The phone call came at 6:00 p.m. on a Friday evening. My two sons had just finished one of those slogging school weeks between winter break and Easter holidays. The weather was getting warm enough to enjoy taking the dog on walks again through the pruned vineyards and newly plowed fields near our home, a small Bruderhof community in rural Austria. Friends from Russia had arrived for a weekend, and they had brought vodka, promising to teach us the nuances of tasting it.
All that fun was going to have to wait as the voice on the line explained that he was calling from the local health ministry. Confirming that my fourteen-year-old son was a member of a specific class in the Catholic high school in a town twenty minutes away, he informed me that one of my son’s classmates had tested positive for COVID-19 that same afternoon, and instructed me to keep him quarantined within our house for the next fourteen days. All twenty-two of his classmates and four teachers would have to undergo the same fate.
My heart sank. A friend had just texted me an article stating that there was a case in the town where our kids went to school, and asking if we should be worried. I had opened the link and had seen immediately that the lead picture was my sons’ school. I wasn’t even finished reading the article when the phone rang.
Oddly, it was my son who had the calmest reaction when we told him the news a few minutes later: “Mom, Dad, we’re going to pray this one out, and everything is going to be okay.” To hear him – whose most recent pressing concern had been Dortmund’s Champions League campaign – talking about prayer was somehow unnerving and reassuring all at once.
To hear him – whose most recent pressing concern had been Dortmund’s Champions League campaign – talking about prayer was somehow unnerving and reassuring all at once.
Have you ever tried to keep a teenager in one place for fourteen minutes, let alone fourteen days? Luckily, we’ve got a walled courtyard, so when no one else is around we’ve let him kick a ball around, since he’s missing soccer practice. The worst was seeing the tears well up the first time we brought a plate of dinner to his room – I lost it myself, right then.
But we reminded ourselves that compared to folks in Wuhan, and many other places, we have it pretty easy. There was a mini-panic in our town that first weekend, with supermarket shelves emptied of staple dry goods. And our other son had to go back to school the following Monday, which brought its own angst. But mostly, our parents’ WhatsApp group has been humming with simple encouragement to each other to hang in there and not panic.
The quarantine has brought us moments of sunshine. A few days in, at a particularly depressing breakfast, I cranked up Mendelssohn’s Elijah – now there’s a man ostracized from society, and with every reason to give up – and soaked in the words from Psalm 91, “For he shall give his angels charge over thee; that they shall protect thee in all the ways thou goest; that their hands shall uphold and guide thee.” Somehow, it all felt a little more relevant.
Our family may be almost out of the woods, but the epidemic doesn’t show signs of slowing, and in that lies a challenge: What will you do if and when the coronavirus lands in your neighborhood? On this point, the early church gives us a clear example, in the way they followed Matthew 25 – “Whatever you do for the least of these…” – and John 15:13 – “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark quotes early bishop Dionysius, writing circa AD 260 about an epidemic in Rome:
Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. …The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest.
This is inspiring, but it needs to become more than a history lesson. In 2005 at the height of the bird flu, my father-in-law, pastor and author Johann Christoph Arnold, said:
If there are sick neighbors, we can’t just close the door and say, “Hey, leave us in peace – we don’t want to get sick.” We have an obligation to show people that we love Christ, that we do not fear death, that even though we die, as Jesus said, we shall never die. That is feasible only with a deep faith in Christ. We know these words, but hopefully they become a reality again. Let’s say such a tragedy falls upon us: we should turn it around and see it as a gift from God, as an opportunity to make our lives count, even if they are going to be very short.
There will be a fine balance between protecting ourselves and not succumbing to a bunker mentality. Hand sanitizer and elbow bumps have their points, and doing our part to avoid unnecessary travel and large gatherings are the best way we can help reduce further contagion. But this will make it difficult to continue meeting together for community and fellowship. Gracy Olmstead recently wrote about the joy of working together as neighbors, not just celebrating and worshiping and eating together; I fear that those may be the first things that will be stopped by an excess of precautionary measures.
Perfect love – love of one’s neighbor no matter how sick – drives out fear, and at this point in the epidemic, fear is possibly the greatest danger.
We’re finally out of quarantine now, but that doesn’t mean much. Neighboring Italy just moved from closing all its schools, to isolating the northern part of the country, to locking down the entire nation, in just a week; that could certainly happen here in Austria too. That will isolate people even more, which is of course the point, but also the curse.
And whichever way things turn out, I’ll be among the lucky ones: living in an intentional community, however small, has brought a great blessing on these difficult weeks. Just a few miles away, a parent of one of my son’s classmates described to the press being treated like a leper when her neighbors found out about the quarantine. But perfect love – love of one’s neighbor no matter how sick – drives out fear, and at this point in the epidemic, fear is possibly the greatest danger. I don’t know exactly how I’ll respond if my immediate neighbor gets COVID-19, but I pray that I will find a way to stand by him, not only with fearlessness, but with love.