Ebola and missionaries: CNN feature offers an intense look

Scanning electron microscopic image of Ebola virions. From Public Library of Science, published in October 2005. Posted on Wikimedia under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0.

Scanning electron microscopic image of Ebola virions. From Public Library of Science, published in October 2005. Posted on Wikimedia under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0.

The sacrificial lifestyle of medical missionaries in the worst known Ebola outbreak -- with two of them coming down with the virus themselves -- cries out for thoughtful, sensitive coverage. So it was a pleasure to see CNN provide it. And in a refreshingly long-form newsfeature.

Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, the missionaries, get a searching, respectful look in this 2,087-word piece from a news outfit known better for soundbites and surface treatments. The many-sided article deals with the missionaries' backgrounds and with the number and types of Christian missionaries. It sketches the history of the American missionary initiative and even takes up the question -- as a subhead asks -- of whether Writebol and Brantly were "heroic or foolish" for putting themselves in harm's way.

The heavily researched story cites more than a dozen sources, either directly or via other media. Writers Daniel Burke and Ashley Fantz draw from several reputable groups -- not only missions like Serving in Mission, which Writebol works for, but also think tanks like the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts.

Their fact-finding yields some interesting insights. One is that, according to the center at Gordon-Conwell, about 71 percent of the world has heard the gospel as of this summer. Another insight is that although missionaries have worked for centuries, their numbers have "exploded" -- as high as 2.4 million -- since the rise of short-term missions in the 1970s.

The employers of the two American Ebola patients -- Samaritan's Purse for Brantly, Servants in Mission for Writebol -- naturally get a closer look. Burke and Fantz do so by smoothly working in the missionaries' backgrounds and how they felt called to the vocation.

Casual observers may be surprised to find out the language and cultural training that people undergo before they can represent a mission group like SIM. That agency's George Salloum offers this snapshot:

Missionaries also are also trained in their most critical skill, Salloum said: How to provide practical help while simultaneously spreading the Gospel.
For instance, when a person suffers from an illness or injury, the medical missionary will approach and ask if they can help. “The missionary just shares something ... and then sometimes they’ll say, ‘Do you mind if I pray with you?’”
“People will say, ‘Why are you doing that?’ And we tell them that’s what Christ did,’” Salloum said. “It’s a natural transition – someone who has a physical need then to have a spiritual need.”

CNN even quotes the original source material, the Bible itself. It traces the urge to spread the Word to the Great Commission -- and quotes it, specifying that the commission came from Jesus himself.

Objections against missionaries are handled early in the article:

Christians have long debated the effectiveness of missions, with some arguing that they can, at times, cause more harm than good -- both to missionaries and the people they are trying to help.
But rarely has the debate ranged as far afield of Christian circles or become as bitterly divided as it has since the American missionaries' return to the United States.

Burke and Fantz then cite Ann Coulter and Donald Trump and their criticisms about the missionaries exposing themselves to a deadly illness -- with Coulter snidely saying Brantley's health status had been "downgraded to idiotic."

CNN also cites praise from Baptist leaders Russell Moore and R. Albert Mohler Jr., and quotes Nancy Writebol's husband, David (though it lifts the quote from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution). David agrees that it may seem foolish to venture into danger zones, but he adds:

"But it's that very calling that demonstrates the characteristics, the great things that Christ has done for humanity. He left heaven and he came to a place of suffering and trouble and went about doing good."

And those remarks are quoted without the sarcasm that we've come to expect from secular treatments of evangelical Christianity.

I like the systematic organization of this story. So many long articles amount to series of anecdotes. Instead, Burke and Fantz provide overviews such as classifying mission organizations into "those who preach, those who do good works, and those who do both."

SIM, the former Sudan Interior Mission, is presented as an example of both. So is Samaritan's Purse, founded by Billy Graham's son Franklin.

Yet another plus: 13 paragraphs on Catholic Relief Services, which doesn't put an evangelistic onus on its 4,500 workers. They don’t even have to be Catholic, CNN says, adding that many are even Buddhist and Hindu.

Also adept are the transitions in the article. From the question over the wisdom of missionaries endangering themselves, for instance, there's a segue into the Great Commission and the millions of believers who serve both short- and long-term. And from Catholic Relief Services, the story moves to CRS official Meredith Dyson discussing difficulties in coping with suspicions and superstitions -- including a notion that a soft drink can cure Ebola.

Criticisms? Few and far between for this article. CNN says Dyson isn't Catholic quotes of Catholic Relief Services without saying what her religion is. It quotes Ann Coulter saying the death rate for Ebola is 90 percent; since 1976, fatalities have actually ranged widely between 25 and 90 percent. And CNN labels Coulter a "conservative commentator," although her quoted opinion has little to do with left/right divisions.

Again, those are nitpicks in an otherwise rich and full look at missions and the souls who seek to serve other souls. It's good to see that a major outfit like CNN -- which some of us had begun to consider a mission field for religion reporting -- remembers the need not just to inform readers, but to help them understand.

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