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Faith in the Face of Ebola: Not Being Able to Comfort the Dying, Salesians Stay Close

Youth from Salesian youth center in Monrovia on Ebola awareness campaign

Courtesy of Father Sony Pottenplackal

John Burger - published on 10/31/14

The Church in Liberia finds ways to help, including continued presence

One of the hardest things for Father Sony Pottenplackal, living in the midst of an Ebola epidemic in Liberia, has been the fact that he is unable to do the things he normally would do as a priest.

That means being there when people need him the most.

“It’s very painful for us as pastors of people not being able to be close to them in moments like this,” said Father Pottenplackal, a Salesian priest from Kerala, India, who serves as principal of the Don Bosco Technical High School in Monrovia. “Moments of sickness and death are times when people feel the need for a priest.”

But when a person is dying of a disease that is as highly contagious as Ebola, a priest contracting the virus means that he could end up infecting many more people — and may in fact mean that he himself dies of the illness, reducing the number of priests able to serve the community.

Father Pottenplackal and his brother Salesians do what they can, take precautions, and trust in God.

“But people also have a great understanding and they tell us, ‘Father, don’t come,’” Father Pottenplackal said in a telephone interview earlier this week. “‘But pray for us,’ they say.”

Being in touch with people by phone, especially those who are under treatment, has been a good substitute. And in some cases, priests do go to the home of a sick person, as long as he is careful to keep his distance and keep the visit brief, he said.

There are other ways the Church is helping, through its ordained ministers and lay collaborators, and the Salesian communities — there are two in Monrovia — are good examples.

The public health crisis prevented the Don Bosco School, like all schools in the country, from opening this session, so youngsters stay at home with little to do. If conditions permit, the school might be able to bring back small groups of youngsters at a time—small enough that everyone could keep a safe distance from others.

Father Pottenplackal went on the country’s Catholic radio station recently to give parents ideas about what they can do with their children at home. For the few who are able to access Facebook, he communicates encouraging messages, designed to inspire students to keep reading and learning. 

The parish also organized a group of some 45 youth and trained them to go into various neighborhoods in and around Monrovia to educate people, create awareness and sensitize people in order to take precautions against Ebola infection.

"They perform street dramas, sing songs on Ebola composed by themselves, give speeches, distribute posters and leaflets, and detergents, chlorine, buckets, etc.," Father Pottenplackal said. "We take as much precautions as possible. They have been given several workshops and training sessions by doctors and health professionals before they started. Three Salesians (a priest and two brothers) accompany them. We also give them basic protection by way of boots, gloves, etc. They avoid physical contact with people especially when they are on these visits…. Above all, they pray before and after and there are also prayer days set aside and group Eucharist."

The other Salesian parish in Monrovia, Holy Innocents, is doing something similar. Father Raphael Airoboman, pastor, said that some of the 4000 young people who usually attend the now-closed Don Bosco Youth Center go out into the streets to "dramatize the crisis of Ebola, then give a lecture on Ebola. Sixty-five young people go in pairs and talk individually to local residents, to talk about the virus, then distribute sanitary supplies, chlorine and food," said Father Airoboman, a Salesian from Nigeria. 

In addition to ongoing efforts to educate people about the dangers, Father Pottenplackal’s parish also felt it was important to address the stigmatization of people who have contracted Ebola and recovered. Many in Liberian society believe in the superstition that once you have had Ebola you are a carrier of the virus. Survivors thus become pariahs in some neighborhoods, such as a woman who was evicted from her apartment or a man who could not buy food in the local market because merchants feared his money would be infected. Sadly, even some children who lost both parnts to Ebola have been rejected in their communities.

“We’ve had some people who recovered come to church to talk to people…addressing the problem of stigma, to help people understand just what their experience was.” Father Pottenplackal said. “There were some who shared very touching and moving experiences.”

​Another common misperception, based on the observation that many people go to Ebola treatment units or hospitals and end up not coming back, has led to some families keeping the sick in their homes. And that has led to entire families becoming ill and dying.

"But that’s changing because more people are recovering," Father Pottenplackl said.

There’s another way the Church is helping. Many of Father Pottenplackal’s fellow Salesians are foreign missionaries who could go back home to avoid possible infection.

"We as a community have stayed on. None of us has run away from the country," he said. "It’s one way of communicating our closeness to people. We want to, by our witness, show them that we are with them even in this moment of crisis."

This is Part 3 of a series. Part 1 can be read here and Part 2 here

John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.

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