DALLAS—When services concluded at Wilshire Baptist Church on Sunday, senior pastor George Mason took a breath, sauntered over to address the crowds casually milling about his sanctuary—media types, mostly—and played down his church’s impressive attendance.
“This is a usual Sunday,” he said. “This is what you get at Wilshire.”
Well, hardly. Earlier in the week, Mason had willfully placed his church front-and-center in the Dallas Ebola conversation when he issued a press release announcing that a member of his congregation—54-year-old Liberian-American Louise Troh, who has lived in the Dallas area for a decade now and was baptized at this church just this past summer—was in quarantine. More than that, Mason revealed that Troh herself was the very reason that Thomas Eric Duncan—the Ebola patient in isolation and now listed in critical condition at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas—came to the U.S. in the first place.
According to Mason, the couple—who share a 19-year-old son—had recently reconnected in Monrovia, where they decided to rekindle their relationship and wed in America. Mason said plans had been in place for him to meet with the couple to discuss their upcoming nuptials. Nothing formal was yet on the books, and for obvious reasons, those plans have now been placed on permanent hold.
At Sunday’s service, Troh and Duncan were mentioned only briefly toward the end of the service, with pastoral resident Britt Carlson asking that, in their prayers for the afflicted, Wilshire Baptist’s congregants remember that the pair are “first people, not patients.”
However, the acknowledgment was a mere blip during the hour-long sermon on the applications of the Ten Commandments in modern times. As it turns out, Mason had reason to downplay Ebola’s impact on attendance this week: Out in the parking lot of the East Dallas prayer center, a long-planned pop-up market consisting of local artisans and regional food trucks was taking place, raising funds for an area homeless charity. Mason said that accounted for at least some of the added crowd, which was double for the day's first service and around normal attendance for its second.
After the service, Mason held a press conference for the media members in attendance. No one asked about the pop-up market.
How often was Mason in contact with Troh? Daily, by phone.
Has Troh spoken to Duncan since his hospitalization? Yes, and also by phone, although Mason wasn’t sure how the changes to Duncan’s condition affected that communication.
How is she handling it? “She’s managing as best she can,” Mason said, noting that Troh has been placed in quarantine in an undisclosed location after having been removed from her apartment in Dallas’ Vickery Meadow neighborhood.
Who is with her in quarantine? Her 13-year-old son and two nephews. Her 19-year-old son, who attends an area university, is living elsewhere at the moment.
How is she feeling? “She feels physically well,” Mason said. “Up to this moment, she is asymptomatic.”
Had Duncan himself visited Wilshire Baptist?
No. And that, Mason said, was his congregation’s largest concern heading into Sunday’s services. To put their worries at ease, Mason and his staff investigated the matter and found that no one Duncan had come into contact with had visited the church since his arrival in Dallas. Of course, Mason said, the shock of it all remained persistent among his mostly American-born congregants.
“Anyone would be surprised at how close this has been to home,” Mason said. “But I think our church has prepared as best we can. If it had to happen somewhere… let’s just say that we feel the burden of this privilege, this terrifying privilege. Regardless of the outcome [with Duncan], we’ll walk beside him and be good stewards of this tragedy.”
Meanwhile, some 19 miles to the west in nearby Euless, the Liberian-born head pastor of New Life Fellowship Church bore greater burdens. For one thing, the largely Liberian constituency of Bishop Nathan S. Kortu’s congregation, which to the best of his knowledge has no direct ties to Duncan or Troh, is faced with increasing stigma about their home country’s connections to Ebola.
Of more urgent concern, however, is the fact that most New Life Fellowship members have relatives back home, who are on the frontlines of the battle with the virus.
“It’s an emotional thing,” Kortu said with a sigh when reached on the phone Sunday afternoon. “Our relatives are there. Our brothers, our sisters.”
At his church, dealing with good and bad news has become a balancing act. On the one hand, Kortu reveled in the news he’d heard that some 150 Ebola patients in Liberia had recently been successfully treated for their symptoms and earned release from the hospital. On the other hand, a number of his church’s members are still very much dealing with family members back home who have been infected.
“Definitely,” he said. “Today in parish, we had some new ones. We pray for them and help however we can.”
Sunday was no exception. Though Greater Dallas and the nation as a whole have been understandably Ebola-obsessed for the past week, Kortu’s church has been dealing with the virus and its more tangential problems for months now.
And while he says he understands the recent increase, especially from the media, in interest in his church of late—“It’s stressful news for all of America”, he said —Kortu says he has reason to fear it, too.
“We don’t want it to become a stigma for us,” he said. “We don’t want people to find out that we’re from Liberia and [then decide] that we must have Ebola. That’s a very big deal for us. That’s a concern.”
Also of concern: that New Life’s constituents may start avoiding church because of their worries about the disease. In Liberia, that makes sense; not so in Euless, Kortu says. As a result, his sermons of late have been mostly educational.
“We don’t want our community to be afraid to come to church,” Kortu said, noting thankfully that this has yet to be the case.
Whereas Wilshire Baptist’s congregants were hand-writing notes to send Troh and let her know that she and her family are in their prayers, the members of New Life Fellowship are gathering care and supply packages to send home to Africa, which Kortu’s contacts in Liberia say are still desperately needed.
“We need help with grief,” Kortu said. “We need counseling help very badly.”
“It’s very, very scary.”