Mission co-worker says life is returning to near normal
by Kathy Melvin |Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Living relatively close to China with three young children, mission co-workers Jonathan and Emily Seitz feel comfortably safe in Taipei, Taiwan.
With only seven deaths in the entire country, Taiwan lifted many of its stringent restrictions on June 7, after the country had gone two straight months without a local transmission. The Seitzes are, however, worried about friends and family in the U.S., where the death toll has exceeded 150,000.
“We see cases spiking in places we hold dear,” said Jonathan Seitz. “We’d mostly recently lived in New Jersey and saw at least three retired theological educators there die from COVID-19.”
Like most people, the Seitz family began hearing about the virus taking hold of Wuhan, China in late January. They were just returning to Taipei from a mission co-worker gathering in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
“When we came back to Taiwan, the airports were already on higher alert — using heat cameras to check temperatures, checking baggage, and doing surveys about travel with contact info. At this point we hadn’t yet learned the words ‘contact tracing,’ but Taiwan was working on it,” he said. “We later learned that when the Taiwanese CDC heard about the new flu in Wuhan, they had sent a team to do initial research at the end of December.”
While the U.S. has struggled significantly with stopping the spread of the virus, Taiwan has become a model for dealing with COVID-19.
“It was an education for us, because in many ways it showcased the best of Taiwan,” he said. “Taiwan is sometimes described as ‘technocratic,’ meaning it gives more credence to professionals and formal expertise. The president, Tsai Ing-Wen, is an economist, and her vice president was an epidemiologist.”
Taiwan was one step ahead because of its experience dealing with the SARS virus in 2003. Officials also were able to learn from preparing responses to subsequent threats like MERS and swine flu. As an island, Taiwan has limited points of entry, which is another advantage, as it has a population that is familiar with the need to increase mask production quickly, check temperatures, spray hands and enact contact tracing. Taiwan has a national health care system that simplifies and nationalizes treatment for all its citizens.
“For us, all of this unfolded over several weeks,” said Seitz. “By the time our kids returned to school in early March they had been out of session for five weeks. At the time, we felt frustrated by the long break and the challenges of travel, grading, and class prep while the kids were with us. But in retrospect it was a window where Taiwan was able to ramp up its response.”
Churches in Taiwan also implemented specific interventions. Medium and large churches went online. Worshipers in small churches were allowed to continue meeting with masks and social distancing. Sunday schools and meals were generally cancelled.
When the PC(USA) asked mission co-workers to return to the U.S., the Seitz family asked to shelter-in-place with the support of the PC(USA)’s global partner, the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan, with whom they have served since 2009. They were very concerned about traveling through multiple airports to reach the U.S. and staying with either of their elderly parents was not an option. They did, however, submit an updated emergency plan in case evacuating became necessary.
The Seitz twins, Eva and Eli, attend a 2,000-student public school in Taipei, with 400 kids in their third-grade class split among 14 classrooms. Initially the Seitz parents considered pulling them out of school. But because of Taiwan’s success responding to the pandemic, the children were able to finish the semester. Older son Samuel attends a primarily English language church school with only around 250 students. His school went online for a month and implemented strict protocols about masks, distancing and contact. Sam is set to return to school August 10 and the twins start on the last day of August.
“Our kids were aware of the anxiety around all of this. They missed being able to do regular activities. I did feel people were more cautious around foreigners, but we also saw many small acts of kindness, Jonathan Seitz said. “Emily had someone help her order hand disinfectant. People at my school asked if we needed masks, and tech support helped him me prepare for online teaching.”
Seitz said the family is also grateful to the PC(USA) for the information and care they received, and for Zoom classes offered to adults and children. They were also able to discuss their situation with other mission co-workers who were encountering similar challenges all over the world.
Jonathan, who teaches at the Taiwan Theological Seminary, did some online teaching briefly for his seminary classes and used Microsoft’s Teams at one school and Google’s Meet at another. Citing security concerns, Taiwan had forbidden schools and institutions from using Zoom.
“Students showed a lot of compassion to us and were flexible in dealing with changes in schedule,” he said. “For one class I set 10-minute slots and talked to students individually online. After the initial delay, Taiwan’s schools (including the seminaries) never stopped meeting, although they made many changes. Cleaning supplies were prepared for each room and a seating arrangement was set. Students wore masks during classes.”
Jonathan teaches classes related to mission, religion and world Christianity. Most of his students are preparing for pastoral ministry. Taiwan Seminary traces its history to 1872. About a quarter of the students are first-generation Christians, while others trace their faith back five or six generations. Students are mostly ethnically Taiwanese, but there is also a mix of indigenous and international students.
In August Jonathan Seitz is scheduled to share at four churches in the United States in New York City; Birmingham, Alabama; southern Illinois; and Portland, Oregon, while also participating World Mission events.
“Back in the winter, I preached a few times on Psalm 121 and that has been one of the psalms that’s kept me grounded in this period,” he said. “Called ‘the traveler’s psalm,’ it affirms that ‘my help comes from the Lord,’ and that God protects ‘our going out and our coming in.’ These are still challenging days and we likely have a long road ahead of us, but for me the words of Psalm 121 have offered comfort and peace in these COVID days.”
Emily Seitz works in team ministry and has done a mix of things in Taiwan, including language study, a stint as a visiting scholar at Alethia University, and a mix of volunteering in libraries and Sunday schools.
Those interested in having Jonathan and Emily Seitz appear virtually with their congregation can email Jonathan.Seitz@pcusa.org.
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