The Rev. Nancy Robinson is an ordained deacon in the Virginia Conference and, along with her husband Kip, missionaries to Sierra Leone. She reflects on the reality of Ebola in our lives as God’s people in the world.
Kip and I, General Board of Global Ministries missionaries to Sierra Leone, are currently exiled to the United States and are asked not to return until a later date to be determined by those in leadership; Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church and leadership in Sierra Leone. We are standing in the gap, sharing the story of an amazing people and help those here in the States to understand the context and put a face on what is a concern on all of our minds.
Talking about Ebola in West Africa, specifically Sierra Leone is tough. I am not “on the ground” and have to rely on stories I read and conversations from afar, which we get almost daily by text, phone and Facebook. Hearing a voice that is calm and supportive, not in the midst of the confusion brings hope, so we have been told, ministry by being present. The stories from friends reveal that no one we actually know has been sick; we have come to know these friends and the love they share touches us in ways that call us to action on behalf of everyone we serve together, a people God has called us to care for who have been brought very low. First by war and now by an invisible enemy, Ebola.
Who would ever have thought this could happen? The distrust of government, superstition, poor health infrastructures and lack of awareness about how to prevent the spread of the virus all contributed to widespread disaster. It happened quickly, traveling into homes in the country long before the danger was recognized. The very fact that Ebola symptoms start out the same as malaria and typhoid fooled and confused everyone. Everyone we know has malaria. It is endemic in Sierra Leone, so if you come down with a fever, that would be your first thought. Now we know different and any fever is immediately suspect.
Kip and I are affected by Ebola in ways we never expected. We have a home in Freetown with faithful employees, a cook, a driver, a housekeeper and security guards. They live there, get fed and keep the house safe and take care of our chickens and dogs. We are maintaining this home from a distance which has economic repercussions as we also live in our home here in Virginia with expenses related to that. We have to trust on not always dependable communication as to what is needed overseas and do our best to provide, sending salaries and support by money gram. Prices have doubled as the market has shrunk, as food sources are less available, as farmers don’t get the opportunity to plant and harvest and as quarantine prevents vendors from travel and selling.
Hunger for most people in Sierra Leone is the next big hurdle, lurking just around the corner. The church is providing basic oil, onions and cooking supplies to staff members, including our employees in our absence. In December and January when crops should be ready for harvest the fields will be empty. Many have already lost jobs as businesses have closed; those of the 60% who don’t have jobs and struggle for daily survival, living has become a challenge even without Ebola.
Schools are closed and children and teens, college students and teachers are doing their best to wait. For how long no one knows. Some teachers are attempting classes by radio and Facebook, but for the most part children are idle and many get sick as do members of their families. What we read and hear from friends in Sierra Leone is heartbreaking. The vast number of deaths and ensuing grief as well as the mental/psychological trauma of isolation and stigma when a family member gets this virus is another silent enemy. The stigma of disease results in the community rejecting you, and that may be your very own family.
Imagine a child not receiving any physical comfort from a parent with the no touch rule to prevent the virus spreading, especially as death approaches. It hurts my heart. Our human instinct is to provide comfort and compassionate care; if it is not allowed who can measure the long-term impact this is going to have on the moral fiber of a society that is warm, gregarious and extremely caring. I can’t even begin to fathom the crushing despair felt as loved ones are taken away often never to be seen again, buried without having had human comfort as they died, especially children. God’s heartbreaking love is in the pain. In some communities, whole families are often gone, wiped away as they took care of each other, perhaps leaving a child or adult as a lone survivor. What will they do to find meaning and hope, unconnected and wandering? How do these lost children find their way back, out of disease and out of depression and out of the pain of being a cast out, by no fault of their own except for caring?
The heroes are the ones who knowingly sacrifice their own safety to care for others, they are those too who go back to teach and encourage and lift up their communities, stepping out of fear and isolation, staring stigma in the face and not avoiding reality, finding ways to educate and ensure health, God’s own. I am so glad that our church in Sierra Leone is actively visiting remote areas with the good news of how to avoid the virus, with education and provision for healthcare workers and care for the lost and alone. Prayer, Prevention and Care as the motto.
I am having a hard time imagining the end of this virus, but after Ebola, whatever that looks like, there will surely be a time of rebuilding, of care and of providing for the orphan whether children or adults. To ensure education for the future and for rebuilding the ravished health system. We have our work cut out for us. We are called to touch lives with hope, to touch lives and reconnect with each other, spiritually and physically. This is the good news. Not only now in the midst of chaos, but as the day passes and we move into a new reality of recovery. May God continue to guide us to let go, to live and give generously all that we have and all that we are, living as God has called us to, one in Christ.
When I answered the call to mission and accepted an assignment living in Freetown, Sierra Leone I had no idea of what was ahead. What I did find was the enormous amount of energy required to learn to live and thrive in another culture and how deeply I came to love those I lived with and work alongside. Yes, I quickly learned how we are a part of a much bigger family than our immediate family, part of a global community and what affects one affects all. As they suffer and do without, so do I. And I would have it no other way.
Learning to live this way empowers and frees us to be our best selves. In Krio, the main language of Sierra Leone, there is no personal pronoun, it is about us and we, and you is plural. People live in relationship to each other. Actually letting go of control of money, time, possessions and my own set ways of doing things to learn a new way, to listen with open heart and life has brought a transformation. Waking up with no water, no electricity, none of the modern conveniences I am so used to and having to figure out how to get to the market safely, how to purchase food for the day since without refrigeration, how to get laundry done outside by hand, and bathing from a bucket of cold water in a hot sweaty climate took me by surprise and took time to figure out. It is now our norm and we are not only surviving, but thriving.
The greatest challenge is seeing eyes looking at me… eyes that belong to ones with no means to go and buy what is needed…eyes of longing, often full of pain and without inner light makes it even harder to buy what we need for ourselves and easier to let go. While we can’t take care of everyone, I have learned that my neighbor is there and what is mine is their’s too. We share what we have as we get what we need and find deeper needs met in the sharing.
How can we share the pain of Ebola? How can we be safely here, away from the danger and able to touch, free to interact without the fear of contagion? But what good would it do for me to be there? I long to go home and don’t feel good about the separation, the pain of privilege. Perhaps one of the greatest outcomes of this situation is the exposure of our attitudes, our lack of awareness and need to be a better prepared and informed and caring global community. As Ebola comes closer and affects us in our supposedly safe space, perhaps Sierra Leoneans have something to teach us as a people of courage, a people who have been through hell and back and who have so much to share with the world about how deeply one can have suffer and in that place discover the very presence of a caring God who feels the deepest cry of the heart when left without human comfort. It is a message of hope from a people who are not abandoned or forgotten. Would that we could each one feel God’s heartbreak and respond in grace to each other with greater compassion and generosity of Spirit, free from fear.
To learn more about Nancy’s ministry and to donate, click here.