Ebola is ravaging West Africa, killing roughly 45 percent of those infected.
The worst Ebola outbreak since the virus first appeared in the 1970s, according to the CDC, there have been six countries affected, 7,494 total cases and 3,439 deaths.
Underreporting, however, has led the CDC to state that as of Sept. 30 there were likely 21,000 cases, with cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone doubling every 20 days. By Jan. 20, 2015, there could be a total of 1.4 million cases.
Perhaps no country has been more profoundly affected than Liberia, home to 4 million people.
In a recent memorandum, Richard Wilson, president of Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary, described the compounding impact of Ebola on the nation.
“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 … 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,” Wilson wrote.
The reality of this horror has only now begun to settle on many in the United States with the report about the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the United States.
Many are understandably scared because this disease is without a proven cure or U.S. FDA-approved vaccine at present.
How should the church respond?
It is helpful to frame this question through a different lens, asking, “Why did Jesus have physical contact with leprosy (see Matthew 8:1-3)? Wouldn’t the spoken word have been enough?”
In no way am I suggesting the disregard of personal protective equipment or other safety measures, but we must move beyond the stigma and fear to offer healing ministry where sickness is found, right in the physical space of people’s lives.
Jesus loved with proximity those with a contagious disease. He often healed by spoken word, but in Matthew 8 he chose touch.
Even when restrictions are essential to containing a disease like Ebola, patients need the support and presence of others.
Human contact, even when wearing protective suits, cannot happen from a distance and should not be undervalued.
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 his book, “The Triumph of Christianity,” in the third century Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria wrote a pastoral letter to members, who were offering care amid 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,” Dionysius reported.
Stark believes that the medical care provided by Christians to those infected reduced overall mortality by as much as two-thirds.
Building upon Jesus’ example and the historical example of Christians sacrificially offering health care amid 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 number of those infected is unknown, the lives impacted via relational and economic impact are likely in the hundreds of thousands.
EthicsDaily.com has compiled local footage from the Ebola crisis in Liberia that can be used as part of a day of prayer.
One video focuses on Ebola treatment and Liberia Baptist relief efforts; the other provides insight into Ebola’s impact on daily life.
2. Speak calm and truth in an environment prone to hysteria and misinformation.
Within the U.S., there will likely be an uptick in news coverage as individuals are being watched for Ebola symptoms.
While precautions are warranted, Christians must avoid responding out of alarm, fear or misinformation.
3. Support those offering medical care to the infected.
As an interconnected family, Christians should share equal concern for those already living in the terror of a devastating outbreak and those seeking to respond with care and compassion at great personal risk.
They 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.
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, and it is essential that our response to the Ebola virus wracking the lives of thousands of individuals include both prayer and ministerial action.
Elijah Brown is the director of the Freedom Center and associate professor of missions at East Texas Baptist University (ETBU) in Marshall, Texas, where he also serves as a faculty in residence. A longer version of this article first appeared on ETBU’s blog, The Intersection, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @ElijahMBrown.
Elijah M. Brown is the general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance.