Private James McNeese arrived in Portland, Oregon on October 3rd, with his military unit. He and his compatriots were en route to training in Texas. Private McNeese had felt fine the day before but he had suddenly begun to feel ill. He went to the hospital, where doctors immediately diagnosed him with the Spanish Flu. The year was 1918. That year, the Spanish Flu pandemic would erupt, affecting an estimated 50 million people world wide, including 675,000 in the U.S. This lethal outbreak, mixed with the closing year of WWI, the most gruesome war the world had ever known, stoked unprecedented levels of fear.
Shortly after Private McNeese’s arrival in Portland, four other cases were soon identified in military barracks. By October 9th, the cases had grown to 30. The next day the city implemented mandatory social distancing measures. All schools, churches, theaters, businesses were to be closed in order to prevent the spread of the terrible flu. Portland effectively shut down. Homes with identified cases of the Spanish Flu were labeled with placards, as a warning to others to keep their distance. The hospital was quickly overwhelmed with cases, forcing the city auditorium to be used for patients who could not afford treatment.
Placards placed on home with identified cases of influenza
Within two weeks, cases appeared to be declining. Frustrated citizens pushed to reopen schools, claiming that students would be better served in classes where they could be supervised by their teachers. Local clergy advocated for the ban on religious gatherings to be lifted, some arguing that their faith would prevent them from getting sick. The closure remained in place for another few weeks, to be precautious.
Eventually, the city-wide closure was lifted on November 16th, to the great joy of its citizens. Businesses and schools reopened and plans were made to close the city auditorium’s make-shift housing of influenza patients. But, the joy was short-lived, as cases of the Spanish Flu spiked throughout late-November, December, and on into the new year. The relaxing of social distancing policies had led to a “second wave” of diagnoses. The city enacted a new round of strict social distancing policies, including requirements that all streetcars must operate with open windows. The city even proposed a law requiring all citizens to wear a face mask in public, with a potential penalty of $500 fee and up to 60 days in jail for individuals caught violating the law. The “second wave” persisted through the end of January, when these firm regulations led to a decline in the outbreak.
The outbreak impacted communities throughout the United States and the world. More detail can be read about how Portland, and other American cities dealt with the Spanish Flu pandemic at the Influenza Archive.
A recent post by Chris Gehrz uses the Influenza Archive to examine how churches responded to the epidemic. He notes that,
“While most Christians made the best of church closures, many grumbled… and a few went to jail rather than stop worshipping.”Chris Gehrz
Christians 100 years ago faced a challenge very similar to our present circumstances. In his post, Gehrz highlights Christians in Worcester, Massachusetts, who took on the burden of caring for “epidemic orphans”, providing food, clothing, entertainment, and education for children who were in need. In Milwaukee, pastors published sermons in the newspapers so that Christians in the city might have a family service on Sunday mornings in their homes. Perhaps the live-streaming of services over social media is the modern equivalent of printing sermons in a local paper.
Some experts today have cautioned us to be careful about comparing the Covid-19 outbreak to the Spanish Flu epidemic. I respect our medical experts and defer to them. Moreover, I fully support current social distancing policies and believe that they are effective and the best path forward. I anticipate that current protections will be extended in the weeks to come.
It is wise for Christians to consider historical precedent and advice from experts. I also submit that our faith can help to inform our response. Here are two things that the Lord may be trying to teach us in this challenging time.
Christians can resist unhealthy fear, and do our best to trust in the Lord
I am a high school teacher. Friday, my last day at school, was brutal. Students were in tears as we discussed the coming closure. Theater students in my school have lost a once-in-a-life-time trip to New York this Spring Break to watch Broadway shows, a performance of their fall play at the State theater competition, and likely their Spring Musical. Athletes are having their winter sports cut short, and the growing probability that all spring sports seasons will be eliminated. Proms and graduations at other schools are being canceled. One student has seen her anxiety spike in the past week, depriving her of almost all sleep. Fear and frustration is not limited to our children. Costco is selling out of toilet paper within ten minutes of opening. The shelves of non-perishable goods at my local grocery store were almost empty. Bottles of hand sanitizer are a scarce commodity these days.
I understand that this is, legitimately, a very scary time for many. Christians are not immune. I recognize in myself an unhealthy fear of the uncertainty, and frustration with the disruptions. I have felt the tension between personal disappointment with these disruptions, and the wisdom of the precautions we have implemented in order to protect each other. At the same time, I have been reminded that the Bible frequently speaks to unhealthy fear. The “Lord did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and of a sound mind.” Perhaps this is an opportunity for Christians to press into the promise of power, love, and sound mind.
There are many verses in the Scripture that address the common human condition of fear. As I read through several of these verses, I noticed that many are paired with a statement of God’s presence. We are instructed to fear not because God is with us. I am encouraged to know that through these challenging times God is with us. This brings me comfort. I hope it does you as well.
Christians can be looking for ways to tangibly support others
One of the concerns that school districts have been grappling with is as they consider closures is that many students do not have adequate access to basic necessities. I have been inspired by seeing so many individuals, businesses, and institutions offering food, necessities, and clothing to our most vulnerable neighbors. Schools are offering children free meals, regardless of whether or not they qualify for free and reduced meals, or even if they attend that school. Social media has been flooded with offers of food delivery to seniors, so that they can minimize potential contact with the virus. Neighbors are offering child care to support families that do not have the option to stay home from work. Christians and non-Christians, individuals and institutions, have recognized the incredibly challenging times that face us, and are taking palpable actions to help others.
This generosity feels like an authentic vision of the church, what theologian Walter Brueggemann calls “neighborliness”. I am reminded that Jesus tells us that if someone asks us for our tunic, we are instructed to offer our cloak as well. Perhaps we could apply that to toilet paper? This time strikes me as a remarkable opportunity to live our faith in a tangible way. As Christians, we can be eagerly looking to practice charity with true generosity.
If you are looking to continue your devotional on your own, I suggest reading and meditating on Psalm 23.
I pray that the Lord will guide us as we take proactive measures to mitigate the spread of the virus. That He may remind us that He is with us, that we can trust Him, and that He may equip us for every good work.