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WORLDVIEW: The unseen impact of SARS

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Four fearful letters have given us a stark illustration of the mixed blessing that is globalization: SARS.

Jet-powered international travel, constant cultural interaction and increasingly interdependent economies are bringing the peoples of the world ever closer together — often for the better, sometimes for the worse.

SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), the flu-like virus that first appeared in southern China last November, soon spread to neighboring countries, then jumped the Pacific via commercial airlines. By the time belated public health measures stemmed the tide, SARS had infected more than 8,000 people and killed some 800 in 29 countries, according to World Health Organization statistics for mid-June.

The rate of new SARS infections clearly appears to be declining — for now — and travel warnings are being lifted. Older, more familiar, more infectious diseases and epidemics continue to strike far more people than SARS likely ever will (malaria kills 1 million people every year).

But East Asia will suffer from the SARS-induced global panic for years to come. Regional transportation, tourism and trade have plummeted. China’s economy, the day-to-day lifeline for 1.3 billion people, has taken a major hit, along with other Asian economies. Chinese economists estimated in May that the SARS crisis might cost their nation more than $25 billion in lost economic growth.

On the surface, things also have been looking gloomy for Christian outreach in the region. Many volunteers from abroad have cancelled or postponed projects. Those who went ahead with trips this spring faced the threat of travel restrictions and quarantines. The restrictions also hampered or halted the ministries of many long-term workers in the region.

Local believers have suffered much more from the fallout. One large and rapidly growing church planting movement in China was particularly hard-hit.

“A lot of the top [church planting] trainers have been killed by the SARS outbreak, and over 75 percent of the training centers associated with it have been closed,” said a Christian strategist with contacts in the movement. “In a sense, the whole infrastructure has been dealt a devastating blow.”

But something far bigger has been dealt a blow in China: faith in economic growth and material progress alone as the keys to the future.

“The people of China are scared,” the strategist observed. “They’re thinking about death, they’re thinking about eternal matters and they seem to be even more open to the Gospel than before.”

Many reports from Christians in China support his statement. A sample:

— In one major city, a university teacher brought 20 depressed, SARS-quarantined students the Gospel by offering Bibles and “Jesus” films to each. Two graduates subsequently recounted that being quarantined to their campus gave them lots of time to read, watch DVDs and think about life. After reading various parts of the Bible and watching the video, they were moved and began to understand that Jesus is the Savior of the world.

— Wang, a taxi driver, sat behind the wheel wearing a two-layered facemask and frantically hoping his next rider would not be carrying SARS. A young man hailed his cab and climbed in. Wang wondered why the man wasn’t wearing a facemask, why he seemed so confident and peaceful. He abruptly turned to the passenger and asked, “Aren’t you afraid of catching SARS?” The young man replied, “I am not afraid because I trust Jesus with my life and health now, and when I die I trust him to give me life with Him forever. Who do you rely on during times of crisis?” When the passenger exited the taxi, Wang drove off with a new and peaceful heart given to Jesus, whom he chose to believe in that day.

— Many workers left jobless or quarantined inside buildings and homes have had nothing to do but search for meaning for their lives. Zhang and Fu are two such women who had been stuck inside their workplace for two months. A coworker introduced them to Jesus and the hope He could bring to hopeless lives. Zhang and Fu had time to read through the entire Bible. With excitement in their eyes, they exclaimed to their co-worker, “We want to believe. We want Jesus.”

— “The best use of the Jesus film was during this month of SARS,” reported one worker. “The house church here took the film and added testimonies in a SARS CD they compiled and duplicated. Thousands across the city received this CD. It began with the scene of Jesus during the storm [telling His disciples not to fear].”

— “A good friend of ours went into the hospital for another illness, but while he was there contracted SARS,” another worker wrote. “His wife was able to slip into the hospital and pass him the Bible on tape. At this point he was losing his eyesight, so he relished [the tape] … and all of his roommates were ‘forced’ to listen, too! He still has SARS, but through it he has been able to share with many other patients, and has been a voice of hope in the midst of the darkness and chaos there.”

SARS also has compelled many believers in China to learn anew that the Lord works through all things — particularly crisis — and that He isn’t limited by a lack of outside support.

“I think it has helped us get a better perspective of how to go about the task, realizing that the resources are in the harvest,” reflects a Christian worker. “We can see this happen despite SARS or any other limitation. God is bigger than all this, and we need to work within the channels He places before us.”

With up to 20,000 people coming to faith in Christ every day in China, His channels seem sufficient.
Erich Bridges is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board based in Richmond, Va. His column appears twice monthly in Baptist Press.

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  • Erich Bridges