Ebola In Church: A Reverend's Quarantine Spreads The Word

Oct 20, 2014
Originally published on October 20, 2014 9:26 am

Night clubs have shut their doors. Soccer leagues have been suspended. And a strict curfew is keeping the streets empty at night.

But there's one place in Monrovia where people continue to gather despite the threat of Ebola: Sunday church service.

Since Ebola broke out in Liberia's capital city, more people have started coming to Sunday service at Trinity Cathedral, says the Very Rev. Herman Browne. And like many priests across Monrovia, Browne has been spreading the word about Ebola prevention through his sermons.

But Browne's message this week was personal. It came from his family's encounter with the virus.

For the past three Sundays, the reverend had been under a volunteer quarantine. This week he returned to the pulpit and explained to his congregation what happened.

It all began when his wife, Trokon Browne, went to see a close friend. "The friend ... broke down, fell on the floor and started to cry," Herman said. "Some illness had returned to her, and she was explaining it to Trokon."

These were warning signs about Ebola. Trokon knew that. But her nurturing instincts kicked in. She embraced and fed her friend anyway.

"I said that was a crazy thing to do," Herman said to his congregation, "because the lady was vomiting and had diarrhea."

Two days later, the Brownes learned that the friend had Ebola.

One of the reasons Ebola continues to spread in Liberia is that people who know they've been exposed to the virus often keep it a secret until they're desperately ill and highly contagious. They fear the embarrassment, the stigma and the prospect of losing their income.

But the Brownes went public.

"I left work immediately, wrapped up everything, called the treasurer, the bishop, my colleagues," Herman said. Then Trokon and Herman quarantined themselves for 21 days.

Even their children were not allowed to come upstairs until the couple knew they did not have Ebola.

Herman said he was hoping his congregation would learn a powerful lesson from his family's experience: "Once you slip mentally, in terms of being aware and conscious, the smallest slip could cause you grave harm," he said after the church service.

That's a message Liberians have heard constantly from the government. But many people in Monrovia say they don't trust the government. They consider it corrupt. So the messages can have more of an impact when they come from a spiritual leader.

Herman Browne began educating his congregation about Ebola long before it affected the family directly. And it's clear the message has been received at the church. People sanitize their hands before entering the cathedral. A priest delivers the Holy Communion wafers with tweezers. The church program tells the congregation: "Do not hide sick persons."

But Trokon Browne says those are relatively easy steps. What's harder, she says, is to keep a safe distance when a friend or family member is sick, perhaps with Ebola.

"I cannot see my husband sick and not touch him. Or I cannot see my child sick," she said. "Ebola might as well kill us. So it's still very hard. Trust me, it's still very hard."

It's also hard for some people to accept the way Ebola appears to punish those who are trying to follow Christian teachings, Herman Browne said. That's why some in his congregation consider the disease demonic.

"Those who don't care and those who don't want to express their care are those who survive. Those who actually care are those who die," he said. "At the heart of it, for some of us with religious eyes, is an anti-care, anti-love message. And that can be very draining."

This time, the message is less harsh. Trokon wasn't infected. And her sick friend is one of the lucky ones who survived Ebola.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, we just heard about the politics of Ebola. Let's talk about a few facts. Relatively positive news out of Dallas - more than 40 people have been deemed free of the disease. These are people who were in contact with Thomas Eric Duncan, the patient who died from Ebola last month. Now they're considered in the clear, and they've been taken off a 21-day quarantine list. More people are expected to be cleared today. In Duncan's home country, Liberia, the struggle to stop the outbreak continues. And one effort is being led by churches. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports from Monrovia on a pastor who's using personal experience.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: For the past three Sundays, the Reverend Dr. Herman Browne has been away from the pulpit at Trinity Cathedral. Now he's back and ready to give his testimony about what happened. He says it began when his wife, Trokon, went to see a close friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF SERMON)

REVEREND HERMAN BROWNE: The friend that she went to visit broke down, fell on the floor and started to cry. Some illness had returned to her, and she was explaining it to Trokon.

HAMILTON: Trokon knew these were warning signs, but she fed the woman and embraced her anyway.

H. BROWNE: I just said that was a crazy thing to do because the lady was vomiting and had diarrhea.

HAMILTON: Two days later, the Brownes learned that the friend had Ebola. One reason Ebola continues to spread in Liberia is that people who know they've been exposed often keep it a secret until they are desperately ill and highly contagious. They fear the embarrassment, the stigma and the prospect of losing their income. But the Brownes went public.

H. BROWNE: I left work immediately, wrapped up everything, called the treasurer (unintelligible). I called the bishop. I called my colleagues.

HAMILTON: At this point, Browne is well into the second hour of a service held in stifling heat. In the pews, people are fanning themselves with church programs. But they are hanging on every word as the reverend describes what his family did next.

H. BROWNE: Well, we ourselves, in the house, were quarantining ourselves for three weeks.

HAMILTON: Even their children were not allowed to come upstairs until the couple knew they did not have Ebola.

H. BROWNE: Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

HAMILTON: When the service is over, Browne and his wife talk with us in his office. He says he told his story hoping that his congregation would learn a powerful lesson.

H. BROWNE: Once you slip mentally, in terms of being aware and cautious, the smallest slip could cause you grave, you know, harm.

HAMILTON: That's a message Liberians have heard repeatedly from the government. But many people here say they don't trust a government they consider corrupt. So messages may have more of an impact when they come from a spiritual leader. Trokon Browne says her husband began telling his congregation about Ebola long before it affected him directly. And she says it's clear they are proud of her family's decision to go public.

TROKON BROWNE: They are proud to see us taking a step, a bold step, yeah, and not to live in denial.

HAMILTON: In this church, the word about Ebola has been received. People sanitize their hands before entering the cathedral. A priest delivers communion wafers with tweezers. Today's program tells the congregation do not hide sick persons. But Trokon Browne says those are easy steps. What's harder, she says, is to keep a safe distance when a friend or family member is sick.

T. BROWNE: You give them all your attention. We feed you. We clothe you. I cannot see my husband. I don't touch him. Or I cannot see my child sick. Ebola may as well kill us. So it's still very hard. Trust me, it's still very hard.

HAMILTON: Reverend Browne says it's also hard to accept the way Ebola appears to punish those who are trying to follow Christian teachings. He says some in his congregation consider the disease demonic.

H. BROWNE: Those who don't care and those who don't want to give their care or express their care to people are those who survive. Those who actually care are those who die. At the heart of it, for some of us with religious eyes, at the heart of it is anti-care, anti-love message. And that can be very draining, I think.

HAMILTON: This time, the message is less harsh. Browne's wife wasn't infected, and her sick friend was one of the lucky ones who survived the Ebola. Jon Hamilton, NPR News, Monrovia, Liberia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.