From Ebola crisis to children at the border, does charity have limits?

“But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?” or so says the lesson in the Gospel of John in the New Testament. It is a simple message that is now being tested by several modern-day crises, with complications that range from compassion overload to an instinct to protect loved ones close to home.

Charlotte, where I live, waits with support, careful interest and some apprehension after news that missionaries, some of whom have worked with and around patients with the Ebola virus, will be returning to the city. Bruce Johnson, president of SIM USA, the Charlotte-based mission organization, said in a statement Sunday that while no staff member is sick or has symptoms, “SIM USA has been working closely with international, national, state and local public health officials since this most recent outbreak of Ebola in Western Africa began.” He said, “We will continue to cooperate and collaborate with them and adhere strictly to their guidelines in the return of our missionaries to the United States.”

Photo provided by Jeremy Writebol shows his mother, Nancy Writebol, with children in Liberia on Oct. 7. Nancy Writebol has since been diagnosed with Ebola virus. (Associated Press/Courtesy Jeremy Writebol)
Nancy Writebol with children in Liberia on Oct. 7. Nancy Writebol has since been diagnosed with Ebola virus. (Jeremy Writebol via AP)

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Public Health and the Mecklenburg County Health Department are requiring a period of quarantine for staffers and those who were exposed to Ebola and are returning within 21 days since their last exposure. Stephen Keener, Mecklenburg County medical director, said, “Quarantine is a public health measure to protect the public that requires healthy people who were exposed to a disease to be prevented from contact with others until it is certain that they are not infected.” He also praised “the courageous missionaries who are participating in the medical and humanitarian response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.”

Diverse religious faiths are represented in Charlotte, and its hundreds of churches and other places of worship are often noted. The community is one that wears its Bible Belt Christianity openly and proudly. Billy Graham Parkway passes by the Billy Graham Library — also named for and containing the history of the 95-year-old evangelical icon — on the way from the city to the airport where the SIM USA staffers will arrive. For privacy’s sake, the number of missionaries in Liberia and the exact date of their return are not being released.

The news came on a Sunday, where, in the early morning church service I attended, the read-out-loud list of those to pray for included the sick and suffering all over the world.

Nancy Writebol, a SIM missionary, was the second American with Ebola to be flown to Georgia to be treated at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. Calvary Church, her home church in Charlotte, offered to bring her and her husband, David Writebol, back from Liberia after the Ebola outbreak earlier this year, but they decided to remain.

U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.) addressed the U.S. House of Representatives about Nancy Writebol, saying: “David and Nancy Writebol could have chosen the easy route.  Instead, they chose a higher calling of sacrificial love and service.”

The first American with Ebola to be brought to the U.S., physician Kent Brantly, was in Liberia with Samaritan’s Purse, an international Christian relief group headquartered in Boone, N.C., and headed by Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham. After treatment, Brantly seemed to be getting stronger, and from his hospital room issued a statement that said, in part, “One thing I have learned is that following God often leads us to unexpected places.” His wife and children had returned to Texas before the outbreak.

Movies such as 2011’s “Contagion” have offered cinematic approximations of worldwide epidemics, complete with their swift spread in a time of frequent international travel, before imagining societal breakdown, civic unrest and the third-act eventual resolution in the form of a vaccine. In the real-world case of Ebola, there is so far no cure, though experimental treatment may have helped the two Americans.

There has been backlash to the loud voices of criticism – that would be Donald Trump protesting the U.S. treatment of the sick, and Ann Coulter, questioning missionaries working in “disease-ridden cesspools” of Africa. But others are more calmly uncomfortable. Retired neurosurgeon and conservative activist Ben Carson said doctors should have flown overseas to treat Ebola patients there.

Admonitions to be our brother’s keeper are tempered with concern over things that are easy to fear and difficult to understand. It’s what happens when the generosity many Americans take pride in is complicated by practical concerns and worries. You can hear it in the low tones of good people who nonetheless have doubts.

You can hear it as Americans debate the fate of children fleeing violence in Central America. Many want to help and would never stand in the road angrily jeering busloads of women and children, but they also want to know laws are being followed. While the plight of resilient Yazidis escaping with the aid of American airstrikes is a survival story to cheer, for many that support would stop at the point it meant American soldiers on the ground.

In Charlotte, a city welcoming those returning from a mission of mercy, well-wishers also wonder about the limits of compassion. There is caution underlying the support in an overwhelming world that can seem full of danger and unfilled need. But were the Writebols and Brantly on to something? Would the fight against Ebola be further along if the international community had paid more attention when the victims were limited to countries many know little about?

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.
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