Ethiopia and Covid-19

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CONVID-19 UPDATE

Trent Pettit, March 23, 2020 

My return to Gambella has been delayed because of the outbreak of COVID-19. I am currently under self-quarantine for a couple weeks in Dallas. As of now, it remains uncertain as to how coronavirus will spread throughout Africa. Ethiopia, currently, has only 11 reported cases, though this number is expected to rise. Africa as a whole is not situated to contain the virus quickly when it begins to spread. The Gambella-region is particularly vulnerable because of its position on a very permeable border with South Sudan, which is without a functioning government. Gambella is, however, protected in some ways by heat and a younger population. Ethiopia’s infrastructure is limited and in many areas the doctor-patient ratio is dangerously low (Gambella’s is likely close to South Sudan’s, which is about 1: 60,000[1]). Millions of people in Africa are at risk simply because they remain out of communicative reach and so will not receive information or advanced warning. Returning soon is therefore not possible at this moment. Please join me in prayer for the people of the Gambella region and especially for the students at the college.

I had hoped to share this video about Gambella as I returned, but I share it with you now as a window into the ministry I hope to return to:

 

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In chapter four of Benedict’s Rule, he tells his monks to “To keep death before one's eyes daily.” We might think that the news alerts we receive on our phones and on t.v. are doing this kind of work for us, but they are not. Benedict’s prescription is part of the “spiritual art” of sanctification that enables the believer to prepare for judgement day, the glorious return of the Lord. Benedict cites 1 Corinthians 2:9 to describe those efforts one must take to “keep watch” over one’s actions, thoughts, and desires such that they might merit the reward God promised us (We can also think of Rom 12:2, 2 Cor 10:5, andPhil 4:8). By no accident the Book of Common Prayer recalls this aspect of the Rulein the Ash Wednesday service: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (BCP, 265). The Scriptural form of Benedict’s Rule and the Ash Wednesday service give us a helpful way to frame the constant updates we are receiving about the global spread of coronavirus. The news on its own cannot tell us how to order our lives in its light. The way that we respond to such news—which includes exercising the recommended precautions—is certainly part of Christian discipleship and witness.   

During this time of uncertainty and isolation from one another, I encourage you to take to prayer, especially for those who are especially vulnerable at this time: prisoners, those experiencing homelessness, those in need of addiction-recovery groups (e.g. AA), medical professionals, grocery store clerks, and the elderly. Perhaps this is one of the few means by which we might continue to serve one another and the world amidst social-distancing and mandatory shelter-in-place orders. We can also not stock-pile, exercise financial generosity, and phone our homebound neighbors.

Many of us in wealthy countries that have dependable infrastructure, medical, economic and otherwise, are in this season prone to think as if we live in a kind of “real Lent.” But now we all finally see what has been obscured from our view: the mortal shape of our lives. Indeed, the tone of many has turned apocalyptic amidst this viral threat, and perhaps the instinct to do so should not be too hastily dismissed. For example, consider the destructive nature of world-power economies, especially those of China and the United States, and the air and waterways connected to them that now get to experience what will inevitably be a short-lived sabbath. We will get back to “normal;” the status-quo of industry will be re-cranked with a predictably, economically-anxious fervor. How can God stand it? How dreadfully patient and merciful He has been.

Life’s uncertainty, mortality, is simply what daily experience feels like for most people in the world. That unrelenting sense of vulnerability is made worse exactly by those powers that make our mortality-forgetting “normal” possible. Many aspects of the technologically sustained routines that we so desperately hope to return to are exactly what makes life difficult for so many people. It it also to these that our prayers must turn during our season of “real Lent.” 

For those using the first prayerbooks in 16th-17th century England, life’s precariousness was a feature of daily existence that made the annual liturgical recall of our mortality during Lent a coherent existential vesture, exactly because it reminded them of their dependence on the Lord and reaffirmed their hope and desire for our deaths to occur “in Christ.” May this time in self-isolation for those of us in seemingly “Lent-free zones” be a kind of liturgical action that leads us after it, that is, in the light of Easter, into a greater commitment to those communities we take for granted, increase our service to those in need, and embolden our prophetic witness before destructive economic and even medical “Babels” (Gen 11:1-9).   

That we exist affirms the we do not belong to ourselves but to God. Our existence is pure gift, one given us by the Father. The creed tells us that we were created along with everything else “through” Christ. We are created by a God that has not abandoned us to suffer fallen existence. He has, rather, joined us in our human estate, which Scripture describes as “taking the form of a slave” (Phil 2:7). The mystery of God’s solidarity with his creatures is expressed in the incarnation by which he shares the experience of being both “wonderfully and fearfully made” (Psalm 139:14). This means that even in times of pestilence and plague, we can be so bold as to claim that God is in control.

We, who are for now blessed with health, may take the occasion that the limits coronavirus imposes on our daily lives to mortify our flesh, receiving the shape of Christ’s life into our mortal lives, including our deaths. Perhaps our Lenten journeys this season might take on the boldness of the Gospel of John’s depiction of Christ’s passion by, in prayer and the re-shaping our lives, we claim Christ’s victory even in the bowels of Sheol. “Keep death always before you,” and be not afraid. “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will cover me, and the light around me turn to night,’ darkness is not dark to thee, O Lord; the night is as bright as the day; darkness and light to thee are both alike” (Psalm 139:10, 11). 

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Almighty God, who sees that we have no power in our selves to help ourselves; Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Collect for the Second Sunday in Lent, BCP, 1662)

 

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Culture

After church on Sunday I had lunch with a group of Nuer pastors and parishioners in one of the neighborhood restaurants around the church. The restaurant was run by a family that cooked traditional Ethiopian food in their living room, and they even covered their thatch walls with colored visqueen to give it a more official, cafe vibe. A couple of these pastors and I got to talking about the different cultural taboos between Gambella and the West. Every culture has cultural taboos. For example, it is understood that at Thanksgiving you do not talk about politics, religion, or cars around your family. People usually laugh at the last one because we know that cars do not really matter; plus, it helps shift the conversation away from the uncomfortable subjects already mentioned, politics and religion. In Gambella, talking about politics is typical “coffee hour” stuff, however, if I were to suddenly ask someone who they were dating, I would be crossing a line. Oddly, though, the first question I have been asked by nearly every male in Gambella has been, “Where is your wife?”.

Amharic Service

Conversations about corruption, violence, and murder have been described to me as rather conventional topics; so I have had plenty of conversations about such things. I imagine there is a deep, underlying need to talk about these stark realities. Perhaps, “normalizing” these topics enables people to confront such things together without much immediate scandal. These topics tend not to be what animates typical “coffee hour” chit-chat in our churches in the West. We often like to think this is because “we” simply do not have such problems. Corruption (apart from that other party, of course), violence, and murder is, we think, an “African problem.” The Rev. Gah Dak, one of these Nuer pastors, however, said something to me in our conversation that I think suggests otherwise. He said, “Trent, you in the U.S. might have the individual, but we have society.” In other words, I think he was saying, “We might not have much, but at least we have one another. You, on the other hand, have a lot, but you do not have one another.”

Meat Store

The existential and social cost of Western individualism has been well documented by people like Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. In the West, at least since the 18th Century, have defined almost every aspect of our lives around the individual. Much of the way we talk about “freedom” in the West is defined in the negative, that is, in opposition to the kinds of communal bonds and obligations that the Sudanese require to live. We have imbibed the mythos of self-creation, where no other, not even God can tell us who we are or what we are to do. Our hostilities are reflected in the very way we, seemingly naturally understand ourselves, and to the point where an African priest can observe from afar and think: “look how strange they live.”  

The Church catholic is not immune to this hostility. The Church, after all, is often thought about as a “voluntary society,” an amalgam of those with a “common interest” that happens to be Jesus.  We are the Church insofar as we abide together with Christ. This not an idea. The Body of Christ was created at Pentecost; it is not an accident of the Ascension but is essential to it. By now, it is largely recognized that the Anglican “bonds of affection” is, at best, an anachronistic way of talking. True fellowship and shared mission have largely faded, and we are now a schismatic people. Sometimes we feel quite accomplished by what we have been able to sever, wheat and tares.  

And we hear from a distance, “This is my body, broken for you.”  

In the book of Ephesians, Paul describes the “lengths and widths” that God’s love has gone to establish unity between historic enemies, Jews and Gentiles, by making them one in Christ’s Body. Our disunity and hostility is such that we have become “aliens,” “strangers,” “far away” from God and one another, Paul says. Our conflicts are long and many, but God has overcome them, that is, us who were once “without hope and without God,” “dead,” as Paul says, in “our trespasses.”

Markato

Christ, is the Father’s Word spoken into history. Christ is the Word of Peace that the Father utters between every rivalry and hostility, uniting every member to His own Body. It is this love, Christ’s very presence among us, that is our very hope and strength. The power of Christ’s cross has and continues to traverse the extents of human sin and division, embracing us all in order to make us into one people with Him.

Paul explains throughout the letter that the Church has a special role in creation because it has a direct, intimate link with Christ. Together, Christ-in-His-Church, make up one corporate whole. The Church has Christ as its final hope along with all things; but, only humans participate in this divine mystery. Christ remains the Head of the Church and we are His members.

The Church is to be a visible, evidential sign of “Christ’s power at work in us,” “God’s handiwork,” in the midst of the powers of sin that continue to divide God’s creation by hostility and violence, including in our conventionalized forms of it in the West. The Church is thus to be a witness to the reality that the world’s present will not look like its end, exactly because Christ has made us, who were once “foreigners and strangers,” “fellow citizens” with God, a new humanity. Be that Jew, Gentile, Sudanese, North American, the Anglican Communion—Christ’s reconciling presence is now and will finally lead all of creation into the Father’s everlasting embrace.

“To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

I am finishing my last week of Amharic language classes this week, after which I will be going to Guelph, Ontario, to attend a missionary training program for a couple weeks. I hope to make my way back to Gambella in time for Easter. Because the Church has grown so much in Ethiopia it is on its way to being made a diocese of its own. In fact, the construction of Good Shepherd Cathedral began in Gambella just this week. We have raised half of what we need to fund full construction, which we hope will be completed in June! If you would like to contribute funds to help with the construction costs you can do so here. We are always try to get people to donate lightly used clothes for people in the Gambella region, so please consider giving generously to that fund as well.

Friends, thank you greatly for your continued prayerful support.  

Trent Pettit

 

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This blog is written by Trent Pettit who is going through the ordination process in the Dallas diocese. He's currently serving at St. Frumentius Theological College in Gambella, Ethiopia, and will provide occasional dispatches of his ministry there.