Ministry and the Coronavirus Crisis
It feels unprecedented: a major public health crisis for which there is no known treatment; people being quarantined; travel restrictions; border closings; panic. It is unprecedented in my lifetime, and it is creating challenges for ministry. Recently, we asked our deacons to temporarily suspend hospital visits, our congregational worship service was conducted online, and our support groups are not currently meeting. I am guessing that these will not be the only adjustments that we will have to make in the days ahead. These decisions have not been made lightly and are following the recommendation of the health experts. In order to shorten the duration and the impact of the deadly virus, we must use all caution and prudence. Even though this feels unprecedented, it is not unprecedented for our state.
One of the signature events in the history of Tennessee was the yellow fever epidemic in Memphis in 1878. In July of that year, yellow fever was first diagnosed in Vicksburg, and Memphis, having experienced a yellow fever epidemic as recently as 1873, imposed a travel ban into the city. However, a quarantined steamboat worker, slipped into the city and into a Memphis restaurant. The restaurant owner, Kate Bionda, contracted the disease and died. Her death on August 13 was the first and when it was over, over 5,000 had died. Nearly half the population fled the city. The outbreak did not abate until the first frost in October and when it was over, Memphis was bankrupt and lost its city charter.
The heroes of this story were the doctors, clergy, and lay persons who put their own lives at risk to stay and tend to the sick. There is a monument at Martyrs Park in Memphis, overlooking the Mississippi river, to those brave individuals who chose to stay and who died.
Having lived in Memphis for 13 years, I was very aware of this story of tragic heroism. The current Coronavirus has caused me to wonder what I would do if I was faced with the same deadly challenge. I am not suggesting that if we are brave and faithful, we will dismiss the advice of the doctors to visit the sick and gather for worship. For one thing, in 1878, no one knew the cause of the virus. They would have been better able to minister and to prevent the spread of the disease of they had known. Instead, I am suggesting that this is a time to think creatively about what ministry can look like today.
If we do not visit the hospitals, we can certainly make pastoral care calls and pray. If we do not gather for worship, we can follow the service online. If we do not gather in LIFE Groups, we can use personal discipleship resources. If we are quarantined at home, we can develop family spiritual disciplines. If we become aware of individuals who are sick, we can pray and send messages of support.
Without becoming a martyr, I think we can be faithful ministers. No one may build a monument to our sacrifice, but we can get through this crisis with meaningful and effective ministry.