Raise your hand if the news these days is making you scared. Raise your hand if you feel like locking yourself in your house with bleach and hand sanitizer. Raise your hand if you’re scared to fly on a plane because you fear a fellow passenger might have Ebola.
I’d have to raise my hand to all those questions. I believe in reaching out to the stranger in theory, but in practice it’s downright scary. Even though we live in a privileged country where we are probably safer than most other places on earth, the threats of disease and terrorism feel uncontrollable. My gut reaction is to shut myself away. Stay clean, stay healthy, stay safe. Distance myself from the threats “out there.”
We hear the call to strengthen the nation’s borders not only so that we know who is entering and leaving, but so that we can keep out the “other.” We hear the call to cut off travel to and from African nations afflicted with Ebola (never mind how this would cut off aid workers from going to help the suffering). We hear hostility lobbied at the Liberian community in the United States. We hear fear and rejection.
In a recent interview with NPR’s Rachel Martin, Bishop Nathan Kortu of New Life Fellowship Church in Euless,Texas (outside of Dallas), said that his community is suffering greatly. They are currently dealing with the double trauma of mourning family members in Liberia who have died from Ebola and simultaneously dealing with local community hostility and prejudice toward them as if all Liberians might be Ebola-carriers. He says:
You know, when people identify you as a Liberian, they’re going to think that you are an Ebola patient. So that is really a problem now for our community because some people here, they were born here, some of them never been to Liberia for 30 years.
Later in the interview, he adds:
Ebola is a disease that does not discriminate. So anybody can be infected with the disease. It’s not just Liberians, it’s not only Africans. So we need to educate the public that this is a disease. It’s not for just one group of people.
Simultaneously, we see good examples of Christian love and care. George Mason is Senior Pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church, the church where Thomas Duncan’s fiance, Louise Troh, attended and where Duncan’s memorial service was held, writes that when he heard of Troh’s situation, he instinctively wanted to visit her and offer pastoral care. He believes that the Scripture and good teaching he received throughout his life gave him that gut-level reaction to reach out with love rather than fear. He adds that his entire congregation supported him in his outreach, adding,
We encountered Ebola because one of our members came face-to-face with it. And to echo the words of the Apostle Paul, when one member of the body hurts, the entire body feels pain.
Apparently, this is an image that is shocking for much of America to see and hear. Few people expected a predominantly Anglo congregation in an affluent section of Dallas to stand by a Liberian immigrant forced to live in quarantine. But as those inside our congregation know, this is what we do. This is what it means to be a church.
We can say a lot of negative things about some Christians’ reactions to Ebola in America. But, honestly, when I critique fellow Christians on this, I have to stop and remember that my knee-jerk reaction to the “Other” and to crises like Ebola is often fear too. I give thanks for the good witness of fellow Christians who think first of the neighbor in need and not of themselves. I need to keep listening to their voices and being spiritually formed by the Scriptures that call me to reach out to the other rather than to retreat into my own private, “safe” world. I give thanks that God continues His work of death and resurrection in each of us as we walk the path of discipleship with Jesus. May those who do not believe in Jesus increasingly hear faith and not fear from those of us who do believe.