Last week—on the same day that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were generating international headlines by accusing each other of racism and bigotry—Joseph Gbembo was quietly preparing a meal for 16 children living in his humble home in the town of Foya in northern Liberia. A short distance away, a cemetery containing 250 headstones commemorates those who died in the 2014 Ebola epidemic which claimed over 11,000 lives in West Africa…including one marking the burial of a newborn simply named “Baby One Day.”
(Grave marker in Foya, Liberia. SRN News photo)
Gbembo lost 17 relatives in the virus epidemic, and the 16 children ranging in ages from 4 to 12 which he now cares for were orphaned in the crisis. “I had no choice but to take them in, they are my family,” he observes.
Foya—and virtually all of Liberia’s onetime Ebola “hot zone”—are pretty much forgotten two years later as our 24/7 news industry chases the latest 2016 campaign controversy, or why Olympic swimmers from the U.S. filed false reports of being robbed at gunpoint in Rio, or why 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refuses to stand during the national anthem because he sees America as a nation that “oppresses people of color.”
Regrettably, outlandish events and blistering soundbites have come to dominate journalism in America because they generate both ratings and revenue. But in the world beyond FOX News, MSNBC and Entertainment Tonight, real life men and women are hard at work improving the lives of people without concern over publicizing their heroism.
Just 275 miles south of Foya—in Liberia’s capital city of Monrovia—Dr. Jon Frankhauser is overseeing construction of a new hospital being built by Samaritan’s Purse, the international relief organization founded by Franklin Graham. (In July 2014, Dr. Kent Brantley of Samaritan’s Purse became the first American to contract—and later recover from—the deadly Ebola virus. His groundbreaking high-tech evacuation from Liberia and his treatment at Emory University medical center in Atlanta—was beamed to television viewers around the world.)
“I think we’re sometimes programmed to chase the headlines,” Dr. Frankhauser conceded to me last week as I embedded on a Samaritan’s Purse medical flight with a handful of other journalists delivering x-ray machines and other equipment for his new facility. But he added: “We as Americans have the capacity to demonstrate extravagant compassion on many different fronts.” Despite being out of the headlines, West Africa has not recovered from the Ebola epidemic and the people there who have been through such an intense time need to continue to have partners in America who are able to come alongside them to provide resources and expertise from people who really care. That mission is made more difficult—if not impossible—if the media focuses only on so-called hotbutton issues and ignores the potential for the positive impact it could have on men, women and children like the ones I met in Liberia.
(Tom Tradup with children at play in the northern Liberian town of Foya. SRN News photo)
Back in 2014, Liberians found themselves in the vortex of the largest Ebola virus outbreak in history. 26,000 people in Liberia and its neighboring countries of Guinea and Sierra Leone contracted Ebola. 11,000 died…including those relatives of Joseph Gbembo interred at the cemetary in Foya.
Walking among the 250 simple markers, Joni Byker of Samaritan’s Purse explained that “Every gravestone you see does not mean that there’s only one person buried there. At some points in the epidemic there were multiple people buried in the same location.” Other parts of Liberia were coping with so many Ebola deaths that burial was not an option and bodies were cremated as quickly as they expired.
As the crisis continued to unfold, tempers flared and some radical elements spread rumors Americans who were battling Ebola were actually a plot to infect Liberians with the deadly disease. Those who survived death themselves faced ostracism by family members and townspeople fearing they, too, were carrying the virus.
Amos Jessy was a successful businessman prior to contracting Ebola. Although he lost sight in his left eye and is losing vision in his right one, Amos beat the medical odds and survived…only to be shunned by friends, family and former business associates. He was so devastated at the stigma and how it had turned him into an outcast that he told me, “I honestly considered suicide. But God spoke to me, and through prayer and love from others, I am today counseling other Ebola survivors to convince them that a better future is ahead.”
(Ebola survivor Amos Jessy shares his story with Tom Tradup. SRN News photo.)
The recurrent theme of prayer’s power was evident throughout my journey to West Africa.
To be sure, modern medicine and pioneering American doctors and health workers played vital roles as the last line of defense against Ebola in the 2014 Ebola epidemic which the world was largely ignoring. But even as Franklin Graham was greenlighting a groundbreaking, high-tech evacuation of a Samaritan’s Purse doctor and nurse to the U.S. for treatment and cure, those on the scene at ELWA Hospital in Monrovia credit prayer and their faith in God with helping conquer Ebola.
David Writebol, whose wife Nancy in 2014 became the first American nurse to contract and eventually be cured of Ebola—says even in their darkest hours as protesters surrounded their compound and eventually led to a temporary shutdown of medical facilities, prayer helped them though. “Whether the crowds were motivated by fear or panic or any other factor, we knew the protests weren’t directed at us personally. We were here to help. We were here as representatives of Christ, really.”
As Proverbs 21:31 says, “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord.” Highlighting Writebol’s work, or the inspiring triumphs of Joseph Gbembo or Jessy Amos, isn’t easy or as routine for TV newsrooms in America as just showing B-roll video of Black Lives Matter activists hurling rocks at police. Or acknowledging the truth that in the midst of the worst health crisis of the 21st century, Ebola truly became the disease that prayer conquered.
But having just returned from the awesome opportunity to meet, hug, and worship with men, women and children in Liberia, my prayer is that one day our news media will someday use its power to inspire viewers and listeners to join the important battle to help the poorest of the poor here on Earth.