“Please don’t come to Mongolia.”
I have been asked to visit many countries, but Mongolia’s the only place I’ve been asked to avoid. In 2003 I was heading to Ulaanbaatar for a church conference. I was packed, I had my visa, but at the last minute the organizers asked me to stay home. Why? Because I was from Hong Kong, ground zero for the deadly SARS outbreak.
The SARS virus originated in China. But an infected doctor came across the border, passed the virus to tourists staying at the Metropole Hotel, and those travelers carried the virus to 26 nations. By the time the virus burned out, nearly 800 people had died.
It was a scary time for Hong Kong. Everyone wore masks. A colleague working three floors beneath my office caught the bug. Companies and schools closed down.
As a pastor, I had to ask an important question: Should we close the church for the duration of the outbreak?
Many pastors are facing the same decision today in regards to the coronavirus. They are getting calls and texts from concerned Christians suggesting they close doors and cancel services. What should they do?
At the time of the SARS outbreak, we were meeting in the heart of one of the busiest districts in Hong Kong. Walking from the subway to the church you could easily pass a thousand people. What if one of them was a SARS carrier?
It would’ve been a simple matter to close the church. No one would have argued with me. But after praying about it I came away with a strong conviction. “Unless we are ordered by the authorities to shut our doors for medical reasons, the church will always remain open for business.”
Would I make the same decision today? I’ve got four kids. In all honesty, it would be a tougher call.
Pastor, I am not going to tell you what you should do in your church – let each one be convinced in their own mind. But let me share four lessons I learned while leading a church in Hong Kong during the SARS outbreak:
1. Fear and paranoia will sideline more Christians than any virus
No one in our church got sick, but some folk hid in fear. A little anxiety is understandable, but crippling fear is something to overcome.
The thing with the coronavirus is it’s novel. We’ve never seen it before. In America and other rich societies, you are far more likely to die from the ‘flu than the coronavirus.
(UPDATE Jan 2021: That is no longer true. The Center for Diseases Control estimates as many 61,000 Americans die each year from the ‘flu. In 2020, five times as many Americans died from COVID-19. COVID is infectious and deadly.)
But COVID-19 is new. We don’t have a lot of immunity to it. At present, there is no vaccine. When a ‘flu virus spreads, it bumps into people who’ve had the ‘flu or who have been vaccinated. But when COVID spreads, there is much less resistance. How deadly is COVID-19? We really don’t know. It could be bad or it might burn out by summer. We would be wise to treat it as the infectious disease it is, but that’s no reason to hide in fear. Imagine if Jesus had been afraid of lepers!
2. Whenever people are afraid, racism will rear its ugly head
In Auckland this week, a Chinese doctor sneezed on a bus, and an old man yelled at her to “go home before you kill us all!” Never mind that we need good doctors or that this one was a Kiwi.
Look out for your Chinese neighbours. Be friendly to exchange students. Eat at a Chinese restaurant and support your local Chinese businesses. Be normal.
3. If you decide to close your doors “until this thing blows over”, keep in mind it might be a long time before you reopen
The SARS outbreak of 2003 lasted eight months. The Bird Flu epidemic of 2005 lasted twelve months. The West African Ebola virus that landed in the USA in 2014 was part of an epidemic that lasted two years. There is always something bad happening. If you are looking for reasons to close a church there are always plenty.
(UPDATE March 24, 2020: In New Zealand we have gone into total lockdown. Your country may have a similar rule soon. If not, you may face restrictions on the size of public gatherings. Which means the decision might be made for you. Have a plan. Live streaming, small groups, house meetings – like they did in the New Testament – are all good options. Here are some other fun things you can do in quarantine. And here’s something DL Moody would have done.)
The year 2003 was a frightening year for Hong Kong. Even so, the year was not without highlights. We kept our doors open as did most churches. In hindsight, we risked little. The real heroes of the day were the doctors and nurses. Unlike doctors in certain other countries, Hong Kong’s healthcare workers did not abandon their stations. Their courage under fire was an inspiration to us all.
One notable doctor went above and beyond the call of duty. Joanna Tse Yuen-man volunteered to work in a SARS ward and caught the virus after trying to resuscitate a patient. She died a month later on May 13, 2003.
Who was Joanna Tse? She was a Christian who laid down her life for a stranger. The public marveled at her sacrifice.
Joanna Tse shone in a dark time. After her death, her church printed booklets telling her story. These booklets went to schools, universities, and hospitals. If memory serves, they were also available in 7-11s. People snapped them up. The demand to hear Dr. Tse’s story was so great that the church had to print more booklets. In the end they printed something like a quarter of a million copies of her story.
The high demand to hear Dr. Tse’s story reveals a telling truth:
4. In times of darkness, people crave the light
In every crisis there is an opportunity and the coronavirus is our time to shine. You may not be asked to volunteer in an infectious ward, but you do have an opportunity to fight the related infections of fear, racism, and paranoia.
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