By Mark Wingfield
Someone asked me why I included this phrase in my prayer at Wilshire Baptist Church’s worship service Sunday: “We pray that you would calm the anxious hearts of so many in our city. Help the ignorant to understand truth, and help all of us to take refuge in you and your word.”
The context, of course, is the Dallas Ebola case. There’s a lot of anxiety about this, and in some quarters, there is irrational panic. Yes, “irrational” panic. Let’s call it what it is.
This hits close to home for us, because the man with the first known case of Ebola in the United States came to visit and stay with Wilshire member Louise Troh and her family. Neither he nor she nor any member of that family attended anything at Wilshire after his arrival in the United States, and there has been no physical contact of any kind between anyone at Wilshire and any of the family since the outbreak. There is zero risk of exposure at church. You are thousands of times more likely to catch the flu at church than Ebola.
And yet — that is not enough for some people. Apparently word association can convey deadly disease from human to human. Who knew?
One of the roles of the Christian church is to speak truth in times of trouble and fear. It is our task to calm anxious hearts rather than stir up more anxiety. We need to be not only the voice of God’s compassionate care but also the voice of reason.
One of our pastoral residents, Britt Carlson, said in Sunday’s sermon that we need to see Eric Duncan and Louise Troh and her family first as people rather than patients. She was exactly right. That’s one of the best messages we, as Louise’s community of faith, can portray to the world.
Here are a few of the “irrational” comments I’ve heard in Dallas this week:
1. “I need to stay home because I might contract Ebola if I go to church or school.”
2. “I cannot participate in a mission project at your church because someone in your church is connected to the person with Ebola, and my children might get Ebola.”
3. “This Ebola scare is a hoax; it’s not real.”
4. “Ebola was brought to the United States by President Obama as part of a dark and sinister plan that relates to end-times prophecies.”
The church needs to stand up and clearly say that the Ebola virus is neither God’s judgment before the end-times nor the weapon of a president some people love to hate. This is irrational and not factual in any way.
Likewise, the church needs to stand up and clearly say what medical professionals uniformly agree about: The only way the Ebola virus is transmitted is through direct contact with bodily fluids of a person who not only is infected but is symptomatic. Yes, the disease is real and dangerous. But Christians are not called to be people of fear. We are called to be people of faith and truth.
Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” That’s true on the big scale of Jesus being the way, the truth and the life. But it’s also true as we seek to be the presence of Christ in a troubled world.
Ironically, among the emails I received after Sunday’s prayer was this from someone who had read a news report of the service: “You were quoted in the article referenced above as saying to your parishioners, ‘Although this disease has become personal to us, we realize we’re not the first to know its devastation, and we are not the ones most desperately affected.’ As an anti-clerical atheist, it’s against my principles to commend persons such as yourself; however I’m willing to make an exception in this extreme case. Your remarks were eloquent and deeply compassionate. I hope that persons such as you will help to prevent panic over the threat of Ebola, which is entirely controllable in the U.S.”
If an “anti-clerical atheist” can find a reason not to be anxious, surely the Christian church can as well.