At the beginning of 2021, more than 2,000 years after the Roman emperor Augustus decreed that the world should be registered, a masked Mary and Joseph walked into a North Texas Walgreens to sign up—not to be counted but to receive their first dose of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccine. The shot wasn’t available at the pharmacy, but the employees directed the couple to the First United Methodist Church of Rockwall. There, volunteers provided transportation for those in the Rockwall community—many of them seniors—to receive the vaccine through their Operation Vaccination ministry.
Mary and Joseph—who are in their 80s—had never attended First Rockwall and had no email address, but the church’s volunteers were able to help them register and get vaccinated through the program all the same, no arduous journey on camelback required.
Mary and Joseph’s story signals brighter days ahead, but this reprieve comes after a dark year, a time of worldwide chaos and loss. A deadly virus with no regard for borders or religious affiliation killed nearly three million people and counting. Millions of others were left jobless. Church congregations couldn’t worship together. People were left scared, destabilized, and alone. It was in the face of this unprecedented crisis that countless Christians took Christ’s command to love the least of these to heart.
Christian health care workers rushed to care for the sick. Religious organizations, nonprofits, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) provided resources for the communities most affected. Churches offered support far outside of their sanctuary walls. All felt compelled by their faith to take these risks, a conviction that has uniquely equipped them throughout the last 18 months.
These are just some of their stories from the COVID-19 frontlines.
Faith over Fear
As Michael Kee-Ming Shu put on his mask before heading in to care for his first COVID-19 patient, he felt something he rarely had during his medical career: fear. Respiratory viruses were outside his specialty of obstetrics and gynecology, but when the novel coronavirus surged through New York State in the spring of 2020, health care workers in every field were needed to help fight and defeat it.
In the early days of the pandemic, COVID-19 patients were often treated like lepers, and workers were genuinely afraid to share space with them. Shu noticed that even though COVID-19 sufferers might be receiving the best medical treatment possible, there was often a key element of care missing: love. Fear—among doctors, hospital staff, and even family members—could cause interactions to turn cold and callous, he says, so he began to take every moment with a patient as an opportunity to speak to their humanity and to share his faith when the opportunity arose.
Even now, “I'm still shaking in my boots when entering the rooms,” Shu explains, “but I remember Isaiah 41:13, ‘For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.’ God is in control. I’m just the instrument.” He takes a moment to pray before walking into a patient’s room, knowing that he is never walking in alone. “I let my faith outweigh my fears,” he says.
“You might be the only person to share love with this person during their entire hospital stay,” he continues. “Sometimes I don’t have a lot of hope to give, but I can offer comfort and be someone that they can talk to.”
“You’re afraid, yes,” adds Shu’s fiancée Christine Loui, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Buffalo School of Medicine, “but when you can show patients ‘I’m also afraid, but I have God, and God is my fearless leader and he fights armies,’ that is something that can be very comforting to them.”
Hope in the Valley
Around the same time, across the Atlantic in the sleepy English town of Salisbury, James Haslam was leading the intensive care team at Salisbury District Hospital through the first wave of a disease they’d never seen before.
Haslam is no stranger to mysterious illnesses that can quickly turn deadly. In the summer of 2018, he treated Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer turned British double agent, and his daughter, Yulia; both had been poisoned by a Novichok nerve agent and spent weeks in the hospital in critical condition.
“The poisoning had some similarities to COVID; there’s an agent which poses a threat to the staff, you might bring it home to your family, and the stakes are high,” says Haslam. “After it, we thought, well, that’s enough for one career—but then COVID struck.”
As he was struggling to meet a second, more severe wave of the COVID-19 pandemic around Christmastime, Haslam was also caring for chronically ill family members at home. He didn’t know how to counsel patients’ families through the deaths of loved ones they were unable to say goodbye to in person. His faith was at a low point. “It’s been a long season of being poured out without much replenishment,” he says. In an interview with Premier Christian Radio, he calls this dark time “the valley,” but says his brothers and sisters at Grace Church in Salisbury have helped sustain him: “We don’t know what the future holds, but at least we know who holds the future.”
Of particular help to him was a Bible study he attended. The group connected the hope and protection from plague and disaster promised in Psalm 91 to God’s promise today in the midst of COVID-19. “‘Under his wings, you will find refuge.’ That was a really powerful way of bringing Scripture alive for the current situation,” he says.
To show appreciation for the hard-hit staff at the Salisbury District Hospital intensive care unit, Grace Church launched Operation Thankful, which raised thousands of pounds to make gift bags for the ICU staff with small offerings of practical things like soothing lotion to help alleviate the dryness of wearing personal protection equipment all day, as well as some treats: bottled smoothies and chocolates. Each gift bag also contained a handwritten note of thanks from a member of Grace Church. Haslan delivered these gift bags to his hospital colleagues, helping spread the love and comfort of his church community into his professional community. Dozens of health care workers have told him they were encouraged and touched by the gesture.
“It was only a small token, really, but those kinds of things go a long way in showing people that you appreciate what they’re going through,” he says. “It’s a really powerful way to show God’s love and to encourage people when they’re feeling stressed and drained.”
The First Bright Light
While the virus has reached every corner of the globe, few countries have been more devastated by the virus than Italy, a country with one of the highest proportions of people over age 65 in Europe. Within weeks of Italy recording its first case, one nursing home in the northern city of Cremona, the birthplace of the Stradivarius violin, saw more than a quarter of its residents die from COVID-19. The situation was dire, and hospital beds and ventilators were few.
At one emergency field hospital in Cremona brought in by Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian international relief charity, patients were recovering at a remarkable rate. The first Cremona COVID-19 patient to survive after having been placed on a ventilator recovered at this hospital. “It goes without saying that, obviously, we can offer something more than just physical healing,” says Kelly Suter, the medical director of the respiratory care unit at the field hospital.
When disasters strike around the world, Samaritan’s Purse responds immediately, quickly mobilizing staff and experienced relief workers to partner with local churches to provide critically needed disaster relief to people in need. According to On the Ground, a podcast series that highlights the work of Samaritan’s Purse, the miraculous 68-bed facility in Cremona was constructed in a mere 36 hours. Giulio Gallera, the minister of health for the Lombardy region, declared it “the first bright light in our dark sky.”
“Italy’s existing medical centers were overwhelmed,” says Ken Isaacs, who oversees all international relief projects for Samaritan’s Purse. “Cremona was sending us the people who they felt like they weren’t going to survive, but when we started working with those people, we lost very few.”
The team discovered that this was due, in part, to the greater latitude given to those working the emergency hospital, allowing them to quickly adjust as needed for patient care. Isaacs expects, however, that there is more to it. The Samaritan’s Purse workers, as they provided top-notch medical care to their patients, were also eager to show others their love for God. This often included offers to pray with patients and family members. Suter underscores this point. “They know that you’re Christians by your love,” she explains. “That is probably our strongest witness here.” Isaacs says that as a result, several patients who came out of intensive care accepted Christ.
“What we’re called to do is to be faithful and to have mercy and to live our faith out, and that’s what we do,” says Isaacs. “We don’t heal people. Jesus heals. We just treat them.”
Answer to Prayer
In many rural Nigerian villages that rely on daily provisions to survive, COVID-19 mitigation lockdowns made it more challenging than ever to get food and supplies. Dogara Gwana, chairman of the Pastors Conference of the Nigerian Baptist Convention, says the pandemic transformed his church into a relief ministry.
The pandemic did nothing to paper over the country’s existing problems, and attacks from terrorist groups like Boko Haram continued unabated. One such attack last fall led to an entire community being burned down. Hundreds of people were left homeless with no food. Gwana turned this tragedy into an opportunity to live out what he calls “practical Christianity.”
“We woke up that morning and loaded our trucks with lots of food,” he says. “When we arrived, a crowd of people were crying. Their pastor walked up to me and said they weren’t crying because of the pain, but because they had seen a practical answer to prayer.”
Gwana and Teach to Transform (TTT), an organization that teaches Christian leaders around the world basic medical and vocational skills, have also been playing a crucial part in making Nigeria’s distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine a smoother process. Together, they have helped overcome geographical challenges—many Nigerians live in remote areas, making delivery of vaccines that require refrigeration difficult—as well as the challenge of vaccine skepticism. “We have been speaking and encouraging people to have their minds open,” says Gwana, who tells people the vaccines are “God’s intervention.”
TTT has even held training classes for evangelists, teaching them to give safe injections themselves and to check for signs of the virus. Through these practical approaches to their pressing worldly needs, people are seeing the love of God that is expressed in love of neighbor. “The evangelists say their thermometers have become super spreaders of the gospel,” says Tom McKechnie, founder of TTT.
By partnering with TTT, Gwana was also able to help spearhead relief for a more hidden cost of the pandemic: mental health. TTT organized trauma workshops that created a safe space for people to talk about their suffering and struggles and to learn coping skills based on viewing problems through a gospel lens. “There’s nothing worse than the death of hope,” says McKechnie. “These people are hopeless, and we can give them that hope in Christ.”
Gwana acknowledges that this is a trying time for his country and his ministry, but says he’s found encouragement by studying Job’s “personal pandemic,” particularly when he cries out to God amid his suffering that “all the days of my service I will wait for my renewal to come” (Job 14:14). Job was eventually healed and restored. One day, Gwana believes, the Lord will restore the world in the same way. In fact, he insists, God is already doing so. “Even in the midst of the weakness, we have still been able to minister to one another,” he says. “This gives me hope that no matter the darkness, change will come. There’s going to be light at the end of the tunnel. We have to wait patiently. We have to wait, knowing that God is in control, no matter what.”
House of Healing
Over 200 years ago, when the worst outbreak of yellow fever ever recorded in North America swept through Philadelphia, Richard Allen, founder of the African Episcopal Church, and abolitionist Absalom Jones, the first Black person to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church in the United States, put their church at the forefront of assisting the ailing families in the community. Alongside a cadre of Black volunteers, Allen and Jones helped nurse the sick and bury the dead. So when the opportunity arose to help distribute COVID-19 vaccines to the predominantly African American northwest Philadelphia community, Father Martini Shaw of the historic African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas knew he and his congregation couldn’t simply stand by. After all, responding to health crises is part of his church’s DNA. “That’s how we see ourselves today,” says Shaw in an interview with 6abc News. “We’re continuing the legacy of Blessed Absalom Jones, of being there when people need you most. During pandemics, during epidemics, during suffering, during pain.”
Shaw knows that many in the Black community trust their minister far more than they trust the medical establishment, so he started doing webinars and preaching about the value of the vaccine during his sermons. “There has been research done on it,” he assured his parishioners in his interview with 6abc News. “That research population has included African American scientists who have assured us that it is indeed a safe vaccine.” In late January, he took it a step further, becoming one of the first religious leaders in the area to roll up his sleeve and receive the vaccine himself, publicly, to show skeptics that they need not fear.
In February, St. Thomas, the oldest African Episcopal Church in the country, partnered with Philadelphia hospital group Main Line Health to become a COVID-19 vaccination site with the goal of fixing disparities in the vaccination process. “There are people who feel more comfortable coming to a church to receive a vaccine than a medical center,” Shaw says. During the pandemic, inaccessibility compounded with skepticism to create a vulnerable situation in the Black community. While about 40 percent of Philadelphia’s population is Black, only 17 percent of the first 129,000 doses administered went to Black residents, a stark disparity.
“The church has traditionally and historically played a very important role in these communities,” says Shaw. “When a religious leader gives testimony to the safety and the security of the vaccines”—as Shaw himself did—“that helps ease the feelings and emotions of people in the African American community.”
The program has made a difference. Shaw says since day one, the church has been inundated with calls for appointments and with requests from other churches in the diocese for advice on how they might also get involved in vaccine distribution.
“Whether it’s during a pandemic or during times when people are incarcerated, hungry, or homeless, the opportunity is always there to help people in need,” says Shaw. “The church is the place that people should be able to turn to, and when it can partner together with medical experts, that’s really powerful.”
Out of the Wilderness
Over the past year, the novel coronavirus has spread far and wide, but through the tireless work of countless Christians on the COVID-19 frontlines, so did love, healing, and hope. Always, there was joy to be found amid the suffering. First United Methodist Church of Rockwall congregants delivered care packages of homemade goodies and Christmas cards for homebound folks during the holidays. Patients in Cremona walked out of the field hospitals restored in both body and soul. TTT offered invaluable vaccine education and distribution to rural Nigerian communities. Emails and phone calls continue to pour into Shaw’s office from people who are desperately seeking the vaccine—and a place to worship.
“Like Jesus was for 40 days, we really have been in the wilderness for the past year,” says Shaw. “But Jesus did not remain in the wilderness. Eventually we, too, will come out. There are days of sunshine ahead. That’s the good news. That’s what we look forward to.”