The response of Anglican churches and other faith communities to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa can serve as a model for addressing other epidemics, the Anglican Alliance heard this week.
The Bishops of the Dioceses of Bo and Freetown in Sierra Leone and of Guinea joined representatives from partner agencies and link dioceses at a meeting convened by the Alliance to explore lessons learned and how they might be applied to similar crises elsewhere.
One learning was immediately clear: the churches must be involved as partners by the government, the UN and other agencies.
“The Ebola response underlines the unique and vital role of the churches in preventing and responding to such an epidemic,” said Dr Janice Proud, Anglican Alliance Relief and Programme Manager.
She lifted up findings of Keeping the Faith: the role of faith leaders in the Ebola response, a report commissioned by four faith-based agencies that showed there was significant delay in engaging faith communities as active partners – a delay that may have cost thousands of lives.
“We tried to engage . . . but we were not treated with seriousness [at the beginning],” commented Bishop Emmanuel Tucker, Diocese of Bo.
The report documented the trajectory of the virus, which showed that the sharp decline in its spread was associated with the time that the faith leaders became centrally engaged in the response.
Once they were involved, however, the report found that leaders were transformational due to their trusted, respected long-term presence in communities and their ability to contextualise the response to take into account local beliefs and traditions.
They were advocates for and modelled positive change. They paved the way for health staff to get access to the community. They were strong voices for prevention and against stigma. They brought back a humanity to the clinical and dehumanising process for safe burials. In the later stages of the epidemic, faith leaders were permitted to stand and pray with families at a safe distance, while the burial teams, in protective body suits and masks, buried the deceased.
“Faith leaders used the Scriptures to think about how you treat people as children of God, with faith and dignity,” remarked Geoff Daintree, Church Advocacy Advisor at Christian Aid, a co-sponsor of the report.
Participation of faith leaders
At the Anglican Alliance meeting, participants noted the growing awareness of the need for faith communities to be involved in humanitarian response as true partners not just instrumentalised as communication channels or service deliverers. Through dialogue, faith leaders can become central in promoting positive change and planning for recovery.
The Ebola tragedy was a very powerful wake-up for the UN agencies on the need to engage faith leaders, said the Revd Canon Flora Winfield, Anglican Communion Representative to the United Nations institutions in Geneva.
The Anglican Alliance will continue to work together with the Communion’s UN representation to advocate for the inclusion of faith leaders in emergency response and recovery planning. The World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016 will be a key platform.
Transforming fear into hope
The faith leaders in countries affected by Ebola saw that they needed to engage in dialogue and reach out across “tribe, mission and religion” to create awareness of the issues, Bishop Emmanuel noted. “We [recognised that we] are challenged to work together, we should be united in reaching out and finding a way to get rid of the disease.”
Involving all faith and traditional leaders was crucial. “[In Muslim-majority areas] it was very important to have the imam come so that people did not think we were coming to convert them,” the Rt Revd Jaques Boston, Bishop of Guinea and Guinea Bissau, commented.
This included civil authorities, Bishop Emmanuel added. “[We saw we needed to] go beyond [our usual partnerships] so that we could share what we have and get them involved in suppressing the spread of Ebola.”
“Medicine [men], those coming from church and mosque, politicians . . . we were able to strategise [together] and have a white paper that helped us,” said the Rt Revd Thomas Wilson, Bishop of Freetown.
Echoing the premise of World Vision’s Channels of Hope initiative, Bishop Emmanuel said it had been crucial to challenge the dominant narrative of fear with Scripture-based messages of hope in order to engage people.
“We need to give people hope at a time like this,” agreed Bishop Thomas, and highlighted the need for perseverance in this endeavour.
“To change [mentality] it is not just one Sunday preaching or one pastor or imam, it is real engagement,” he said, adding that often lay people such as catechists were instrumental in helping pastors to overcome fear with messages of hope.
Bishop Emmanuel recommended that the churches look at integrating how they are handling the response, talking about the issues and finding solutions within their normal programmes and ways of working.
Bishop Jacques urged churches to take very practical steps to prepare for possible crises by establishing emergency committees in every diocese, setting up regular training courses in health care and social support, and budgeting for disaster response so that there would be a financial reserve in the diocese upon which to draw immediately if needed.
Faith leaders also should emphasise that each person in the church has gifts to bring in such a situation. “Doctors, teachers – use the skills of everyone in the church,” said the Bishop of Bo.
The Church must take the lead in times like the Ebola crisis rather than waiting to be drawn into the response, Bishop Thomas noted. “Start small but do something.”
Janice Proud said the Alliance would continue to facilitate the mapping of responses to crises such as Ebola to determine the involvement of churches, agencies and link dioceses. This was particularly important in multi-country disasters like Ebola in order to bridge any gaps and avoid duplication, she added.
The Anglican dioceses in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia also had support from others in the Anglican family of churches and agencies, including diocesan companion links, while people all over the Communion joined in prayer.
The experience of the West African churches in responding to Ebola was very important for the Communion, said Anglican Alliance Co-Executive Director, the Revd Rachel Carnegie.
“The Alliance wants to explore how leaders in other places can tap into this learning for challenges in their own contexts, especially with disease epidemics,” Rachel said.