Mark Rich and Cynthia Holder Rich
Tumaini University Makumira, Arusha, Tanzania
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.
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 heard from flight attendants about expected layoffs, and thoughts of 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—which would put a lot of people out of work. In the airports, the bars and restaurants were all closed, and the number of people is markedly down. 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?
The advice of Martin Luther , made in 1527 as the plague was ravaging Wittenberg, has been circulating on Facebook: “I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me…If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See – this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not test God.”
Early in the history of the church (251 AD) the second of several epidemics swept through nearly the whole Roman Empire. Bishop Dionysus of Alexandria described the panic: “At the first onset of the disease, [the pagans] pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape.” And he described how believers responded to the suffering: “Most of our sisters and brothers showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves…Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their place…”
Although these earlier witnesses did not understand how germs work and their forms of medicine were primitive compared to ours, they still understood contagion and caring, and how Christ was calling them. As William McNeill pointed out in Plagues and Peoples, “quite elementary nursing will greatly reduce mortality. Simple provision of food and water, for instance, will allow persons who are temporarily too weak to cope for themselves to recover instead of perishing miserably.” The Egyptian bishop praised the martyr-like behavior of many of his flock during the plague, yet we can also affirm that a noticeably higher percentage of Christians than pagans survived the epidemic because of this simple ministry of care.
Things are different now; we have better medicines and practices and professionals to administer them, large institutions of medical training and care that didn’t exist in early and medieval times. And yet there are things that are not so different. In most countries, including the US, leaders are unprepared for the crisis.
The gospel has also not changed. We followers of Jesus know that we too must continue to care, even when that must be done as remotely as possible. We must make changes in our ways of living not only for our own safety but for our neighbors, family, and friends. And we also continue to be the people of faith, hope, and love—faith with each other and with God even during uncertain and frightening times; hope that life counts for more than mere physical existence; and the love of God that is greater than death itself. As the apostle Paul put it (Rom 8:35-39): “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And so let us continue to be careful and full of care. Be in touch with each other. Take part in online worship. Volunteer. Learn the truth and help set people free. As you are able, give. Rest. Ask God for ideas. Pray always. 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 remain faithful during this crisis, we hold Paul’s benediction from I Thessalonians 5:13-22 in mind. John Rutter has set a version of 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