While I was in Boquete in September, one morning I had to run downtown to take care of an errand for my dad. I was already coming back towards his house when I heard the bells of the town church start ringing. I looked at my watch and realized it was about 10 past the hour, not a normal time for them to be ringing and imagined they were ringing to mark the end of funeral. They rang and rang as I kept on walking, which brought me towards the church. As the sound surrounded and went through me, John Donne’s words walked with me:
No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
I reached the church just as 6 pallbearers carried a casket out and carefully slid it into a hearse. I stood quietly and waited for the rest of the people attending the funeral to come out and fall into step behind the hearse that drove away slowly.
I had not thought about that moment until earlier today. It is the second time in a relatively short period of time when pieces of writing, not that esoteric, but very old, have drifted back to my attention. Donne and Julian of Norwich feel like old friends who have dropped in unexpectedly and I am not sure their appearance is purely coincidental. You see, they speak of a time when humankind was so much more aware of how little there is to control, how fragile and strong we are at the same time, because we are involved with humankind, because we are all, every single one one of us, held so close by the One who created, redeemed and to this day, sustains us.
It is Donne and Dame Julian who give me my bearings as the crisis around the Ebola epidemic keeps crashing into this idyllic little corner Sherod and I have chosen for ourselves. A couple of weeks ago, Sherod, who usually sleeps in late, was up at the crack of dawn wanting to have a conversation about the point at which one chooses to self-isolate to protect from the virus. Alarmed, I tried to get a feel for how near and real the threat was. In response, a dear friend gently reminded me that both of us are far more likely to succumb from the flu than Ebola. How easily fear had been welcomed into our home…
I was at work on my laptop two days ago, when a New York Times banner came across the top of my screen with the news that Thomas Eric Duntan had died. I stopped for a little while—there was nothing I wanted or could do, except take notice of this death, the horrible death, of one person among billions that populate our planet. I was appalled and continue to grieve as I see so many people on Facebook make simply hateful comments about him and his death. I understand the fear that has gripped us. I see the missteps and errors all around. Perhaps worst, I am aware of the indifference of people like me, people with privilege and power, who stood back as the epidemic began and let the horror of this disease unfold in Africa because we were so sure we would in no way be diminished by the suffering and desolation “those people” were living and dying through. But to malign a person who has just died, especially died such a horrible death? We lose our own humanity when we surrender to the angry face of fear.
In contrast to my callous indifference, I am convinced that each time our Good Shepherd has to bend down to pick up and hold against his heart one more of his beloved who has died of Ebola, He weeps as he wept with each person who died of AIDS. I am convicted by the certainty that if Jesus were still walking the paths of Earth, he would have been in Thomas Eric’s room. Recently, some friends of a friend went to West Africa on a trip they had scheduled before the epidemic broke out. Before they left, they pondered what it meant that so many people had recommended they not go. As they shared with my friend through Facebook posts: how could they say they are people of faith in solidarity with the people of Africa and not go. In them and through them, and others of such courage, Christ, who fears not death, is present where healing is most needed.
I don’t have the skills to go to West Africa and be of much help. But I can do this: I can give witness to a God who calls us to something different than fear in this dark and sad time. Earlier, I read this article and I feel like it is now my personal responsibility to keep both Thomas and little baby Diana in my remembrance and in my prayers. I am going to get my flu shot tomorrow so I don’t take ill and draw resources away from those who need them more. I am going to keep reading the stories and listening to the news to bring myself closer to what is happening and not look away just because it is all so ugly and so painful. I am going to keep saying to everyone I know, whether through this blog, or on Facebook or best yet, face to face, that we must not be afraid. We must be part of bringing the hope into this desolation in whatever way we can.
If you are reading this blog, I hope you will click on the link to the NYT article and see the whole slideshow. I hope you too will consider what you can do to help make sure the light keeps shining in the darkness. We have talked ourselves into believing that we are an island unto our own. We aren’t. Our determination to hold ourselves apart and claim superiority is what makes us afraid and weak. Even if we choose not to believe it, we are diminished by the death of Thomas, and little baby Diana and her mom, and the thousands of others who have died of this hideous disease. Our fear is not OK. It is courage and the certainty that even in this time, God holds us all in the palm of God’s hand, that allow us to be light, to set free, to offer life. May we be light.