Most churches that I have attended in the UK share one loaf of bread during communion, so it was a bit odd this past week when the preacher explained that they had pre-sliced the bread into individual pieces as to safeguard each participant from getting the swine flu. Just a small precaution, but still...it made me think. Beyond that, I was surprised last week when a good friend of mine found out that she had managed to contract the swine flu! To top it all off, the most bizarre thing happened: my local curate friend told me that he had just been required to receive training for “mass burials” due to the recent swoop of swine flu through the UK! Now, I'm not one who wants to sit around and talk about things like swine flu, nor do I even take this flu as seriously as I possibly should. However, the trend in discussing the issue has reminded me of one of my favorite stories I've learned during my travels in England. It is a story that I think is worth sharing.
It is a grim tale of a small village in Derbyshire, England, called Eyam. In September 1665, a man called George Viccars (the tailor of the town) had received a shipment of cloth from London. It arrived slightly damp, so he opened the cloth and left it out to dry. George immediately fell ill, and by the end of the week he died. By the end of the month, 6 others (with similar symptoms) were dead. Little did they know that the piece of damp cloth from London brought with it some tiny, seemingly harmless fleas – infected with the Bubonic plague. The death toll continued to rise as the disease spread around quickly with the obvious symptom that we learned in the children's nursery rhyme: “a ring around the rosy” (a red, circular rash on the skin). The disease quickly ran through the village, claiming both young and old as its victims. Once you started to feel the symptoms, it was only 4-7 days until you were dead.
I am not telling you this story to depress you! Today, the story of Eyam is told from a heroic perspective. Eyam's story became one of more than death because of the remarkable decision made by the church in Eyam. The decision of this small village parish saved hundreds, possibly thousands, of other lives in central England.
Finding itself in the midst of a serious plague, the town, in a state of shock, looked to its church leadership for advice. Rev. William Mompesson had heard stories of the earlier plague that struck Europe in the 1300s. He saw the death and destruction that this disease brought over his parish, and made a difficult decision: to recommend quarantine. The idea of “quarantine” was relatively unheard of in this area of Europe at that time, and probably because the idea of “contagious” diseases was also relatively new. The villagers weighed the facts, and agreed to shut themselves off from all surrounding areas. Any family that had been outside of the village was not allowed back in, and no one in the village went out beyond the boundary rocks. Basically, the entire village made the decision to pay whatever cost...sacrificing their own lives if necessary...in order to keep the disease from spreading beyond their walls.
I cannot even begin to imagine the grief and terror that this small village saw during just one short, devastating year. I have read stories of specific families that are just horrifying – one woman who lost 25 members of her family to the plague. Since the plague was spreading so easily from one victim to another, proper funerals attended by family and friends were no longer an option. Each family was given the responsibility of burying their own. One woman, Mrs. Hancock, buried her own husband and six children within just an 8-day period.
The self sacrifice of this small village is deservedly credited as an amazing service to the country. Though the plague ended up wiping out 30% of Europe's entire population, the number could've easily been higher for England if it weren't for these brave citizens. The plague died out in England with the village of Eyam. Out of its humble 350 residents, only 83 survived the 16-month bout with the plague. The remnants of the town waited for the disease to subside, then they burned all of their furniture and clothing, and did what they could to fumigate the rest of the village before allowing outside visitors back in to see what was left. Today, the small village still stands frozen in time as a memorial to each family – with each house donning a plaque of the names and ages of each person who died within its walls.
I realize it's not a story that Disney Pixar will be turning into an animated film any time soon, but I think there is something beautiful about this depressing story. So many Biblical truths come to mind when I think of these people, especially John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” What a difficult way to live out your faith.
My hope and prayer for the church in England (and the rest of the world) is that we find a way to be the place where people go for advice in difficult situations. I pray that we know how to step up and lead our communities when they face tragedy. I pray that we have the guts to make difficult, but correct decisions. I pray that we are the people prepared to clean up the messes that this world often finds itself in. I pray that no matter what crisis is facing us at that specific time, we are ready to make any sacrifice necessary to proclaim hope to a hopeless world.
*Photo of the still-standing church in Eyam, surrounded by tombstones of plague victims.