The 2014 outbreaks of Ebola in West Africa and in remote villages of Province Equateur in The Democratic Republic of Congo have rightly grabbed headlines across the globe. Thousands have died in West Africa, and given conditions on the ground, it is likely that thousands more will be infected and die before the crisis is brought under control.
At the right is an infographic from the Centers for Disease Control, the world's go-to entity for accurate information about infections diseases. You can download the original (.pdf) here.
So what is a worshiping community to do about Ebola?
Here are 5 things for starters.
1. Pray. Take time to pray during worship for all who are involved with this crisis, those who are its victims, those who are working to contain and treat it, and those who are caring for and losing loved ones. If your congregation is not already engaging in fervent prayer for the world during worship as well as during daily devotional life, consider this your wake-up call.
2. Support organizations that are making a difference on the ground. United Methodists have UMCOR, that not only provides direct assistance, but also coordinates with others to make sure the financial support we provide can do the most good for the long haul. You can donate here.
But don't limit your support to donation. Stay up to date with how UMCOR and other UMC organizations are helping, and talk it up to folks in your social networks, your website, your social media pages or groups, as well as at offering times during worship.
3. Speak truth and stop rumors. In countries where Ebola is spreading, one of the key strategies United Methodists and other Christians are using to prevent further spread is to talk frankly about what the disease is, how it spreads, and what to do to prevent it spreading further... during Sunday School or worship. This is critical work for churches to be doing. Many of the practices that make the spread of Ebola more likely come from spiritual beliefs, some of which may have been supported, if at least not opposed, by the churches. United Methodist Communications is helping provide a significant Twitter campaign to root out harmful superstitions while offering both encouragement and straight talk. They've also launched a video and television campaign with this animated video. United Methodist and other pastors are trying to get accurate word out, including calling for the end of millennia-long customs and practices of handling the dead that make spread more likely, since the infection can survive the death of its victim for 72 hours or more.
In the United States, we have other false rumors to counter. We need to know and be talking openly and actively about how Ebola is and is not spread. Use and distribute the CDC materials to worshipers, put some Ebola education into Sunday Schools at every level, and make sure your congregation knows and is ready to speak out about the difference between facts and unfounded fears and rumors.
4. Implement good and reasonable sanitation practices in your worship space. Thoroughly clean your pews or other seating, hymnals, pew Bibles, or other materials more than one person is likely to touch at least quarterly, and if persons in your congregation or more immediate community become infected, at least once between services.
Have hand sanitizer available at all entrances and encourage folks to use it if there is any infectious disease widely spreading where you are.
Take care with "touch points" in worship during flu season or other times when disease spreadable by contact with bodily fluids may be in play. Avoid shaking hands-- in worship or anywhere. Make sure communion servers have washed hands, and break off and serve the bread themselves (perhaps even dipping the bread for others) and place it into the opened hands of those receiving, careful not to touch their hands. Then sanitize or thoroughly clean all implements used for communion-- cups, plates, and napkins. For baptism or reaffirmation, pour the water over the hands/heads of persons from a pitcher, rather than encouraging multiple persons to use the same water from the font. For the peace, encourage folks to bow to one another rather than shake hands or embrace.
Note that almost none of these "extraordinary" measures around touch points are necessary at all if Ebola or other infectious diseases are not spreading. Normally, we can (and should!) encourage human contact as part of worship. These are not ways to avoid human contact, but rather measures to ensure such contact is as safe as possible when infectious diseases reach epidemic levels or when an infections disease as dangerous as Ebola is actually known to be present where you are. And for now, as far as we know, it is not, anywhere in The United States.
5. Confess and repent. Ebola can be contained when proper health care systems and sanitation practices are in place. It spreads rapidly when proper health care and sanitation are not available or are only scarcely available and soon become completely overwhelmed. That such systems are not in place or not sufficiently in place lies at the root of the current Ebola crisis. And at the root of the lack of those systems is a world-system that continues to be satisfied to keep Africans impoverished rather than making sure that access to safe health care is treated as a basic human right and made available to all persons, everywhere.
In short, this outbreak of Ebola reveals the reality of this continuing human sin at both a personal but especially a systemic level. We Christians know what do to with sin. We do not make excuses for it. We do not try to hide it. We openly confess it. And we seek God's pardon and power to help us heal and put right what we in our sin have broken and mangled.
So in addition to praying for those dealing with Ebola on the ground, take time in worship, for some time to come, to confess our complicity in the sin which makes diseases such as this the capacity to spread and destroy far more than they need to. And seek God's power, vision, and wisdom to be part of setting it right.