“A church in search of the vulnerable and isolated is an irresistible force for good and a worthy witness to the grace of God.”
-Scott Arbeiter, Christianity Today
Two months ago, very few of us were familiar with the term coronavirus, and even fewer of us had heard the more specific term, COVID-19. For those of us who were familiar, the novel coronavirus was something happening somewhere else. Today, somewhere else seems to be everywhere as the virus has spread to affect more than 150 countries worldwide, the United States included.
Things have moved quickly. In a matter of weeks, schools have closed, restaurants have shifted to take-out-only and some have closed their doors completely. Church gatherings have moved to strictly online platforms and many office workers have begun working from home for the foreseeable future. The change has been sudden, the uncertainty and anxiety palpable. But as our team has gathered together via Zoom over the last few days, we are reminded that in uncertain times like these, we can take comfort and choose courage.
Crisis and ambiguity are not new for the people of God. In fact, we, like the rest of humanity, have been experiencing crisis since the beginning of time. Throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites faced a number of crises including war, drought and famine, to name a few. Jesus himself was persecuted to the point of death, and throughout the book of Acts, the early church endured continued hardship in the form of violence and imprisonment. But even as the early Christians endured these adversities, they took comfort in knowing God was for them and, following Jesus’ example, they chose courage, continuing to serve the vulnerable in their communities.
This type of courage defined Christianity throughout the first and second centuries. In 165 A.D., 100 years after the book of Acts was written, a massive plague broke out that devastated the Roman Empire. Sickness and disease ran rampant for 15 years. Without the convenience of modern medicine, fear permeated Roman society, and the sick were left to fend for themselves. When all was said and done, more than five million people died, cutting the Roman Empire’s population by a third.
Nearly a century later, a second pandemic known as the Cyprian Plague erupted killing an estimated 5,000 people daily. These two epidemics shifted the cultural landscape of the Roman Empire, but amidst the fear, amidst the sickness and disease, one population’s response stood out among the distress — the Christians’.
In his book, The Rise of Christianity, sociology professor, Rodney Stark quotes the bishop of Alexandria at the time of the epidemic saying,
“[The] Christian values of love and charity had, from the beginning, been translated into norms of social service and community solidarity. When disasters struck, the Christians were better able to cope.”
When others were too afraid to go near the sick, Christians provided food and water to those affected by the disease, which greatly reduced mortality rates in the communities where they lived. Christians cared for anyone who had need, their selfless love and courageous acts of service allowing hope to grow.
While this early account of the church’s response to crisis is inspiring, we’ve seen this same type of courage and generosity play out in our 75+ years of work as we’ve partnered with local churches around the world. We think of our church volunteers in Haiti who banded together after a treacherous storm to assist those who were most affected. We think of our outreach group volunteers in Burundi who daily visit their neighbors to provide lessons on health, nutrition, savings and more. And in the United States, we’re already seeing people choose courage and mobilize compassion in support of neighbors affected by the COVID-19 crisis.
In Seattle, one of the cities most affected by this crisis in the U.S., our World Relief Seattle team has started training immigrants — some of the most vulnerable to the economic impact of the crisis — on how to access the community garden irrigation system in order to maintain their plots and provide produce for their families during this chaotic time of financial need. Volunteers who were previously assisting immigrant families in person are being asked to write notes of encouragement to those experiencing hardship and isolation. While we’ve had to close our physical office locations at this time, our teams are finding creative ways to support immigrants through virtual learning, access to health information in their languages and other vital resources.
Many newly arrived immigrants are falling victim to layoffs as they work in some of the hardest-hit industries in the U.S. — hotels, restaurants and other service-related fields. As we sit in the tension of the unknown, we echo the words our president, Scott Arbeiter, prayed at a recent staff meeting: teach us to be wise while also giving of ourselves freely.
We have often said in regards to immigration that compassion and security do not need to be mutually exclusive, and we believe the same sentiment applies here. The Christian response has shone brightly in times of crisis throughout history, and we pray that as we take comfort in the God who sees, that same courage would continue to shine today.
Rachel Clair serves as a Content Writer at World Relief. With a background in creative writing and children’s ministry, she is passionate about helping people of all ages think creatively and love God with their hearts, souls and minds.