Helen Cooper is a writer for the New York Times. Her coverage of the Ebola crisis is unique because she was born in Liberia and she still has family living there. Having immigrated to the United States, she escaped many of the civil war’s atrocities which members of her family did not.
As Cooper traveled around Liberia, she discovered that she had become more American in some ways than Liberian, and it affected her judgment and desire to help others. Call it the “fear factor.”
She was returning from covering an event four hours from Monrovia where President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was speaking. Cooper needed to return that night and the president insisted that one of her personal assistants accompany the journalist on the dark, partly dirt and pothole-infested road.
As she drove, Varney, the president’s assistant, saw a body on the side of the road and insisted they pull over. Cooper was in no mood to play Good Samaritan. Flashbacks of ambushes that took place during the war compelled her to keep going and, besides, “What if the person had Ebola?”
After Varney returned to the car and informed her that the man was only drunk and had run off into the bush, Cooper had more time to formally protest the wisdom of such a stop. Varsey looked at her and said: “That what y’all do in America? You can’t just leave somebody on the side of the road to die.”
In a country where there has been unspeakable savagery, there has also been Christ-like sacrifice during the Ebola crisis as people have found courage in the midst of fear, because loving people is more compelling than loving self.
One of those persons is Napoleon Braithwaite. Napoleon worked for the minister of health in Monrovia so he was well-schooled about Ebola. He was also well-schooled in the Liberian way of life, a life of suffering and hardship.
His first wife died during childbirth. His second wife died because of a lack of medical care. Rebel soldiers invaded his home and took everything he owned. They even removed his toilet.
After graduating from the Liberian Baptist Theological Seminary, he became pastor of Peaceful Baptist Church in the early 1980s.
Once during a sermon, his notes fell from the pulpit and when he bent over to pick them up, a bullet from a rebel soldier came through the front door and went into the wall directly behind the pulpit.
Napoleon understood death, hunger, disease, war and poverty. Yet he remained a man of hope, promise, love and compassion. With the establishment of a school at his church he believed in the future of the children of Liberia.
In September, a very sick woman knocked on his door and asked to use his phone to call an ambulance. She knew he was one of the only people around who had a phone. An ambulance was called, but he was told they could not respond.
Knowing the risks of what he was about to do, he put the woman in his car and drove her to a hospital. The pastor of First Baptist Church in Jonesboro, Ga., said that “his compassion would not allow her to die alone without some dignity.”
Several days later, Napoleon began to run a fever. He succumbed to Ebola on Sept. 25 at the age of 55.
The All-African News ran a story on the front page, “Death of Key Aide Changes the Focus of the Ministry of Health as We Face Ebola.”
The priest and the Levite in Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan get bad press, but are we not like them? Might it have been fear that prevented them from helping the man in the ditch?
Varney got out of the car to check on the man beside the road. Napoleon got in the car with a woman he suspected had Ebola. They both overcame fear and that’s called courage. It’s also called compassion. Yes, sometimes sharing compassion comes at a great price. The cross of Jesus is testimony of that. However, we must also ask, “Isn’t there a greater price if fear wins the day and we show no compassion at all?”