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The Aussies who are not coming home. A missionary writes on sharing life with the vulnerable

The Australian government issued its ‘do not travel’ advice, and warned that Australians overseas who are planning to return home do so immediately. While borders are not yet closed, Qantas is following other major airlines and slashing their flights.

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This has implications for Australian missionaries overseas – people like us! COVID-19 has been slow to spread to Africa, so slow that for a while there was fake news circulating that Africans had a genetic resistance to it! However, cases are starting to creep up, and on the weekend Tanzania, where I live with my husband and two little boys, joined the ranks of countries registering cases.

Though Tanzania is currently well behind Australia in terms of numbers of cases, but this does not necessarily make it a safer place to be. The government has acted swiftly and more decisively than in Australia, but the capacity of the medical infrastructure is lower than in western countries. If there is an outbreak here, the results could be disastrous.

Do we stay or do we go?

This raises the question: do we stay or do we go? At one level, we want to stay because Tanzania has become home. We have just returned from a 6 month home assignment with CMS in Australia, landing in Tanzania with considerable relief. 6 months is a long time to try to do life in a place that is not ‘home’ and we are now loving the familiarity of life in the country we have called home for the past seven years.

The prospect of closing borders or not being able to get back into Australia for months or even longer does not phase us. We have been praying for four unbroken years in Tanzania, without the disruption of time in Australia. Though it might make a psychological difference to not have the option to leave, staying in Tanzania for several years would not be a change from what we had planned to do anyway.

But then, when we said we expected to be here for four more years, we were not anticipating a global pandemic! If one of us fell ill and was not able to access the medical care we need, I expect I would really like to have access to a western standard of medical care. We are not in the high risk category and neither are our children, but you never know, and surely it’s a good idea to be in the place where you have the best access to healthcare.

Many of our missionary colleagues are in a different health category or have children with vulnerable health, so for them, leaving is the most responsible and wise course of action. The thing is, I live and work among a people who do not have that option.

Whatever the Tanzanian capacity is, that is what they are stuck with. These are people who love their children and their children’s grandparents just as much as we love ours; who work just as hard as us (probably harder!), who are just as mystified by the virus. And yet, by an accident of history or geography or whatever, in this crisis the options open to them are much more limited than mine.

It’s stating the obvious to say that it’s unfair. I’m angry about it, but my anger achieves little, and it doesn’t instruct me about what to do. One option would be to leave Tanzania because it is the loving thing to do. In a strained healthcare system, fewer people taking up resources is a good thing. In this line of reasoning, since our family of four can opt for a different, stronger healthcare system, it’s worth doing that, because it relieves pressure on the Tanzanian system, leaving what little is there for those who don’t have the option to leave.

But when I think about leaving I wonder how we would explain it to our local friends, those with whom we share life and labor in the gospel. They are gracious and forbearing and would not begrudge us leaving, but what would we say? That we need to escape their health care system? That we’re together with them in the fair times, but we leave at the prospect of suffering? It’s also possible they’ll view is as an act of fear over faith.

But when I think about leaving I wonder how we would explain it to our local friends, those with whom we share life and labor in the gospel.

While we westerners come at things from a scientific point of view, asking what the most sensible thing to do is, Tanzanians are very concerned with motivation. If you take the necessary precautions while trusting God that He will deliver you, that’s fine, but if you take them out of fear, that is not. They are exhorting each other strongly to trust in God and His deliverance.

In our talk about fact, figures and projections, they see any tone of prediction or inevitability as a lack of trust in God. Certainly an action that could be perceived as running away would fall into that category. Now, we stand before God, not Tanzanians, to answer for our actions, but one of the things I believe I will answer to God for is how we have listened to and honoured His people here.

The Bible passage which most shapes my thinking on this is Philippians 2:6-8, which encourages us to have the same attitude as Jesus Christ, who: Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. (NLT)

When you’re comparatively wealthy and resourced, as we are in contrast to most Tanzanians, you’re privileged. Staying in a less resourced country during a global pandemic means giving up some of that privilege, expressing not just solidarity with the vulnerable, but becoming vulnerable with them. I don’t want to make the claim that that’s what Jesus would do, and I will get behind any missionary who decides to return to their home country at this perilous time, but we are seeing the chance to stay as a chance to pick up this aspect of Christ’s life and live it out.

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