Mexico City, April 2, 2020
Dear Friends in the Lord,
Hoping you are well in these extraordinary times. I wanted to write you a few lines to send you a change of scenery during the “quarantine” or “lockdown” that many of us are living through.
Yesterday I received an e-mail from an educational foundation that we help, and the headline is “We’re still working.” I’m happy to hear that, but I am afraid that in many parts of the world where we help, things have ground to a standstill. In most of the African dioceses where we have the School of the Faith, classes have been cancelled until further notice (except for Malawi, one of the only countries in the world where there have been no registered cases of the virus). El Salvador is under total lockdown. Up in northern Mexico where we support the plantation, sales have been halted for health concerns (I have not yet understood properly what health concerns).
Where I live in Mexico City, the Church authorities have forbidden people from going to Mass, and I am obliged to do legal somersaults to make sure my people have access to the sacraments in a safe environment, without breaking any of the rules set by the bishops. One of the ways I do this is by marking the pews with large star-shaped stickers to indicate safe distances. On Sundays I take the Blessed Sacrament in a large monstrance and stand on the back of a truck that drives me slowly through all of the streets of the parish, so the people – especially the vulnerable who are home-ridden – can be exposed to Our Lord in a special way. We also broadcast Mass every day live on Facebook behind closed doors. But it is definitely not business as usual!
One of the things that my friends in North America and Europe may not know, is that a really effective quarantine is almost impossible to enforce in a developing country. Sister Maru, who runs our School of the Faith in Mongu, Zambia (southern Africa) sent me a report the other day. They have had to cancel classes and are trying to help the people there take sanitary measures. But it is very complicated in a place where there are no refrigerators and where all the water used has to be hauled from common wells every day. Real self-isolation would mean starvation.
And even if they had modern conveniences, they are living in countries where most people wouldn’t even have any money to “hoard” with. Many, many people in our world buy the food they and their children will eat today, with the money they earn today. Of course you can tell them, “Stay in your homes for a month.” But that would be like saying to a Canadian in the middle of winter, “Sleep on your front lawn for a month!” It’s just not possible. Here in Mexico I have seen many people – sent home from their jobs to “isolate” indefinitely – go out on the street corners to sell sandwiches, gardening services, even antiseptic gel. They just can’t stop working.
A case in point is El Salvador, a poor country where the government is trying to enforce an extremely severe lockdown. Because the people are poor, the authorities have said that mortgages and rents are put off for three months, and every family that needs money to stay locked-down for the next month will get $300. But in order to get the money, people have to pick it up at distribution points. You can imagine the rush. Epidemiologists estimate that the risk of infection caused by the distribution of the $300 subsidy, with people packed tight and pushing in long queues, was higher than if no lockdown had been imposed in the first place! It is a very difficult situation just about everywhere.
(People queuing at close quarters for relief money in El Salvador yesterday)
In any case, I think that now more than ever we have to remember what we believe, what we often profess, but what we seldom have the opportunity to prove by our actions: Jesus Christ is the Lord of history (see Revelation 1, 4, 5, and 19). Of course that does not mean – as some simplistic “Christians” at times say – that pestilence is a punishment, that God sends plagues, that all we have to do is pray and everything will be all right, etc. Our Lord respects us too much to not let us co-pilot our own destiny. But it does mean that He is walking right alongside us and that there is never any reason to fear. St Paul says it far better than I could ever do it:
Can anything cut us off from the love of Christ -- can hardships or distress, or persecution, or lack of food and clothing, or threats or violence… No; we come through all these things triumphantly victorious, by the power of him who loved us. For I am certain of this: neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nothing already in existence and nothing still to come, nor any power, nor the heights nor the depths, nor any created thing whatever, will be able to come between us and the love of God, known to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rm 8: 35, 37-39)
In fact, if we find ourselves full of trepidation for this – or any other – crisis, then we really need to think about where our faith and hope truly are. That is a wonderful way to finish off our Lent!
I have allowed myself to write on because I know many of you have more time to read these days. Before I close, I want to share my five “Panic Points” with you, in case they are any help for the rest of your quarantine. I call them “Panic Points” a bit tongue-in-cheek, not because I am panicking but because I am truly surrounded by people that are. It can be a bit overwhelming, and if that is not enough the fact that we are all “cooped up” can give the coup de grâce! So these are the ones that I find very helpful.
ONE: Make a realistic schedule and stick to it. Get up at a set time, get dressed, and have a “to do” list that you actually do. For us Christians, there should be some prayer on that schedule.
TWO: Restrict news and social media. One bishop here in Mexico suggested to his flock that they only read the news three times a day, and that they try to read informed sources, and not just opinions. I have to tell you, personally this “panic point” is a great help for me!
THREE: If you are not in a high-risk group, get out and do some physical exercise every day. As long as you respect “social distancing,” many experts recommend this. Even the UK government, which is reacting to this situation in an extremely cautious way, recommends doing this!
FOUR: Do something new. Nothing big, I guess, but something that occupies your gray cells. Personally I am starting a new project to secure a minimum wage for priests well below the poverty line. Although we can’t do everything from the home office, it’s a great place for brainstorming and project building!
FIVE (also a very important one for me!): Talk less, and don’t opine (or pontificate!) about the coronavirus. The reasons are many and obvious. Try it, you’ll be amazed at how helpful it is.
Well, dear friends, I have to finish here. I have rambled! But it is rambling to fill your quarantine… Know that I am praying for you: obviously for your physical safety, but much more for your spiritual well-being. Will you do the same for me, and for so many brothers and sisters of ours who have it worse than we do? Thank you.
Wishing you God’s peace and Easter joy,
P.S. Sister Rosemary Sibanda wrote to me today from another diocese in Zambia where the School of the Faith is active. She asks for prayers for one of our students, Mrs. Muuka, who died today. Because of the health crisis she will be buried without the presence of family and friends. Pray for her!