By Father Joseph D. Wallace
The Christian response to Ebola has been swift and effective. Programs have been initiated by various Christian agencies in West Africa, the epicenter of the outbreak of the disease that has claimed over 3,000 lives. The World Council of Churches (WCC) convened a roundtable of various Christian aid organizations and United Nations agencies so they could exchange ideas and propose solutions to help combat this deadly disease. The WCC consultation took place last week in Geneva, Switzerland and affirmed a greater role for the Churches and Faith-Based Organizations in helping to stop the Ebola epidemic.
More than 6,200 people have been infected with the Ebola virus in severely affected countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. According to the World Health Organization reports, it is estimated that numbers of infected persons could easily top 1 million by this January. A recent UN meeting in New York strongly urged stepped-up efforts to stop Ebola, naming it a “public health crisis” and a “threat to peace and security” in the world. The gathering of Churches and agencies in Geneva emphasized the need for all to work together, be they politicians, media, communities or faith organizations.
The WCC gathering concluded that faith organizations must play a leading role in stopping the scourge of Ebola in Africa. Participants stressed that Churches and other religious communities have a greater reach to grassroots members and could therefore influence those most at risk by offering practical advice about hygiene and safe funeral practices. Faith organizations and agencies were also urged to find innovative ways of addressing the deeper cultural and religious roots of the widespread stigma and discrimination that have accompanied the Ebola epidemic.
Caritas International, a Catholic organization, is responding to the crisis together with other Christian organizations. Caritas’ programs involve caring for Ebola victims and their families, and “crucially, educating and informing the people about the virus and how to curb the epidemic,” said Msgr. Robert Vitillo, Geneva delegate to the UN for Caritas International. “Social mobilizations are already underway in Sierra Leone and Guinea, and Caritas Liberia is in the process of expanding such programs in all three dioceses of the country,” said Msgr. Vitillo. He also said beside the mobilization efforts is the all important outreach of the Church’s pastoral care. “Because of the ‘no touch’ policy – no physical contact and standing at least one meter distance from those suspected to be, or already confirmed as, living with Ebola, it is difficult for priests to administer some of the sacraments, such as the Sacrament of the Sick or in some cases, even of Holy Eucharist. However, priests are able to counsel, to guide spiritually, to pray with such persons, even from a distance,” he said.
Msgr. Vitillo also said the Church is reaching out to the many orphans and other vulnerable people who have lost family members to Ebola. “They too, experience stigma and discrimination, and clergy, religious and lay leaders in Christian communities must model acceptance and welcome to these people and help them satisfy their basic needs for a dignified life,” he said. Msgr. Vitillo said that people could support Caritas in fighting Ebola “by first praying for God’s comfort to those already infected and hope to those who are trying to remain healthy. Secondly, they could donate to our Caritas efforts in support of the work being coordinated at field level by local Caritas organizations, religious congregations, and other Catholic Church inspired organizations.”
Pope Francis speaking at the end of his weekly audience with pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square last week said, “My thoughts now go to those countries in Africa that are suffering because of the outbreak of Ebola. I am close to the many people affected by this terrible disease. I invite you to pray for them and for those who have so tragically lost their lives. I hope the international community may provide much needed help to alleviate the sufferings of our brothers and sisters.” He added, “I pray for the repose of the soul of all who have died in this epidemic, among whom are priests, men and women religious and healthcare workers who contracted this terrible disease while caring for those suffering. May God strengthen all healthcare workers there and bring an end to this tragedy!”
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.