Feature

Little Things Matter

Ebola education goes both ways

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A two-year-old boy changed Guinea forever. He died of Ebola. The cause of his death in December 2013 unleashed devastation; as of July 2015, more than 27,000 people have contracted the virus and more than 11,000 have died, not only in Guinea but also in most of its neighboring countries: Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mali, and Senegal. It then made its way to Nigeria and the United States, transported in airplanes by infected people.

Ebola has made an impact in previously unimaginable ways. Worldwide fear has produced severe attempts to keep the virus from spreading. But inside the three primary locations of this latest outbreak—Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia—the impact of Ebola has crept into the very crevices of the culture. What once was unheard of—the altering of firmly rooted tradition—is now more accepted. Important rituals in honoring the dead—customs that have existed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years—have been put aside. Many who refused to change their ways were contaminated with Ebola.

Those who die from the disease are considered cursed, along with their families for generations to come. Those who recover, declared by the health authorities as “released and cured,” are seen by the community as the “Ebola people,” a term of derision. Survivors have been stigmatized with a passion usually reserved for enemies. Families of Ebola victims are outcasts, shunned in a culture that thrives on relationships. Fields were left unplanted or if planted, unharvested, creating future shortages in communities that live on a subsistence food system. Those most vulnerable—widows and orphans—have had the hardest time. Widows with no immediate family members are left to the whims of their in-laws, who have no cultural obligation to support them. Most of these women are expected to fend for themselves in communities that consider them the cause of all the hardship that Ebola has brought.

Gathering Resources

As Ebola spread, especially in its stronghold, the Forest Region, most in the Guinean church looked on helplessly, fearing that they too would get the dreaded disease. From the beginning, church leaders wanted to engage the Body of Christ in reaching out to offer the good news that only His name affords. The members were not only stymied by logistics and finances but also because, like most others fighting against Ebola, they did not know how to respond.

Church leaders realized that if Christians had been on the front lines of the battle, most likely the resistance by the local populations to even acknowledge the existence of the virus could have been overcome—not because the churchgoers were better than other Ebola educators, but because these were their people; they had already gained their trust through living alongside them. They regretted this reality but were not sure how to change it.

To help combat the spread of Ebola, frequent hand washing is encouraged, with stations set up in public areas. (Photo by Samo Zeal)

Compassion and Mercy Associates (CAMA; the relief and development arm of The Alliance) and the president of the C&MA national church in Guinea determined that the place to begin was to talk to those on the battle lines, the unwilling combatants in this viral war. They called together the heart of the church—all the pastors and lay leaders of the five most affected prefectures of southern Guinea—and gave them words of comfort. These warriors, who normally receive little if any salary from their congregations, were suffering as the weekly offering baskets revealed the effects of Ebola on the economy. Through the national church leadership, CAMA donated a 110-pound bag of rice, the staple of Guinean sustenance, to each family represented. In all, more than 360 bags were distributed.

During this meeting, the pastors and lay leaders provided much-needed information about how much damage Ebola had done in their communities. Through this information, which was found to be more reliable than that from other organizations due to the way it was gathered, the national church now had the vital statistics necessary to assist those caught in the Ebola tsunami.

A Simple Solution

When the national church and CAMA evaluated information from almost 200 villages in southern Guinea, they agreed that it would be helpful to go to each village touched by Ebola and offer a simple death greeting and a modest sum of money, the accepted cultural means of showing sympathy.

The result of honoring this custom, which is woven into the fabric of Guinean culture, has been remarkable. This “little thing” of bringing death greetings has become the door through which the good news of Jesus is entering unreached people groups. In community after community, the response was the same: “No one has ever brought death greetings for those who have died from Ebola in our village.”

Residents of one village commented that the Alliance church was the 49th group that came to them because of Ebola—but the first 48 only wanted information, which the residents came to see as an exploitation of their suffering. They knew that others were profiting from their pain.

Positive Results

Because of these discoveries, the national Alliance church appointed Pastor Jeremie Boré as the coordinator for its fight against Ebola. From the beginning of Ebola’s entrance into Guinea, Jeremie, a leader in one the most devastated areas of the country, has led a lonely charge against the cultural repercussions of the virus, combatting attitudes and resistance to the truth about Ebola.

Jeremie Boré, an Alliance pastor in Guinea, has organized national churches to minister to Ebola survivors and their families. (Photo by Samo Zeal)

The C&MA church in the village of Dandano is one of many examples of his persistent coaching of pastors and lay leaders through this crisis. Swearing upon their ancestral powers, the villagers rejected attempts by outsiders to stop the spread of Ebola in their midst. Jeremie counseled the church members and showed them how to touch the Ebola people with the love and compassion of Jesus. The church waged spiritual warfare through prayer and fasting, with groups meeting daily for 70 days to take their requests to our Heavenly Father. When the results were seen afterward, more than 60 people had died from Ebola in Dandano, but the church had grown from 200 people to almost 450.

Also, Jeremie and local church leaders brought their condolences, along with the customary token gift, to the elders of the village where the outbreak had started with the death of two-year-old Emile Ouamouno. “We would never have imagined that the church would ever do this!” the founding father of the village responded.

Years earlier, the elders had ostracized the church members, making them move their meeting place from the land next to the storehouse of the village idols to the outskirts of the community. He affirmed what so many others have said, that the church members were the first to bring death greetings. The simple act showed that the church was shining the light of Jesus in a place that had been openly hostile to His followers. As a result, the founding father allowed the church to continue to reach out to the Ebola people of the village.

Under Jeremie’s leadership, local churches also are learning to be the hands and feet of Jesus by giving a bag of rice to the widows and showing them how to make ends meet through small businesses or gardening. We estimate that there are more than 1,000 widows who will need some kind of help and probably around 3,000 to 4,000 orphans.

As the fight against Ebola continues, CAMA, in a partnership led by the C&MA Church of Guinea, is planning to spread this same fervent love throughout other areas of Guinea that are suffering Ebola’s consequences. Gathering like-minded leaders of the C&MA Church in Guinea, a conference focusing on ministering to villagers in the aftermath of Ebola was held in early April. Subjects such as grief and trauma counseling, discipleship, justice, and learning how to reach the unreached were addressed.

These leaders, under Jeremie’s guidance, will be able to help churches in their respective areas reach out to their villages with the good news of the Kingdom of God. “Sometimes we need to help our fellow believers to put their feet into their shoes and then lead them to do what is necessary,” says Jeremie.

Proclaiming the Savior

In the January 2008 Alliance Life, Moise Mamy, my friend and ministry partner, wrote about his journey to faith in Jesus. Moise asked the evangelist the price of conversion, since in his culture it is customary to pay for admission into certain religious groups. “He told me it would cost a lot, but it wouldn’t be money I would have to give—it would be my whole life.”

I featured Moise in my last prayer letter before he went with an Ebola education team to the village of Womey, Guinea, which has about 5,000 inhabitants. In hindsight it ended up being a tribute to his life and ministry. Since my friend’s tragic murder in September 2014 in Womey, what has God been doing?

A pastor friend, Jean Baptiste, has visited Womey twice in the last few months, and I went with him in March. My presence made government officials visibly nervous, and they were hesitant to let us show evangelistic films. The Protestant church leaders were also unsure of what we would do and say. For our part, when we showed a film and spoke, we presented Jesus as the lover of mankind and the forgiver of all sin. Hundreds of people were present, but none came forward to accept Jesus as Savior. We asked no one about the events of last September, and no one offered to speak of it. We may never hear exactly what happened that day, but our calling is to love, understand, befriend—and speak of the Savior.

I was surprised to hear that most of the residents feel unfairly treated by the government. After the attack, soldiers looted Womey and either ate or sold all of the villagers’ animals. People fled to their farms, yet since it was rice harvest time, most had enough food.

Because trust for outsiders is low, Jean Baptiste wants to disciple believers who live in the area, teaching them to reach their neighbors with the gospel. Pray that the Christians of Womey will have the boldness to proclaim Jesus and that God will bring all the villagers to Himself. The church building is in a great location but is too hot and small. Pray that congregants would have the vision to ask God for more land on which to expand.

Eleven people were sentenced to life in prison for the murders of Moise and his companions. Please pray that they will come to Jesus.

The Mano Church, of which Moise was the primary leader for more than 20 years, is growing. Pray that God would raise up a good leadership team. Please also pray for Hope Clinic, of which Moise was a cofounder. Pastor Jean Gilavogui is our new chaplain. May we be a culture-transforming medical facility bringing glory to Jesus.

—Jon Erickson
Hope Clinic, Guinea

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