NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) — Mennonite Mission Network personnel and partners are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic with God's love through creative resiliency and resolve. Here are some perspectives from agency workers and partners around the world.
On Mar. 19, the WHO reported more than 600 cases in 34 African countries. Although, so far, COVID-19 cases in younger people have not caused alarm, it remains to be seen how African children and youth will fare. Many of them have preexisting infections and more than 58 million of the continent's children suffer from malnutrition. International travel between most African countries has been canceled. … In Benin, schools and churches remain open, including Benin Bible Institute and Bethesda Hospital. La Casa Grande, the children's village, has asked all volunteers from outside the country to reschedule their visits. Raphaël Edou, a Mission Network partner since 1993, said in a WhatsApp message on Mar. 19: "We keep praying for all developing nations, like Benin, that don't have adequate medical infrastructure. We pray that God will inspire scientists to find a cure for this threatening virus. We trust that God knows everything and can keep the situation under control."
A Mennonite Mission Network worker in Northeast Asia wrote this reflection detailing important dates in the development of the coronavirus pandemic. Name has been withheld to protect the sensitive nature of their ministry.
Feb. 1 – The southern borders close. News during January of what was happening in China left us wondering when it might reach us. Hearing of restrictions in China for people to not make the traditional visits to friends and family over the Lunar New Year (celebrated in most of Asia at the end of January) emphasized how serious the situation was. Then the borders to China closed. …
Feb. 24 – Flights to Korea suspended. As cases developed in countries around us, travel was banned to and from those countries. Although there were no confirmed cases here yet, there was concern that there may be potential cases, so local travel was restricted. Roads were closed. Domestic flights were canceled. …
Mar. 2 – The domestic travel restrictions lifted. ... Many checkpoints were set up for health and vehicle checks. One of our families (living in the countryside) was planning to leave for the United States (through Korea) at the end of March for home assignment and the birth of their fifth child. We encouraged them to consider leaving earlier. …
Mar. 10 – The first case is confirmed: a foreigner who had traveled from Europe through Moscow. The country essentially goes into lockdown. No domestic travel. No more international flights after 12 noon on Mar. 11. Cafes, restaurants, nonfood shops and non-essential service places were asked to close until Mar. 16.
Our country is familiar with feelings of isolation. The current situation has a feeling of being trapped. However, we know we are in God's hands.
Excerpts from a recent report by Raymond Epp who serves with his wife, Akiko Aratani, as directors of Menno Village, an organic farm on the island of Hokkaido, Japan:
"Since December, I had been planning to travel during this very time with my son, Ken, to France, Switzerland and Germany to visit friends and introduce him to Anabaptist historical sites. About two weeks ago, my friend in France told me that schools were closing and people around her were nervous about getting visitors from Japan. … Within two days, I canceled my trip.
"… It is lambing season right now at Menno Village, so I and the rest of the family have been enjoying the new baby lambs. We continue to meet with small groups of our neighbors in the town to care for each other and to share together how to better care for our soils and renew our town.
"… It is in many ways a time of renewal, a time to reflect on what is really important. We think about and pray for friends and family in other places. Even though we cannot be with them in person, we can pray for them asking that God will meet them in the midst of these troubling times."
A report from LCC International University in Lithuania:
At LCC, the spring semester continues through online classes for students from 53 countries. Many students moved off campus as they returned from spring break.
Via e-mail correspondence, Robin Gingerich, serving through Mission Network wrote: "The faculty, staff and students have all responded with love, helpfulness, kindness and generosity. Not everyone was able to go home, so about 130 students are living in the residence halls because of border closings, canceled flights, or financial issues. Students from Iraq, for instance, have families living in refugee camps. Some parents in Ukraine told students to stay at LCC, where the health care system is better. Each student has their own story." And as students returned from spring break travel, LCC set up a quarantine zone in the gymnasium, in case it was needed.
In a Mar. 16 YouTube address, President Marlene Wall promoted #StillLCC and reminded students that faculty, staff and counselors continue to be available through electronic means of communication: "LCC is community. Things are changing and fast, but we are still LCC. In this new reality, we are a Christ-centered community. We care and we are available. If you hear of someone in need, respond or reach out to someone who can respond."
Excerpts from a Mar. 19 e-mail from Janie Blough, who serves with her spouse, Neal Blough, in Paris, France:
"Neal and I are hunkered down inside, but not idle. The mission continues via internet, Skype, Facetime and Zoom. We are all well and doing our best not to let coronavirus find a home in our midst. We may only go out for a few reasons such as to the pharmacy or to buy groceries. We are also allowed out for individual exercise as long as we keep the authorized distance from other people and carry an attestation of our reason for being out of the home. Homeschooling via schoolteacher connections is becoming the norm. Both Neal and I are continuing our teaching load via different Internet options. It's working well. Although, with so many people working from home, Internet connections are slower.
"Some church connections have been coming through WhatsApp, especially Lenten devotions sent by our pastor. People can respond to what she has sent, as well as offering up prayers for all, using the same site. Many of these prayers are either Psalms or based on Psalms. A Sunday school meeting was held by a telephone conference call after a PowerPoint was sent to all the teachers. It will be interesting to see what other kinds of interaction will develop. Imagination and creativity are becoming action words in more ways than one."
Excerpts from a Mar. 17 prayer letter from Kate Widmer in France:
"I'm mentally not suffering from anxiety over the situation. However, I do not take the situation lightly. And neither is France. President Macron gave an address last night that I greatly appreciated. He informed the country repeatedly that 'we are at war' with the virus and, like during other times of war, we are responding appropriately. …
"My roommate, Laetitia, and I got all our medications and some essential food supplies yesterday and Friday. … Though we personally know people connected to the church here, or even in Laetitia's family, who have been confirmed to have COVID-19, we feel safe and secure here where we live. All our work and activities outside our apartment have halted, but I was still able to have one of my French lessons this morning via Skype. … My teachers are all in their 70s, or maybe even 80s, and one of them is legally blind. … I hate the idea of exposing them to any illnesses."
Excerpts from a Mar. 19 e-mail from Mary Raber, who serves in the Ukraine:
"I've been in what may be described as 'quarantine-lite' for nearly a week. Odessa Seminary is closed until Apr. 3, or probably longer, depending on how things develop. I'm rattling around in a dorm with two young women on the staff, my 'quarantine buddies.' So far, Ukraine hasn't had more than about 20 confirmed cases of the virus, but the government is trying to put strict measures in place before it gets worse. Walking around the neighborhood this afternoon, it looks to me as though most of the neighbors are busy cleaning up their gardens.
"Food stores, pharmacies, and banks are still open; public transportation is limited. Churches are closed, but I still attended a Bible study yesterday evening (fewer than 10 people). The attitude among Christians is cheerful and "we'll get through this.' … Overall, Christians are regarding this as an opportunity for people to stop, think about their mortality, and repent. People are signing up for specific intercessory prayer times and days of fasting."
Quote from Brian Fox in Burgos, Spain:
"Mission changes in face of government-imposed shutdowns and forced isolation changes us a lot. Most of our work here involves being in contact with other people. So we are forced to look into new ways of doing ministry. Personally, I have never been a big fan of interacting with other people via the Internet; I would sit down and have a coffee with someone. But given our current situation, the only way we can keep in touch with others is through the Internet. … We keep trusting in the promises we find in the Bible, for example Romans 8:28: 'And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.' We keep praying that through all of this God would bring about some greater good and help us as a church community to find new ways to minister to those who are hurting. …"
From a Mar. 17 e-mail written by Austin Roberts from Rostrevor, Northern Ireland:
"… In our Youth With a Mission discipleship schools, we have a "Bible Hour" each week. … My colleague and I were … looking for a passage that would invite our trainees into the bigger story of God's kingdom moving in the world, something relevant to the lives we're all being invited to live. … As I talked about how things were going and attempted to make my own sense of it, I found myself relating it to the Acts narrative. …
"… As we navigate these new waters of the COVID-19 pandemic, we realize that the early Christians in Acts must have been troubled, too. They probably didn't know what good might come out of the broken situations. …While we don't really know what the coming weeks and months bring, the invitation is to be a people of hope. Our hope goes deeper than the circumstances we face. ... We find ourselves needing to choose to have that faith that says, 'God is indeed with us,' even when the way seems uncertain.
"And for now, the way does seem uncertain. … And yet, God is with us, reminding us who we are, and inviting us to keep walking. Jesus said in John 16:33: 'In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.'"
Excerpts from a Mar. 18 e-mail from C. Paul Amstutz, who serves in Paraguay:
"As soon as the second case was confirmed Mar. 9, the government closed all schools (including universities) from Mar. 10–25, banning all public events (sporting, church, theatre, movies, etc.). As of Mar. 16, they imposed a curfew … so the streets are empty at night. Overall, there has been a high rate of collaboration … to the #quedateencasa (stay home) movement, and most organizations that issue statements emphasize following health ministry directives. … As of today, Mar. 18, there are 11 cases confirmed, all stemming from the first two. Most restaurants have closed, though markets and supermarkets are functioning. …
"In a few evangelical circles, emphasis is laid on signs of the times, 'the beginning of birth pangs,' and 'behold, redemption is drawing nigh.' But the majority call for calm trust in God and uniting in prayer for the plague to cease, for health care workers, government officials, etc. There is increased openness to consider God as source of help. Psalm 91 and 121 are quoted a lot in social media. …"
Excerpts from a Mar. 19 e-mail from Deb Byler, Guatemala:
"… The virus is present in Guatemala and … the president called for no meetings over 100 people and … the schools are closed for three weeks. … I went out to my activity on Monday. There may have been 100 people there, though I had expected fewer. The mood was that they should continue meeting as churches and that those who were not meeting demonstrated a lack of faith. I affirmed their faith but challenged them with the worldwide reality of the disease and urged caution. … The church president told me to cancel all my plans for travel for now. Since Monday, the president of Guatemala has closed all public transportation and stores that are not essential and is urging everyone to stay home. …"
Excerpts from a recent blog authored by Loren Johns serving at SEMILLA, an Anabaptist seminary in Guatemala:
"Rachel and I were scheduled to fly home to Florida on Mar. 17. A few minutes after checking in on Monday afternoon, we received notices that our flight had been canceled. … SEMILLA is closed for business until further notice. Also, on Monday of this week, 14 students from Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, who have been in Guatemala for more than two months, were on their way to different parts of the country for a term of service when they received notice that they were to stop and find their way back to SEMILLA in Guatemala City.
"So, they all came back. … On the one hand, it is not much fun, feeling like we are not free to move about as we like. On the other hand, this is a wonderful place to have to be. … The garden is wonderful. The weather is wonderful. … The students are experiencing conflicting emotions, but they are mostly in good spirits. Some of them do yoga every morning in the garden. Some of them gather to sing from Sing the Journey and Sing the Story every day or two. Some find a space to exercise in the sun.
"Because there are no SEMILLA workers feeding and taking care of us, we created a cooking and cleaning schedule, with everyone doing their part. … The result is a mix of (not fun) feelings of being hemmed in here when most of us are eager to get home when we can, and a (fun) sense of can-do camping atmosphere … or maybe reality show!"
Excerpts from a Mar. 19 e-mail from Sophie Miller, Guatemala:
I have been in quarantine at the SEMILLA campus with the EMU cross-cultural group and Loren and Rachel Johns who are also serving here with Mission Network. …Thus, I'm not able to be with my host family or service placement at this time, but of all the places to be stuck for days/weeks, I'm thankful it is SEMILLA. I'm trying to focus on the positives throughout the uncertainties of this situation. Below are some things that I am thankful for:
- The opportunity to connect with the EMU students, especially since I have decided to attend EMU next fall.
- Take the time to slow down, relax, and reflect.
- Develop an action plan for the transition back to the States whenever that turns out to be.
- Intentional continued Spanish learning through self-practice.
- Coffee and conversations with the community I'm grateful to be isolated with, rather than being isolated alone.
A Mar. 18 e-mail from Jerrell Ross Richer, who serves in Ecuador with his spouse, Jane:
"Coronavirus has completely changed our ministry here in the Ecuadorian rain forest for a while. The government is prohibiting not only international but also inter-provincial travel, so our plans to host two North American groups … have been canceled. We also need to postpone indefinitely the Cofán church leader Bible workshop we had scheduled for later this month.
"Our regular visits to the distant Cofán-speaking village of Zábalo where we have our second home are also on hold as we await a loosening of government travel restrictions. All movement has simply stopped, and it is not even advisable to relate to our Tena neighbors or friends at the moment due to fear of contagion.
"So, our family is spending time on our own, doing homeschool, communicating electronically with whomever we can, and catching up on our back-office work. We are focusing on the hidden gift that this break-in-the-action gives us to dive into our work in deeper, less-hurried ways, through reading, reflection and sharing. God is good, and we have all the food, shelter and rainwater we need to get by for several weeks, perhaps longer if needed. We trust that this time of re-centering on our ministry will bear fruit that wouldn't have had time or space to grow otherwise."
Excerpt from Mar. 17 blog from Peter Wigginton and Delicia Bravo serving in Ecuador:
"We wanted to let you all know we are doing well here in Quito. We are thankful for everyone's prayers. Please continue to pray for Latin America. … The health crisis is all over the world and seems to be really close to so many people. We are all in it together. …
"Here in Ecuador we are under a fairly strict quarantine starting today, and are only allowed to leave our house to go to work, to get food, to go to a clinic, or attend to a concrete emergency. There is no inter-provincial travel allowed, and there is no way to currently leave the country, either. …We are enjoying homeschooling our girls and getting some crafts done also.
"Quito Mennonite Church has been very preoccupied with many of the church members who are refugees and who live day-to-day selling on the streets. Since there is currently no movement allowed on the streets, many of these people have been forced to go without work and end up running out of food. The church has assembled food packets for many of these families, but they have very limited resources. Please pray for creative ways for the community to stay united, even when we can't be physically together.
"Please be in prayer for the entire world as many places confront this crisis as an unknown. … Isaiah 41:9-10 helps us remember that we can put our trust in God and also be drawn together as a global church and the Body of Christ."
Excerpt from a Mar. 18 e-mail from Bekah York in Colombia:
"Nothing like a global pandemic to make us realize how much we depend on each other and what it means that we are a global community. I've been carefully following the news of COVID-19 since it first broke. My sister is currently living in China and kept me updated on the events and life changes that were transpiring for her. … My parents live and work in Romania, so my fear for them and their safety became a pretty big priority and took up much mental space. …
"While I have been spending too much time meticulously following the spread of the virus and watching numbers skyrocket, I soon realized that I also wanted to start thinking about this pandemic theologically. The time we are living in is most certainly forcing us ask new theological, ecclesial, ethical and moral questions that were previously not posed.
"So, I asked myself: What does our witness to the risen Lord and Savior look like in the midst of our 2020 global pandemic? … The Church transcends countless boundaries, boundaries of "us and them," of "slave and free," of "male and female" (cf. Galatians 3:28), of "neighbor and foreigner" (Luke 10:25-37). Maybe we are called to such a time as this to put into practice the call to love our neighbor, the call that includes those not only close in terms of proximity, but also those unknown to us who live on the other side of human-made borders and boundaries. …"