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Remaining in "SARS-land" demonstrates mission motivation


May 21, 2003
-by Lynda Hollinger-Janzen

Chris Suderman gets his temperature taken before entering school grounds.

Hong Kong.— Although new cases of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) continue to break out in Hong Kong, life is slowly returning to a tentative normalcy with schools opening their doors after a month-long interruption of classes.

"Out on the streets, Hong Kong looks very different," said mission worker Susan Wade. "About 70 percent of those who are out and about are wearing face masks, but there are many fewer people out.

"Where shopping used to be the No. 1 form of entertainment, now people only go out if they have to. Restaurants are nearly empty. You can almost always get a seat on the train or subway and we haven't seen traffic congestion in weeks."

Wade reported that hotel occupancy is reduced by 85 percent compared with normal bookings during this season, and that a massive layoff is expected for airline employees.

"It's amazing that a virus that has infected such a tiny percentage of the population can do so much damage economically because of worldwide fear," Wade said. "Approximately two-tenths of 1 percent [of the population is] infected. One hundred times that number die in Hong Kong each year of typical pneumonia and influenza.

"We do believe that the government's efforts to stop the spread of the virus have had an impact on keeping the numbers low, and we don't want to diminish the risk that it could become an epidemic if left unchecked."

When questioned about the possibility of leaving Hong Kong, as many expatriates have done, Wade said, "At this time, we feel it is best to stay here. We want to stand by our friends and coworkers, who don't have a choice but to ride it out. We are trying not to be prideful about staying, not just assuming that 'good missionaries' will stay through thick and thin, but [we want to be] listening to God and following His leading."

Jointly supported by Mennonite Church Canada and Witness Mennonite Mission Network, Andrew and Susan Wade with their two sons have served in Hong Kong since 1999. Their main ministry is with Grace Mennonite Church, one of three Mennonite churches in Hong Kong.

In China, a drastic change swept over the country after the government announced on April 20 that the threat of SARS was more serious than had previously been acknowledged.

Rod Suderman, who shares administrative responsibilities for China Educational Exchange in Beijing with his wife, Kathi, describes the giant billboards springing up throughout the city. "One portrays a picture of a clenched fist with the slogan, 'SARS will surely be conquered by our government under the leadership of the Communist Party of China.'"

The Sudermans, of Saskatchewan, have worked in China with their three children since 1998.

The closing of Chinese schools greatly impacts Mennonite Church Canada Witness personnel, many of whom are teachers with CEE - a partnership of several Mennonite agencies and Chinese educational institutions. Resident schools continue classes, although the campuses are under quarantine. Several CEE teachers have seen students scaling university walls to avoid the guards posted at the gates.

Todd Hanson, who teaches at West China Normal University in Nanchong, asked his sophomore composition students to write an essay on how to have fun without leaving campus. "Imagine the campus is a jail and try to escape" was one variation on the most popular topic. Other titles included "Keep a Mosquito as a Pet" and "Watch for UFOs and hope for an alien to appear with a vaccine for SARS".

A friend warned Jeanette Hanson not to return to Canada because of the danger of SARS. From Saskatchewan, the Hansons and their two daughters have served in China since 1991.

"Living in SARS-land certainly has its frustrations, but we are trying to go about our daily activities with a sense of humor," Rod Suderman said.

With few people venturing out into the streets, market vendors are desperate to sell their produce. One day a vegetable vendor enthusiastically greeted Rod Suderman. The vendor said he would give Suderman a good deal because he had not left the country like many other foreigners. A bystander quipped, "Foreigners who are staying in Beijing should get their produce free!"

With popular remedies that range from vinegar steam and garlic to the chain smoking of cigarettes, Witness workers all report that the good news in countries afflicted with SARS consists of knowing a God who says, "Fear not."

"When folks express surprise that we have remained in Beijing rather than returning to our home country during this SARS crisis, we have had the opportunity to tell them that it's because we feel this is where God wants us to be," Suderman said.

Mennonite Church Canada Witness supports 110 workers and has ministries in 42 countries.