SALUNGA, Pa. - Four and a half months after leaving West Africa because of safety concerns connected to the Ebola crisis, a team of workers from Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) is returning to their assignments in the region. On February 9, Michael and Karen Baker and their five children will return to Guinea-Bissau and Dave and Delores Shirk will transition from previous service in Guinea-Bissau to now serve in The Gambia.
"When we told our children we were returning, a cheer erupted," said Karen Baker. "For our children to be so happy was yet another affirmation from God that we should return to Guinea-Bissau. They are ready to see their friends again. As one of them said, 'I am ready to go home.'"
When the Ebola virus began spreading in West Africa last summer, EMM formed a staff crisis management team that closely monitored the spread of the virus and kept in close contact with local church leaders and EMM workers in the region. When the first case of the Ebola virus was confirmed in Senegal, the team consulted with local church leaders and the EMM crisis team and decided to leave the region, arriving in the U.S. on September 4, 2014.
EMM staff met regularly with the Bakers and the Shirks during their time in the U.S., providing support and counsel as they adjusted and praying with them. The crisis team also continued to monitor the situation in West Africa and consulted with other organizations.
"We've been in contact with other missions organization about their observations and timing for sending workers back to the region, have looked at reports from the World Health Organization, and have been in touch with national church leaders in The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau," said Darrel Hostetter, co-director of Human Resources at EMM. "When we met in January, everyone felt like we had enough information to send our workers back."
EMM staff and the team in West Africa will continue to assess the situation.
"There is always some level of risk, but we feel confident that it has been significantly mitigated," said EMM Pioneering Coach Steve Shank, who oversees EMM's work in West Africa. "I will be in ongoing contact with the team, talking with them about what criteria to be aware of and how to monitor what's going on in their communities."
As the team prepares to return, they have been encouraged by how their churches in the U.S. have supported their ministry in West Africa. The Bakers' congregation, Community Mennonite Church in Milton, Pa., purchased supplies that are unavailable in Guinea-Bissau for a preschool the Bakers work with.
"It has been amazing to see the love poured out for a preschool so far away," said Karen Baker. "Each child who placed something in the suitcases has blessed another child across the world. We are all called to be servants of Christ and that is just what these kids are doing."
Although the team is excited to go back, there will be some changes and challenges. Dave and Delores Shirk will be transitioning from doing hands-on public health work in Guinea-Bissau to public health teaching and training in The Gambia.
While in the U.S., Mike Baker injured his knee, and initially the family thought they might need to delay their return.
"When [the church in Guinea-Bissau] heard about Michael's knee, they began praying and fasting all day and night. The church that we came to teach and help to grow was praying and fasting for us," said Karen Baker. "In fact, Djibi, one of the local leaders, told us how they were planning our return and how they would carry Michael through the village. They said they would meet us with their bicycles and carry Michael home."