands for isolation to prevent the spread of the virus undermine the basic economics of a nation where 90 percent subsist on $1 U.S. a day. When the markets are emptied and the streets are barely filled, the merchant has an impossible task to secure small money… Hunger is growing in Liberia. It will continue to become the most critical issue… Hungry people become desperate. Desperation breeds violence. Violence leads to conflict.
Though news agencies have been covering this outbreak for several months, the reality of this horror has only now begun to settle on many in the United States with the report this week that Thomas Eric Duncan had been admitted to a Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas as the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the United States.
Many are scared. This is easy to understand for Ebola is a disease without a cure or vaccine at present and horror film symptomology with high fevers and hemorrhagic bleeding.
How should the church respond?
Perhaps it is helpful to frame this question through a different lens: why did Jesus have physical contact with leprosy? Wouldn’t the spoken word have been enough?
Matthew 8:1-3 and parallel passage Mark 1:40-45 describe a man with leprosy kneeling before Jesus and asking for cleansing. Shockingly, “Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man” (Matt. 8:3). Against the best medical advice, in a culture mandating forced isolation as the best means for containment, fully knowing the danger of contagion, Jesus intentionally touched and healed an individual with a disease spread by contact. Would we do the same?
Even more pointedly, are we doing the same by following Jesus’ example and engaging in a healing ministry among those with a feared infectious and isolating disease?
Jesus loved with proximity those with a contagious disease. (Tweet This) He often healed by spoken word but in this instance specifically chose touch. Touch cannot happen from a distance or be undervalued. In no way am I suggesting the disregard of the appropriate use of personal protective equipment or other safety measures, but as Christians we must move beyond the stigma and fear and offer healing ministry where sickness is found, right in the physical space of people’s lives.
I must be quick to admit that such a ministry would be personally challenging; frightening even. There is however a long history of the church responding in this compassionate manner. As recorded by Rodney Stark, in the third century Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria wrote a pastoral letter to members who were offering care in the midst of a devastating plague:
Most of our brothers showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger; they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.
In the midst of this significant medical crisis facing the Roman Empire of the third century, Stark believes that the unnamed numbers of Christians who intentionally choose to provide medical care to those infected reduced overall mortality by as much as two-thirds.
Building upon Jesus’ example of touch to those with infectious disease and the historical example of Christians sacrificially offering health care in the midst of outbreaks, the church today could compellingly respond to the Ebola crisis in the following ways:
1. Regularly pray for individuals infected with Ebola and those seeking to help them.
Though the exact true number of those infected with the disease is unknown, the lives impacted via relational and economic impact is likely in the hundreds of thousands.
The All Africa Baptist Fellowship, one of the six regions of the Baptist World Alliance, has specifically asked for churches to set aside Sunday, October 12 as a day of prayer related to Ebola. This call for prayer has been further endorsed and echoed by the American Baptist Churches USA and the North American Baptist Fellowship. Ethics Daily has compiled a helpful video of local footage from the Ebola crisis in Liberia that can be utilized as part of a day of prayer.
2. Speak calm and truth in an environment prone to hysteria and misinformation.
Within the United States, over the next few weeks there will likely be an uptick in the coverage of this subject and the amount of individuals being watched for Ebola. While precautions are warranted, Christians must avoid responding out of alarm, fear or misinformation. An outbreak of Ebola in the United States remains unlikely and pertinent facts are readily available.
3. Pursue support for those physically offering medical care to the infected.
As an interconnected family, Christians in the United States should share equal concern for those already living in the terror of a devastating outbreak and seeking to respond with care and compassion at great personal risk. These are individuals facing a harrowing experience who have chosen, like Jesus, to engage in a ministry of touch and deserve the best support that can be offered via prayer, logistical support, and an influx of medical supplies and personal protection equipment.
4. Strengthen health care systems especially those in the affected countries.
One of the reasons this particular outbreak has been so damaging has been a lack of medical supplies, adequate health care systems and trained personnel in the affected areas. While the Ebola virus is not yet curable, it is treatable with symptom management: fever breakers for dangerously high fevers, rehydration for dehydration, and blood products for blood loss. Immediate response is critical but a long-term solution strengthening local training and health care systems is also needed.
5. Contribute to churches, ministries and other organizations already addressing the Ebola crisis in West Africa.
A number of agencies have responded including the Texas Baptists Disaster Recovery and the Baptist World Alliance. Whether to these or other ministries and organizations, it is essential that our response to the Ebola virus wracking the lives of thousands of individuals includes both prayer and ministerial action.