Did you know that a pandemic has preceded three consecutive Mennonite World Conference assemblies in the Global South?
For Zimbabwe in 2003, it was SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).
For Paraguay in 2009, in was H1N1 (also known as swine flu).
And now, planners for the assembly next year in Indonesia are facing an even more severe pandemic, COVID-19.
In all three events, an epidemic loomed in the background.
The assembly in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, faced several serious issues. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York created high anxiety about flying. Zimbabwe was in political turmoil primarily because of rapid land redistribution. Inflation was soaring. Exchanging funds at the official rate would have strangled the assembly, as it was killing many businesses in the country.
And then there was SARS, an outbreak of respiratory illness that appeared in February 2003 and quickly spread to more than two dozen countries.
Plan B was developed for a limited gathering in South Africa — much to the chagrin of Zimbabwean leaders, who held on in faith that everything would come together in the end.
Several days before the event, the prayer committee walked every inch of the assembly grounds to pray that God would remove any spirit that would impede the gathering.
What that assembly meant to the host Brethren in Christ church cannot be measured. Even city taxi drivers and local shop owners asked: “When is the next assembly?”
The theme “Sharing Gifts in Suffering and in Joy” could not have been better chosen. The success of this assembly was a miracle.
About three weeks before opening day of the MWC assembly in Asuncion, Paraguay, a representative from the Ministry of Health met with planners, asking them if the event could be delayed for several months. He was concerned that the swine flu (H1N1), which originated in North America, would be brought to Paraguay.
It was winter in Paraguay, a season when flu spreads more easily. He feared this imported virus would wreak havoc in the barrios and thousands of Paraguayans would die.
“No,” we said, “it would be impossible to postpone.”
“Could everyone wear a mask?” he asked.
We promised to look into it; however, at that late stage, getting sufficient masks was not possible. Special care went into providing hand sanitizing facilities, especially before meals.
At the beginning of the opening service, a leader asked the audience not to greet each other with a hug — a typical way of greeting in South America. There was a gentle ripple of laughter through the audience, seeming to imply: “Get real. This is Latin America.”
Over the course of the event, some assembly participants were taken to a local hospital — but not because of the virus.
The success of this assembly was a miracle. We “Came Together in the Way of Jesus Christ.”
Now MWC assembly planners for Indonesia face the challenge of the century: the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with a growing sense that flying contributes to environmental degradation. Assembly planners are facing a serious time of discernment.
Will there be another miracle? Will we be able to keep the date — July 6-11 — and still have the rich fellowship among thousands that we have come to expect at these gatherings? Or will we be able to move the date without too many challenges?
Let’s pray that God will work a miracle for the 2021 assembly!
Ray Brubacher was MWC assembly planner from 1999 to 2009.