The outbreak of Ebola in Africa has caused the death of hundreds of people and infected hundreds more. In addition, CNN reports at least 60 healthcare workers have died in recent years from contracting the disease while caring for others.
Samaritan’s Purse has made the news this week with their efforts to bring back two American missionaries stricken with the Ebola virus. With no known cure for the disease, its spread to cities in western Africa with international airports has caused alarm to some. Bringing two Americans into the U.S. with Ebola — although not easily contracted and easily isolated — has brought out less than kind responses. For instance, Donald Trump tweeted this: “The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back. People that go to far away places to help out are great-but must suffer the consequences!”
My point in citing Trump is not to attack him personally, for he likely represents a lot of people — including, I fear, more than a few believers — who share his concern but won’t speak it so publicly. How should believers respond? Here is an insight from the early church, who advanced the gospel valiantly in the face of both persecution and plagues:*
One should not underestimate the impact of the changed lives of unbelievers to impact a pagan culture. One of the underestimated facets of early church history concerns the massive plagues that hit the Empire. During the reign of Marcus Aurelius beginning about AD 165, a plague devastated the Empire, taking the emporer as well. Another came around AD 251 with similar effects. About 260, in his Easter letter, Dionysius wrote a tribute to the believers whose heroic efforts cost many of them their lives. Pagans tended to flee the cities during plagues, but Christians were more likely to stay and minister to the suffering:”Most of our brother Christians showed unbonded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another,” Dionysius observed, adding, “Needless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy.”
Reading this from a comfortable home in the West, I wonder if we can share in the difficulty of the persecuted church by our willingness in the West to forsake comfort to minister to those in dire need, whether it be AIDS patients or giving ourselves more to those who suffer in our culture, whether by illness or poverty. Dyonisius would agree: “The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.”
I fear that sometimes we in the West can feel a bit of self pity that we do not suffer as believers do in places like Saudi Arabia and China. Of course, some relish that and pursue a prosperity gospel long on narcissism and short on sacrifice. But if Dionysius is right, there is yet a way to be valiant for Christ in any culture: seek the marginalized, the disenfranchised, those not one cares about, and love them and touch them and be Christ to them. Consider the example of William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army. Each Christmas, there was a tradition in London: the churches would send out representatives to the streets to invite the poor to the celebration; and thousands thronged there. Anglicans would begin by announcing: “All of you who are Anglicans come with us.” Catholics would join in: “All who are Catholics come with us.” The Methodist, the Lutherans, and others would follow suit. When all the invitations were made, many more people milled about. At that point, William Booth would shout to the people: “All of you who belong to no one come with me.”
Perhaps these missionaries who now suffer with Ebola represent better the spirit of the early church than those of us who simply post on our social media sites our worries, fears, and outrage about life in the West, as if we are the ones who truly suffer. Perhaps we can look again at the lives of the witnesses who lived and loved and died before us to recover the gospel passion we too can share with them. We do not have to go to a dangerous place to contract a dangerous disease; but we can do more than applaud them or avoid them. We can, to quote Rees Howells who labored with the broken in the Welsh Revival, “If you love one, you can love many, and if you can love many, you can love all.” I pray God will give me such extravagant love.
*Excerpted from Alvin L. Reid, Evangelism Handbook: Biblical, Spiritual, Intentional, Missional (B&H, 2009).