Merge: Flu Concerns Should Not Affect Mission Trips

Post a Comment » Written on June 24th, 2009     
Filed under: News
MCALLEN, TX (June 24, 2009) – Fears about the H1N1 virus – more popularly known as swine flu – and violence in Mexico influenced six Evangelical Covenant churches to cancel mission trips planned in partnership with Merge ministries, but executive director Dale Lusk says working in Mexico still is safe.

Lusk says he understands the fears due to media accounts, but stresses the point that “if it wasn’t safe, we wouldn’t take people there. Those of us who live down there haven’t seen much change in the day-to-day life of people. Families still take their kids to school. They still go to the grocery store.”

Merge is a ministry of the Department of World Mission and Lusk notes the department is not pulling its missionaries. “Missionaries in Mexico have children and they’re not worried about it,” he says. “I’ve gone all around the country. I take my three-month-old son across the border.”

While it is true that the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the alert level about H1N1 to Phase 6, Lusk points out that the designation simply confirms that the virus has spread to numerous countries – that is different than issuing a warning. “An alert does not mean don’t go,” Lusk says.

That understanding is consistent with information provided on the Centers for Disease Control website, which states, “WHO’s decision to raise the pandemic alert level to Phase 6 is a reflection of the spread of the virus, not the severity of illness caused by the virus.”

The CDC adds, “WHO continues to recommend no restrictions on travel and no border closures.”

Lusk notes that Haiti is a country that has been a “warning” country for years, but a number of Evangelical Covenant churches still travel there at least once, if not multiple times each year.”

Medical professionals issued dire warnings initially because it was unknown how many people had been infected in comparison to the number of people who died. Now it appears to be little, if any, more dangerous than other strains of the flu.

“The two likely reasons for the higher death rate in Mexico, which is still very small, are poorer nutritional status and economic barriers to health care for Mexicans,” says Dr. Gwen Luepke, a former Covenant missionary to the Congo now living in the United States. “There are 300 times as many people who died in one season of seasonal flu in the USA than of novel H1N1 flu so far in Mexico.”

Extra-precautions initially were taken because no one knew the extent to which the virus had spread or its lethality. Lusk says he believes churches made decisions too early in the process.

Lusk says he also understands that people may be concerned about reports of violence. Cities such as Juarez have been battlegrounds for drug cartels.

Most of the violence, however, has been among the cartels and law enforcement. “Unless you are a policeman, a drug dealer or a federal officer, you don’t have anything to worry about,” Lusk says.

A friend of Lusk’s did mission work in Juarez in March and “never saw anything,” he says. “In talking to the pastors in Juarez, they don’t see any issues in the area where they live.”

Groups have a greater chance of getting hurt in their cars as they travel through the United States to get to Mexico than they do of being victims of violence in that country, Lusk asserts.

Lusk believes unfamiliarity with the country also may have led to the decisions to cancel.
All the churches that cancelled were going on their first trips with Merge, he says. Twelve other churches still are going, and they all have been to the country previously.

Lusk says he doesn’t know if the fears caused any churches not to pursue mission trips.

“Congregations should consider more than the news when deciding whether to embark on mission trips,” says Luepke.

“I think they should pray regardless of H1N1,” she says emphatically. “If it is God’s will that they should go, then that’s the safest place for them to be.”

Lusk laments that the people of Mexico suffer when Christians from the United States cancel or decide not to consider traveling to the country out of fear. “I just think it’s sadder for the Mexican Christians to have groups cancel on them, when the Mexican Christians have need for encouragement and they themselves don’t really see a perceived danger for the teams,” Lusk says.

“A lot of children’s homes have almost no money left,” he says. “They’re used to existing with teams helping them, and all the teams have cancelled. So a lot of children’s homes are scrambling, wondering, ‘what are we going to do now?’ ”

Participation in Merge trips always declines from previous years when CHIC is held, but “This will be the first time the numbers are down over a previous CHIC year,” Lusk says.

In addition to fears and CHIC, the beleaguered economy also has led to fewer churches taking mission trips, Lusk says.

Anyone traveling to a foreign country should first check the Centers for Disease Control website to learn about the particular country to which they are traveling. For more information on traveling, click here or click here.

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