Reflections from an Epidemiologist on Loving Our Neighbor
Interview with Dr. Allison Ruark
Jamie Aten & Kent Annan
In the task of reopening churches, we need to be seeking the advice and counsel of public health experts. This valuable input can help church leaders balance safety and faithfulness while making these difficult decisions as they seek to best love others through their planning. In this interview, an epidemiologist shares some thought-provoking reopening reflections drawn from her work.
Dr. Allison Ruark holds a Ph.D. in International Health from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and is a newly appointed Assistant Professor of Applied Health Science at Wheaton College. She has worked extensively in African nations, including seven years living in Southern Africa, and has published numerous articles on HIV and couple relationships in Africa.
JA: Why did you become an epidemiologist?
AR: Epidemiology is about figuring out why people are suffering from disease and poor health. I am an epidemiologist because I fundamentally believe that God wants people to experience abundant life, including health. I realize we will never entirely eradicate disease, violence, and other threats to health until Jesus comes again to restore us to the perfect shalom of his original creation, yet so much of what causes disease and poor health can be prevented. As an epidemiologist, my job is to be attuned to all the ways a broken creation is negatively impacting people’s health—from damaged relationships between people to environmental degradation to poverty and lack of justice—and to be attuned to how God wants to bring healing and restoration so his beloved creation can flourish.
I stumbled into epidemiology almost 20 years ago because I found an issue I really cared about—HIV in Africa—that I wanted to understand and find solutions for. Over the years, I’ve worked on a number of other issues, including violence against women and girls, couple relationships, and family planning. I’m continually propelled by the conviction that so much human suffering could be avoided if we would simply treat our bodies and each other as God intended. I feel the same conviction in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic. There’s nothing inevitable about the path this pandemic is taking in the United States and the world, and we can prevent so much sickness and death if we simply commit to loving our neighbors well in this situation. This isn’t a message of judgment, but one of hope and freedom.
KA: What would you say to church leaders today who are thinking through reopening their churches?
AR: The Bible has some very direct words about preferring others above ourselves and laying down our rights for the sake of our brothers and sisters (e.g. Philippians 2, Galatians 5). I think we all need to be thinking not in terms of, “What are my rights?” but rather in terms of, “What are the needs of my brother and sisters and how can I lay down my rights in love and service?” I don’t just mean that we’re called to love people we personally know, although the recent death of 17-year-old Carsyn Davis from COVID-19 after she apparently caught the virus at a large church party is a tragic reminder that the decisions made by church leaders could literally cost the lives of their church members.
Reopening churches too soon or in ways that aren’t safe may also contribute to the spread of the virus and COVID-19 deaths in our communities, and church leaders need to be thinking about how to love their neighbors (inside and outside the church) as they make those decisions. Of course, a path of caution will have a cost, but when does love and service not have a cost? Unfortunately, gathering hundreds of people indoors (even with masks or distance between them) is inherently high-risk, and I think churches should be some of the last institutions to re-open, at least for indoor services. Maintaining fellowship from a distance is not ideal, but I think we can trust God to continue to draw us into fellowship with each other and himself, even as we do our utmost to love our neighbors by preventing the spread of the virus in our communities.
JA: What is the primary takeaway you hope lay readers will learn from reading your piece?
AR: I want to encourage my brothers and sisters in Christ to take courage and have hope even as we soberly confront the reality of this pandemic. God has empowered each one of us to be part of his work in the world, including working toward ending this pandemic. We all have a part to play, whether we’re frontline healthcare workers, stocking grocery store shelves, or simply putting on a mask as we walk out the front door (hopefully joyfully rather than begrudgingly!). I realize this pandemic has been devastating for so many of us, whether we have been sick ourselves or lost a loved one, lost a job or financial security, or suffered loneliness and isolation. I have found the last few months to be extraordinarily difficult and have had many anxious thoughts and sleepless nights as I have watched this disaster unfold across the world. Speaking as an epidemiologist, I don’t see a lot of reason for optimism that this pandemic will end quickly or without massive further loss of life. Speaking as a Christian, I think we are called to hold fast to hope no matter how hopeless things seem. We serve a sovereign God who is at work in the world, and who wants to see this scourge end even more than we do, so let’s pray and work with him, and with hope.
KA: What are some insights from your research that could help readers support their churches or their pastors?
AR: I am an epidemiologist but not a virologist, so I look to the real experts in terms of understanding this pandemic and how the virus spreads. I plead with my fellow Christians to trust the experts, and encourage their churches and pastors to do the same. I have been deeply dismayed to see the conspiracy theories that have taken root during this pandemic among Christians, the anti-science sentiments, and the distrust of scientists and medical experts, including institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Those experts are part of my professional community, and I trust them. I strongly believe that, as a whole, they are knowledgeable, trustworthy, and have no agenda except to minimize suffering and save lives. I know (personally or by reputation) many Christians working in public health and disease control, including Robert Redfield, head of the CDC. So rather than attacking the scientists and experts, let’s thank God for them and their hard work and service, heed their message, and pray for them (Christian or not).
JA: What Bible story or passage has been speaking into your life recently?
AR: Maybe not surprisingly, the passage that has been speaking to me recently is about suffering. In , the people of Israel are on the cusp of entering the promised land, and God is speaking to them about the 40-year journey they have just been through. God reminds them of the suffering they have experienced, but makes it clear he was not wasting their suffering. He was testing them to know what was in their hearts, humbling them and letting them hunger to teach them to feast on him, disciplining them as his beloved children, and his intention in the end was to do them good (a little phrase I had never before noticed, in verse 16). At the moment the whole world is on a difficult journey, and we don’t know when it will end (although hopefully it won’t be 40 years!). God is asking me if I am willing to trust him with this time, to learn what he is trying to teach me, to let my loneliness and hunger for life as I knew it to lead me to deeper fellowship with him. Will I trust God, that he is committed to doing me good through the hardship and pain of this season?
KA: What are you currently working on related to COVID-19 that you would like to share about?
AR: I was living in South Africa when the pandemic began and started writing regular updates about the pandemic in the United States and South Africa. I now write a blog post every Friday morning to share what I’m reading and thinking about. You can follow me at allisonruark.wixsite.com/coronavirus or at facebook.com/coronavirusconundrums to get updated when I write new blog posts.
This post originally appeared at reopeningthechurch.com.