Not All Quarantines Are Created Equal :: Gospel Fellowship Association Missions

Not All Quarantines Are Created Equal

Remember that one time when we all shut down our lives, stopped traveling to church, and tried to live through a computer screen for months—all because of a virus? One of the many oddities of it all was that the population of the entire world shared the same experience.

Or did they? After all, it's only natural to read “quarantine” and assume that the meaning is stable across borders. It’s not. Here are a few things missionaries have faced during the quarantine:

  • Tanks and machine-gun nests surrounding a city to make sure no-one can leave or enter.
  • Everyone under 21 or over 65 barred from leaving the house for seven months.
  • People allowed to leave their homes only one day a week and then only if they received permission first by turning in a detailed form to the government.
  • Only women allowed to travel to the market to buy food and only on the specified days.

The Influence of Culture

The differences are caused by a huge dynamic in COVID-19 that has been largely ignored—culture. Invisible, because we forget to notice it, it is one of the most significant elements determining national responses. Americans’ overt responses to face masks and church lockdowns are deeply linked to our individualism; so was the politicization of COVID-19. Meanwhile, in other cultural settings, societies may think nothing of banning people from leaving their homes for two weeks; the population may even call for more draconian measures.

The sheer exceptionalism of COVID-19 has channeled underlying cultural dynamics in unpredictable ways. Lacking an existing script for how to handle quarantines, societies defaulted to their underlying and often invisible cultural values. The result has highlighted and exacerbated the most eccentric aspects of each culture. Think of some of the extreme responses to the quarantine you have seen among your own relationships, in social media, or the national conversation. People you thought you knew well and who seemed to be similar might have rabidly different reactions.

Missionaries Move Between Two Cultures

But remember that these are all responses within one culture. Moving between people groups reveals an even wider gap. And from there, remember that missionaries live among all of these diverse cultures and responses. Even after accumulated decades on the field, there is still a part of us that can’t help thinking the way we grew up. We learn to act out two different cultural avatars and follow two different scripts. But our birth culture is never fully eradicated.

All of this is usually quite manageable. A missionary is already accustomed to being the odd man out in any group. It’s the feeling you had as a teenager when everyone else knew a movie reference or a pop-culture expression and you were the only clueless one. That’s a missionary’s life. Barely a day goes past without bumping into some word or cultural reference or concept or shared history that is obvious to absolutely everyone—except you! Eventually being viewed as just a little odd starts feeling normal. Sometimes we even miss the feeling a bit when we return to our home cultures. Being weird can be addictive.

Feeling Different

Then a pandemic arrives; cultures spastically react in their eccentric ways, and you remember just how different you actually are. The people you deeply loved and thought you were starting to understand instinctively respond in ways you couldn’t have imagined. They do it together in unison, like a flock of birds flying in formation that somehow all know where to go without being told.

And you don’t. Your brain, your processing, and your values don’t work like theirs. Until now you’ve been playing along—monkey see, monkey do. And now you’re caught because try as you might, you aren’t like they are. You’re different. You always were and only managed to cover it up, but now you’ve been exposed.

These challenges express themselves in very real practical ways:

  • Should you keep on ministering and evangelizing when people are paranoid and good believers counsel you not to leave your home? How does this merge with your supporters’ expectations?
  • If you are in leadership, how do you trust the instincts of those you serve? If church meetings halt for most of a year, should you push against the cultural tide and encourage people to gather again? And yet won’t those you serve just attribute this to your culture? Maybe it is just your culture. How will you know?
  • Because the US has the most COVID-19 cases in the world, some countries have developed suspicions towards foreigners and especially Americans. How do you continue to show love without arousing undue concern?
  • How do you handle dire financial and practical needs around you? You could become a massive conduit of funds to help a public out of work and needing food, but would this help or distract from your most important ministry?
  • Under highly restrictive lockdowns that stretch on for months, how do you shepherd your family, steward your time, maintain your love for your setting, and stay healthy?

How Can You Help?

None of these questions have simple answers—that’s what makes them challenging. But there are two simple ways you can help. First, recognize that whatever other challenges Americans at home faced during the quarantine, things are often exponentially more complex in cross-cultural ministry. Second, don’t forget to pray for your missionaries. They are facing a new adventure with some very interesting questions. They don’t feel like superheroes fresh out of missionary biographies; most days they feel they are making it up as they go along. Prayer is always needed and appreciated.