Go or stay? Missionaries confront Zika virus dilemma

by Marvin Olasky & Sharla Megilligan
Posted 3/03/16, 01:35 pm

Richie and Gabrielle Sparling moved to the north coast of the Dominican Republic in August 2014 to serve with the mission organization Makarios. They had only been married six months when they left the United States. Their plan was to start a family in the Dominican Republic and raise their children there.

Then came Zika, a virus transmitted by mosquitos. It’s related to dengue fever and West Nile virus, although it’s milder and apparently causes symptoms—fever, rash, and muscle and joint pain—in only 20 percent of those infected. But the big concern is a possible connection between Zika and abnormal brain development in unborn babies. Can Zika cause miscarriages or microcephaly? Scientists have not yet confirmed the link, but preliminary results indicate the virus can affect an unborn baby when a woman becomes pregnant up to six months after exposure. Medical authorities have encouraged women in Zika-affected countries to delay pregnancy.

In the Dominican Republic, Gabrielle Sparling taught kindergarten, and Richie worked as outreach coordinator, developing relationships in the communities where Makarios served. He discipled young men, preached at local churches, and taught marriage classes. Despite the challenges of adjusting to life and service in the Dominican Republic, it became home.

The country hasn’t had many confirmed cases of Zika, but more are probably coming. Although some theorize that vaccines or pesticides cause the microcephaly seen in infants in affected countries, it seems almost conclusive that the virus penetrates the uterus and enters the brains of the unborn. The Sparlings, with their goal of having children, prayed and thought about what to do. Richie Sparling reasoned it out this way: “As a husband and future father, I believe my family is my first mission field. God, then family, then ministry. … My hope is firmly in the Lord, and I know regardless of where He takes us, His will for our lives remains the same: make disciples.”

The Sparlings decided to move back to the United States. Richie Sparling concluded, “We have shed many tears and will cry much more as we leave people we love, but our hope and our faith will not waver, regardless of what our future holds. … We firmly believe that God can and will protect our children, but we are acting in obedience to our Lord, by making the decision that we believe best honors Him.”

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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Sharla Megilligan

Sharla is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course.

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  • Fani's picture
    Posted: Sat, 03/18/2017 02:18 pm

    (In the last quote, change "waiver" to "waver.")

  • Web Editor
    Posted: Sat, 03/18/2017 06:42 pm

    Thank you for pointing out our mistake. We have corrected it to say "waver."