“And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet” (Matt. 24:6).
We were warned! Despite biblical warnings of end time pestilences and other calamities, our inherent planetary fragility was exposed through the unraveling of even the most affluent and technologically advanced nations by an invisible infectious agent. COVID-19, the first pandemic of the twenty-first century, has uncovered multilevel, global vulnerabilities.
Notwithstanding the alarm sounding of scientists and prophets, few of us were ready for the worldwide devastation of 2020. Because God loves us, He gave us forewarning—advance information to share with a dying world—so that we all can escape unnecessary suffering and distress as we prepare for our Lord’s return.
Now, there is both bad and good news. The bad? More diseases, more frequent——and more deadly—pandemics and catastrophic events are coming. The good? We need not fear; God has given us an “escape plan” that we are to share with the world.
Staggering numbers of infected persons, growing numbers of persistent post-infection illnesses, and ever-rising local and global deaths continue to plague us in 2021. Governments, NGOs, medical, public health, and scientific communities, as well as industries of all kinds, have had to reckon with this virus and the global responses to it. Faith-based fellowships and religious groups have not been spared distress, uncertainty, and restrictions. Responses were slow, vacillating, inadequate (sometimes too lax and sometimes too severe), nationalistic, and increasingly political. Transnationally there seemed to be confusing messages and inadequate coordination and collaboration for effective global, regional, and local decision-making. The interconnectedness of nations by commerce, transportation, and communication created a fertile environment for global catastrophe.
We all became embroiled: what affects the world inevitably impacts the church. Seventh-day Adventists are in the world and depend on the world’s conveniences, the facets of modern life. Yet we are not to be of the world, even while using the means at hand to share the good news to the ends of the earth.
Unprepared masses were sent scrambling for basic supplies (remember the toilet paper shortage?). Many people had no financial cushion to lighten the sudden economic blow. Others wished they had more pantry space. “Loss” became a common descriptor: of job, income, contact, fellowship, certainty, safety net, health (especially mental health), common commodities, trustworthy information, stability, and of taken-for-granted safety—all in a matter of days! And all because, despite the warnings, we failed to prepare at just about every level of our societal fabric. To compound matters, there was the deluge of information, the regrettable misinformation, and the unforgivable disinformation facilitated by our modern connectivity.
To have built resilience to COVID-19 on a societal level would have required better worldwide disaster surveillance and early warning systems; improved responsiveness of public health and all related governmental and nongovernmental agencies; improved emergency health-care delivery systems and safety nets, structurally and functionally, with coordination of service at all levels; and a better educated and informed public engaged in personal preparedness as individuals, families, and neighborhoods. While churches are not generally involved in all of the above resiliency factors, the preparedness of individuals, families, and neighborhoods (communities) are legitimate functions of churches that heed the warnings of the Bible writers, are aware of the times in which we live, and share in the mission of Christ’s early disciples. COVID-19 should not have taken us by surprise!
In the 1800s the U.S. government attempted to mitigate the risks incurred by individuals and families moving to the expanding westward frontier, by developing college- and university-based extension programs. Partnerships with the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided the public with preparedness training and survival skills for risk-prone living. During the same period, the fledgling Seventh-day Adventist denomination was blessed by health counsels received and penned by Ellen White. Historical records show an unmistakable synergy between early Adventist health promotion and the cooperative extension programs that trained the citizenry in household agriculture, domestic farming, and strategies for building physical and economic resilience.
Home demonstration agent demonstrating child care skills (1918 pandemic)
University Archives Photograph Collection. Home Demonstration Work (UA023.009) held by Special Collections Research Center at North Carolina State University Libraries (Used with permission)
Later, during the 1918 flu pandemic, Seventh-day Adventists were advancing reforms in sync with the extension programs: presenting home demonstrations in food preparation and preservation; helping deal with stress and strain, basic self-care, and home nursing care of the sick. Of course, the Adventists were guided by a wealth of information about additional health and well-being practices that included trust and reliance on a loving, compassionate God who wills much more for His children to thrive than be destroyed. The Annual Report of the Cooperative Extension Service in Raleigh, North Carolina, explained that it was through organized home demonstration clubs that people were able to come through the flu epidemic with the least amount of loss. The report commented on the need for helping the sick, soup kitchens, and training in the value of scientific knowledge as well as useful training in home sanitary matters and home nursing. It specifically stated that “possibly the women rendered a greater service to the state during the great epidemic of influenza than in any other single way.”1 Similarly, reports and articles written about the Adventist health work and “help” work show that the church was not idle. In an article entitled “After Influenza, What?”the secretary of the General Conference Medical Department wrote:
“We have known from Bible teachings and from the spirit of prophecy for many years that such times were coming. We have been told over and over again to prepare for these experiences by well-ordered lives and by securing such a preparation for service as would enable all our people to minister to the sick and distressed in such a time. [Leaders] and lay members have been urged to become medical missionaries. We are told that every Seventh-day Adventist home should be a small sanitarium . . ., that the medical phase of our work would be one of the last to be closed.”2 This counsel from 1918 is equally or even more applicable today in 2021. Consider Dr. Ruble’s observation:
“Some ‘holier-than-thou’ person who has escaped the disease may look upon this epidemic as a harbinger of the great distress that will come in the last days and may look upon his immunity to the disease as an evidence of his own righteousness, while attributing the misfortune of his brother to his lack of fidelity. . . . Seeing his brother laid low and himself escaping, [he] will say, ‘I told you so. If you ate as I do, you would escape these plagues.’ Are these the lessons to draw from this calamity? . . . The great lesson . . . we should learn from this experience is to get ready for later and worse scourges than this, which will surely come, prophecy being true.”3 There are obvious parallels in our COVID-19 context. We may substitute the current issues, but the sentiments are the same or similar. Selfishness and pride were passed on to us from fallen Adam and Eve. But for the grace of God, we would all be doomed to perish in the fiery lake that was not intended for us.
Dr. Ruble continued:
“During this epidemic every Seventh-day Adventist has had ten times as many opportunities for service as he could fill if he had been ready for them. . . . Barriers, social and professional, are being broken down. What a sick person or the family of a sick member wants is someone that can and will do something for them. It matters not whether the helper be white or black, Christian or heathen, rich or poor.”4
There is much work to be done in preparation for the final events, but time is short—how short we do not know. Epidemics will continue to be part of the human experience. As already noted, the Scriptures teach that pestilences and other crises are inevitable. However, by anticipating each crisis, preparing for it, and having well-thought-out plans of action, we may be able to reduce the impact and devastation, and use the opportunity to help others wake up to prophetic truth.
Within the Adventist fellowship there is no room or time for strife and selfishness.
We should learn basic self-care—physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual. We must engage in family-, congregation-, and church-based crisis preparedness, first aid, and basic disaster response.
Many individuals are negatively affected by the pandemic regardless of previous mental wellness. Social support and psychological flexibility have been two of the biggest factors in determining the level of mental health decline. The church can help. We still have opportunity to learn healthy food growing, storage, and preparation; also, economics and finance literacy, budgeting and effective spending strategies. Each church should engage in personal and community health services, collaborating with youth, family, women, and children’s ministries; providing crisis kits, masks, sanitizers, disinfectants, basic first aid, first responder, spiritual-emotional first aid, basic home-based care of the sick. In-home isolation strategies, medicinal herbs, wild edible plants, and basic orienting are all useful. Pathfinders and medical cadets can help through engaging young and old in effective service, as well as teaching survival skills.
In the family, church, and community, we must educate, educate, educate even while we are still learning. Preparation involves anticipating the crisis, intentional action, and proactive implementation. When disaster strikes, we become either beneficiaries or victims of our preparation as we strive or scramble to meet immediate individual and family needs. In a crisis, anti-social and selfish self-preservation instincts sometimes show their ugly head, leading to hoarding, looting, and even violence. Shortages, interruption, or the crippling of usual supply chains ensues, and supply-demand mismatch generates price gouging. We have seen it. We have been warned and do not have to be surprised.
Within the Adventist fellowship there is no room or time for strife and selfishness. We must not stain our identity or cripple our mission with hostilities within the church. Rather, we must pray and confess, submit our wills to Jesus and let Him have His way. The issue never is whether God is on our side; rather, it is whether we, you and I, are on His side. There are more and greater trials to come.
We have a message of warning and also of hope and peace. We can prepare and not panic; be faithful and not fearful, examining ourselves (2 Cor. 13:5) and permitting the Spirit to search our hearts and expose any attitude or action that demonstrates our own unchristian character. We must pray for purging of selfishness and pride and the implanting of meekness, humility, and love for our fellow humans. We must pray for and act to promote healing and sealing for us and those around us. Are we not our brothers’ keeper?
As we hear His voice we will not harden our hearts (Heb. 3:15), disqualifying ourselves to bear a beautiful message to the world in this time of uncertainty and despair. Either we press together, or we fall apart. Paul’s optimism is the better part: “hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; . . . perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8, 9). Then God’s healing shall be ours, physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually; and His love and compassion will overflow from us into a needy, dying world.
Board-certified internist Zeno Charles-Marcel is an associate director of Adventist Health Ministries at the General Conference.