This Easter, I started a new phase of ministry – working for the international Christian disaster relief organisation, Samaritan’s Purse, which is run by Billy Graham’s son, Franklin. The pandemic made it a strange time to start a new ministry. Three months on, I still haven’t met any of my new colleagues in person, but I have received an insight into the way Christians are responding to Coronavirus all around the world.
On 17 March, while airlines around the world were cancelling flights, Samaritan’s Purse sent their DC-8 aircraft from North America to Cremona, Italy, into the heart of the Italian epidemic. Onboard was a 68-bed Emergency Field Hospital made up of 14 tents, 20 tonnes of medical equipment, and a respiratory care unit. Within 72 hours, the facility was receiving patients that could not be accommodated in the local hospital.
Alongside all the equipment were nearly 70 doctors, nurses and respiratory specialists, from all over the world, including the UK. Around that time, we in the UK were beginning to learn to wash our hands for 20 seconds. In Cremona, the Samaritan’s Purse staff dedicated every 20 seconds to intentionally praying for each of their patients.
Why did they rush into the danger zone? One responder spoke for the team: ‘We’re all motivated by a desire to love like Jesus loves, to be his hands and feet and to be the miracle in darkness.’
‘They really believe in Jesus’
The patients sensed that desire too. One, Umberto, was among the first intensive care patients treated by Samaritan’s Purse in Cremona. He was on a ventilator, and at the time, no coronavirus patients from ICU at Cremona Hospital had survived. Samaritan’s Purse doctors and nurses prayed for a miracle. They prayed that Umberto would be one of many patients to walk out of their ICU as a living testimony to the healing power found in Christ.
After more than two weeks on life support, that prayer was answered. Umberto woke up and was finally able to breathe on his own. He was overjoyed to be met with the smiling faces of our medical staff who had cared for him. Though he had been mostly unconscious during his time in the ICU, he heard team members praying over him and reading the Bible. That continued, even more so, once he was alert and removed from life support.
‘Everything was about Jesus,’ Umberto said. ‘Everything they do, I could feel that they didn’t do it only because they are nurses and doctors but also because they really believe in Jesus.’
Another patient, Francesco, was kept alive by a ventilator for 36 hours. He says his experience in intensive care changed his life. ‘I couldn’t imagine so many people praying for me, and all this love around me’, he said. Before he left the hospital, a chaplain from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association shared the gospel, and he prayed to receive Christ as his Saviour.
The new normal
Two weeks later, while the hospital in Italy was still full of patients, Samaritan’s Purse set up a second field hospital, this time in Central Park, New York. At the time, New York was the epicentre of the US epidemic and had seen around 3,000 deaths. More than 300 patients were treated in six weeks, with more than 240 staff on duty at different times.
Since then, the response to COVID-19 has continued. Here in the UK, Samaritan’s Purse is partnering with hundreds of local churches. They’ve supplied nearly 150,000 masks, 120,000 gloves and more than 2 tonnes of hand sanitiser, along with £100,000 worth of financial support. Churches and organisations to have benefitted include Brackla Tabernacle in Bridgend, Highfields Church in Cardiff and Birmingham City Mission.
The amount of work done by churches across the UK during this crisis has been incredible. Hundreds of churches have been providing hot meals and food packages for the homeless, vulnerable or impoverished. Others have provided support to key workers, or delivered medicines to those shielding at home. Why do they do it? One group of Christians, based in Barnet, are delivering free lunches to older vulnerable people. ‘We want to demonstrate to older, vulnerable people in practical ways that they are precious in God’s sight and have not been forgotten while they are compelled to self-isolate,’ they said.
Such help can be life-saving. The aptly-name Lifeline Larder in Chelmsford told Samaritan’s Purse, ‘We’ve been supporting an elderly lady in our community who had just had a hip operation. Her daughter couldn’t visit her, so we have been providing physical and emotional support. When we last called she didn’t answer… we found her lying on the floor with a broken leg and neck. We worked with the emergency services, and she was taken into hospital. If someone hadn’t been there to check on her, she would have died.’
Help around the world
Elsewhere in the world, the situation is yet more critical – and was even before coronavirus struck.
In India, millions of migrant families have lost their income and their homes. Some were forced to walk hundreds of miles to return to their homeland. ‘Hunger will kill us before coronavirus,’ said one desperate migrant. Samaritan’s Purse and its partners have distributed emergency food to around 15,000 men, women and children. These packages include rice, oil, dhal, eggs, noodles and spices – along with soap and masks to help keep families safe.
A similar crisis is looming in Cambodia. There, Samaritan’s Purse has opened a Migrant Access Centre. It has kept thousands safe from human traffickers who exploit migrants’ desperation and lead people into modern-day slavery. The Centre is now also on the frontline of the global crisis. They helped as many migrants – tens of thousands of people – in two months as they normally see in a year. Staff provide access to medical care and emergency food, but they also pray with migrants and share the good news of Jesus Christ.
In Syria, nearly 12 million people have been displaced and the health system was beyond breaking point even before COVID-19. A clinic, supported by Samaritan’s Purse, and staffed by Syrian doctors and nurses who themselves are internally displaced people is providing free care to children and adults. Across the country, Samaritan’s Purse has distributed 3,000 tents and 700 tons of food to internally displaced people, with around 3,000 families receiving monthly rations.
What all this teaches us
It’s easy to see this pandemic as a threat, but it’s more than that. It’s an opportunity to renew our trust in Christ and demonstrate afresh how Christ’s love overflows from our hearts.
Darren has only 51% kidney function, and during lockdown he had needed to visit his GP. While there, he overheard that they had run out of face masks, so were unable to see more patients that day. He promptly donated some of his own, which had been supplied by Samaritan’s Purse to help him continue his work among local vulnerable people. Unknown to Darren, at that moment, a colleague of mine who knew his ‘at risk’ status had shipped him extra FFP2 masks to ensure even more protection. He received the call letting him know these were on their way just minutes after he left the GP.
In the face of a global pandemic, Darren’s generosity with his face masks, and God’s subsequent provision, seems like a drop in the ocean. But it reminds us of something crucial about God’s people, about God himself, and therefore about the gospel too. As Christians, we’re called to make daily sacrifices – to put Christ first and to serve others. We’re promised that when we do so, the Lord will provide for all of our needs. That’s Darren’s testimony, and the testimony of millions of others, but is it ours? Often, God so ordains things that we only see his provision after we have made a step of faith and an act of sacrifice. If we don’t take that step of faith, we may never see his provision, and our faith may never grow. But when we actively trust him and obey him, we will discover again that he is Jehovah Jireh, the Lord who provides.
Photo courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse