Ebola, Australians and West Africa

Elder Terence Vinson, an Australian General Authority, tells how Mormons are coping with Ebola in West Africa

Elder Vinson, First Counsellor in the Africa West Area Presidency for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his wife Kay, have been stationed in West Africa at the time of the spread of the highly contagious Ebola disease. Having seen the Church react to the dangers in appropriate ways, and having witnessed the loss of life of some members due to the virus, he shares his experiences as a witness to the events in that region.

As Australians, serving in West Africa is one of the greatest blessings of our lives. As the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles require a General Authority to remain in the Area at all times, during this past July while the other two members of the Area Presidency were having their annual home leave, my wife, Kay, and I remained in West Africa. The Ebola virus was then a concern but had been contained outside the main metropolitan areas in Sierra Leone and Liberia where we have many Church members. We had relocated missionaries to the metropolitan areas and other parts of those countries where there had not been reports of Ebola spreading. 

In mid-July I was presiding at a YSA (Young Single Adults ages 18 to 30) convention in Liberia on a Saturday and attended a branch in Monrovia, the capital city, on the Sunday. During my address there, I stressed the reality and danger of Ebola and the need for members to take necessary precautions. Two weeks later, the first member death from Ebola was recorded from that very Branch.

Shortly thereafter, in the last week of July, my wife and I were conducting a mission tour of the Sierra Leone Freetown Mission. We had been in discussions with members of the Twelve in Salt Lake and with General Authority executives of the Missionary Department for several weeks because we feared that Ebola was beginning to be transmitted in more areas of Liberia and Sierra Leone.  Missionaries had been well instructed in precautions and forbidden from shaking hands with anyone, and from giving blessings other than to fellow missionaries. Half way through this mission visit, we received a call from the Missionary Department informing us that the Brethren had decided to immediately evacuate all missionaries from both countries. Although that was not easy to organize or carry out, we had been preparing for this contingency for many weeks and it occurred quickly.

All missionaries were reassigned by the Twelve to various missions, some to the other 12 missions in West Africa, principally in Nigeria and Ghana, but the majority, unfortunately, to missions outside our Area. Subsequent reports indicated that although the missionaries reassigned outside West Africa were safe, they greatly missed the ease with which investigators are found and taught in Sierra Leone and Liberia and, for that matter, in all the missions of West Africa. The two mission presidents were relocated briefly to Accra, Ghana, and subsequently released with honour after all their missionaries had safely arrived in their new missions.

Ebola has been largely contained to the two countries mentioned, together with Guinea where it originated but where we do not have missionaries or Church units. However, there have been several member deaths from the Ebola virus disease. We have lost 5 members to Ebola in Sierra Leone, and 8 in Liberia. These are extremely sad cases, especially   where several members of a family are lost. Just recently there were 3 deaths within one member family in Sierra Leone. The mother died first and then the father and baby, leaving the rest of the children orphaned. Those children are now out of quarantine and cleared as free from the virus. They attended Church last week for the first time since the deaths of their parents and are in the care of extended family.

The other significant, related issue in those countries is that many health workers there have died from the disease and those remaining are fearful. Hospitals have closed and when other sicknesses such as malaria, typhoid and cholera occur, or when someone is severely injured in an accident, there is no available care for them in those countries. This has led to many other, Ebola-unrelated deaths and too much unnecessary suffering.

The other challenge has been how to address the issue of missionaries from Liberia and Sierra Leone who reach the end of their missions and have no way of returning home, due to the withdrawal of airlines from flying to and from those countries. As an Area Presidency, we have been working with the Missionary Department and with the Perpetual Education Fund and Self Reliance Departments of the Church to work out how those missionaries might be effectively engaged in vocation-related training until they can safely return home. However, as the Lord would have it, one airline has just resumed flying to both countries from other parts of West Africa and it appears that we may be able to release them safely to their home countries in the next few days.

One of the amazing things is that missionary work has continued in both affected countries even though full-time missionaries are no longer there. Ward and Branch missionaries have taken up the slack and baptisms are still occurring in significant numbers in both Sierra Leone and Liberia. Just three weeks ago, in Makeni, a town in the centre of Sierra Leone about 140 kms east of the capital Freetown, 27 converts were baptized on just one Saturday. West African missions are rich in baptisms even now as Ebola is foremost in the minds of the people of the affected countries. Church members are also demonstrating great faith and even when quarantine or Government imposed curfews prevent them, on rare occasions, from attending Church they, with Area Presidency permission, are holding Sunday meetings in their homes. Home teaching and Visiting teaching are still taking place as they minister to each other. 

The Church provided a two month supply of rice, oil and hygiene supplies to members in September and are in the process of repeating that again now. Those supplies were shared with non-member neighbours in many cases and have been gratefully received.

As for the rest of our Area, we have Church units and many members in Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Benin and Togo. All of those countries are now free of Ebola and we feel absolutely no danger from it here in Accra, Ghana which is our home until the Brethren assign us elsewhere. In fact, I am anxious to get back to Sierra Leone and Liberia at the first opportunity because I have missed the people there and I feel a need to help them to know of our love and concern for them. 

We really do love the people and feel that we are able to be of help both in building the Lord’s Kingdom here and in helping individuals and families as we find that the Lord places us in a position to do so. That is one of the marvellous things about serving. We can actually feel that He has placed some people in our paths because He wants to use us to show them His love. I often (really often) feel in assignments I receive to stakes or missions here, or even when we visit wards and branches on unassigned Sundays, that Heavenly Father has sent Kay and I, even with my weaknesses and frailties, to bless someone in particular who especially needs to feel His love, right at that moment. It is a most humbling and beautiful feeling to know that Heavenly Father knows us and that He knows and loves His children and has sent us to bring them His comfort, peace and hope. 

But it has always been so. The real work is done one-on-one as it always has been. That is how the Saviour ministered and changed lives and it is how we do the same, no matter our calling or our location. All of us are here to love and bless others, one-on-one. Whether a bishop or a class teacher, whether a new member or a General Authority, the Lord’s real work is not really done by preaching to large groups, but rather by personally communicating the Saviour’s love individually. Real joy comes to the one ministering and the one being ministered to, as Heavenly Father uses you to touch another’s soul. Speaking to the world at General Conference is less important, and less fulfilling, than seeing the Saviour lift the burdens of another as He uses you. He puts love into your heart and words into your mouth.

We are so blessed to serve here in West Africa. We have no fear of Ebola, or of anything else. We know we are about the Lord’s work and, just as with every time in my life, He blesses us and even when some things seem like they might be hard, when they are done and we look back, we simply find that we are even deeper in His debt because there was nothing hard about it

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