I’ve been meaning to document some of the key events of the last 19 months before my memory fades, so … here goes!
It seems like only yesterday that Justin Duren, team leader, and the rest of the MO/TX/UK team were here in May of 2014! Ebola was still far removed with only a few confirmed cases on the eastern most border. With the team’s departure, Justin stayed awaiting the arrival of his wife and kiddos, and he continued with Tom on construction at Hosetta and Auntie Margaret’s for another 5 weeks. At some point in there they got the sturdy tarp roof on Margaret’s home as a side project.
It was June 5, 2014 when our mission’s pastor called to say that our church could not officially sanction a team because of Ebola, and he knew that at least 7 of the 10 people set to arrive the next week had decided it would be best if they not come. We truly did understand completely.
Our missionary friend Chuck Luke left Sierra Leone on June 18th for the last time, the TX team of 3 left 2 days later, and then the Durens hopped a plane on the 25th. I believe from that moment, and until July of this year, we have felt like we were living a dream. I don’t even have words to express it properly.
We watched God perform a miracle on July 3, 2014 as the US Embassy granted VISAs for John and Mariama’s adoptions on the first appointment, but at the same time, we were learning that Bo’s court hearing would not happen because the judges were scrambling to get out of the country because of Ebola. Bo’s adoption came to a complete standstill.
Chris and Brenna Stull quickly got tickets to come for John and Mariama. What a blessing to see them united after 18 months of aggressively pursuing the adoptions!
On July 25th, it was confirmed that Ebola had entered Freetown. Missionary friends were hastening to get tickets, and Tom and I were thinking through every option as to whether we would stay, or how on earth we would run ministry from stateside. We knew we had enough funds in Sierra Leone to keep people fed until January 10, 2015.
We watched numbers of Ebola cases climb daily as we prepared, with broken hearts, to board a plane ourselves on August 13th. We couldn’t afford to tell people when we were traveling because the last thing we needed was an eager reporter waiting at the airport in Dallas for a news scoop. We chose to seclude for 21 days, and we were so glad we did. It was clear that some people were uncomfortable to be around us even after the 3 weeks were over. We understood.
We definitely had wonderful times with family and friends in Sept-Oct, but by November, as if our hearts were not already breaking, we lost our dear friend Donald Conteh to a freak accident in SL just days after Eddie of St George Refuge died of Malaria.
Our own kids were watching us hurt, and began to realize that as much as they would love for us to stay in the USA until Ebola was history, they determined that they would not stand in our way if we decided to come HOME! We met with our lead pastor, shared our hearts, and with his full blessing, we began to pray seriously for the opportunity to return.
Late November and December were a blur. We actually tried to move our tickets to mid-Dec, but not only were there no seats due to reduced flights, we were in jeopardy of losing the return dates we had if we did not confirm the tickets asap, so at the very time when new cases of Ebola in Sierra Leone were soaring at 80 – 100 per day, we locked in our flights for January 10, 2015. Some were probably saying we were crazy, our kids never said a word, and we sensed a complete PEACE in our decision.
With the decision to return, we also talked through detailed boundaries to keep ourselves as safe as possible. We set up a bleach hand washing station at the gate, adopted the no-touching rule, confined ourselves to the compound with few exceptions, and hunkered down. Almost immediately after our arrival, there was an unexpected surge in new cases. It continued, and peaked in March. It was almost impossible to get into the city. There were check-points everywhere, sirens in all directions, and it was nothing to see dead bodies in body bags being loaded into burial trucks by men in protective gear. We finally began to experience a turning point in late March when the government declared a “stay-at-home-weekend” for 4 days with teams going door-to-door looking for people with visible symptoms.
For me personally, once my mother fell in late February, and went into significant decline, I was on the phone almost daily with my kids as they made decisions for her care and transition into the nursing home. Praise God for my kiddos! We decided that the most productive time for me to travel to TX would be mid-April when I could deal with mom’s house and belongings during the first 21 days as I semi-secluded, but that I needed to allow enough time to settle her affairs as best as possible rather than leave a mountain of responsibility on my kid’s shoulders. This meant decisions for Bo’s schooling since the government here forced the reopening amid much public opposition, but thankfully he was accepted at DELE, the best place academically and the safest school we know of. He was actually testing to be admitted as Abraham and Tom were driving me to the airport. Tom gets an A+ for handling every detail to get him started, and for taking care of the administration and accounting of ministry with me talking him through it over the phone for 10 weeks.
From the time we returned in January, Tom’s desire was to keep his crew working. They had truly suffered while we were away with no work and no pay. At the same time, he knew he was not willing to send them out to Hosetta or Margaret’s knowing the risks of Ebola. Areas just across the road from Margaret were quarantined off and on as deaths occurred, and communities surrounding Hosetta were a hot bed of cases. Tom was able to have the guys work on some long-overdue projects inside our compound, and even when they started to prepare the roof structure for Margaret’s toilet in July, as much pre-assembly as possible was done inside our compound and then transported once they started to work onsite in August. Basically, Tom and the crew lost ONE YEAR of work on the toilet system and Hosetta.
FACEBOOK can be very deceiving, not to mention the approach I so often take, “Give others the sunshine. Tell Jesus the rest!” I can imagine that from the time we returned to SL in January, we’ve given the appearance that there has been a flurry of activity here, and that we’ve been out and about in ministry. That’s simply not the case. I would say that we finally began to relax in August. This was not based on fear, we were just trying to be smart and safe.
The 3 West African countries have had combined totals of over 28,000 cases of Ebola with over 11,000 dead. We already lose thousands each year to preventable diseases, and now the numbers are off the charts indefinitely as these countries struggle to get clinics up and running again. I remember in August when the news went out internationally that the first woman survivor of Ebola had given birth. I wonder how many people know that the baby died 2 weeks later of an unexplained high fever. Survivors here are experiencing all sorts of complications: loss of vision, loss of hearing, aching in joints, searing headaches and there seems to be the possibility of the virus hiding in the body for up to 9 months. We may NEVER be completely free of Ebola, just as in The Congo and Uganda.
So many things come to mind about the USA’s response to Ebola. PANIC! Outrage! It was hard to watch it unfold while we were there. Sad really. We saw anger that Kent Brantly (our partners Gabe & Sada had served alongside him in medical missions) and others would be flown there for treatment and risk American lives. Of course, the 2 nurses in Dallas. But I wonder how many know that there have actually been NINE Americans to contract Ebola? All survived, thankfully. It was like once the big news died down, it was forgotten. I actually spoke with victim #9 just a short time before he tested positive here. He was looking forward to a break from work and we were planning to spend time with him since he is a friend-of-a-friend. I can’t imagine what he went through! Weeks on a ventilator, a slow recovery, and still suffering from side effects. There’s so much I could say, but praise the Lord for people like him who were willing to come to these countries to serve. Where might we be today if not for those willing to risk their own lives?
Well, I could keep typing forever, and certainly there are a million details that could be filled in above.
I do trust that our friends and family have an idea of the scope of all that we have dealt with here in Sierra Leone, and that folks will continue to lift us up in prayer as we press forward! We are so ready for a new year and all that God has in store for 2016!
We love you all so much!