"For Love of Neighbor" is a new documentary film offering a hopeful vision for Christian engagement in politics. Click here to learn more.

First Responders

“God calls us to do unsafe stuff. Hard stuff. These are people who really need help. Somebody has to go. If I have a skill that can help, I can’t pretend it’s just not happening. Many said I was stupid and crazy to go back to Liberia. But, people were dying.”

Kelly Sites never imagined she would be one of the first medical responders to the Ebola crisis in Liberia. But, when the outbreak began, she couldn’t not respond. She took two trips into the epicenter of the Ebola crisis, serving as a nurse to patients afflicted with the disease. On her first trip, only two of the hundreds of patients they treated survived. But she served these men and women with dignity and grace, allowing the love of God to flow through her.

[pq]In radical gestures and everyday grace, the Church at her best is magnetic to the world around her.[/pq]

A friend introduced me to Kelly and her story brought the Christian faith into the best possible light. Sites, a mom and part-time nurse from Michigan, lives an obedient life. She stewards all God has given her for the benefit of the most vulnerable in the world (full interview posted at Leadership Journal). This posture of obedience is not an unfamiliar one in the history of the Church, evidenced perhaps most clearly in the genesis years of the Church.

In the first century, the world was aflame. Plagues had wiped out nearly a third of the entire Roman Empire. When plagues struck, it crippled Rome at its very core. Thucydides, a prominent Roman historian, wrote depressingly about the effects:

[People] were afraid to visit one another…they died with no one to look after them; indeed there were many houses in which all the inhabitants perished through lack of any attention…. The bodies of the dying were heaped on top of one another, and half-dead creatures could be seen staggering about in the streets or flocking around the fountains in their desire for water.

Rodney Stark, professor of sociology and religion at Baylor University, wrote about these days in “The Rise of Christianity.” In an attempt to determine how “how the obscure, marginal Jesus Movement became the dominant religious force in the Western world in a few centuries.”

As he examined historical literature, Stark came across countless resources lauding the role of the Church in responding lovingly to the plagues. When things seemed most dire, Stark wrote, the Church was at her very best. Dionysius, one of the early church fathers, wrote this in year 260:

Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ… many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.

As the Roman Empire wilted, when people were at their most desperate, God’s people stormed into the pain. Into the heart of sickness and death. Historians describe the flight of Rome’s powerful and wealthy away from those afflicted with the plague. Christians went the exact opposite direction. They infected themselves for the sake of their neighbors, even those who despised them.

And there were many who did.

The Roman Emperor, Julian, who loathed and murdered many Christian leaders, hated that these followers of Jesus did what the pagan priests and his government officials would not do, saying they “support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”

But no matter the force of the persecution and marginalization of Christians in early Rome, they kept serving each other and their neighbors with grace. Two thousand years later, Christians like Kelly Sites carry forward this tradition. In profound ways, they are the first responders to the world’s worst fires. When others evacuate, they stay.

But an obedient Christian life is not always as dramatic as fighting Ebola in Liberia. For many Christians, obedience looks like leading their mattress business in a countercultural way. Or like families choosing to cap their standards of living and giving generously toward their church and other noble causes. Or like churches linking arms across denominational barriers to serve their city’s biggest needs.

In radical gestures and everyday grace, the Church at her best is magnetic to the world around her. In these moments, theological disagreements often fade, as staunch critics stand aghast at the nonsensical generosity, compassion and grace. It was my reaction upon getting to know Kelly Sites. It was Julian’s response when the earliest Christians infected themselves with the plague while they served the sick. And at our best, it should be the reaction all people have when they think of the Church.

This post originally appeared at Smorgasblurb.