Recently, between Sunday services, Pastor George Mason weaved confidently and quickly through the halls of Wilshire Baptist Church. He greeted everyone with his trademark smile, passing some with a handshake, others with a pat on the shoulder.
“Good morning!” “What’s your good news today?” “Hello!”
It was a busy time, but there was an extra layer of complication: One of his church’s members, Louise Troh, was preparing to release “My Spirit Took You In,” a memoir detailing her relationship with fiance Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who died from the Ebola virus in Dallas last fall.
Now, yet again, cameras were coming into his sanctuary. Reporters were coming with empty notebooks and lots of questions.
Troh had started to open up to interviews, but the majority of the press wrangling went to the pastor and Christine Wicker, a former religion reporter for The Dallas Morning News and co-author of Troh’s memoir.
Since the Ebola virus struck Dallas last September, Mason has balanced the roles of media liaison, pastor, advocate and more. He’s sat for interviews on CNN. He’s fought to find Troh and her family a place to live away from the cameras. He’s sheltered them, giving them time and space to grieve, away from the news media.
“This was a matter of ordinary care in the midst of extraordinary times,” Mason said. “The church has been willing to address significant matters culturally.”
Last fall was not the first time the church has had a run-in with a much feared and deadly virus.
In the early 1980s, a couple and their two sons came to Wilshire. Because of a blood transfusion, the mother and sons were diagnosed with HIV. Mason said the church reached out superficially but refused to allow the older son to attend Sunday school with the other children.
“It was a painful moment in our church’s history,” Mason said. “I don’t think we did it wrong the last time, but we didn’t get it right.”
During last year’s Ebola crisis, Mason thought of that moment 30 years ago. He said the congregation had a keen sense that this time, they’d act with caring responsibility instead of fear.
“Love moves toward people. Fear moves away,” Mason told his congregation during those weeks of uncertainty. “We did everything we could to move toward.”
‘God is calling me to this church’
In 1994, Louise Troh met Thomas Eric Duncan in a crowded market in Danane, the Ivory Coast. They were both refugees from neighboring Liberia, trying to escape a violent civil war.
They began dating and had a son named Karsiah in 1995. But soon, Troh had an opportunity to escape to the U.S., alone. She knew it might be the only chance she had to make a better life, and she took it. Karsiah and other family members joined her later.
First in Boston, then in Dallas, she began working in nursing homes. It was, she said, a tough job that other Americans balked at. It was hard, sometimes dirty work, taking care of the elderly and dying.
“I was a common person, working hard, trying to get to retirement,” Troh said in an interview with the Dallas Morning News. “Now I can’t go back to the nursing home.”
Last February, seven months before Duncan arrived in Dallas, Troh received terrible news about her daughter, Kebeh, in Liberia. Kebeh was pregnant with her fifth child, but had to be taken to the hospital with complications. She died in the hospital in Monrovia.
It sent Troh into a deep depression. Her nieces were attending Sunday school at Wilshire Baptist, and a member, Max Post, a retired Texas Instruments engineer, offered to host a memorial service for her daughter in Troh’s home.
“It’s just what we do,” Post said. “Baptists, whenever there’s a death in the family, we make a casserole.”
Troh said the kindness led her to begin attending Sunday school at Post’s Open Bible class, which focuses on direct readings of the Bible rather than external curriculum. It’s one of the larger classes Wilshire offers, and the members treat one another like family.
“The whole church, they are good people,” Troh said. “God is calling me to this church.”
In June, Troh was baptized at Wilshire. She became a beloved member of the Open Bible class and attended every Sunday. Post helped her send letters to Liberia to petition for a visa for Duncan to see Karsiah’s high school graduation. He was finally able to book a flight for Sept. 19.
Troh did not know that four days before he boarded the plane, Duncan had helped a pregnant woman seek treatment in Liberia and was infected with the Ebola virus. She now wonders if the reason he didn’t share that information was because of her own daughter’s death months earlier.
“Even in September,” Troh wrote in her memoir, “I was so grieving Kebeh that I could not eat or sleep.”
‘Faith over fear’
On Easter Sunday, Troh sat in her usual spot at the Open Bible class, near the window along one wall.
The class was mostly elderly members. They started each class by asking for prayers and praise, mainly for good health. It’s a group unfortunately familiar with hospitals and death.
One member asked for prayers for a relative who recently had a heart attack. Another just had a long-awaited clean bill of health from the doctor. Yet another couldn’t come to church on Easter after deciding to stop chemotherapy.
Shortly after the start of class, Troh stepped out. Folks from “The 700 Club,” a news show on the Christian Broadcasting Network, were in the building doing a feature on her and they needed to get a shot of her talking with Mason.
The class was accustomed to these interruptions. Back when Duncan was in the hospital, having cameras in the building was not uncommon.
The first Sunday after the news broke that there was a Wilshire connection to Duncan, the balcony was filled with reporters, Associate Pastor Mark Wingfeld said. Wingfeld, a former journalist, helped organize a team of church members to serve as liaisons as international media descended on the sanctuary.
“We don’t have any plumbers – I wish we had a plumber or electrician. But lawyers and media relations? We’ve got plenty of those,” Wingfeld said.
Mason and Wingfeld served as spokesmen for Troh, drafting statements to the press and spreading facts instead of fear. “Faith over fear was the thing we said over and over again,” Wingfeld said. “For us, this was about our member and her family.”
Along with giving statements on Troh’s behalf, Mason was also one of the few people – including Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins and Mayor Mike Rawlings – to visit the quarantine house in Oak Cliff.
The house was on the campus of the Catholic Conference and Formation Center. Jenkins had worked with the Catholic Diocese of Dallas to find a place where Troh, her son and two nephews could stay and wait out the viral incubation period away from the apartment where Duncan had stayed before hospitalization.
Mason and the other officials made sure to visit in a suit and tie, not a biohazard gown.
“The church is often on the opposite side of science,” Mason said. “It seemed like an opportunity for us to demonstrate that we can be on the same team.”
In quarantine, Mason and Troh had to keep a 3-foot distance between them. They would cross arms across their chests to symbolize a hug. Even that gesture wasn’t enough on Oct. 8, when Mason and Jenkins delivered the news that Duncan had died at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.
Troh crumpled to the floor. The three boys in the house began weeping, asking if they were going to die, too. Mason cried, unable to reach out for them.
Instead, both to Troh and his congregation at Wilshire, he continued to preach love. He drew comparisons between the city’s reaction to the Ebola crisis and the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination.
“After ’63, people were calling Dallas the city of hate,” Mason said. “This was our next big national moment. Fifty years later, we wanted to be the city of love.”
‘I am one of them’
At the Easter service, Troh’s family took up nearly an entire row. Troh, two daughters and three granddaughters filled their normal spot, about halfway up the aisle along the left side of the sanctuary.
In the pulpit, Mason preached tolerance. Through the resurrection of Jesus, he said, all people have been made clean. It’s not up to them to judge who is allowed in the church.
It goes back to those days in the early 1980s, when fear of HIV made the Wilshire congregation close their doors. Now they can look at Ebola as a redemptive moment.
Later in the sermon, Mason held up an advance copy of Troh’s memoir, reading a passage where Troh praises Wilshire.
“Some churches are so nice on the outside, but the people inside are not so nice,” Mason read from Troh’s book. “These people make me feel that I am one of them.”
“It’s as much a love letter to her church as it is a love story about her and Eric,” Mason said. “That whole time in our church changed us for the better.”