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Pastoring in the midst of Ebola

By November 3, 2014 No Comments

Susan Sytsma Bratt serves as Associate Pastor of Northridge Presbyterian Church (USA) in Dallas, Texas. She’s also my cousin-in-law (and daughter-in-law of fellow 12 blogger James Bratt)! Her congregation has ties both to Vickery Meadow, the neighborhood where the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the US had been staying with relatives, and to Texas Presbyterian, the Dallas hospital where that patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, was treated and later died. 

Susan and her husband Peter are also anticipating the arrival of their first child in just a few weeks, and the birth is planned to take place at Texas Presbyterian Hospital. I asked Susan about her experiences as a pastor and parent-to-be in the midst of the ongoing reactions to Ebola in Dallas. Many thanks to Susan for sharing her perspectives with The 12 this week!


Jessica: Overall, what has it been like to pastor in the midst of this situation?

Susan: I’ve taken on a different pastoral role than usual in this situation as I’ve been more conscious of the public role I can play in terms of being a non-anxious presence, sharing facts via social media and in sermons and newsletter articles, and framing this situation and our response theologically and biblically. I have felt called more than ever too to a ministry of presence in Vickery Meadow where parishioners live, and at Texas Health Dallas Presbyterian Hospital.   

Ebola in Dallas has also compelled me to connect more intentionally with colleagues.  I’m grateful to those like George Mason of Wilshire Baptist, and Brent Barry of NorthPark Presbyterian Church, the Attending Clergy Association of Dallas Presbyterian Hospital who have worked to connect clergy to form a web of support and leadership in our community.

J: You’re due to deliver your first child at Texas Presbyterian next month. What are the reactions you’re getting, and what are your own thoughts about how to stay level headed in the midst of this? How do you deal with other peoples’ fear, personally and professionally?

S: First, I have to say that I implicitly trust Texas Presbyterian, or Presby as locals refer to it. It is an asset to our community, and has been very involved in the Vickery Meadow neighborhood. Most of my parishioners go there for procedures etc., and it is why I chose my OB practice in the hospital, and why we chose to deliver there before Ebola hit. I also serve on the Attending Clergy Association Executive Board of Dallas Presby, an interfaith group that is led by Rev. John Engelhard (a fellow Calvin College alum).  It is a hospital that has its roots in mission and in caring for all. Given that history, and their solid commitment to excellent care I trust the institution.

That trust and knowledge of how hospital protocols for isolation work (thanks to a stint as a hospital chaplain and CPE student) has also put me at ease. In fact, when this illness hit my first phone call was to my chaplain colleagues at Presby reaching out in support and prayer. 

Facts not fear has been my mantra throughout this.

But, to the baby…

I get a range of reactions. Some folks are concerned for the safety of me and the baby, again mostly out of fear and misinformation. Some folks look at me like I’m crazy to still want to deliver there, or even go there for pastoral care visits. Again, I turn to facts. Ebola is transmitted by touching bodily fluids of someone who has active symptoms…there were only 3 in Dallas with active symptoms, and I’ve not had any contact with their bodily fluids.

Presby. offered folks to deliver elsewhere, but we’ve not taken that option or even considered it. I’ve been in and out of the hospital on pastoral calls and to see my OB throughout the “crisis.” Many folks have avoided the hospital, changed doctors, etc. For me, that has not been an option. I understand everyone has different comfort levels, but it strikes me personally as giving in to fear not facts.

In personal conversation I try to counter fear with facts and humor. I’ve taken to saying to folks who are jumpy or judgmental of my decision: “have you touched the fecal matter of Mr. Duncan Ms. Vinson or Ms. Pham? NO? then you’re fine, and so am I.” 

I’ve also not tolerated fear that has led to xenophobia, and neither has the mayor or other faith leaders. I’ve tried to combat the fear by pointing to Scripture…Jesus’ welcome of the leper…the early church’s role in running toward the plague and nursing people back to health…pointing to our hope in Christ. I preached on it as has my colleague, and we’ve prayed. I also participated in an ecumenical prayer service for hope, again trying to lend a voice of reason and facts to the paranoia that the media has stirred up in our community. 

J: Can you tell us about the community where Thomas Eric Duncan’s relatives live, and how the folks from that community are connected to your church?

S: Mr. Duncan’s family live in a neighborhood in Dallas called Vickery Meadow. It is a collection of densely populated low income apartment complexes. Dallas is one of 22 resettlement cities for refugees, and many live in Vickery Meadow due to the low rent, hub of social services, and access to public transportation.

Vickery Meadow is impoverished, but literally a United Nations. Complex after complex has families who have suffered tremendous torture, violence, and time in a refugee camp and who are starting over. Immigrants (people who choose to leave) also comprise the neighborhood. 

The congregation I serve launched a ministry of hospitality to refugees in 2012. We have members who live in Vickery Meadow, and some who until August lived in the Ivey Complex where Mr. Duncan was staying. I’ve personally been in and out of the complexes visiting the families who worship with us.

It is already a stigmatized community given the poverty and violence, and this illness has not helped the reputation. Race and racism has played a piece in how certain media outlets have portrayed the situation.

Many volunteers at the food pantry, ESL programs etc. stopped coming in the early days before there was understanding of how Ebola was transmitted. Some folks were sent home from work by their employers, or turned away from restaurants.

Yet, I am proud to say that churches who work with that community banded together to support the neighborhood, and to be present and supportive. The Mayor of Dallas has done a good job of dispelling the fear and calling us to be compassionate.

The Communities Foundation of Dallas also launched a fundraising campaign to pour funds into this neighborhood…sadly, those stories of compassion and coming alongside were not covered by the national media.

My congregation started a community garden at one of the elementary schools in the neighborhood. I personally felt it important to be at the school and continue with our garden party on November 1 as a sign of solidarity with the community.

J: What are some of the negative and positive congregational dynamics you have seen at work in your context?

S: Overall my congregation has been very supportive. Again, given the garden and members who live in the community folks have been compassionate.

Some have expressed fear and concern, but more for Mr. Duncan’s family and the nursing staff.

J: What have you found to be effective in countering the fears in your congregation and community?

S: The story hit on a Monday, and I wove it into my sermon and framed our response to be one of compassion. We as a congregation had already been praying for folks in West Africa, so there was awareness.  My colleague Ben followed up with a sermon the next week about the problem of evil, and how fear can lead to evil or compassion, and he too named Ebola specifics.

The anxiety in Dallas seemed to be very free floating, and I think now that the two nurses are cured that has dissipated.

J: Have churches come together in new ways in light of this situation—and have existing partnerships been strengthened?

S: Yes! That has been such a positive outcome. Existing partnerships have been strengthened, and new ones formed. My colleague Brent Barry serves as pastor at NorthPark Presbyterian Church, the closest church to the hospital. He pulled together a prayer service and invited me and other ecumenical clergy to participate. 

This came on the heels of Dallas trying to host a few thousand unaccompanied children this summer, so our networks were already in place.

Also, in the Bible Belt where sometimes churches work independently, a new spirit of support and partnership has emerged with both of these events.

J: How can we pray for you, your congregation, and your community?

S: Please pray for continued compassion and courage. This situation reminded me again that collective and individual fear is always just below the surface for Americans in this time and place.

Prayers for strength and courage for our leaders: church, elected officials, and those who minister and work in Vickery Meadow and at Presbyterian Hospital.

Prayers for the global community, and our brothers and sisters in West Africa. We’ve had 3 cases in Dallas, and they have been handling thousands for months without much support. This has reminded me that the world truly is our backyard.




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