Missions agencies are scrambling to respond to worldwide concerns about the coronavirus.
Organizations such as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, American Baptist Churches USA and the Southern Baptist Convention International Mission Board, among others, have kicked into high gear forming contingency plans, warning staff and missionaries about travel and, in some areas, evacuating personnel from certain regions.
“We did evacuate one family of field personnel from China,” said Steven Porter, the coordinator of global missions for CBF. “We did that just in time before their city was put on lock-down.”
Porter declined to identify those involved in the Feb. 1 evacuation, citing safety concerns for the field personnel. He also declined to say which city they left or where they found refuge.
The virus, also known as COVID-19, erupted in China weeks ago but has since spread to 60 locations around the world, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Media outlets have reported 90,000 cases worldwide with 3,000 deaths, including six in Washington State.
No CBF field personnel are known to have contracted the virus, Porter said late last week.
But other travel and events have been impacted out of a spirit of caution, including an upcoming gathering of field personnel in Asia. The meeting, which Porter and CBF Executive Coordinator Paul Baxley were to attend, has been canceled.
“He was excited to visit Asia for the first time and spend time with the teams there,” Porter said of Baxley.
Exercising ‘calm caution’
COVID-19 is forcing numerous other faith communities to consider such options.
As of Monday afternoon, ABC-USA’s International Ministries was unaware of any of its personnel being directly impacted by the virus, said Jim Bell, the organization’s associate executive director for Global Mission.
But “we are taking steps intended to ensure as much as possible the well-being of our personnel and to stand with and serve our partners who are impacted by the outbreak of the virus,” Bell told Baptist News Global via email.
Steps include urging missionaries and staff to exercise “calm caution” in minimizing exposure to themselves or others by avoiding travel to regions the CDC has placed under serious travel warnings. They also are being asked to develop contingency plans that include the stocking of provisions and ascertaining health care availability in quarantine areas.
Leaders at Passport, Inc., have also adopted a posture of monitoring ahead of summertime activities, founder and President David Burroughs said.
In an email, Burroughs said Passport’s current plan is to proceed with its U.S. youth camps in June and July because summer months usually are less conducive to the spread of flu-like viruses, and because COVID-19 so far is affecting adults more than children.
“Closer to the summer months we will of course be monitoring the status of the virus and its proximity to our host cities,” Burroughs said. “The safety of our students remains PASSPORT’s top priority.”
The Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America will proceed with its board meetings in Puerto Rico next week, board member Gail Hill said by email.
However, the organization’s executive team is drawing up alternatives in case the CDC advises against travel to Puerto Rico, she said.
And wherever the board meets, Hill added, it will discuss alternative locations to its July Summer Peace Conference in San Diego, California, should a change become necessary.
“Guess we are all in a ‘wait and see’ stance while continually praying for those affected and a cure to stop this deadly virus,” she said.
In a news release, IMB said it formed a task force and website to help guide church mission teams, missionaries and partners on travel and medical advice.
“We are continually monitoring the global situation and remain in frequent contact with our missionaries to take the best precautions possible related to their health and safety, IMB President Paul Chitwood said in the release.
‘The causes of anxiety’
Missionaries in the field also are taking precautions, whether they are staying in place or traveling.
Some, like Carson and Laura Foushee, are hoping to keep it that way by staying home.
The Japan-based CBF field personnel, who have been in the states visiting family, were set to return to the island nation this week when caution convinced them otherwise.
“It is with mixed emotions that we share our decision to postpone our return to Tokyo due to the uncertainty surrounding the spread of the coronavirus in Japan and across the world,” the couple shared on Facebook Feb. 28.
Having an infant contributed to the decision. So did thoughts of crowded public transportation in Tokyo and reports of canceled worship services.
In Bali, Indonesia, field personnel Tina and Jonathan Bailey are carrying on their work while keeping an eye on the reports about the virus.
“So far we are mostly taking precautions since it is hard to know for sure what the reality is,” Tina Bailey said via email. “It is a concern for sure, but we are still going about normal life and watching the news.”
Heightened caution led Bill Peeler, who recently retired as field personnel serving in Cambodia, to alter travel plans to the U.S. to avoid contact with his granddaughter.
“I reluctantly decided to scrap that and fly home (to Georgia) instead,” Peeler said via Facebook Messenger. “I didn’t want to be the cause of anxiety to her.”
Peeler said he’s heard of some factories in Phnom Penh being closed due to concerns about the coronavirus.
But “on the ground level here, I haven’t seen much more than the subject coming up in conversation,” he said. “The news is covering it pretty much, as expected.”
‘Plagues and pestilence’
Having to respond to outbreaks – both real and imagined – is pushing missionaries and their support systems to the limit, Porter said.
“You cannot imagine how much time and communication has gone into this,” he said.
With travel to Asia currently canceled, Porter said he is eyeballing scheduled trips to Europe later in the spring for the same consideration.
Churches may also need to rethink whether they send spring break trips abroad, he said.
Georgia-based CBF has about 70 field personnel stationed around the globe. One of the most difficult aspects of the coronavirus for people of faith is the choices having to be made between ministry and safety.
“These are very difficult things because of the call we sense but weighing the appropriate risk,” Porter said.
And it’s especially difficult because the coronavirus isn’t the only potential danger facing missionaries.
“I’m also paying attention to locusts in Central East Africa, so it’s an interesting moment in plagues and pestilence,” Porter said.