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WHAT GOD CAN DO
BETWEEN AN EPIDEMIC & A PANDEMIC
By Jim Civale
“Happy New Year!” The greeting felt forced as
2019 gave way to 2020. You see, months before
the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world
upside down, a measles epidemic had already
done so to our two tiny island
nations in the South Pacific.
Samoa and American Samoa
were in crisis as young lives
were lost daily for weeks on
end. Lockdowns and school
closures reached us months
before becoming, sadly,
familiar around the world.
Our school year runs from Jim & Emi Civale
January to December, so
this meant graduation ceremonies were
unceremoniously canceled. As Christmas
approached, the only bells ringing were the
village calls to prayer as yet another child was
laid to rest and another family sang dirges
instead of carols. In our two countries whose
combined population is only about the size of
Buffalo, New York, or Madison, Wisconsin,
everyone knew someone who had lost a child
or children. As our televisions, radios, and
social media broadcasted non-stop updates
and commentary, our conversations were
consumed with the latest counts and gravest
accounts of disease and death.
As a missionary overseeing two churches,
one in Samoa and the other in American
Samoa, I had already become accustomed to
the logistically challenging bi-weekly trips
between the two works—two hours by car, an
hour by ferry, another by car, and 45 minutes
20 to fly to the next country. It was always a full,
exhausting day, starting with that 3:00 a.m.
alarm in order to catch the 6:00 a.m. ferry.
Now, with the measles epidemic raging,
regulations were changing
minute-by-minute. I needed
this medical clearance from
that clinic—no, wait; they are
requiring a new one from the
main hospital in the capital.
Do I have enough time to
run and get it and be back
in time for my plane? Then
the rush back to the airport
and the temperature checks
and extra forms to fill and
waiting on the ones ahead of us trying to argue
their way through the latest restrictions.
By mid-January, though, things were returning
to normal. Not for everyone, of course, as
many continued to grieve, but flights and
ferries were back on regular schedules. As long
as we carried our official immunization cards
and did not have a fever, we could travel back
and forth freely. Schools could re-open for the
new school year. Churches could congregate.
Overseas visitors were welcome. A sense of
normalcy, at least to some degree, had returned.
Little did we know how brief it would be. All
I know in retrospect is that God opened the
window just wide enough for a very important
event in the life of our church in Asau village
on the island of Savai`i in Samoa and for a very
fruitful Bible distribution project on the island
of Tutuila in American Samoa.
For over a year, we had been planning the
tenth anniversary of Asau Baptist Church that
would fall on the first Sunday of February. We
would be installing our first local senior pastor,
Sopo Tanielu. We would also be ordaining an
assistant pastor, Ropati Tumanuvao. I would
be turning the church completely over to their
leadership. Asau Baptist Church was ready to
go from mission church to fully autonomous.
I had the privilege to lead Sopo to the Lord
in my living room in January 2010. A month
later, he was the first man to be baptized and
added to the church on its opening day. How
humbling and gratifying to watch him grow
over the last ten years! He eagerly attended
services, hungered for the Word, was readily
discipled, and later underwent a full program
of training through our Bible college. Brother
Ropati joined the church a few years later and
has been very faithful in his studies and service.
As church-planting missionaries, this was our
dream come true—go to the field, preach the
Gospel, win souls, disciple believers, train
national men for the ministry, ordain them
as preachers of the Gospel, and see God work
marvelously. The epidemic was over, but the pandemic
was just beginning. With everyone still raw
and reeling from the measles outbreak,
neither government was taking chances.
Full tests would be needed, followed by a
three-day delay before traveling. The new
restrictions were announced and implemented
immediately on the morning of my departure
while I was already at the airport to return for
the ordination. However, God moved on both
sides, allowing me to leave American Samoa
and enter Samoa a few long hours later. To God
be the glory!
A week after that great anniversary celebration,
I returned to the church in American Samoa
to prepare for an incoming shipment of 15,000
Samoan Bibles and to help the church establish
its pastor search committee. I got there just days
before the shipment arrived and had time to
prepare, obtaining a letter from the Treasurer
of American Samoa to waive all customs and
processing fees, saving thousands of dollars.
As Pastors Sopo and Ropati rose into
new leadership over in Samoa and Bible
distributions and the pastor search continued
in American Samoa, COVID-19 cases
mushroomed into a pandemic. With Emi in
Samoa working in the school ministry and me
in American Samoa, I knew more stringent
restrictions were coming. It was time to get
back. With ticket in hand, I was all set to go,
but before I could even get to the airport,
both governments issued proclamations. All
international travel, even between our two