We will remember March 2020. March 2020 has become memorable where we live. We began the month, seeing new parts of the country and continuing to marvel at the beauty that is Tanzania. We will end the month, having journeyed to the US, not sure when we will be able to return home.
Early this month, we traveled to Mwanza, Tanzania, to visit friends and see what is happening in theological education at Nyakato Theological College, one of three zonal colleges of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania. Nyakato provides education for aspiring pastors, parish workers, and evangelists. The ELCT has a significant clergy shortage, so schools like Nyakato are providing essential leadership development. We have been invited by leaders at the college to consider returning to teach intensive courses sometime in 2021. We are grateful for the invitation and will be working with our supervisors and the calendar to see what might become possible. We discussed the upcoming Easter vacation with our friends, putting some tentative plans in place for them to come our way.
We returned to campus, took part in faculty meetings, and began planning seriously for the second semester (which would begin on 23 March). We talked with colleagues, looked up resources, and began reviewing syllabi.
On Sunday, March 15, we enjoyed dinner at our home with missionary colleagues. We talked about what was happening, but there was no particular sense of urgency about the conversation.
Then the next morning, we, along with all other ELCA long term mission personnel, received a request via email to return to the US as soon as possible because of the coronavirus outbreak. We talked—to each other, to doctor friends, to our family, to mission colleagues. Then a case was diagnosed in Arusha—and the government closed the schools, and then they closed the universities. So—reservations became available—and we rushed to get the house ready to be unoccupied for a while, talked a lot to family and friends, and tried to maintain calm.
Our Dean and a member of the University administration came by to wish us well and pray with us. They shared their own feelings about what was happening and their thoughts of what would happen next. Thinking of these dear people as we left campus, not knowing when we would return, brought me to tears.
The journey was like all the others, in some ways. Although we were travelling from sub-Saharan Africa, most of the people on the flights were white (part of what it means to be white in Africa, which we discussed last month in this space). The planes we boarded were quite full, and the trip was looonnngggg.
We heard from one flight attendant that they were expecting layoffs, and looking at pooling paid leave days to help out those among their coworkers who needed help. Another shared that as of Saturday, the schedule for Amsterdam-Detroit flights was shifting from five a day to one a day—and that would put a lot of people out of work. In the airports, the bars and restaurants were all closed, and the number of people was markedly down.And, the journey was very different in other ways. Many people onboard wore masks. Many travelers had cut their trips short and scrambled to get reservations. There were many anxious people on the flight. Surfaces on the plane were being cleaned much more frequently. I got up to get coffee in the middle of the flight, and the KLM flight attendant in the galley asked me where I was going. I shared, and he said, “I hear that many people in the US are buying guns to fight the virus. Is that true?” As we conversed, I reflected on the oddness of the situation for our world at this moment.
We arrived in the US, still trying to understand where we were and why – knowing we had left our life and work thousands of miles away, and not sure how to respond. In the midst of a global crisis, what is the faithful thing to do?
As we have reflected on this question, we’re pondering what would be the next right thing. In last year’s big Disney movie Frozen II, the character Anna faces a crisis and wonders what to do next, and commits to do the next right thing.
So what is the next right thing in this crisis, something so incredibly bizarre that nothing in living memory compares to its depth, scope, and danger to people all over the planet? What is the faithful thing, or things, to do right now? As we recover from jetlag and work to settle in for we-don’t-know-how-long in the US, here are some of our ideas.
- Be in touch. Social distancing can make people feel distant. Call someone. Message someone. Send pics, music, funny memes, or just a simple “How are you doing?” Go through your networks and think through who needs contact. We have friends who have lost parents in the last week who can’t travel, others who have family members in hospice who can’t visit, and still others who have loved ones stuck overseas. You probably know people whom this epidemic is hitting very hard. See how you can share the love of Jesus in this time.
- Take part in online faith offerings. Watch and participate in online worship services, Bible studies, devotional times. Your congregation is your first resource to find out what is happening.
- Volunteer. There is a lot that you can do from your home, either for your congregation, or for your favorite political candidate, or for the upcoming bond issue for your library, park, or school. Look for opportunities to use the gift of time you have been given at home.
- Know the truth and help set people free. Take the time to read, research, and learn the truth about this virus. Spend time reading what scientists and medical researchers are saying. Call people out who are spreading misapprehensions, or using fear, or targeting people (particularly Asian-Americans, immigrants, or others that people are targeting because they perceive them as “different”) in the midst of this anxious time.
- As you are able, give. Congregations, including those wonderful folks that sponsor us, will struggle during and after this crisis. Many people associate giving with being present in the pew. Some expected giving will not come in. Keeping up your pledge and other gifts at this time will help your faith community to continue to offer pastoral care, worship, and ministry. The work of the church is only growing in this time, and the needs the church is called to address will be great when we can all come out of our homes again.
- Rest. Give yourself a break. Take care of yourself. Do something you enjoy. Exercise. And while you’re doing so—wash your hands!
- Ask God for ideas. Maybe God has a plan or a project in which you have been given exactly the right skills, gifts, and ingenuity to solve problems, think strategically, and see options for the future. See what use God might make of you with time on your hands. (and—wash those hands, why don’t you?)
- Pray. People alone cannot and will not solve this crisis. We see evidence of God’s work in the advancements in testing, the ways that people are coming together to support others, the innovative strategies that are being introduced to solve problems—these and many more show us all that God is at work. Please continue to pray for the world in the midst of this crisis. And as you pray, please include Tanzania and Tumaini University Makumira in your prayers. We are very concerned about the strength of the Tanzanian health care system when the number of cases rises.
We so appreciate your support. We could not do what we do without your assistance. As we seek with you to do the next right thing every day during this crisis, we hold Paul’s benediction from I Thessalonians 5:13-22 in mind. John Rutter has set this to music, and a link to a performance of this piece by the Cambridge Singers can be heard at this link.
May God’s grace, peace, love, compassion and strength be with you all.
Mark Rich and Cynthia Holder Rich