ARUN RATH, HOST:
For many doctors and nurses fighting Ebola, what keeps them going is their faith. In fact, the first two American's infected with the virus were missionaries working at an Evangelical Hospital in Liberia. The Ebola crisis has highlighted the work of missionaries in West Africa because while many other aid agencies struggle to find staff willing to confront the deadly outbreak, Christian doctors and nurses tended to patients in overcrowded Ebola wards. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: In August, there was an incredibly dark moment in Liberia when the Ebola crisis was spreading so fast and seemed to be so uncontrollable that nearly every health clinic in Monrovia shut down. But the ELWA Missionary Hospital on the outskirts of the capital stayed open.
JOHN FANKHAUSER: We were the first Ebola unit in Monrovia. We turned our chapel into a six-bed Ebola unit, so that was the ELWA one.
BEAUBIEN: John Fankhauser is a missionary with SIM which runs the ELWA hospital. ELWA stands for Eternal Love Winning Africa, but most people now just call it E-L-W-A, or ELWA. It's been operating in Liberia for five decades. According to its mission statement, the purpose of ELWA is to propagate the gospel, disciple believers, minister to human needs and partner with churches to build the kingdom of God. Take Ebola patients into the chapel is not explicitly in that statement, but that's what they did. Fankhauser respects the work of other secular aid agencies in West Africa, but he says what he and other missionaries are doing during this Ebola outbreak is special...
FANKHAUSER: ...In that it reflects our faith in a way that has meaning to people. It's not just words, but in our actions, we demonstrate the kind of love that our faith is based on.
BEAUBIEN: In this outbreak, recruiting aid workers has been a huge challenge, and convincing people to risk their lives to treat Ebola patients continues to be difficult. After other natural disasters - the 2013 typhoon in the Philippines or the 2010 Haitian earthquake - aid workers flooded into the affected countries to help. But with the Ebola, that didn't happen. Missionaries were one of the few groups ready and willing to go. Bruce Steffes, the head of the Pan-Africa Academy of Surgeons, which trains missionary doctors, says missionaries aren't necessary braver than anyone else.
BRUCE STEFFES: They're still humans. They still have all the same fears and so forth. But because of the very strong sense of calling and a sense that this is what their God wishes them to do, I think they are able to corral those fears.
BEAUBIEN: During this outbreak, it hasn't just been international evangelical groups that have been involved with the crisis. In Liberia, the government turned to local churches and mosques very early on to try to spread the word about Ebola prevention. Tom Kirsch, who runs the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says religious groups are increasingly important players in international aid. He says some tie their humanitarian and evangelical work together, others don't mention religion at all.
TOM KIRSCH: It's totally dependent on the group and, again, the groups vary from - there's groups like Catholic Relief Services, which is a massive organization and hundreds of countries around the world, to very small local churches that run single missions in countries. So it's very widespread differences.
BEAUBIEN: And some are more effective than others.
KIRSCH: In any disaster, there are any many groups and many well-meaning people who feel that it's their job to go out and to go help.
BEAUBIEN: And so they just show up.
KIRSCH: In a disaster, particularly an event like Ebola, where things are so dangerous, it's just - you have to be very careful in those settings. And you have to come prepared for a very unique and difficult environment.
BEAUBIEN: Kirsch says the aid groups that tend to have the biggest impact are the ones that were established in an area before a crisis hits. The SIM missionaries at the ELWA Hospital in Liberia are a perfect example. They're already connected to the local community. They often have buildings and vehicles that they can redeploy for relief purposes. And whether they're faith-based or not, Kirsch says these are the ones that really make a difference on the ground. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
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