Ebola epidemic witness offers insight in Texas

UPDATE: On October 8, 2014 the only Ebola patient diagnosed in the U.S. died in Dallas, Texas.

These days, United Methodists in Sierra Leone who encounter one another at church cross their arms along their chests and bow — a way of greeting without touching.

That’s a necessary compromise in the wake of the Ebola epidemic that has gripped West Africa. And, to Beatrice Gbanga, it’s a sad compromise.

“We are a hugging community,” she said.

Gbanga, a United Methodist missionary and medical coordinator for the Sierra Leone Conference, served Monday as an expert witness on the Ebola epidemic for some 50 clergy and laity who filled a meeting room at the North Texas Conference headquarters in Plano, near Dallas.

For an hour-and-a-half, she briefed the group on a range of Ebola-related topics, everything from the basic medical science, to cultural challenges in preventing the disease, to the interfaith collaboration that has shared helpful messages on public health.

It was not lost on Gbanga that she was in the metro area that has seen the one confirmed case of Ebola diagnosed in the U.S. — that of Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian man hospitalized while visiting Dallas who died Wednesday morning, Oct. 8. 

Gbanga recalled watching transfixed at TV coverage of all the medical and emergency workers assigned to deal with the quarantine of the man’s family.

“The disparity touched me,” Gbanga said. “I froze in the chair. I said, ‘For one family? Look at how many resources.’ … Would that happen for us?”

Gbanga’s briefing had a rapt audience, including the Rev. Mary Miriti, a Kenyan who now is a pastor in the North Texas Conference, leading a new congregation composed mainly of Africans.

“I wanted to know what to do and how to be able to talk to them when they get anxious because of this issue of Ebola,” Miriti said. “I now know.”

How You Can Help

The United Methodist Committee on Relief has to date sent $400,000 in grants to Sierra Leone and Liberia. Donate online.

Read full coverage of The United Methodist Church’s response to the Ebola outbreak at www.umc.org/ebola and donate online to United Methodist Communication’s efforts to help the denomination distribute information about the disease.

‘We want her here in Texas’

Gbanga traveled from Sierra Leone to the United States in July, for scheduled work meetings. She returns later this month. She’s made time during her U.S. visit to speak to a handful of United Methodist churches about the Ebola crisis.

On Sunday, she was at First United Methodist Church in Lewisville, Texas, a church that has focused much of its mission work on improving health care and education in Sierra Leone.

Karen Long-Desmit, the church’s mission leader, had heard Gbanga was in the United States, and acted quickly.

“I emailed right away, and said, ‘We want her here in Texas,’” Long-Desmit said.

Long-Desmit worked with the Rev. Marji Bishir Hill, associate director of the Center for Missional Outreach of the North Texas Conference, to arrange the Monday briefing for others in the North Texas Conference.

Gbanga emphasized the devastation Ebola has meant for Sierra Leone, not only in lives lost, but in a severely weakened economy and a total closing of the education system.

She noted that scarcity of medical personnel and resources is just one of the challenges. Another is the difficulty of distinguishing between malaria and Ebola, which have similar symptoms.

“We’ve lost a lot of health workers because they have been treating Ebola patients as malaria patients, and in the process they (themselves) got infected,” Gbanga said.

Gbanga praised Christian and Muslim leaders for working together to spread public health messages, including the need to avoid touching.

Sierra Leone Bishop John K. Yambasu has been chairing a Christian-Muslim alliance, The Religious Leaders Task Force on Ebola, which has been holding training sessions for religious leaders and health workers.

One of the many cultural challenges is how West Africans deal with the death of a loved one.

“They’re going to wash that person, dress that person, open the casket or coffin, and bury them in such a way that they’re honored,” Gbanga said.

But with the danger of transmission of Ebola, she added, that practice has had to stop. Emergency workers retrieve bodies and families often aren’t even sure where the bodies are taken for burial.

Gbanga encouraged the clergy and laity in her audience to talk up contributions through the United Methodist Committee of Relief, which she said can acquire needed medical supplies both in and out of the country.

She had a further request.

“We are asking our brothers and sisters to continue in prayer, to pray for us, to pray for our leaders, and to pray for the countries that are willing to help us.”

Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org

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