Letter to the Editor: Love in a time of Ebola

My husband is in Sierra Leone, and I am here. Since 2001, I’ve worked there for several months of the year to support primary school literacy education. For the rest of the time, I teach at Calvin.

The Ebola outbreak has put Sierra Leone on the map of Western awareness. Less well-known are the other effects. Schools are closed. Ships and planes don’t bring goods, tourists or programs. Business and industries fled. There is no health care beyond Ebola treatment.

Although almost 3,270 have died in Sierra Leone alone, no one is counting those who died in childbirth, of infection, malaria or other sickness. Or hunger.

Last week a Calvin colleague sent a note around in which he noted that in 1971, just 18.3 percent of students said they went to college to be well off financially. In 2012 that percentage more than doubled to 53.5 percent. If this figure keeps growing, Christian education as I understand it is in deep trouble. Perhaps we already are.

Public expressions of compassion were strikingly few. During the height of attention, reportage read like a horror movie aficionado’s dream reality-show or the imminent threat of Ebola invading America. I heard little that reminded me of our model, Christ: fearless and loving with lepers, tax collectors and prostitutes.

In a disaster of this scope, usually churches and Christian agencies gather up volunteers and work out a response. For example, when two tsunamis swept towns into the sea, and when an earthquake shook Haiti to the ground, volunteers, money, equipment and expertise were swiftly sent.

Images of stirring heroism and kindness were posted and blogged. Groups of people went and came back with powerpoints. Adoptive parents lined up for newly orphaned children. Forgive my cynicism, but that is compassion with a pretty positive feedback loop.

There are no line-ups of volunteers or adoptive parents for the Ebola-stricken countries.

It’s too scary and risky. It’s definitely not a photogenic, feel-good sort of mission trip. It demands radical compassion. As the surprising issues of Time Magazine showed, being a hero in this case is to be faceless, uncomfortable and beset with danger. No glory at all.

As Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” said, such action takes belief in doing the “right” thing in the face of overwhelming odds against it. Realistically, you know you’re “licked before you begin, but … you see it through no matter what.” If you don’t, it will not end: Ebola, events like Ferguson, un-equal educational opportunity and so on.

So, here at Calvin College, I hope we are teaching courageous compassion. Of course, we teach to grow your knowledge and understanding, to prepare you with expert skills, certificates and endorsements in a variety of professions. But, I for one, am not teaching so that you can be financially well off. That would be a bonus.

I am at Calvin for the opportunity to radicalize you for courageous compassion. I’m working here, doing my bit to help you graduate with Christ-like ability to be bold when justice is smothered, heal when death leers and love where vengeance infects every other mind.

–Jo Kuyvenhoven, Professor of Education