By Brian Palmer
Anthony S. Mulbah is a dear friend, colleague and pastor in the Lutheran Church in Liberia. One Saturday night this past January, the entire Mulbah family was at my house watching martial arts flicks and poorly dubbed soap operas from Singapore. As usual, some of the smaller kids fell asleep. The evening ended and everyone went home, but there was a glitch. At 2 a.m., I awoke to the sound of a cough. It was Anthony’s 7-year-old granddaughter, Patricia. Patricia was visiting from Zeansue and she had been forgotten.
Today Patricia, in the photo at right, is in her own house in Zeansue under quarantine. Earlier this month, a very sick and scared auntie from Monrovia wanted to get away from the death that was occurring around her, so she returned to her family home in Zeansue. The auntie died and was buried within a day. Now family and neighbors, including Patricia, are under quarantine in a community that doesn’t really understand quarantine. Practical questions like how long should the quarantine last and how to keep the food and water flowing are being answered with fear-induced rumor and often popular wisdom. It seems Patricia is being forgotten yet again.
This past week I spoke with Moses Jeogbor, pastor at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church near Phebe Hospital. Phebe, a Lutheran hospital, is the largest public health institution in Liberia. With the exception of limited emergencies, Phebe has been closed while they figure out how to function in the midst of the Ebola crisis. The hospital, along with a newly dedicated, 50-bed Ebola Center, is scheduled for phased openings as resources and personnel become available. It all sounds quite sensible, but at the same time it’s not easy. Not long ago, several of Phebe’s staff died from Ebola.
At a time when a little good work can make a big impact, the Lutheran Church in Liberia is doing a lot of terrific work. The church is working with aid agencies to keep Curran Lutheran Hospital and Phebe up and running. They are striving to be an agent by which accurate, helpful information is gathered and disseminated. Congregations are being asked to place risky traditional practices, such as open caskets and wakes, on hold. Parishioners are even being told to wash their hands before entering church and that they should stay home if they are sick. Eric Doe, pastor of St. Thomas Lutheran Church in Zeanzue, tells me that he takes five minutes out of every church service to give his parishioners current news regarding Ebola, as well as to remind people of the precautions they should be taking to prevent its spread.
According to Moses and Eric, they have a long way to go. There are still many who refuse to believe Ebola is real and therefore refuse to participate in its prevention. Perhaps more dangerous are the people who see Ebola in people who don’t have it – common, treatable illnesses such as malaria and typhoid are easily mistaken for the first stages of Ebola. This leads to a lot of unnecessary fear, isolation and death.
Just this past week, Moses’ niece, Tanie, had a fever and was vomiting. In the days before Ebola it would have been assumed she had malaria. Today, the prevailing assumption is – it must be Ebola. The idea of exercising reasonable precaution to prevent the possible spread of Ebola, while at the same time knowing that Ebola itself is not likely, is a concept that most cannot reconcile. Thankfully, in the case of Tanie, calmer heads prevailed and she ended up being treated and cured of malaria. Today she is just fine. Unfortunately, Tanie’s story is quickly becoming the exception. Unless the right kind of intervention takes place, Ebola is going to kill a lot of people in Liberia, and some of them will even die from Ebola itself.
Perhaps the biggest challenge of the fight against Ebola is the one that doesn’t make headlines. As evil as it sounds, my friends tell me that it is common for people in power to see a crisis as an opportunity to exploit instead of a call to serve. From politicians putting their names on hand-washing buckets they did not provide to taxi drivers that overcharge to leaders playing games with aid, there are plenty of people who are going to profit from Ebola. The Liberian people are not shocked or surprised by this.
For the Lutheran Church in Liberia, Ebola is also an opportunity. Not an opportunity to exploit, but an opportunity to show the Liberian people what it means to be a follower of Christ. It is an opportunity to show that we are defined by sacrifice and love, not by fear or corruption or even a deadly virus.
Until June 2014, when ELCA missionary Brian Palmer came to the United States for home assignment, he was an instructor of theology for the Lutheran Church in Liberia. He taught Old Testament, worship, language arts, Lutheran theology and health to lay ministers and seminary graduates. Brian was also responsible for overseeing the production and printing of educational materials in support of theological instruction. He said he wrote this blog because this is the one thing he can do for his friends and neighbors in Liberia. Brian says his heart aches because he is unable to be with them.