As coronavirus numbers grow across the globe, U.S. Baptists are weighing future events and recommending against international short-term mission trips until the outbreak is better contained. As of March 10, there are more than 116,000 cases and more than 4,000 deaths in more than 100 countries.
The Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board released a statement March 9 recommending Baptists postpone international mission trips at least until after April. IMB, which created a coronavirus task force on Feb. 28 to monitor the growing outbreak, said they would decide by April 15 if they would extend the recommendation beyond April.
“This situation is changing moment-by-moment. We just don’t know where a group might be delayed or which countries may not allow international travelers to enter or exit,” said IMB President Paul Chitwood. “We’ve already had to cancel several overseas meetings due to sudden travel bans and challenges associated with government-imposed quarantines. This recommendation for delayed mission-trip travel is temporary, but we believe it is necessary at this time.”
Chitwood insisted, however, that despite this “unusual time,” he remains confident “God is sovereign and that his work will not be stopped by this virus.” The IMB statement also noted that IMB personnel are avoiding travel to the worst-hit nations, which includes China, Italy, Iran, Japan, and South Korea.
Other Baptists groups previously urged postponing international mission trips, including the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, which is affiliated with the SBC. On March 5, the ABSBM announced it “determined that the better part of wisdom is not to endorse any international mission trips by students and others, until further notice.” Some students at Baptist colleges would normally be taking mission trips during Spring break, so the virus could result in the cancelation or rerouting of such trips to a domestic location.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship evacuated field personnel in China. Steven Porter, CBF’s coordinator of global missions, told Baptist News Global, “We did that just in time before their city was put on lock-down.” And Porter and CBF Executive Coordinator Paul Baxley canceled a trip to meet with field personnel in Indonesia.
American Baptist Churches USA also expressed its concern about coronavirus as they monitor its global impact. ABCUSA Acting General Secretary Jeff Woods offered tips in a March 3 statement for how churches can help prevent the spread of the virus — tips that not only include traditional ones like washing hands and covering coughs but also practices that might change worship services.
“Avoid shaking hands and encourage the congregation to greet one another with a smile and a hand over their hearts as a symbol of Christian love,” Woods suggested. “Have hand sanitizer available for communion servers to use prior to distributing the elements. You may want to consider using individual cups and pieces of bread rather than a common cup and loaf of bread.”
Woods also urged prayer for those impacted by coronavirus and those working to help the sick. And he pointed to relief efforts already taken by American Baptist International Ministries to fund the distribution of emergency medical supplies in China.
In addition to exploring ways to provide relief and avoid travel to countries heavily hit by coronavirus, Baptists in the U.S. are also considering the impact it could have on their own meetings. Some large U.S. events in March and April have announced cancelations, including the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Boston, Massachusetts.
The SBC’s Executive Committee issued a statement March 6 saying their staff “continues to monitor news” about coronavirus’s spread. The statement added they are still planning to hold the SBC’s annual meeting in Orlando in June.
“Should conditions escalate to unprecedented levels, there is a provision in the SBC Constitution that allows for us to cancel or change the place of meeting. This provision would only be considered in an extreme circumstance,” the statement added. “Prayer, precaution, planning, and preparation are the order of the day.”
The Baptist World Alliance, a global organization with its headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia, also noted it’s monitoring the situation but is not changing its summer meeting plans. The BWA will hold its Baptist World Congress — which occurs every five years — in Rio de Janerio, Brazil, in July.
BWA General Secretary Elijah Brown wrote in a March 9 statement that while they have “no plans to postpone or cancel,” they do “stand in solidary and prayer with those who have been impacted.”
“As this unprecedented situation is changing every day, we remain watchful but also prayerfully committed to planning this historic event for the global Baptist community,” he added. “The BWA also feels strongly that this is an opportunity for Baptists around the world to pray and to serve. In the most impacted areas, churches have been temporarily closed and families face uncertainty. Would you continue to pray for all who have been impacted and that Baptists around the world will be at the forefront of gracefully serving communities that are struggling?”