Ebola and the churches

Saturday, October 18, 2014

There are many perspectives from which Christians may and should view the terrible Ebola virus. As is well known, much of Africa’s population, including the countries most affected, is strongly Christian. A recent article by the highly respected journalist and writer Helene Cooper, a native-born Liberian, tears at the heart of the reader as it describes what the disease has done to church life in her native country. She describes how West Africans have had to stop showing physical affection in their church meetings. This tells us so much about the character of African Christians which have meant so much to American visitors.

Here is a short capsule of Helene’s background and accomplishments:

and here is her heart-wrenching story, which everyone should read in order to understand something of the depth of human connectedness in sub-Saharan African communities, and Christian communities in particular:

A search of Helene Cooper’s recent articles on Ebola in West Africa feature not only her literary skills but also the way that she is able to make us see how this virus is shredding a rich human fabric, but also what a threat to the fragile peace of African democracies it may become.

A second article, which also appeared on the Times front page with a photo, tells the story of a heroic American doctor (among those many heroic medical workers) who has gone to Liberia to help. Read his story here, but don’t fail to read to the end, where the most powerful detail about African Christianity is related. 

Then yesterday, the cover of the Times showed a photo of a man dressed in a haz-mat costume complete with moon-suit, mask and goggles, standing in front of a Washington government building and holding up a sign, “Stop the Flights!” He is a tourist attraction. People are taking his picture. Next to him stands a perky young woman with a beaming smile, cocking her head and flashing a V-sign while her friend snaps the photo. Thus the misery and isolation of suffering West Africa becomes an object of another sort of isolationism, the American sort. There is also an undeniable tinge of racism involved. Thousands of black African lives pass out of sight while the very low risk of Ebola in America is causing a panicky response.

The American churches should be doing something about this, but judging from my visits to various churches these past weeks, not much. It’s been very disappointing to note the perfunctory nature of the prayers for West Africa, if indeed it is mentioned at all. Listing “victims of Ebola” in a long, undifferentiated prayer list is not enough. Prayers need to be more detailed, more heartfelt. We need to ask for God’s specific intervention–more volunteers, more contributions, more awareness of the suffering, more strength for the African churches, more hope for the survivors, more comfort for bewildered children. News articles like the two cited above can inform our preaching and our appeals to our congregations.

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