A Touch of COVID, and Hope: My First International Trip with GCCBy Corey Schmatjen
January 25, 2021
This is not a blog post I thought I would ever write. It’s certainly not what I expected to write on my first international assignment with GCC. These past two weeks I’ve had the joy of visiting with existing GCC partners in East Africa, like Pastor John Samvura in Rwanda. At the same time, that joy hasn’t come without some challenges.
I’m not speaking of the usual jet leg and “out of body” experiences of leaping multiple time zones in a single bound. I’m referring to events that I didn’t see coming; for example, the military police truck that careened off a semi-truck and crashed into our SUV. Or, the seemingly countless police checkpoints restricting our movement in country. Like, the capital of Rwanda, Kigali, going into a COVID-lockdown. Then there are circumstances that I prayed would not occur, but did. I’m speaking of my own sickness . . . and most of all, testing positive for COVID-19 while here in Rwanda.
Nonetheless, God has carefully protected Pastor John and myself. As unnerving as some of these “light and momentary afflictions” have been, none of these trials have brought me to the point of tears.
For that, all it took was a four year old girl named Emma.
A Touch of Hope
Emma broke me without even knowing it. It wasn’t because she was poor (she lives in a nice home). It wasn’t because she was was needy (she has two loving parents whom I’ve met). It wasn’t because she was vying for my attention like so many of the village children when their eyes light upon a muzungu (foreigner or white man). It was because Emma reached out and grabbed my hand—innocently and oh so naturally. It wasn’t until that very moment that I realized how my sickness and social distancing had served to intensify my feeling of loneliness and separation between me and, well, everyone else. A lack of touch can do just that.
In Rwanda, like in America, social distancing and the forearm (or fist) bump are the norm. Gone (for now) is the traditional Rwandan greeting consisting of a double hug followed by a handshake. Gone (for now) is the Latin air kiss that I am accustomed to in Miami.
So, when Emma grabbed my hand I thought she had certainly made a mistake. I recall looking down at her and thinking she would soon realize that I wasn’t her father – and then she would release her grip. But she didn’t. I glanced down at her and she just looked up at me as if to say, “I know who you are. You are the person whose hand I’ve chosen to hold. Why are you looking at me that way?”
I decided to loosen my grip. Earlier in the week I had tested negative for COVID-19 but was feeling the symptoms. I didn’t want her to get sick. Plus, her father was right next to me. He seemed totally fine with the actions of his precious little daughter. Releasing my grip simply did no good. Emma just kept walking and clutching my hand once again. Her right hand lodged in mine and her left hand was left free to grasp and gnaw at a raw piece of sugar cane.
A wellness, a shalom-like peace overtook me. Tears welled up within (only to be released several times since then as I’ve reflected upon this moment). My own feelings surprised me. They shocked me. Was it because I had been away from my own family and children so long? Had I really forgotten what it felt like to touch another human hand? It all sounds so silly. But it’s not.
Human touch isn’t a luxury. It’s a ministry. Jesus shows us that. In Mark 1, we see that Christ took the feverish by the hand (v. 31). Jesus stretched out his hand and touched the leper and made him clean (v. 41). He did it to heal. And he did it to show his disciples what it means to be “fishers of men” (v. 17). Strategy and sermons aren’t enough!1 Human touch and interaction is life-giving ministry, mercy, and hope to the sick and outcast. It certainly was for me this week in my sick, “unclean,” and alienated state! It was Jesus’ touch.
In a most surprising way, I’ve been reminded afresh of what we’ve lost in all our pandemic protocols and precautionary measures. This isn’t an argument against social distancing. Rather, it is a longing for togetherness in our churches that includes handshakes, hugs, and healing, physical touch. I’ve been reminded of all that we have to look forward to as we forge ahead with church planting in GCC (think Plant! Conference).
Church Planting Is About People
I’ve done plenty of strategizing while here in Africa. Pastor John and I have discussed city plans and government funding for road construction. We’ve dreamed about future church plant locations and planters as we’ve bumped along dirt “roads” made of volcanic earth spit out from what seems like Mordor of Middle Earth. In all of our planning, it is easy to forget that church planting and missions aren’t primarily about location, land, or liturgy. It’s about people.
Church planting is about touching local people in local communities who desperately need the touch of Jesus (not just metaphorically, but physically!) Church planting is residing and walking among such people. It’s unapologetically coming into contact with them and extending a hand. It’s laying aside awkwardness and dwelling among those Jesus has come to save—body and soul. It’s the nitty-gritty of loving and serving one’s neighbor as we share with them the mercy and hope of Jesus Christ.
Yes, we are still in this global pandemic quandary. Touch is taboo. Nearly every village and farmer in Rwanda is wearing a mask as they haul their cabbage, bananas, or sugar cane by bicycle —or on top of their head. Asphalt and wheelbarrows may be in short supply, but digital thermometers and hand sanitizer are ubiquitous. Almost everything says life is not normal (as once was), distance is desired, and touch should be avoidable.
Christians know better. Ministry is inescapably personal and physical, as it is spiritual. It’s incarnational. It’s earthy. It’s gritty. So is the type of church planting we must do and aspire to do within the GCC, whether it be in Raleigh or right here in Rwanda.
It just took a four year girl and a small little hand to remind me.
[Author note: Out of concern for Emma and her family, I spoke with Emma’s father several days after I tested positive for Covid-19. She and the family are all doing very well as is the Samvura family with whom I’m currently living. (Pastor John tested negative the same day I tested positive.) I’m currently recovering and quarantining according to Rwanda’s protocols. I hope to be reunited with my family soon.]
1 *Zach Eswine’s book, Sensing Jesus (chapter 9), has helped me understand the the powerful and appropriate use of touch in pastoral ministry. Of course, not all touch heals immediately but “signifies the healing that with heaven will come…The touch of Jesus’s pity preaches such hope (183).”