Ebola grief: Every church service is like a funeral

“We come in expecting a celebration, a day of worship, but it always turns into a funeral,” said the Rev. Emmanuel Shanka Morris, pastor of Spencer Memorial United Methodist Church, Charlotte, N.C.

Morris is Liberian and so are nearly nine out of 10 members of his church; another 10 percent are from Sierra Leone. Since the Ebola outbreak began, every Sunday one or more members of the congregation reports the death of another family member in the two West African countries hit hardest by the deadly virus.

The church is observing five days of praying and fasting in the month of October. Using 2 Chronicles 7:11-22 and Ezra 8:23 as guiding scriptures, each Wednesday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. people of the congregation intercede for the people of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

Morris was born in Greenville, Sinoe County, Liberia. His associate pastor, the Rev. Colston Wuor-Gabie Morris is also from Liberia.

Grief and support

Across the United States, United Methodist churches with native Liberians and Sierra Leoneans are telling similar stories of grief and suffering, while trying to rally support for medical relief.

Albert B. Travell, a member of First United Methodist Church in Arlington, Texas, had seven family members die from Ebola in July.

“The daughters of my brother were preparing a body (another sister) for a funeral and became ill,” Travell said. The family thought she died from malaria.

“We have a tradition in Liberia when someone passes away, family members stick around so many days before burial and after burial they cook and everyone eats from the same bowl,” he said. His nieces started getting sick and dying one after another.

Now the remaining family is having trouble getting food.

“I am trying to send them some money so they can buy food. I am praying by the grace of God, everything will be all right soon,” Travell said.

Helping their families

Many Liberians living in the U.S. are stepping up contributions to family members and friends because so many people are unable to work and are not getting paid, said the Rev. Richard L. Stryker, executive director of ethnic ministries for the North Alabama Conference. He is also a native of Liberia.

“My wife has lost an aunt, although not to Ebola, we wonder what role the strain on the already degraded health system played in her death from sickness,” Stryker said. His wife also lost a high school classmate to Ebola. Four out of eight people in her classmate’s family also died after waiting days for an ambulance to arrive to take them to the hospital.

“Sanitation, communication, lack of facilities remain major problems for the prevention of this disease,” he said. “I believe people from the West that are going to help assume a certain level of basic care that is nonexistent.”

Heart of Africa

Lovers Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas has long supported a hospital in Liberia founded by two of its members, Betty and Peter Weato. Now, because of Ebola, the church is raising funds for medical supplies for Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The church’s Heart of Africa Fellowship includes members from 10 African countries, including Liberia and Sierra Leone. On Oct. 19, the Rev. Stan Copeland, Lovers Lane’s senior pastor, led the group in prayer about Ebola and announced a churchwide prayer service on Ebola for Sunday Oct. 26.

“None of our people have been infected, but they’ve been upended,” Copeland, who has traveled twice to Liberia, said in an interview.

Bishop John K. Yambasu, episcopal leader of Sierra Leone, said he and Bishop John G. Innis of Liberia co-signed a letter requesting that all medical and other relief items go through UMCOR.

"This is still the case," Yambasu said. However, he noted that some partners in the denomination had a schedule of shipments of non-medical supplies such as school supplies and equipment even before Ebola.

"These are sent directly to us. For instance, one of our partner churches has shipped an ambulance to Sierra Leone which cannot be channeled through UMCOR," he said, adding that UMCOR staff are aware of that shipment.

Since the end of July, all non-Ebola related conference staff have been asked to stay home in order to avoid the risk of contracting Ebola while using public transportation. "Only the Ebola response team and the administrative staff come to work every day," Yambasu added. 

The United Methodist Committee on Relief recommends that people who want to help send money through the International Disaster Response Advance, said Emily Miller, associate general secretary for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

Shipping goods presents several problems,  Miller said. Ports are clogged, and even if goods are unloaded, United Methodist conference staff must take time to pay customs and get the goods delivered. 

Ebola spawning prejudice

Dallas became a focus of news coverage when Thomas Eric Duncan of Liberia was admitted to the city’s Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas and diagnosed with Ebola — the first such diagnosis in the United States. His subsequent death, the infection of two nurses who cared for him, and the quarantining of people who had contact with him all raised anxiety in the city, Copeland said.

Copeland noted that African members of Lovers Lane United Methodist have faced extra prejudice during the Ebola scare, an assertion confirmed by Eric Pratt, lay leader of the Heart of Africa Fellowship and a native of Sierra Leone.

“Even your neighbors that you used to play and laugh with, they start to shun you,” said Pratt, who has lived in the Dallas area for 29 years and owns a limousine service.

Pratt said Copeland and Lovers Lane have shown strong support for Africans. That was echoed by Melvin Morgan, a Heart of Africa Fellowship member who recently lost his sister, Victoria Jackson, and two nieces to Ebola in the family’s native Liberia.

“It is a blessing for me and my family to be part of this congregation,” he said. “In times of needs and difficulties, they have been there.”

Morgan hopes the United States and other wealthy countries will pour resources into West Africa, to help arrest Ebola. He acknowledged feeling a range of emotions on learning loved ones in Liberia had died of the disease.

“As a human, I weep, because Jesus himself wept,” Morgan said. “But as a Christian, I also put on my faith, because the Bible says with God all things are possible.”

*Gilbert is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tennessee. Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact (615) 742  5470 or [email protected]

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