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Mission continues in midst of SARS crisis

Becky Butt and Sandy Lo lead worship at Grace Mennonite Church in Hong Kong. Photo by Andrew Wade.

May 5, 2003
-by Lynda Hollinger-Janzen with Dan Dyck

Mennonite Church Canada—SARS spreads fear. Although other diseases kill more people daily on our planet, the unknowns fling this mystery illness, known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, into the headlines.

Some agencies are repatriating their personnel. Mennonite Church Canada and partner Mennonite Mission Network has 21 workers - 12 adults and nine children - in the two regions hardest hit by SARS, mainland China and Hong Kong. So far these workers are planning to stay.

The Hong Kong mission team partners with the Mennonite Churches in Hong Kong. One outreach ministry is an after-school tutoring program called Helping Hands Centre, which is a ministry of Agape Mennonite Church. Cindy and Tim Buhler, of Abbotsford, British Columbia, and their two daughters have been home-schooling with the help of a newly developed educational web site since the government closed schools until April 28.

The need to be involved in the children's learning experience has reduced the time available for ministry outside the home, and sometimes the family feels cramped in its small city apartment. "You cannot just send the children into the basement or outside to play," Tim Buhler said.

Although many public gatherings are canceled and thousands of people confine themselves to their apartments, the Agape congregation decided to go ahead with its worship services as an act of faith. As worshipers enter the church building, they are required to wash their hands thoroughly and don a mask for the service.

Agape canceled some of its activities for young children, but SARS has actually presented an opportunity to expand its youth ministries. The youth group that usually meets only on Saturday has been meeting three times weekly. "Some of the group said they were bored being off school and asked if they could have extra meetings," Buhler said.

Helping Hands Centre continues to offer its services to the children of working parents. More than half of the 40 students still come to the centre where masks are required apparel.

"For safety reasons, most of our team members choose to wear masks while out on public transit and in crowded areas," Buhler said. "Is wearing a mask being fearful? Wearing a mask may be more than what is needed at this time, but for myself who is out more than my family, I would not want to bring SARS home with me."

One Agape family self-quarantined themselves as their daughter's classmate became ill with SARS. Other families are living in apartment complexes where SARS has broken out.

"The biggest role the church can play at this time is to dispel unnecessary fear," Buhler said. "Yes, there is a risk of catching the disease and we need to protect ourselves, but we cannot live in fear, as it is so easy to do at this time. I speak for myself. I go through periods of fear for my family, but, as believers in Hong Kong, we trust in the Lord for peace, safety and protection.

"Our message at this time must be the internal peace that comes from knowing no matter what may come our way, we - as believers - are found in Jesus. Hong Kong needs to hear so much this message of peace and love.

"The Christian churches are calling for fasting and prayer for our situation. Please continue to pray for safety for our churches and for the people of Hong Kong. Pray that God may be glorified, even in this time of crisis. Pray that many may come to faith in Jesus in this time of trial," Buhler said.

Mennonite Church Canada Witness teachers with China Educational Exchange, a partnership of several Mennonite agencies and Chinese educational institutions, haven't experienced the shock waves that are rocking many parts of East Asia.

"We're stuck out in the boonies in Sichuan here, and SARS hasn't had much of an impact" said Todd Hanson. "Our younger daughter's babysitter hadn't heard of it yet, but the grandmother of one of our older daughter's friends had heard of it, but couldn't remember what it was called." Jeanette and Todd Hanson with their two daughters are from Saskatchewan.

On April 5, the American government announced that all 72 Peace Corps teachers stationed in China, most of them in Sichuan, were required to return to the United States. "This year there are no Peace Corps teachers at our college, but some CEE teachers did have Peace Corps colleagues," Hanson said. "I imagine it must have felt a little disquieting to say goodbye to a neighbor who is being medically evacuated by military transport when you are staying right where you are."

CEE had a conference in Hong Kong during the spring festival period. After the conference, the Hansons and several other teachers stayed for a day or two at a guesthouse just across the street from the Metropole Hotel, where several people contracted SARS. "We checked out of the [guesthouse] a few days before the Chinese doctor who had SARS checked in to the Metropole," Hanson said. "I hope that's as close as we get to the disease."

CEE's program coordinator and Witness worker, Kathi Suderman, said, "We have been monitoring the SARS situation. Putting into perspective that the virus affects fewer people than regular pneumonia, that the rate of death due to SARS is lower than the rate of death due to regular pneumonia, and that cases have been found in both the USA and Canada, we have not decided to ask CEE workers to return to North America, as some other organizations have done.

"We are grateful that CEE workers are reacting in a calm manner. We have sent out information on SARS to CEE workers and are encouraging them to keep informed and to take safety precautions."

Kathi and Rod Suderman share administrative responsibilities for CEE in China. The Sudermans, of Saskatchewan, have served in China with their three children since 1998.

Chris and Lois Leuz, whose home congregation is Doylestown (Pa.) Mennonite Church, teach at Chongqing Medical College. Chris, a doctor, reported a recent conversation with a nurse. "She could not understand why there is such a fuss about SARS in the West when she sees patients die every day from regular pneumonia in our hospital, but not from SARS," Chris Leuz said.

"She also mentioned that when you consider more than a billion people in China, not that many have gotten SARS. Actually in Chengdu, according to the public health bureau, there have been no cases of SARS. So we say, 'What SARS scare?'

"Personally, I think that the real story is in Hong Kong. The missionaries there are living with a threat of SARS and it does affect their lives daily. They still continue to attend church and share with their church members the risk that involves. They could all have decided to flee Hong Kong, but they continue their witness there."

The Hong Kong Mennonite mission team, jointly supported by Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network includes the following workers: Tim and Cindy Buhler from Northview Community Church, Abbotsford, B.C., Andy and Susan Wade from Evergreen Mennonite Church, Bellevue, WA., and Shauna Klassen from Cornerstone Vineyard Community Fellowship, Winkler, MB. The Hong Kong team also includes workers from Eastern Mennonite Mission, and the Philippine, Indonesian and Honduran Mennonite Churches. Mennonite Church Canada Witness has ministries in 42 countries.

Sidebar: SARS and Worship

Susan Wade, mission worker supported by MC Canada Witness, recently provided an update on the impact of SARS on worship life in Hong Kong Mennonite Churches. She writes:

"Our congregations still meet but with extra precautions. Agape Church, which is in the area first hit by SARS, requires face masks; Grace Church makes them optional but provides them for all as they walk in the door and encourages everyone to wash their hands; Hope Church has decided to leave it up to individuals completely.

“The youth are still attending youth groups; in fact, the youth at Agape asked if they could meet a few extra times during the week because they were bored at home. We did cancel Communion this month as we weren’t quite sure how to do it safely. Our Messianic Passover service on Friday was served by the three pastors wearing masks. Our Easter Sunday Love Feast was prepared by church members at the church and served by the deacons and pastors, rather than setting all of the food out potluck style and letting everyone breathe on all of it! There’s an obvious positive spirit — and the face masks and creativity required to manage this seem to have even added some fun to our gatherings."

Sidebar: Elsewhere in Asia…

Witness workers Todd and Jeanette Hanson report “rumours” of SARS where they minister in Nanchong. Through their college level English instruction (Todd) and social welfare projects (Jeanette), they provide a Christian presence and contact for students. Jeanette recently wrote:

“The college is in some limited lockdown. (Daughter) Claire lost most of her classmates when it was decreed that only on-campus children could attend. Even then the kids have their temperature taken morning and afternoon. Our students are strongly discouraged/barred from leaving campus. Everyone is forbidden to leave Nanchong. The week long May holiday is reduced to one day and classes are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday following so students don't sneak out for a long weekend. People are wearing masks and not going into town much. Outside of the college it seems to be life as usual although even at church on Sunday, numbers were way down.”

Curiously Macau seems to have escaped SARS thus far, report Witness workers George and Tobia Vieth, with no confirmed reports form the media or doctors. In a recent email, the Vieths wrote “… it is very peculiar that all areas around Macau are affected by SARS, but Macau isn’t, given the usually high amount of human traffic between Hong Kong and Macau and between China and Macau. We are ever so thankful to God for this peculiar grace.”