Over the next weeks and months, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship will be sharing reflections from our CBF field personnel serving around the world. These are stories of impact and outreach, Gospel-sharing and relationship building, long-term presence and abundant love.
The following is a reflection from CBF field personnel Steve Clark, who serves among Karen refugees in Louisville, Ky., alongside his wife, Annette. You can learn more about their ministries and support their work at www.cbf.net/clark.
Very recently, a Karen man named Timothy, a dear friend, passed away from pancreatic cancer. He had battled the cancer for nearly a year before the illness took his life.
Death for a family creates a big hole that makes one wonder if it can ever be filled. The Karen people I serve are very aware of this sense of loss and their culture’s response to death is to fill the house of the family with friends from the day of the death until the day after the funeral.
Folks rotate in and out of the house, bringing food, visiting with family, worshiping (sometimes twice a day), and sitting up all night to keep the family from being left alone. When a Karen person died earlier this year, before the pandemic struck, there were always 10 to 20 people in the house nearly 24 hours a day, with food and drink being provided for family and guests until the last song was sung in the final house worship after the funeral.
For Timothy, things were very different. COVID restrictions limited the number of people who were supposed to gather together. At the home, there were only about 15 during the wake worships, all wearing masks, and divided into several different rooms of the house. Very little food was being distributed to the guests since you can’t keep your mask on and eat at the same time.
The funeral itself was limited to 60 people, including family and ministers. Each family group was seated six feet or more apart for safety, all wearing masks.
Typically, the funeral would have been in the sanctuary with a 100 or more people, most following in a train of cars to the cemetery for a graveside service, and then taking turns throwing flowers and a shovelful of dirt into the grave. In this case, the cemetery officials allowed only 10 people to be at the graveside during burial; so only the ministers and family followed the hearse. There the minister spoke the departing words for the family as they laid Timothy to rest.
The pandemic is a dark time to be sick at home, or in the hospital or, God forbid, to die. Safety protocols prevent friends from visiting the sick in their homes. Visitors cannot go to the hospital to see their sick family members or friends. Even pastors and ministers are not allowed to visit their congregants in the hospitals or extended care facilities. Funeral home and cemetery protocols prevent us from paying our respects and showing our love to the family of departed family members in large numbers. And social distancing restrictions mean that we certainly cannot hug or cry on anyone’s shoulder.
As Christians, what are we to do to shine the light of the Savior into the darkness of this pandemic? For friends that are sick at home, we can send food and supplies by delivery and visit in the yard or by video on the phone to chat and pray. For friends in the hospital, we can speak to someone in the chaplain’s office to arrange a chaplain’s visit.
As Timothy was in the hospital, I joined a chaplain by phone one Sunday while and participated in communion with Timothy, the chaplain and an interpreter with me on video on the phone. God’s light was bright in that hospital room that day.
Most cemeteries set up their protocols to protect their workers who are doing the burial. Check with the cemetery to see if the family can have a graveside service with 10 people and, later in the day, perhaps allow a larger group of friends and family to gather for worship or prayer at the graveside when the cemetery workers have finished their work and gone.
The most important thing to consider is that the love of God in Christ is a spark of compassion, extended by the caring hand of a loving child of God, that grows into a beacon of hope, comfort and peace that can break through any darkness—even the darkness of this pandemic.