By Elizabeth Evans Hagan
Early in August, I traveled with a Feed the Children delegation to Kenya to visit school feeding programs and a Nairobi orphanage, as I now do about twice a year. Part of my morning routine while there and for most Kenyans is reading a national newspaper. The headlines contained a single story: Ebola, the ruthless and deathly virus is infecting thousands in the West African nations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
I’m sure such a headline would have not made it into my newsfeed at the time if I had not been in Kenya. Though a contagious disease, it was still an African problem. Why would Americans be asked to care?
But after being in Kenya for only a couple of days, the American news media began to take notice of Ebola as diagnoses came to two American relief workers, Dr. Kent Brantley and Nancy Writebol.
Hour by hour, I watched CNN International cover their journey safe back to U.S. soil and the beginnings of their treatment at Emory University Hospital.
Clearly, the problem changed. Ebola now had a white face. Fear of Ebola touching other white faces led more of us to start paying attention.
When I got home, the first question I got on my return by well-meaning friends and family members was, “You didn’t get Ebola, did you?”
“No one in Kenya has Ebola,” I answered. Their stunned faces looked back to me in disbelief.
Notably, Kenya is a nation in East Africa, some 3,000 miles away from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. It would be like saying there was a huge outbreak of the flu in New York City and wondering if you could catch it while visiting Seattle. Unlike the mobility of the U.S., it is a rarity for African villagers to travel to another country in their lifetime, so for Ebola to have spread across the continent so quickly was unlikely.
So, no, I didn’t get Ebola while visiting Kenya. But my mother was still worried I came home contaminated.
And just this week, President Obama has announced that he wants the U.S. to take the lead along with the UN in the support of the fight against the spread of Ebola. President Obama talked about how men and women in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are just waiting to die but such despair does not have to have the last word. Americans with NGO administrative and medical expertise can help them.
I logged into social media immediately after this announcement on Tuesday and the responses felt overwhelming to read. While some expressed willingness to #TackleEbola, countless others mocked the rallying of support toward this region with #EbolaWarSlogans. Some of these comments included, “Let the Africans die.” Words of fear and the ignorance about Ebola spread virally too.
I can’t help but think in all of this our nation has a language problem. Even though we are talking about Ebola now, most of us don’t know where to locate Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone on a world map.
And we allow our feelings for the current President to lead us down the slippery slope of not caring about “those people,” especially those of us who already distrust our national leadership.
But in light of the gospel, isn’t there another way to live in global community?
Do we have the luxury of ignoring problems that aren’t happening in our country or killing our children?
Are we allowed to forget Jesus’ words, “Whatever you did to the least of these, you did unto me?”
Can we disregard Paul’s words, “If one part of the body suffers, every part suffers with it?”
Friends: we must watch our language out of respect and love for those who are sick.
We must give dignity to the suffering by learning how to locate West Africa on a map.
We must join forces with organizations seeking to bring relief right now, not waiting for someone else to do it. Our ignorance doesn’t issue us a free pass.
It’s sad that we’ve allowed our geographic distance from some of our neighbors to create spiritual distance, too. Like us, they are mothers. They are grandfathers. They are children. Most of all, they are our brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. What we say about Ebola and how we say it really does matter.