Amidst worldwide apprehension about the rampant spread of Ebola, a 120-year-old Christian mission, SIM USA, has become an unlikely focal point in the fight against the epidemic in West Africa.
We caught up with Bruce Johnson, President of SIM USA, to get an update from the frontlines.
First Fruit: Some of your staff have been infected with Ebola. How are they doing?
Bruce: Two SIM missionaries, Dr. Rick Sacra and Nancy Writebol, and one Samaritans Purse doctor, Kent Brantly, were infected with Ebola, and gratefully, all three have responded to treatments in US hospitals. Two in Emory and one in Omaha came through and survived and are Ebola free. But all three have had their energy really taxed, and that is slowly rebuilding.
A fourth SIM staffer, Barbara Ohoh, a Liberian nurse, also contracted the disease. She shared the powerful testimony of her survival on video.
So SIM has had four people contract Ebola, and all four have survived.
The survival rate for Ebola is about 50 percent, so we’re very grateful to have 100% survival of those four individuals.
First Fruit: How did this outbreak happen?
Bruce: Ebola starts with one infection. They are still trying to find that one infection, but the one infection was transmitted and spread in Sierra Leone and Guinea. When it hit the northern part of Liberia, it really started to become a wildfire because there is very little, if any, health and sanitation infrastructure. If it wasn’t Ebola it would have been some other infectious disease.
When it was this little tinderbox up there and starting to spread, the world health people noticed it but didn’t really do anything about it. There were just a few of us in the countries trying to do something, and eventually Doctors Without Borders (MSF) started to respond as well. Then finally it came into Monrovia, Liberia’s capital.
But the turning point actually was when two Americans got infected and then a Spanish doctor, and then a German, and then a Brit. And that’s when the world I think kind of took note and said, wow. That was actually the first time Ebola had jumped and had come to different continents. It had always been contained in Africa – just an Africa problem – until it got the world’s attention.
First Fruit: How big of a problem is it at this point?
Bruce: The epidemiologists tracking it say that it’s gone into multiplication – where it’s not just one infecting one, but one infecting two, two infecting four. The number of cases is actually doubling about every two to three weeks and could begin to double every week. In essence, what that says to the medical professionals is there is an out-of-control epidemic of Ebola across West Africa, particularly Liberia.
First Fruit: What is SIM’s role in all of this and what are other NGOs doing?
Bruce: When Ebola first came to Liberia, Samaritans Purse and SIM were really the only two NGOs in that country beginning to address the Ebola outbreak.
This is the equivalent of two NGOs with garden hoses trying to put out an out-of-control wildfire.
We set up the initial care centers for patients of Ebola, we began to broadcast information about it, and so we really were on the frontlines.
When it became out of control in about August, Doctors Without Boarders took note. They tend to be early responders and came in. We opened up our SIM campus in the capital city, and they set up a treatment center. Initially about 50 beds has now grown to about 275 beds. SIM has not only been on the frontlines of the initial care, but when we became overwhelmed, we opened up our facilities so that others could join in the fight as well.
We really are writing the book on Ebola.
First Fruit: How did SIM get in this position to play such a pivotal role?
Bruce: SIM has been in Liberia since the mid 1950’s. Through civil wars and overthrows of government, we’ve stayed committed to be there for a long time. Our missionaries have been evacuated multiple times but we keep coming back. We didn’t go to the Ebola fight, the Ebola fight came to us. Because of our hospital and medical work are well-known in the country, it was just natural for us to respond to this outbreak. We found ourselves in the middle of the Ebola epicenter because that’s where God has placed us over these decades.
First Fruit: What is your outlook on the crisis? What is happening and what needs to happen?
Bruce: From a human perspective the outlook is very bleak. And I say human perspective because really this is God’s story. All things are under His guidance and control. Nothing’s out of His control. It didn’t catch Him by surprise.
But from a human perspective, it’s a wildfire of Ebola, totally out of control, and no sign of abating. I heard one report last week that a village of 100 people had been wiped down to 20 people, and of those 20, 10 tested positive for Ebola. So entire villages are being wiped out. It’s bleak because there isn’t the infrastructure to fight it properly. No beds, no healthcare and so forth on the ground, particularly in Liberia where it’s out of control.
On the hopeful side, is that it has captured international attention, particularly governments and world health authorities, and there have been expressions of a willingness to help. However, there is confusion. No coordinated plan seems to really be in place to make a difference right now on the ground. And so, that’s really the prayer request. The prayer request is Lord, if this is all your story, and we know You use many different means, we’re praying that God will bring reason to people that want to respond, and that are able to respond, and a plan will come in such a way that people will stand back and say not that man has done so much, but God will get the glory.
Now here’s what I heard last week. The 200-bed MSF facility – a treatment site that has had more Ebola cases than it could handle – was reported to have 50 empty beds in it for the first time. We’re not sure yet what to make of it. Is it that people are still dying without getting help or is actually the hand of God moving in a way that He is helping to stop Ebola? And so, we really need to continue to pray to that end. We don’t know yet.
On the pessimistic side, there needs to be more help. Through our spiritual eyes, more prayer, more trust, more seeking God that He would use all and every means to not only end Ebola but ultimately bring glory to Himself.
First Fruit: You were recently interviewed by Anderson Cooper (CNN) and other major media outlets. What are your thoughts about how the international media has reported on the Ebola crisis, and how has the media covered SIM as a Christian mission?
Bruce: Dallas changed everything about how it was reported. Mr. Duncan was a Liberian national who flew into Dallas after having had exposure to Ebola in Liberia. When he got to Dallas, he exhibited symptoms and then tested positive for Ebola. He went to a hospital, they turned him away, he came back, they took him in and he died of Ebola.
Because of that, two of that hospital’s nurses became infected with Ebola. That was a game changer in the US.
It went from a story about the first Ebola patients being flown into the US to suddenly a shift to, what in the world is going on with our healthcare system and the CDC? It went from a human interest story to an investigative story.
The media, both in the United States and internationally, has had great interest in the brave staff of SIM. The commitment of missionaries, their faith in God, their trust even in the face of death and dying, their survival and ability to speak about it, and the sacrifice to go back in. The survivors are donating their blood to help those infected in the future.
These missionaries are displaying a life of sacrifice that’s woven throughout.
It’s not about SIM publicity. Dr. Rick Sacra was in New York City at the studios of, NBC, CBS, and the Dr. Oz show all in one day. That same day I was interviewed by the New York Times and Associated Press.. Why would we want to do that? Well, it’s because it’s God’s story and we want to keep a focus on West Africa.
Suddenly I had to think through, is there a role that we’re supposed to play in advocacy because that’s not our normal role.
At points, God does call His people to advocate to be a voice for the voiceless.
Often times we find in missions that we should actually be a voice for the voiceless and that it’s appropriate within a mission to do that when we’re called. We feel called to that right now.
It’s amazing in this globalized world that a story in West Africa, and missionaries being infected and going to Emory Hospital in Atlanta, becomes a worldwide story. I got an e-mail from one of our missionaries in China and he said, “SIM missionaries have been live on TV in China giving their testimony of missionary sacrifice, service, survival, care, going back in.” And he said, “The gospel is going out throughout China.” Amazing! This just reminds me again, this is God’s story.
Also, we have the opportunity to present hope where fear is what’s really fueling the story. We’re honored with the opportunity to point to the Lord and showing that there is hope.
First Fruit: What are your reflections on what it means to be a missionary in the 21st Century?
Bruce: It’s interesting that in the 21st century,
Missions still means “I may be going out and die.”
There is still that element in the call to missions of sacrifice. You know, sacrifice certainly of finances, sacrifice of comforts, and then ultimately a sacrifice, potentially of your health or your life. I think we dare not lose that, particularly for the Western Church in North America.
It would be easy to say, “I’m going to go make a difference, change the world”, and that’s true, however, the world can be a rough place and I think that’s why there has to be a calling. There is that level of sacrifice.
SIM has nearly 3,000 workers from 70 nationalities serving in more than 65 countries. SIM houses the largest Ebola care centers in Liberia on its 136-acre campus along with Doctors Without Boarders and the Liberia Ministry of Health. In addition to medicine, SIM serves on every continent in areas of church planting, education, community development, public health and Christian witness. While SIM stood for Sudan Interior Mission when it was founded 120 years ago, it is now a global mission known as SIM (pronounced S-I-M). To find out more about how to pray and help in the fight against Ebola, go to www.HelpEbola.org