by Byron Dulan, Vice President for Regional Affairs at the North Pacific Union Conference
The coronavirus pandemic has plunged the entire world into a global health crisis. This is not the first time, however, that an epidemic has shifted the course of world history. The Spanish flu of 1918-20 infected a quarter of the Earth’s population and is estimated to have killed between 17-50 million people. Yet, before that event happened, the extraordinary story of a young Irish immigrant, Mary, a cook in early 20th century New York, transpired; and she left in her wake, a trail of death, scandal, and controversy.[i]
Mary Mallon was born in Ireland but left there as a teenager to seek a different life in the New World. By 1900, she was working as a cook in the homes of wealthy families in and around New York City. At the time, between one and two million Americans worked in domestic service; and successfully obtaining a role as a cook, earned one the designation of “queen of the castle”. In the role, Mary managed the kitchen staff, bought supplies, and held the privilege of being called, Miss Mallon. Eventually, she gained renown for her tasty signature dish, peach ice cream.
Mary Mallon worked in the ritzier neighborhoods of Manhattan; but things were not as well as they appeared on the surface. Between 1900 and 1907, she had worked as a cook in the homes of seven different families – the final one located on Park Avenue – and in each home, people fell ill or died of typhoid. Every time this occurred, Mary managed to quietly slip away and find work elsewhere.[ii]
Typhoid, as a disease, was a known killer, but many erroneously believed it belonged to another world. The disease, however, thrived in the overcrowded, unsanitary conditions of New York’s slum neighborhoods, such as Five Points and Hell’s Kitchen.
One victim’s family hired George Soper, a sanitation engineer and researcher, to locate Mary, to determine if she was a carrier of the disease. When he found her, however, Mary angrily chased him out of her kitchen with a carving fork. It is easy to empathize with Mary’s rejection of the idea that she was a source of transmission for a disease from which she, herself, never suffered. But George Soper had correctly identified her as an asymptomatic carrier of Typhoid Fever. Ultimately, Mary was never infected by the disease herself; but she remained infectious to other people for the rest of her life. Not surprisingly, Mary Mallon
found this concept impossible to grasp. But New York authorities were desperate to contain the disease, and in 1907 Mary Mallon was exiled to an isolation facility on North Brother Island, located on a river outside of New York.
In that formative time of epidemiology, authorities lacked the knowledge we possess today, about how to slow the surge of an epidemic. Ancient sources did contain practical guidelines helpful to their immediate crisis, had they only referenced them. Eventually, however, through trial and error, they adopted and applied those self-same principles.
In the Biblical book of Leviticus, chapter 13, Moses recorded health laws spoken to him by God, regarding how to contain the spread of leprosy and other contagious diseases. Note verses 43-46:
Verse 43,44 – “Then the priest shall examine it. . . The priest shall surely pronounce him unclean.”
Verse 45 – “Now the leper on whom the sore is, his clothes shall be torn and his head bare; and he shall cover his mustache and cry, Unclean! Unclean!”
Verse 46 – “All the days he has the sore he shall be unclean. He is unclean, and he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
It is amazing that in this passage we discover:
- Testing: The priest shall examine it and decide.
- Masking: He shall cover his mustache.
- Social Distancing: He shall cry unclean.
- Quarantine/Isolation: He shall dwell alone outside the camp.
Evidently, the methods recommended by public health officials today are in keeping with God’s instructions to Moses over four-thousand years ago!
Back to our story. In 1909, Mary Mallon hired a lawyer and unsuccessfully sued the Health Department that had placed her in quarantine. But in 1910, a new Health Commissioner vowed to free Mary and assist her with finding suitable employment as a domestic, albeit, not as a cook. Mary, was, subsequently released from quarantine; however, she never intended to abide by the agreement.
Using an alias, Mary commenced working again for unsuspecting employers. Employed as a cook at Sloane Maternity (a hospital) in Manhattan, within three months she had infected at least 25 people, including doctors, nurses, and staff, two of whom died. This time, when authorities tracked her down again in 1915, they offered no sympathy.
Mary was returned to isolation, where she lived in confinement for the next twenty-three years, until her death in 1938. She was stigmatized as “Typhoid Mary,” by local newspapers, and became a laughingstock – the butt of numerous jokes and cartoons. In the end, her name emerged in medical dictionaries – as a synonym and designation of a contagious disease carrier.
Significant controversy remains regarding the treatment that Mary sustained at the hands of the Health Department. Rather than educating her – and guiding her understanding of the health risks she posed to others – she was ensnared as a victim of local health laws instead. Nevertheless, one valuable aspect of Mary’s legacy to the world may be, increased awareness of the importance of following medical advice, even when you do not clearly understand it.
The history of Mary Mallon, declared “unclean” like a leper, may provide us some moral direction on how best to protect the ill; and how best to protect ourselves, from illness. Mary refused the one operation which might have cured her. “Typhoid Mary” has, indeed, become shorthand when referring to issues of non-compliance with public health laws. The state’s pursuit of Mary, coupled with her own intransigence, places her at an unfortunate space within medical and social history.[iii]
Why, exactly, was Mary’s signature dish — peach ice cream – so critical to her story, you may ask? Because, the typhoid bacterium can survive in cold food, but is destroyed during cooking. If Mary Mallon had taken especial pride in an apple pie recipe, rather than her peach ice cream concoction, we may perhaps have never heard of “Typhoid Mary”.
What, indeed, have we learned? The risk of asymptomatic contagion is currently a heated topic within health circles, and with the public at large. The discussion proves to be relevant in a spiritual context as well. The simple truth is, that we are all contagious!
The Bible says: “All have sinned.” Our interpretation of that verse is often, “Y’all have sinned!” We human beings, particularly Christians, have a keen, innate ability to discern and point out the sins and faults of others, while remaining blind to our own sins and faults.
Some Christians appear to be asymptomatic to the controversy and confusion they often spread within their families and their churches. They seem unperturbed and undisturbed, by the poison and contagion swirling around their being, wherever they are present. As they hop, skip, and jump from church, to church, to church, trouble follows in their wake. They see no need for virus testing. They see no need for masking. Or, if they do choose to don a mask, it is because they believe themselves at risk of catching something very bad from you. Preoccupied by their own preferences, prerogatives, and privileges, they are disinclined to recognize the need of others to be protected from their very infectious state. They demonstrate little, to no concern, for people within their communities, who are affected by their contagiousness.
I hate to say it, but at times, you do need social distancing from some (so called) saints. When those persons come through the door, an alarm should be triggered. Someone needs to yell “unclean!” – (hyperbole fully intended). Truth be told, we are all too often afraid of the wrong people. It is not the man with liquor on his breath; or the guy with dirty face and smelly clothes; or the woman with five runny-nosed, rambunctious children; nor the scantily clad, gaudy young woman, requiring more ‘fig leaves’ to cover herself. No, they are not the problem. Nor are they the true threat! Rather, it is the asymptomatic Christian, who, to all appearances, looks fantastic outwardly, but inwardly, breeds conspiracies, lies, and innuendo; and steadfastly resists testing their words and actions against the Word of God.
Thank God, there is a more positive aspect to being a Contagious Christian”. As social beings, we humans are constantly carrying, transmitting, and spreading something. For example:
- Yawning is contagious.
- Itching/scratching is contagious.
- Laughing is contagious.
- Rudeness is contagious.
- Curiosity is contagious.
If, in fact, we are all contagious in some manner or other, what, precisely, are we spreading? Are we spreading hope or fear? Are we spreading truth or lies? Are we contagious with logic and reason, buttressed by facts; or conspiracy theories, based on speculation, innuendo, or wishful thinking? Do we even recognize what an actual risk we are, as asymptomatic contagious spreaders? Do we ultimately care about the people we are infecting, and the people they will infect – and so on – due to associating with us?
Is it possible, some of our Sabbath afternoon potluck conversations could be characterized as “super spreader” events? Do we realize it may be beneficial to ‘mask’ our tongues; socially distance ourselves from gossip and speculation; and endure congregational separation or isolation for a brief time, to ensure vulnerable persons in our families and churches are protected from infectious disease?
Each of us requires testing by the Word of God to determine our own, clean, or unclean status, according to God’s standards. We urgently need to be inoculated with the vaccine of God’s forgiveness, grace, and mercy – the antidote to all our ills – that we may, indeed, be healed.
Praise God, that we are not required to hold celebrity status to receive daily testing and treatment. Sin is the deadliest disease infecting the world today. It manifests itself in many forms. The grace, faith, and love of Jesus Christ comprise the only efficacious vaccine – sufficient to cure.
The Bible contains numerous stories regarding Contagious Christians. One of my favorites is found in Acts, chapter 16, about the experiences of Paul and Silas while in the Philippian prison.
You know the story.
- Paul and Silas spoke truth to power and were arrested as a result. Speaking truth to power will often land you in trouble. Almost every prophet in the Bible was opposed, ridiculed, ignored, and persecuted. They were exiled, stoned, beheaded, crucified, and imprisoned.
- Paul and Silas were imprisoned, this time, for exorcising demons from the life of a young slave girl, “in the name of Jesus”.
- Her “pimps” – rhetorically speaking – immediately witnessed their stock portfolios crash. Say what you will, but “never mess with the money”. The first century version of the Mafia immediately ordered their arrest.
- We read Paul’s counsel in Philippians 4: 4,6-7. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I will say, rejoice! Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”
- Acts 16:25, shows us that Paul truly ‘walked the talk’. He and Silas had been stripped, whipped, placed in stocks, and thrown into solitary confinement in a maximum-security prison.
- Every inmate, incarcerated in that specific prison, on that particular night, wanted to know who these two ‘losers’ were; and what precisely, they had done, to deserve such harsh treatment.
- In prison, as in life, credibility hinges on your story – your testimony. And to have a powerful testimony, you must have a test.
- I do not know the exact time the meeting started, but by midnight the prison was rocking, with hymns, prayers, and spiritual praise to God, resounding throughout its halls. And the entire prison population was on board – caught up in their fervor.
- Suddenly, a mighty earthquake shook that prison to its foundations. Every cell-door opened, and every chain was loosed.
- If those events transpired today, we would witness one of the biggest prison breaks in history.
- Awakened by the quake and the tumult, the warden panicked as he observed every prison door breached. He knew he would be held responsible, and likely executed for the loss of any prisoners. So, he quickly prepared to take his own life.
- Paul called out and stopped him; reassuring the warden that no one had escaped – every prisoner was accounted for.
- No question about it – Paul was a Contagious Christian! Silas, too! Their example was so contagious in fact, that the Spirit of Christ constrained every prisoner from seeking to escape (some of whom, no doubt, had been in those dungeons for months and years, without the possibility of parole.) To forgo their one chance to escape, demonstrates how thoroughly they had been “infected” – and powerfully changed – through the example of Paul and Silas.
Yes, we are all contagious. We are all spreading something, for good or for ill, about life; both, in the here and now, and in eternity. Daily, we are a living testimony. Let us, determine, therefore, not to replicate the story of “Typhoid Mary”. But choose instead, to spread hope, joy, and love, to all whom we encounter. That is my most earnest prayer. AMEN.
[i] “How Typhoid Mary Left a Trail of Scandal and Death,” Kevin Connolly, BBC News.
[ii] Ibid., BBC News.
[iii] “Mary Mallon and the history of Typhoid Fever,” Annals of Gastroenterology, Hellenic Society of Gastroenterology.