She’s sixteen and her name is Promise.* She’s from a family of seven and accustomed to hard work so when her mother complained of a headache and developed a fever, Promise simply added her mother’s chores to her own. After three days, her mother died on the way to the hospital.
A month later her father and baby brother became ill. Promise became the caregiver, and because she had heard radio reports of this disease called Ebola, she was vigilant about washing her hands and urged her three younger siblings to play outside their one-room house so they would be less likely to become ill.
You can probably guess the end of the story. Or at least the end as far as we know. Her five-month-old brother named Success (reflecting the family’s dream?) died as did her father. Eventually only a fifteen-year-old brother and thirteen-year-old sister remained alive in the house with Promise. We know nothing else of Promise and her family.
Two American epidemiologists who worked in disease-stricken Sierra Leone tell another story.** A young mother with her baby in a box was brought to a hospital. Her Ebola condition was already far advanced and she soon died. Although the baby tested negative for Ebola, medical personnel knew the disease often shows up later in infants and they were understandably wary. To protect health care workers, the baby was initially left in the box with soft blankets and food, but the workers were distraught that the child was without the comfort of human touch so they began tenderly holding him until he, too, died. In their arms. Twelve of those workers subsequently contracted Ebola. Only one survived.
On the same morning I heard those two heartbreaking stories, I heard another account. This one about an American man who always travels to the city where his favorite football team is playing, but he wouldn’t be going to Dallas because of his fear of Ebola.
I don’t know details about his story, so I can’t condemn the man’s decision. Perhaps his immune system is already threatened and he must take necessary precautions. Or he has heart disease or other medical issues requiring emergency room care. Maybe he isn’t aware of the myriad medical facilities in Dallas capable of giving excellent treatment. But there is stark contrast between his choice and those of Promise and baby-hugging nurses in Sierra Leone.
Have you have heard the term NIMBY—Not in my backyard? Too often that is our reaction—and action—to events in the world. I’ll pray for those infected with disease, I might even open my wallet for their care; but God, please don’t send my nurse son or doctor granddaughter to care for them.
Do we have the courage of people like Father Damien who, like Jesus, “pitched his tent among” the sick and dying? (“Pitched his tent” is the literal meaning of Jesus “making His dwelling among us,” described in John 1:14.) Read about Father Damien’s work among lepers at http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/DAMIEN.HTM. Do we resemble Christians of the first century who refused to leave urban areas when the dreaded plague infested hundreds of thousands of people?
Pharmaceutical companies are scrambling to develop drugs to combat the horrors of Ebola. Will those drugs be equally as available to the Promises living in their one-room houses in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea as they are to the Western aid workers stricken with the disease? Twenty-first century Western Christians—myself among them—subscribe to a safe faith, one without risk, one where avoiding the untouchable, the unhuggable, is the norm. Is it still possible to challenge our teenagers to bravely walk outside their own green-grass-potted-flower backyards to a dying world? Will I walk there? Things to think about. Complicated issues to struggle with. Let’s not be unthinking, unstruggling American Christians any longer.
*From an Associated Press story, 10/10/2014
**As related on National Public Radio 10/10/2014