The Ebola crisis in West Africa began in March 2014; nearly two years later, on January 13, 2016, the World Health Organization declared the last of the countries affected, Liberia, to be Ebola-free. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, 8,766 people died and 24,802 people overall were infected.
Before the crisis, Liberia endured a 14-year civil war, killing thousands and displacing millions; while horrific, in many ways Ebola was more difficult to combat because it was an invisible enemy.
When Ebola hit Liberia and Sierra Leone, it impacted economies, destroyed families, inflicted extreme pain on individuals and generated massive fear. Crime, teen pregnancies, prostitution and rapes increased.
On the medical side, before Ebola, only 50 licensed doctors were available to serve Liberia’s four million people. Hospitals were so overrun that other illnesses went undiagnosed, which resulted in many deaths not related to Ebola, but resulting from the outbreak. It was predicted that by 2016, over half the population would be wiped out.
But God had another plan.
Young Life began in Liberia in 2003 under the leadership of James Davis. Davis is now Vice President of Africa West, which includes Liberia, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana. His niece, Decontee, became infected with the Ebola virus in August 2014. Because her fiancé was also ill with Ebola and unable to help, one of Decontee’s Campaigner kids physically carried her, at great risk to his own health, to the hospital.
When they arrived, there was no bed for Decontee because of the hundreds of Ebola patients, so she was left under a tree where the staff occasionally brought food to her. Alone and helpless, she prayed for a miracle. Eventually, she was moved to the hospital where she fell in and out of a coma.
During this time, Decontee worried about her fiancé. After three days in the hospital, she heard screaming and recognized the voice. Through all the noise in the hospital, she said, “I only heard his voice. I said, ‘That is my fiancé crying.’” A nurse told her he was in another ward, but Decontee was too weak to reach him. That same day, she learned he had died. While struggling to survive, Decontee mourned the loss of her fiancé and many other loved ones.
Adding to the difficulties, medical teams wore PPE’s (Personal Protection Equipment) like space suits, where inside, temperatures rose to over 110 degrees, limiting shifts to an hour at a time. “We would go for hours with no one to care for us. No water. No food. No one to help you go to the bathroom,” Decontee said.
In the days that passed, Decontee memorized Psalm 91. She prayed every day, asking for God’s protection and reflecting on His promises of “deliverance from the deadly pestilence” as she wandered in and out of consciousness, uncertain whether she would survive. During this time, the Young Life community in Africa and many others around the world committed to pray Psalm 91 for 91 days for the areas affected in West Africa. They began in October, and at the end of the 91 days the Ebola crisis was over. The Centers for Disease Control had predicted one million infected by December. Baffled health officials struggled to know why Ebola ended so much sooner than anticipated.
Almost three weeks after Decontee checked in, she was released from the hospital — Ebola free. Later that month, she returned to donate her blood to other Ebola patients, who also recovered. Decontee is not only an Ebola survivor; she is a mother, a Christ follower and one of Young Life’s Developing Global Leaders.
As a result of Ebola, many children were orphaned and homeless. Those infected, exposed and even those who recovered and survived were shunned by their communities. Across the U.S. and Africa, Young Life leaders and support teams provided resources during the economic collapse when food was scarce and marketplaces closed. Still, the emotional and psychological toll was overwhelming.
- (Before Ebola) Kids Reached in 2014: 37,890
- (After Ebola) Kids Reached in 2017: 109,201
- (Before Ebola) Kids Reached in 2014: 56,972
- (After Ebola) Kids Reached in 2017: 81,722
Davis texted Steve Larmey, senior vice president of Young Life Africa/Middle East, and said, “Steve, I have to admit, I feel like giving up the fight, but if I do, who will help the kids and leaders? We have no peace or freedom. Our people are dying every hour. Our hope is in Jesus, but we fear we may be the next Ebola victims. I can’t bear this — Jesus we need you more.” He later texted back, “I promise I will NOT give up — the Band of Brothers do not give up … I know we are not in this alone — the Lord is with us. And so are you.”
Jeraline Johnson, on staff in Liberia, was quarantined for 42 days. She was the only one left in the house as both her sister and brother-in-law died of Ebola. All day she continually prayed Psalm 91. “I sang, I praised and thanked God.” Then she broke down in tears and sobbed on the phone with Larmey and said, “Steve, I am so scared.” At the end of the call she composed herself and said, “My hope is in Jesus alone. And He is faithful.”
The Ebola crisis did not stop the staff and volunteers in Liberia from doing ministry despite the treacherous battle they faced ahead. Ethel Dixon, on staff in Liberia, was quarantined for 21 days. Unable to leave her home, Dixon prayed to survive and be released from this isolation. She describes these 21 days as the most depressing and loneliest of her life. Despite her situation, Dixon continued to call her Young Life kids every day, praying and doing Campaigners over the phone. She was eventually released from the chains of isolation and shouted for joy as she was finally free. “The feeling was unexplainable when I finally touched another human for the first time in weeks.”
James Davis and Zinnah Yallah, regional director in Liberia, were called to go and spread God’s love during this perilous time. Davis said, “I could not just sit around and wait, I felt God tell me to go.” Davis asked his staff and volunteer leaders if they’d be willing to go despite the risk involved, and was humbled as he watched every hand in the room go up. With Davis leading them, all 26 joined hands and vowed they were together in the mission of reaching kids with the gospel of Jesus Christ. They pledged love and friendship to one another regardless of the outcome. God called them, gave them courage and a vision of Ebola survival. In case they were infected, the leaders slept in separate rooms from their families from October to February. Davis said, “We knew we were putting our families at risk, but we had to trust God was in control.”
What motivated Yallah and the rest of the leaders? “James Davis,” he said. “We were all afraid, we had no idea what to do. Then James called us together and said, ‘We are light. It has never been darker in Liberia. We need to go now more than ever. Kids need light more than ever. Kids need hope now more than ever. Kids need our love. Let’s go.’ And then James went, and he didn’t stop going. Every day he met with us and kids, encouraging us and texting us, bringing food or supplies, meeting with government officials — we get our courage and inspiration from the Holy Spirit in him.”
Not Your Typical Young Life Camps
Meanwhile the United Nations recognized Sierra Leone was also in dire need, and asked for people willing to go. Davis, Yallah and other Liberian leaders volunteered. The UN paid for Davis and Yallah to go to Sierra Leone to set up survivor camps. Police barracks acted as Ebola treatment centers where kids were quarantined, so Young Life began a soccer camp right outside the police station. People were astounded by Young Life’s willingness to go into risky areas, and BBC and CNN journalists interviewed Young Life staff and reported on the Ebola survivor camps.
These camps were the first gatherings in the countries since the crisis because no one wanted to be around Ebola survivors. Nineteen-year-old Lorpu, who lost her immediate family of six people, survived the virus after spending the “worst days of her life” in the Ebola treatment center where she saw dozens die daily. Her camp days, however, were “the best days ever. I have a new family now.” Many of the survivors said the same things: “Now I have hope. I can’t believe people love us and touched us and served us. I had not laughed in a long time.”
Young Life staff and leaders held eight survivor camps with 1,500 campers. In these camps, 1,000 campers put their faith in Jesus; some were trained as volunteer leaders. The Liberian government donated food and other items and, after the survivor camps, invited Young Life leaders to help develop programs to support Ebola survivors and orphans.
100,000 and Counting
Today, Young Life in Liberia and Sierra Leone is stronger than ever and the number of kids reached is greater than any year previous to Ebola. Davis said, “Because of the Ebola crisis, we were able to go into areas we have never been able to go into before; God used it for good.”
Ebola survivors credit Young Life more than any other institution for their spiritual and emotional healing, because leaders and volunteers were there for them during a time when everyone else abandoned them. Young Life leaders in Liberia and Sierra Leone did what Young Life leaders do around the world — they shined the light of Jesus’ love into the darkness, bringing a visible reminder of His power against invisible enemies.
Davis, Yallah, Dixon and other leaders now thank God for Ebola, which has enabled them to reach lost kids in new areas where ministry has taken root. God gave them opportunities to share Jesus in a time when hope was scarce. He also gave them courage, resilience and a more profound trust in Him, the ultimate warrior and healer, even when the road ahead seemed impossible. Jesus was in the midst of it all. Thanks to God’s protective hand, no one involved in Young Life contracted Ebola, even those on the front lines.
While the invisible enemy destroyed many lives, the visible Healer triumphed over death; bringing new life and healing to what was broken.