What I learned from a time of flood, famine, pestilence and epidemic for such a time as this

Chaplain Kate Bradford is 2018 ADM Senior Research Fellow and a former missionary with Church Missionary Society (CMS)

During the late 1990s, my husband and I were new CMS missionaries working in a remote rural hospital in Tanzania. This was a time of severe rainfall and flooding, creating a knock-on effect set in motion by the El Nino. First affected were roads, bridges and railways which isolated towns and communities and affected our ability to buy goods at the market. Long distance transport and travel was impossible. And at the same time, HIV-AIDS was spreading along truck routes throughout the region, so much so that whenever trucks were stuck at the broken river crossings — and they were frequently — it would often lead to large clusters of new outbreaks.

Then, in the wake of the exceptional rainfall, water- and insect-borne tropical illnesses began to spike, affecting people around us. Cholera, malaria, typhoid and typhus as well as the usual cough and colds and pneumonias hit the people in our area hard, an area where people were continually cold and wet.

This then affected crops, which either perished or could not be transported to market. The fun and colour of the travelling market stopped, because of the roads and the risk of the spread of disease, so there were no goods available. Even those who usually sold second hand-clothes, plastic wares, cheap electronics or vegetables seemed to disappear. Livelihoods were frozen and many people went hungry. There was nothing to buy and no money even to pay for medicines or hospital fees.

A sense of darkness fell over the whole area … literally, as people conserved lamp kerosene by not lighting their lamps.

As missionaries, we had dry homes and food because of the generous support from churches back home. But in many ways, we felt the effects of being on the far side of the river, trapped by a flood that went on for months. And as part of the hospital staff, along with our family, my husband and I were exposed extensively to illness.

It was a grim time, which sometimes felt hopeless.

I didn’t think it could get much worse until I also began to hear about parents carrying children sick with malaria on their backs to the hospital. One after another, a mother untied her child from her back and laid them on the examination table for triage, only to discover the child had tragically, already died. Many others arrived too sick to help.

One day the cholera ward was washed out and the water went into the garden and the gardener died. Several missionaries in Tanzania also died from malaria complications. As health workers, all of us missionaries at the hospital experienced life threatening complications from typhoid, severe and overwhelming infection from contaminated drip, severe elevated blood pressure from typhus, and adverse reaction from a malaria treatment which wiped out the body’s white cells.

And yet through God’s kindness, every single person on our team recovered.

“Though we are incredibly small and inadequate in the face of overwhelming human suffering and need, our God is greater. Always. ”

As missionaries of the Good News, we had engaged in the theory of cross-cultural training but living through a crisis such as this exposed us to our human frailty: physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Really, there can be no adequate preparation for such events. And if we do not have a category for processing the fragile, unpredictable and fleeting nature of our world, we will struggle to adjust.

For me, the process of adjustment that my husband, colleagues and I went through has taught me that no matter the trouble that comes, God remains with us.

Today as we face the global challenge of coronavirus, I’m reminded of that time in Tanzania, and these truths have emerged for me, truths which I hope will encourage you as well:

  1. Though we are incredibly small and inadequate in the face of overwhelming human suffering and need, our God is greater. Always.
  2. As a follower of Jesus, I began to function better when I simply accepted the situation God had placed us in. That was not to say I liked it, but it simply was. God works within whatever circumstance we face and directs us to his eternal reality, not feeding our delusions or unattainable desires, but always pulling us toward him, our Rock and our Refuge.
  3. I learned how important it is to arrive mentally and emotionally – in whatever situation I was led to – accepting what I found. I learned to make a deliberate choice to be fully present and available to the Lord. When we do this, we are no longer divided within ourselves, as highlighted in James 1:2-8.
  4. I realised that God could use me in my weaknesses, even when we were bedraggled or despairing. Simply turning up was important.
  5. When we made ourselves available, God did use us, as Paul wrote in Romans 8:26: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” Sadly, we were too slow in responding to the need for outside medical intervention when we ourselves became ill and did not understand when something needed escalating.Today, I’m aware of how important it is to respond immediately to medical help when we need it. We needed to find a more nuanced balance and give ourselves permission to ask for help.Today’s situation requires the same.
  6. We realised that there was no triumph or victory. In our situation, many people died and we ourselves were weak and frail vessels. Still, the extraordinary events threw us on the rich resources of scripture, and we discovered (in chastened pride and costly humility) the depth and sufficiency of God that is far harder to comprehend in ordinary time.

As we searched the scripture then, and even as we do now, two passages which gave me particular courage were Isaiah 43:1-3, and 2 Corinthians 1:8-9:

“But now, this is what the Lord says— he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel:
‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God,  the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour;
I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead.’” (Isaiah 43:1-3 NIV).

And from the apostle Paul: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” (2 Corinthians 1:8,9 NIV)

During this potentially difficult time, may we rely not on ourselves, but on the Risen Lord Jesus who is faithful and doesn’t abandon us as we serve and love others!

Kate Bradford lectures in Advanced Pastoral Care at Moore Theological College, where she is also a chaplain to students. Kate was Anglicare Chaplaincy Coordinator at Westmead Children’s Hospital and before that was a CMS missionary in Tanzania. During her 2018 ADM Senior Research Fellowship, Kate completed original research on Pastoral Theology from a Reformed Evangelical perspective. Connect with Kate on her blog Pastoral Thinking

*First published at Deaconessministries.org.au, and used with permission

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