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These Dedicated Ebola Fighters Are Men And Women On A Mission

Dr. John Fankhauser, one of the many missionaries battling Ebola, is sprayed with disinfectant at ELWA hospital in Liberia.
Courtesy of Bethany Fankhauser
Dr. John Fankhauser, one of the many missionaries battling Ebola, is sprayed with disinfectant at ELWA hospital in Liberia.

John Fankhauser, a missionary doctor, is as scared of Ebola as anybody else. But that hasn't stopped him from tending to patients during the outbreak. He sees the Ebola crisis as an important moment in his personal relationship with God.

"I have a very keen awareness of the risks and the need to be extremely careful, but I also feel very called to what I'm doing," says Fankhauser, 52, from Ventura, Calif. "I feel very confident that this is where God wants me right now."

And so he is on duty at the ELWA missionary hospital in Monrovia, Liberia. According to ELWA's mission statement, its primary purpose is "to propagate the Gospel, disciple believers, minister to human needs, and partner with churches to build the Kingdom of God."

When the Ebola crisis started to spiral out of control last summer, missionaries at ELWA and elsewhere in the region stepped forward to try to help. This was in marked contrast to the way much of the rest of the world reacted. Up until late last year, finding volunteers willing to treat Ebola patients was incredibly difficult. With the exception of Doctors Without Borders, international aid groups moved at a glacial pace. The World Health Organization deferred to weak local governments to tackle the terrifying disease. Even the U.S. military response was predicated on the idea that American troops would not be directly providing care to people affected by the virus.

Public health experts say if there had been enough trained medical professionals on the ground early enough, the outbreak probably wouldn't have mushroomed the way it did. The outbreak might even have been snuffed out months ago.

Despite lacking experience with Ebola, missionaries entered the fray.

Fankhauser's colleagues, Nancy Writebol and Kent Brantly, were the first two Americans infected with Ebola during this outbreak. They were both medevac'd back to the U.S. and survived.

Another missionary doctor from Maryland, Martin Salia, died in November after treating Ebola patients in his native Sierra Leone. Throughout the region, more than 800 health care workers have been killed by the virus, according to the World Health Organization.

As the health systems in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone collapsed, many aid agencies couldn't find staff willing to confront the deadly outbreak. Doctors and nurses from evangelical groups, however, toiled away, tending to patients at several key Ebola treatment centers.

"I really have a great deal of respect for other organizations that are not faith-based," Fankhauser says. But he says the missionary response is fundamentally different. "It reflects our faith in a way that has meaning to people. It's not just words. In our actions we demonstrate the kind of love that our faith is based on."

They care for patients who are suffering from a horrific and dehumanizing disease. They tend to the dying. They offer hope to people who've been shunned. At one point, when there was nowhere else to house to Ebola patients, the missionaries converted their hospital chapel in to an Ebola ward.

Local religious groups have also been key players in the response to Ebola. In Liberia, the government turned to churches and mosques early on to try to spread the word about Ebola prevention.

Dr. Fankhauser addresses worshippers at a service in Monrovia.
/ Courtesy of Bethany Fankhauser
Courtesy of Bethany Fankhauser
Dr. Fankhauser addresses worshippers at a service in Monrovia.

Outside observers agree that the missionaries and religious groups have been indispensable, in West Africa and elsewhere. Tom Kirsch, who runs the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says religious groups have become major players in international aid. In some cases, he says, they tie their humanitarian and evangelical work closely together. They talk to aid recipients about the Gospel. Prayer and assistance go hand in hand. Then again, other faith-based relief agencies don't mention religion at all.

"It totally depends on the group," Kirsch says. "And the groups vary. There are groups like Catholic Relief Services, which is a massive organization in hundreds of countries, to very small churches that run single missions in countries."

And in such a large field, there are effective groups — and groups that don't provide much assistance.

"In any disaster there are many groups and well-meaning people who feel it's their job to go out and help."

So they just show up. Which doesn't always work out so well.

"In a disaster, particularly in an event like Ebola where things are so dangerous," Kirsch says, "you have to be very careful and you have to come prepared for a unique and difficult environment."

Aid groups that tend to have the biggest impact are the ones that were established in an area before a crisis hits. The SIM missionaries at the ELWA hospital in Liberia are a perfect example. They're already connected to the community. They often have buildings and vehicles that they can redeploy for relief purposes.

Whether they're faith-based or not, Kirsch says, these long-term players are the ones that really make a difference on the ground.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.