Rev. David DiCanio, FPCNA minister-at-large, who has been serving in the churches mission work in Liberia since 2009, answers some questions about the Ebola outbreak in Liberia and its effects on the mission work there for the Fall 2014 edition of the Current Magazine.
The Current is published quarterly by the Free Presbyterian Church of North America. To subscribe, please go to fpcna.org/subscriptions.
What led to the Mission Board’s decision to have you leave Liberia for a time?
We had been watching the local news reports about the spread of Ebola since February when it first arrived in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, a neighboring country of Liberia. We started to get concerned when we heard that a woman who contracted the disease in late May had travelled into Liberia a mere 25 miles from our missionary compound. Shortly after this I went to Ulster for the international FPC congress and returned on the same flight with the Rev. and Mrs. John Greer, who were coming to Liberia to visit their daughter Joanne for their holidays. While I was in Ulster the virus exploded in West Africa, and the Greers considered not making the trip. They decided to go, however, and all seemed normal until two weeks into their three-week stay. Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson, declared a state of emergency, closing most of the land borders and quarantining several communities. Also, a number of airlines began to cancel flights to Liberia. At this time the Greers made the decision to leave the country immediately, and by the next day, the mission board decided to pull Joanne and me out.
There were three main reasons I felt we should come out at this time, and I expressed these concerns to the mission board.
First, there was a very real possibility of getting stranded in Liberia. On the evening after the Greers left, I and other American citizens attended a meeting called by the U.S. ambassador at the U.S. embassy in Monrovia. Though the ambassador was cautious with her words, she said to me after the meeting that U.S. citizens could indeed be stranded if all the commercial airlines suspended flights, something the U.S. government had no control over. If that happened, the only hope of leaving would be if the U.S. government declared an evacuation, which meant they would charter a flight for their citizens and even lend them the money for plane tickets. However, the ambassador said that the cancellation of commercial air flights was no guarantee that the embassy would declare an evacuation since there were many other factors to consider. Of course Joanne’s being a citizen of the United Kingdom meant that she was under a whole different set of rules.
Another consideration was the possibility of our being quarantined with a particular community of people. Quarantines were starting in several communities, and if Dwazon became a part of that, we would be trapped with no possibility of leaving until Liberian government officials decided it was safe.
The second concern involved the availability of medical care. Most of the hospitals were closing because they could not distinguish the Ebola cases from other sicknesses, since the symptoms were so similar. This meant that normal blood tests for malaria or typhoid were not available, and one could just as easily die from those diseases if left untreated as from Ebola. Further, we had a concern that if we showed symptoms similar to Ebola, we would be placed in isolation with real Ebola patients and face the very real risk of contamination.
The third concern involved the country’s instability. Liberia is still a very unstable country, even ten years after the civil war. The Ebola virus was starting to cause panic, and some people were acting irrationally. We had heard unconfirmed Liberian-media reports that people had been obtaining guns and poisoning both well water and bread. We had also read that armed robbery was rising sharply in several communities around Monrovia.
Joanne and I left Liberia on August 5, one week after the Greers left. We discovered mid-flight, before it broke in the media, that we were on the last British Airways flight out of the country. We had a bit of a scare on the flight when a woman in front of me and behind Joanne got sick. The stewardesses were on alert for Ebola and made the decision to leave the woman where she had collapsed on the floor in the back galley of the airplane, away from the other passengers. Since Joanne is a licensed nurse, she was able to care for the lady until the plane landed and the paramedics arrived. Fortunately, the airline staff had some protective gear with them, which Joanne was able to wear. The airline later awarded Joanne a free round-trip ticket to anywhere in Europe for helping.
One of the mission board members was rightly concerned that we were not leaving soon enough. Our main difficulty involved our police dog, Reilly. Reilly knew only Joanne and me and would attack anyone else. We were the only ones he would take food from. If we had left immediately, the dog would probably die, and we didn’t want to risk that, especially with the expense it had taken to bring him into the country. Joanne and I worked frantically to get Reilly comfortable with our worker Armstrong Gonkpala, who lives on the property. We decided to give Armstrong a crash course in dog training by placing the muzzle on the dog’s mouth and letting him loose. Of course Reilly immediately attacked Armstrong, but after a few days (and lots of doggie treats) he began to see Armstrong as a friend. We were very thankful to the Lord for this answer to prayer. Please pray for Armstrong as he cares for Reilly and oversees the property while we are away.
How are the people coping with everyday life with the threat of the Ebola virus?
We are keeping in very close contact with the situation on the ground through our bookstore manager, Martin Gbahn. Martin has the huge responsibility of handling all the finances for the entire work and also keeping us informed on the situation in the country. We are completely dependent upon Martin to feed us accurate information on the situation. One of my big concerns is that some people will use the Ebola crisis to get funds to meet their personal needs (needs that they can and should be meeting for themselves).
Already we have received cries that the prices of food have gone way up. However, Martin has been checking the prices regularly for us, and he discovered that a 25kg bag of rice (the staple food) had increased by only 50 cents (from $15.50 to $16 USD). There is, however, a very real possibility that things could change, and we have taken steps to plan for a sharp increase in food prices if it should come to that.
The only other difficultly the people face is travel restriction. They are not permitted to travel from the city into the interior, and they are under a strict nighttime curfew.
How has the Ebola threat affected our congregations in Liberia and the ministry of the local pastors who are ministering to the people week by week?
I think at this stage, things are carrying on somewhat normally. The people are, of course, being very careful not to shake hands or touch each other when they come to church and to wash their hands in chlorinated water before entering the building. When the virus initially broke out, we missionaries decided that it would be good to suspend all handshaking. This did not sit well with some in the congregation, and they were very critical. Some of those who objected tried to force us to shake hands, and when we resisted, they touched our arms and faces and said, “We need to trust God!” Naturally, I rebuked them and reminded our people of Satan’s misapplied quotation of Psalm 91:11 during the temptation of Christ. After the second, more serious Ebola outbreak, the entire country was advised by President Johnson not to shake hands, and some of the people apologized for what they had done.
There is a very real possibility that church services could be cancelled during this time, but that has not happened yet, thankfully. I know that this has not been easy for our people, especially our children, some of whom come from very difficult homes. A few of our youth and children have reported that people in their villages have been carried away by Ministry of Health workers who are wearing the protective covering. Everyone has a very real fear of being taken away by these people because they fear it means certain death. In the past few days, we have heard of two deaths in the community around the Paynesville church, one of whom died in a home where three of our Sunday school children live. These young men have not yet been confirmed as Ebola cases, but we are taking precautions while we wait for the Ministry of Health report.
Sackie Mulbah, our pastor in the Ballah Creek church, reported to me that several dead bodies have been removed from his community, and one person was lying dead in the road. Ballah Creek is carrying on as normal, with the exception of needing to cancel the Thursday afternoon Bible club. The parents were afraid to send their children to the club for fear they might inadvertently contract the virus.
You are engaged in a recently enlarged radio ministry in Liberia. How have you been able to comfort the people with the gospel through the broadcasts and through Skype?
Yes, we just started a daily Let the Bible Speak (LTBS) radio program on ELWA radio (the large Christian station across the street from the hospital where Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol were infected from caring for Ebola patients) and four days per week on ELBC, the nationwide government station. These daily programs arose out of an informal discussion with LTBS in Ulster about the prospects of our putting up an actual radio station in Monrovia. The outcome was for us to test the waters by increasing our existing programming and to revisit the idea in the future. These two stations (ELWA and ELBC) do not air the same programs, so I am under the pressure of putting together eleven separate programs a week. LTBS in Ulster has actually provided over one thousand programs to us featuring John Greer, Raymond McLernon, Philip Gardner, James Porter, Andrew Patterson, and Roger Higginson. I am merely putting the top and tail onto the programs to localize them and encourage folk to come to the church or to the bookstore.
I am currently uploading the programs to Dropbox and the stations are downloading them. I may do the preaching on some of the programs, as I’ve brought with me the equipment that connects to my laptop, and allows for professional recording, but I have not done so to date. The daily programs started on August 1, only four days before we were evacuated.
I should also mention that, in regard to comforting the people, Joanne is making use of Skype to stay in close contact with Nathan Barco and Abraham Kotee, the two young men who have been left in charge of the children’s work in their respective churches (Paynesville and Ballah Creek). She is planning to send lesson plans and worksheets by email during her absence, and she is exploring the possibility of occasionally meeting with the Bible club children by Skype. She and I would greatly appreciate your prayers for Nathan and Abraham.
How long might it take for this threat to subside so you and Joanne may return to Liberia?
As I mentioned, before I left Liberia I attended a meeting for U.S. citizens at the U.S. embassy because of the seriousness of the Ebola outbreak. The ambassador had a doctor on the panel who stated that the virus would not be under control for four to six months and that it would get a lot worse before it got better. News reports quoting MSF (Doctors without Borders) and Samaritan’s Purse officials are giving the same estimates.
How will you be spending your time in North America during this time?
There had been talk of my bringing the Liberian work before the American churches before the Ebola virus even broke out, so it was decided by the mission board that this would be a good time to do that. Further, I was already slated to share the work in Ulster from January through early April 2015, so it’s very possible I will not be back in Liberia for eight months, unless the virus outbreak takes a very quick turn for the better. The timing of my departure has also worked out well for the construction project, because we are completely out of funds and construction has halted.
In regard to Joanne’s return, she will conduct some meetings in Ulster. Once it is safe, she will resume her ministry in Liberia.
How should God’s people pray for their brothers and sisters in Liberia during this outbreak of the Ebola virus and in the future?
Please pray that the Lord would continue to protect our church people and that they will be wise in taking precautions against the virus.
Pray that the fear and rumors of food shortages would cause the Liberians, especially those who claim to be God’s people, to grow their own food and stop relying upon food imported from neighboring states.
Pray that as people think about their mortality, the Lord will use this time to save souls.
Pray for the protection of the Liberian healthcare workers as they seek to control over the virus.
Finally, pray for the Lord to mightily use and advance the radio ministry, especially that He would prosper efforts to establish our own radio station.
There is much work to be done in Liberia and we must have the Lord’s help and blessing to do it.