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Mindy BelzVoices Mindy Belz

Keeping the “ship sweet” in turbulent waters

Sometimes you ought to know what goes on below decks

Whatever the nature of the voyage’s travails, the Cunard Line steamship company had this goal for its transatlantic steamers a century ago: “to keep the ship sweet.” 

Below deck the stokers could be working 100 men to a shift, shoveling coal to keep the boilers primed, but diners above should be able to murmur in conversation and eat from polished silver unawares. Passengers must journey unburdened by the cares of the ship.

Keeping the ship sweet is what we’re all trying to manage these days. Parents and teachers are working overtime to craft a smooth-sailing school year. Small-business owners are keeping doors open by working overtime to safeguard employees and the rainy-day account. Journalists like our team are serving up news—and what a lot of it there is!—often remotely. All of us manage personal anxieties. Ships, we know, can go down, and it’s better to admit the below-decks reality that keeping life going in this pandemic can be tough and exhausting.

As I worked to report on the COVID-19 situation in Syria, I wanted to write also about this strange time for journalists, to let others into the boiler room, in part so I could understand it myself. Deskbound is a frustrating place for any roving reporter to be. The work takes longer and feels incomplete.

Last year I made two trips to Syria—adventures in long plane rides, tense border crossings, translation, security, and sleep deprivation that I wouldn’t trade for the firsthand reporting. This year, like so many others, I’m interviewing by WhatsApp or whatever app might work across those thousands of miles of ocean cable.

Just the first paragraphs of our cover story on Syria are the work of many days reaching sources eight time zones away, asking for photos and documents, and checking it all twice. We’re learning new terminology: What we laymen in the United States call “testing” for COVID-19, the rest of the world calls “PCRs” (full name: real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction tests).

Over time it’s grown harder to reach the right people in places like Syria. Everyone seems to be working strange hours from abnormal settings. Border closures and worries of importing or exporting more disease are quarantining even the most intrepid foreign workers, everywhere.

This should worry us. The growth of news deserts in the United States is hurting our cultural conversations and political debates, and the loss of foreign correspondents is endangering oppressed people overseas.

I won the lottery when I got the go-ahead to contact Mother Agnes Mariam de la Croix because her local NGO is one of the few working reliably in key parts of Syria, and her knowledge is legendary. Within a few minutes of our phone conversation, though, I learned she was not in Syria, but in her native Lebanon due to the coronavirus. How inconvenient, I thought.

That led to new rounds of calls to local Syrian doctors, with the help of Mother Agnes, made usually during pre-dawn hours with a translator.

Moments after I finalized a draft for the Syria article that you can read in this issue, someone sent the first images of the blast in Beirut. The area, instantly familiar, is near the oldest Christian neighborhoods. Several times I’ve walked the broad sidewalk along the port from churches to my hotel.

Mother Agnes was the first person I texted: “Are you OK?” Then I waited 45 minutes for word back that she was.

How convenient, suddenly. In the next hours Mother Agnes sent videos and audio reporting. Then it became clear I could actually travel to Beirut. Two PCRs and two days at a quarantine hotel later, I am walking the streets again and planning to meet Mother Agnes soon. Being on site has its hurdles—managing a notebook, camera, and now N95 mask, while also watching for glass underfoot and falling pieces of buildings from above.

It’s through letters that we know Christian doctrine and the life of the early Church, letters that often came about because the Apostle Paul and others were distanced. In God’s economy all things work together for good, including whether we are near or far in these testing times.