Individual articles from the Fall 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog twice per week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website. This article consist of five reflections which will be posted separately.
As this issue of Intersections about MCC service in the name of Christ neared completion, the COVID-19 pandemic began expanding in global breadth and depth. This rapidly developing reality led us to invite church leaders from multiple contexts to reflect on what service in the name of Christ looks like amidst a global pandemic. —The editors.
People have experienced diverse disasters in history. Although the size of these disasters has varied, they have all caused damage. This year, humanity has been threatened by COVID-19. As a church leader, I was confused about how to respond to this virus in our church. As I was seeking God’s guidance, the story of Joseph came to my mind.
In the Bible, there was a man of God who helped the ancient Egyptians navigate through a severe drought and famine (Genesis 41-47). God signaled to the king that a great famine would come upon the country. But no one was available to interpret the message. Joseph, a gifted and experienced interpreter of dreams, came from prison and interpreted the king’s dream and analyzed the situation. Famine in Egypt was uncommon because the Nile River flows through the country year-round. The disaster was a once-in-a-generation event.
The king was smart. He wanted to assign a capable person to undertake this life-saving job. He believed Joseph was worthy of this position. Joseph was appointed the leader of the Disaster Preparedness Agency of the Egyptian government. His plan was excellent and pleasing to the authorities. The justifications for Joseph’s appointment were his preparedness plan, that he was a man of God, that he had a spirit of discernment and that he was wise. From reading the story of Joseph, I learned five basic principles that have helped me to deal with COVID-19 as a leader in the church.
First, face the reality. It is important to anticipate and analyze the impending danger to prepare well ahead. We need to recognize and accept the realities on the ground. Rejecting reality is a terrible risk, as it worsens the response to a disaster. Accepting and telling the truth paves the way for effective disaster preparedness.
Second, discern and decide—and be informed by research. Joseph was a man of wisdom and was led by the Spirit of God. He wanted to make research-based decisions, rather than just guessing to save the people from imminent danger. Joseph surveyed all the resources and conditions in the country (Gen. 41:46). The nation-wide survey helped to identify the resources, facilities and challenges in Egypt to deal with the seven-year drought. Leaders informed by research can prepare well to prevent and/or mitigate disaster.
Third, set up an effective implementation system. To manage the disaster, Joseph developed a centralized system to oversee the implementation of his plan. Joseph collected 20% of the harvest during the seven years of plenty and stored them (Gen. 41:34,48-49). He stored up huge quantities of grain in places accessible to the cities across the country (Gen. 41:48). The logistics of transporting food items from the center to remote parts of the country can make it difficult to mount a timely response and adequately address the needs of the people. An efficient, cost-effective and successful approach is needed to deal with a disaster.
Fourth, plan for post-disaster. Joseph had the end in mind when he developed the disaster preparedness plan. He planned for post-disaster. When the drought was gone, he gave seeds to the people so that they could plant and eat. He also put in place a sustainability strategy for the country (Gen. 47: 23-24). We need to develop a rehabilitation strategy. We need a plan that helps us to continue normal life after experiencing a disaster.
Fifth, have a spirit of gratitude. Joseph’s strategy saved the lives of many people (Gen. 47:25). In his discussion with his brothers, Joseph realized that God used him to save the lives of his family, Egyptians and neighboring nations (Gen. 42:1-2; 45:5). He was grateful for God’s favor and guidance. For all the successes, we need to give glory to God.
In Ethiopia, we are not yet through the response cycle to COVID-19. I found the lessons from Joseph’s experience to be practical and useful, and I pray that they will be helpful to you as well. God bless you all!
Desalegn Abebe Ejo is president of the Meserete Kristos Church in Ethiopia.
In the Gospel of John 20:21 we read, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (NRSV). With these words, Jesus sends his disciples to be agents of love, reconciliation, life and peace in a world in need and in crisis. He sends them to announce and make present the Kingdom of God, sharing God’s justice and peace. Jesus sends them with the good news of our reconciliation back to God and to each other, restoring broken relationships, rebuilding broken lives and working for the well-being of the vulnerable, the impoverished, the afflicted and the needy. This mission given to the disciples by Jesus is still relevant today.
Today we live in a world in crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted all aspects of life. As the disease spreads, it leaves thousands and thousands of people infected, sick, dead, widowed and orphaned. Human suffering is compounded by associated economic and food crises. Many are struck down by fear, anguish, neurosis, uncertainty and loneliness. This unprecedented crisis has become a great challenge for Jesus’ church, its mission and its pastoral action.
As people sent out in the name of Christ, what should we do in the face of this challenge? How should we respond? In times like these, we must continue to be followers of Jesus who show God’s love. We must be
communities of care and servant love, committed to individual and community well-being, holistic health, true peace and the promotion of life during crisis and need.
To illustrate what this looks like in practice, I share the testimony of Casa Horeb Mennonite Church in Guatemala City, where I have the privilege of serving on the pastoral team. We are a small community of faith, committed to the gospel of the Kingdom, with a clear commitment to our vocation of love and service. In this time of pandemic, we have had the opportunity to undertake reflections and actions that have led us to reinvent ourselves and find creative ways to show love, engage in spiritual and emotional care, promote holistic and preventative health and make the kingdom of God present in concrete ways, both within our community and beyond. Our activities include:
- Celebrating our meetings and liturgical services online, in a dynamic and creative way. Through these services we affirm people’s faith, life and hope and ensure the inclusion and active participation of all people.
- Being a community of support and accompaniment where we care for and help each other.
- Providing pastoral and psycho-spiritual care, with priority to the elderly, widows, people living on their own, children, young people and people who are sick.
- Sharing encouraging messages with the most vulnerable people and the elderly.
- Energizing and encouraging the practice of prayer through social networks and small online groups.
- Providing training in comprehensive health care and prevention measures to deal with the pandemic, with a strong emphasis on only sharing verified and truthful information.
- Strengthening food security by promoting family gardens, while also cultivating a vegetable garden on the church premises to share the harvest with those living in areas of extreme poverty.
- Opening our church as a refuge for infected people.
- Creating a mercy fund for people without work, who have become unemployed or sick or have lost family members.
- Providing resources for families and children facing grief to strengthen their resiliency.
- Accompanying families in loss and mourning.
- Promoting healthy and peaceful relationships within families in this time of confinement.
In these ways, our small church community seeks to be faithful to God and to its Christian vocation during this time of crisis. Our church community tries to be a sign of faith, life and hope in this hour of uncertainty, fear, suffering and need. Throughout the past months, we have seen how God’s love abounds when we give of what we are and share of what we have, blessing others in Christ’s name.
Elena Bercián Ramirez is pastor of Anabaptist Community Casa Horeb in Guatemala City, Guatemala.
The world is going through a difficult time thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. As we live and witness in this dangerous time, we must respect barrier measures established by government authorities to prevent and mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, even as we pray for divine intervention. As the Congolese church serves in the name of Christ amidst COVID-19, we remember that nothing is impossible with God and we pray for God’s intervention.
The physical distancing measures necessary to combat COVID-19 bring with them negative realities, such as increased stress, anxiety, bitterness, depression and intra-family conflict. Friends and extended family acutely feel the limitations placed on visits. At the same time, we observe increased levels of social distrust, heightened fear of outsiders, who are suspected of carrying the virus, and stigmatization of people suffering from any disease. People are tempted to turn inward and hesitate to share with one another.
Congolese Christians, as we cry out for divine intervention, are called in this context to be faithful. Essential dimensions of the church’s service in the name of Christ during this pandemic include:
- Responding to the call to sanctification and prayer (1 Peter 1:15-16). Faithful Christians develop lives of devotion, remembering that everything is sanctified by prayer and the word of God (1 Tim. 4:5).
- Listening to Jesus’ insistence to his disciples to be not afraid.
- Respecting public measures instituted to mitigate and prevent transmission of the virus.
- Preaching that highlights God’s sovereignty and fidelity (2 Cor. 1:20, Ps. 105:8; Ps. 119:74), refutes heresies speaking of the imminence of the coming of Christ, (2 Tim 4:2; Titus 1:9) and emphasizes the fruits of the Holy Spirit that manifest our care for one another.
- Reconstructing and nurturing communion, with an emphasis on accompaniment of and assistance for the most vulnerable members of our community.
Christians called to serve in the name of Christ have Jesus at the center of our faith, community at the center of our lives, protection at the center of our bodies and reconciliation and love at the center of our mission. Encouraging one another to be rejuvenated spiritually and morally, we seek to serve the most vulnerable members of our communities whose lives are more precarious than ever because of the pandemic.
Antoine Kimbila Musumbungu is the head of the Congolese Mennonite Brethren Church (CEFMC).
This past April, we heard some happy news here in Saskatoon, Canada: a baby bison was born at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, a historic Indigenous site just outside the city. On the surface, this seemed like an ordinary sign of spring. But this birth was profoundly significant: our local newspaper reported that this was the first bison born at Wanuskewin since 1876, when Treaty 6 was signed and local bison became extinct. That means that this baby bison represents several layers of healing: the healing of the land as a local species makes its way back from the brink of extinction; the healing of treaty relationships and reconciliation between settlers like myself and Indigenous peoples as Indigenous heritage is honoured, remembered and restored; and God’s healing as the Divine is present and at work in our context in life-giving ways.
This hopeful event struck me as all the more meaningful as we continue to make our way through this pandemic, when many of us are hungry for good news of hope and healing. Even though Wanuskewin remains closed, it is heartening to know that the baby bison is there—that healing and hopeful things are happening, that reconciliation is moving forward, even now. She is a tangible, living and breathing sign of God moving among us and of the Spirit moving us toward truth and peace and right relationship even amidst all the upheaval.
But the baby bison is also a sign that steps in the right direction are not inevitable. They require sustained effort on the part of many people, as these past months have revealed. As I write this, we are seeing real change in the conversation and policy around racial injustice and equity thanks to Black Lives Matter demonstrations around the world. Closer to where I live, a young northern Saskatchewan man named Tristen Durocher is currently engaged in a ceremonial fast on the grounds of our provincial legislature to protest the rejection of a much-needed suicide prevention bill introduced by the provincial opposition. Calling the action “Walking with Our Angels,” he walked 635 km from Air Ronge to Regina, Saskatchewan, to stay in a teepee surrounded by pictures of young people lost to suicide—a public health crisis which disproportionately affects Indigenous young people in Saskatchewan’s north. As we witness Durocher’s poignant and courageous gestures, I have to wonder: Could it be that the COVID-19 pandemic has given us an opportunity to rethink the way our societies have functioned with regard to the status quo of racism and colonialism? Could this major disruption to “business as usual” be the push we needed as societies to take significant and concrete steps toward shalom, toward peace with justice and right relationship among human beings, with God and with all creation? In Virus as a Summons to Faith, released just a few weeks into the pandemic, biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann articulates this same notion: “The good news is that we need not go back to those old ways that are punitive, parsimonious, and predatory. We can embrace a new normal that is God’s gift to us!”
That is certainly the sentiment behind a petition that began to circulate a couple of months ago, entitled, “Canadian Churches for Care and Change in the time of COVID-19” (via change.org). Co-written by Mennonite pastor David Driedger and other faith leaders, the petition calls for a new normal that includes a Jubilee for those most financially vulnerable and special attention to the needs of First Nations communities during this crisis. “COVID-19 has already changed the global landscape. We are asking that we do not return to a system that was increasingly unjust and never sustainable,” they write. “We are willing to seek, work for, and support such changes that can readily be seen as being in the interest of the most vulnerable people and resources in Canada.” I found it deeply encouraging to see the church engaged in this kind of prophetic action in support of healing and hope. This strikes me as precisely where communities of faith are needed during this time of pandemic: we are called to be midwives of life-giving change, pointing to the ways we are interconnected with each other’s well-being, celebrating those moments when shalom is born among us—including the birth of a baby bison on the outskirts of Saskatoon.
Susanne Guenther Loewen is a Mennonite pastor, theologian and lecturer and lives with her family in Saskatoon, Treaty 6 Territory and Homeland of the Métis.
Republic of Korea
Jesus comes proclaiming an upside-down kingdom. The kingdom Jesus announces is not static. This kingdom keeps moving and growing, challenging existing paradigms and stereotypes.
I started my new role with MCC in January 2020, excited to become a part of one hundred years of MCC history. Suddenly, the pandemic began, and now we are headed into the unknown. Indeed, it is a fearful reality. Amidst this fearful uncertainty, can we find God at work? What are we learning from this unexpected pandemic? What does the pandemic reveal? COVID-19 is already laying some truths bare:
- Dis/connections: In living through the pandemic, many of us have realized the depth of our interconnections. At the same time, however, fear from the pandemic is also deepening disconnections from one another and increasing hostility and exclusion.
- The nature of real security: Viruses are more powerful than military might and economic growth. We need more doctors and nurses, not soldiers. Smart public health care systems are matter.
- The myth of developed Western countries: The pandemic has revealed the depth of inequality within many so-called developed countries, with severely disproportionate death rates and health impacts along racial and class lines in nations of the global North.
As the pandemic reveals the deep inequality that scars the world and its nations, MCC is called to live in the light of the kingdom inaugurated by God in Jesus. MCC’s calling of offering relief, development and peace in the name of Christ is a mission grounded in this upside-down kingdom
The mission of this upside-down kingdom is not the unilateral mission from a supposed world center to its peripheries. MCC in Canada and the U.S. is not the “center” from which relief, development and peace go out. In God’s kingdom, lines between center and periphery and between sender and receiver become blurred. The pandemic reveals to us our global interconnectedness and calls us into a “mission from everywhere to everywhere.”
What can we learn from life amidst a pandemic that will help shape MCC for service in the name of Christ for a second century? Will MCC’s mission become less dependent on fossil fuels? Can MCC become a truly global organization? Within the topsy-turvy COVID-19 realities and in light of the upside-down kingdom Jesus heralds, the time is right to review MCC’s mission and vision with new questions and imagination.
SeongHan Kim is peace educator for MCC Northeast Asia based in Chuncheon, the Republic of Korea.
“The good Samaritan is the story for the time of the pandemic,” a theologian colleague stated on a Zoom panel in late April about how the church is called to respond to the COVD-19 pandemic. “It is paradigmatic because the church needs to find ways out of isolation and into service of those most deeply affected by the crisis.” My co-panelist’s reference to Luke 10:25-37 is generally consistent with MCC’s long-standing efforts to give a cup of cold water to those in need (Matthew 10). What he says is true. Yet that was not my answer to the question posed then, and it is not my sole answer now about what Christian service in a time of COVID-19 looks like.
I am writing from Indiana, land of the Potawatomi. I have learned that saying good morning in Potawatami is literally asking, “What is there to bring to light?” That question is, I think, a necessary part of understanding what it means to serve in the name of Christ at this time. We can at least hope that the time of COVID-19 is a time of apocalypse, in the classic sense. Derived from the Greek apokalypsis, the word means revelation. The Greek term allows us to ask: what is Christ revealing to us in the context of the pandemic?
If we allow this crisis to expose the fissures of our bankrupt world, this pandemic will have served as a fitting apocalypse. If instead, despite its devastating toll, we return to an unsustainable world, we will not allow it to reveal anything significant to us. So we can hope that this time of telling the truth is apocalyptic. What is being revealed to us during this crisis?
In Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague, the epidemic is called “the great equalizer.” For Camus, the pandemic teaches that when it comes to dying, there is no progress in history, no escape from our fragility. This is what Camus meant when he spoke about the “absurdity” of life. Acknowledging this absurdity should not lead us to despair, but to a tragicomic redemption, a softening of the heart, a turning away from judgment and moralizing towards joy and gratitude. Camus is correct in a limited way: human beings are fragile insofar as we are finite (and not God). Camus did not, however, see the distinction between finitude and vulnerability, so he did not properly assess the situation. All humans are created finite and therefore fragile—but death and suffering are not equitably distributed because human-made conditions make some lives more vulnerable than other lives.
The apocalypse of COVID-19 exposes the fissures is our world that drive this inequitable distribution of vulnerability. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier this year by a white officer who dispassionately pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck exemplified one face of the white supremacist system in the United States, sparking global protests against racial injustice. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed another face of this white supremacist system, showing the toll white supremacy exacts on health outcomes for Black and Latino communities. Death rates in the U.S. from the pandemic among Black and Latino people, according to the Brookings Institute, are higher than for white people at all ages. Black people are dying from COVID-19 at roughly the same rate as white people more than a decade older than they are.
The apocalypse of COVID-19 also exposes a global economic system that drives and deepens inequality. While global, growth-oriented capitalism has brought millions of people, especially in Asia, into the middle class, this has only been possible through a form of growth that increases economic inequality and destroys the only planet available to humankind. The fact that the stock market in the United States rose this summer, even as millions lost work, with meager social safety nets to protect them, reveals an economic system focused on maximizing profits for the wealthy, without concern for the increasing number of people in precarious economic straits.
Over the past months, we have witnessed the collapse of systems that seemed to be fixed and lasting. The pandemic is showing us that social systems are not fixed, but malleable. Not only my neighbors but even the neoliberal magazine, the Financial Times, are recognizing that dramatic change is needed, with the latter running an article on April 3 of this year with the headline: “Virus exposes the fragility of the social contract: radical reforms are required to forge a society that works for all.”
The apocalypse of COVID-19 should not only prompt denunciations of white supremacist and capitalist systems but must spur practical illustrations that other social systems and other social forms are possible. We must be able to point out lived experiences that open new forms of political imagination and chart new practical paths of action. Such alternative, embodied forms of political imagination exist. Anabaptist Jesus followers have for centuries affirmed that such alternative forms of life are possible. Moreover, those of us who have had the deep privilege of accompanying oppressed communities through MCC have seen these alternative political imaginations taking concrete form, emerging from the most unlikely places. They are Easter affirmations that another world is not just possible but real, rising from the bankrupt systems of oppression and death that produce bodies stripped, beaten, left half dead (Luke 10:25-37). Uplifting and celebrating the transformative initiatives that are inchoate transitions from a world of death and destruction to a world shaped by Easter hope is a vital form of service. In the time of COVID-19, Christ is calling us to care for the wounded and participate in the transition to a new world on its way.
Janna Hunter-Bowman is assistant professor of peace studies and Christian social ethics at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. She served with MCC in Colombia for over eight years.
Christians believe in Jesus Christ as the son of God and respond to his command to preach the gospel of peace and the kingdom of God to all nations. All human beings have physical and spiritual needs. The physical needs include food, health, economic and social security, peace and knowledge. The spiritual needs are salvation from sin and death and the assurance of eternal life. Service in the name of Christ during this current pandemic responds to these physical and spiritual needs.
When Jesus gave the Great Commission in Matthew 28:16-20, he sent his disciples to preach, teach, heal and reconcile people to God and to one another. The Lord was very much aware of the challenges, risks, opportunities, joy and persecution they would encounter. That is why he assured them that he will be with them always to the very end of the age. Even amidst a pandemic like COVID-19, Jesus is with us.
The Christian life is a life of service, sacrifice and joy. Christians engaged in service are believers in Jesus Christ, born of water and the Spirit (John 3:3-6). Jesus told Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (John 13:8, NIV). Christians engaged in service are called by and respond to God to serve as God’s witnesses to the world, like the prophet Isaiah and Saul of Tarsus (Isaiah 6:8, Acts 9:15-16). Those who answer the call are fit to serve God in Christ. Christians who seek to serve are ready to make sacrifices and face challenges for the sake of their master, Jesus: costs and hardships must be acknowledged and anticipated.
Scripture calls us to go out in service in Christ’s name. Jesus commanded his disciples to carry out the Great Commission, sending them out to preach, teach, heal and reconcile people to God (Matthew 28:16-20, Mark 16:15-18). Christians are called to imitate Jesus’ compassionate service. Jesus offers us a model of feeding the hungry and healing the sick (Matthew 9:35-37). He responded to people’s needs as he met them (Mark 6:35-44). Jesus promises that those who extend a cup of cold water to the vulnerable will receive their reward (Matthew 10:40-42).
How is the church called to serve God in Christ’s name during this pandemic?
- By prayer for people of the world, starting with the ones we know, our neighbors, the weak and vulnerable and those in power and authority, praying for salvation, security, peace, health and physical provision.
- By reaching out to people close to us with food, material comfort, finances, fellowship and encouragement.
- By giving time and money to church ministries that support the basic needs of people beyond one’s direct reach.
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, our calling as Christians is to share the good news of our reconciliation to God and with one another through Jesus in word and deed.
Moses J. K. Thliza is a pastor and leads Christian Faithful Fight AIDS in Nigeria.