The coronavirus challenged compassion-providing ministries in new ways
Every spring, I realize all over again that Easter is my favorite holiday of the year. And it often brings memories of springtime spent in difficult places.
A few years ago, I spent the week before Easter in a refugee camp on the border between South Sudan and northern Sudan—a remote expanse where some 20,000 men, women, and children had fled deprivation and bombing campaigns inflicted by the Khartoum-based government in the north.
It felt like the end of the earth, even though the bush pilot of our tiny plane listened to Neil Diamond songs as we bumped our way along a low-elevation flight across cracked earth with scant vegetation. Diamond crooned: “‘I am,’ I said, to no one there …”
When we arrived in the refugee camp at Yida, temperatures were soaring well over 105 degrees, and refugees curled up in little patches of shade cast by their handmade stands in a makeshift market. Little boys played nearby with a deflated ball, while grown-ups kept still in the extreme heat of the afternoon.
Later that day, I’d need a couple of bags of saline solution pushed through an IV to replenish the fluid I lost during a trek across the camp and a couple of weeks of tough traveling. My fleeting troubles underscored the extreme elements in Yida, but they were light, momentary afflictions compared with the suffering in the camp.
Food supplies were low, and when a refugee arrived, he or she often had to wait for distribution day. Until then, other refugees shared what they could with new arrivals. I felt guilty about the Clif Bars in my bag, and I had trouble eating the beans served at dinner when other people were hungry.
A medical tent staffed by Samaritan’s Purse was full of malnourished babies and deeply saddened mothers who couldn’t feed them anymore because of their own poor health. There were bloated bellies and tiny cries, and some babies too weak to whimper.
That night, I crawled on top of my sleeping bag in a tent next to a foxhole. The camp had been bombed before, and my host showed me the hole where I should take shelter if bombers happened to return during my stay.
It didn’t feel like Easter was approaching here.
But the next morning, revived by the fluids I had never fully appreciated as so critical to daily survival, I went on another trek, this time to a morning prayer meeting.
Underneath a tattered tarp, a few pastors prayed for the church members they had led across the desert to this camp. And they talked about Jesus’ words: “The poor you will always have with you.”
In this camp, everyone was poor, but these pastors managed to find ways to take care of the poorest among them: Are there widows with no food? Children with no parents? Let’s make sure we provide for them. They had lists.
An Episcopal pastor led me to a hut that his church members had built with thatch and sticks on arrival. Sometimes more than 300 people crowded into the dirt-floored gathering place on Sunday mornings. This week, church members were visiting new arrivals and inviting all to a special service planned for Easter.
At another hut-church in a separate part of the camp, I chatted with a youth leader who sheepishly told me he had a request. Some people in desperate circumstances understandably ask foreigners for money, but this young man had a different desire: “Is it possible to receive a few Bibles?”
I wasn’t sure what I wished I had more—a crate of Bibles or a truckload of food—but I was suddenly struck by my own kind of poverty: Here I was, humbled by dehydration and feeling like I had nothing to give these suffering saints except assurances that I would tell their story and ask fellow believers around the world to pray for them.
It didn’t feel like enough.
But then they reminded me that Easter was coming. A small choir in the corner of the hut began to practice an exuberant resurrection song that sounded like it had eight parts of harmony, and I remembered when Christ’s body lay in the grave for three days and all seemed lost.
All seemed lost here too, except it wasn’t.
Here in this desert, evil men had hatched horrible campaigns against some of the most vulnerable people on earth, but Christ still triumphed even in this place. He had given His own broken body and blood to atone for sin and to assure His loved ones that He would make all things new.
There in Yida, His loved ones prayed, sang, and followed the commandment Jesus gave His disciples on the eve of His death: Love one another.
These Christians didn’t have Sunday afternoon feasts to anticipate, but they planned to feast on Christ and look forward to His return, when the real feasting begins. I think about their suffering and triumph on the day we remember the ultimate suffering and triumph of Christ. And it reminds me it is indeed a Good Friday.