With COVID-19, fires in Australia and the western United States, locusts in East Africa, and the decampment to North America of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, 2020 has become a bitter byword for many. In Uganda, with schools closed, “dead year” is the epithet on everyone’s lips. But dead or no, the kingdom of God is never dormant, even in the dark and stillness of the grave.
As the coronavirus made landfall in Uganda in late March, supply chain interruptions in China and India caused the price of drugs and medical supplies to skyrocket. The demand for hand sanitiser went vertical overnight, and, in my role as the administrator for Akisyon a Yesu Presbyterian Clinic (AYPC), I spent weeks in frantic phone calls trying to procure enough hand sanitiser for the clinic and have it delivered despite most forms of transport being forced off the road.
Then came the masks. We attended multiple trainings where we were taught in pantomime how to don personal protective equipment because the real deal had not yet materialized. At every training, it was “arriving any day.” I tried daily to balance optimism and apocalyptic fire—to keep the clinic staff vigilant, but not so frightened that they deserted their posts (as had the staff at the hospital up the road). Every day brought new presidential directives, new scientific data about COVID, new questions about what was expected of our clinic during the pandemic. I spent my time combing newspapers, downloading World Health Organization guidelines, and communicating to the district health office, all in an effort to make sure that we were as prepared as possible for the coming storm.
This all looks like a flurry of activity, but it was merely flailing to keep above water. It did not serve any larger, forward-thinking purpose that missionaries are supposed to be taken up with. We relish words like “progress” and “growth,” and supporting churches are generally much happier to hear about a project completed or convert won than about how we decided to sit on our hands and do nothing.
One of the great ironies of this pandemic is the stum- bling way that advertisers have sought to inspire concern for public health. The biggest telecommunications company in Uganda put up ads with the slogan “Fight Corona Together” at a time when public gatherings of more than five people had been proscribed. Another poster from one of the health agencies showed two hands grasping each other, proclaiming “United We Will Defeat Corona.” What to make of these messages? And how do we show love and care for our neighbour when the disease we are battling is best fought by keeping our distance—when the rhetoric of a military campaign translates, practically, into an all-out retreat?
Early on, our family decided that we needed to take isolation seriously due to my work at the clinic. If COVID came to AYPC, we did not want to pass it on to our friends. Likewise, if mission members, far more mobile than most of our neighbours, were to become infected, we did not want COVID to pass into the community through us via the clinic. Thus, we stopped having guests in our home and furloughed our house help. We started emphasising to our children the need to keep hands to themselves, as if every day were a church service or a cross-country car ride.
We have tried to be clear in our intentions to our friends in the community, and thankfully many (though perhaps not all) have sympathized with their and our need to adapt to an extraordinary situation. Nevertheless, there remains a nagging sense that to retreat, or to sit still, cannot possibly be the right course of action for a missionary. In the midst of these doubts, I am reminded of what the psalmist says in Psalm 46—”The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” The extended image of the psalm is one of hunkering down, not out of fear, but out of a holy confidence in the strength of the walls. Outside is tumult and chaos and activity; inside, we are invited to “Be still and know that I am God.” In fact, the psalmist goes a step further. It is not merely God taking the buffeting of an out-of-control storm on our behalf; rather God is directing the upheaval. He is carrying his people safely through the deluge the way he carried Noah. Amidst the raging uncertainties of the world, we are undergoing a lifelong baptism as it were.
And so, we are brought to a choice—fight the roaring, foaming waters in our own strength, or surrender ourselves to be carried through. The mad dash to accomplish something in a dead year or the peaceful inactivity of faith. Without a doubt, I had plans this year, both personally and professionally. I had hoped to take much of our clinic’s record keeping electronic; I had hoped to send several empoyees for school or technical training. I had hoped to make more progress on new housing for the clinic staff. I am more than capable of railing against the inconveniences brought on by our nation’s lockdown. I have the choice to try and force my own vision for 2020 on reality—a choice which in a more mundane year, I would be sorely tempted to exercise. Instead, the psalmist encourages me to “Come and see what the Lord has done.” Unexpectedly, the best work I can do in this or any year is to maintain a faithful presence—to be a witness passing on what I have seen of God’s ongoing faithfulness.
In 2020, the recorded sermons sent out to our church members because of restrictions placed on organized worship have yielded interest from surprising quarters. Chloe, and I have also been blessed by the fledgling faith expressed in our children’s prayers. The clinic staff has risen to the challenge of this season and has demonstrated to the community our concern for their welfare by so simple an act as coming to work every day. And Chloe and I have had ample, if unusual, opportunities to minister to our workers and friends as well—by getting their groceries while public transport was shut down, by downloading and sharing sermons, by making the effort to telephone friends, by inviting one or two over to share a concern or a soda (or both) under our lemon tree. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, but in our current context, even remembering to wash our own hands can be a small demonstration of loving service and a reminder to our restless hearts that God will be exalted in the earth. It is often in our stillness that his glory is most strongly shown.
This article appeared in a slightly modified form in the December issue of New Horizons magazine.