American Millennial Missionary In Guinea Isn't Scared Off By Ebola

Jan 23, 2015

Luke Whitworth came to Guinea in December of 2013. His Christian faith had deepened throughout college, and he was eager to begin work as a Baptist missionary.

Around the same time, Ebola arrived.

"At the very beginning, I'd never heard of it," he recalls.

The virus was spreading through Guinea's forest region. Whitworth was here for a two-year stay. He started researching Ebola.

"Just seeing the death rate and what it does to your body, it was scary," he says.

But he's still here — and he hasn't been back home to his native South Carolina.

The 23-year-old sits down with us in the Baptist mission's open-air lobby. He's clean-shaven, with dark, wavy hair pushed to one side — wearing a T-shirt and shorts, socks with open-toed sandals. He has a disarming smile. He's a "journeyman" for the International Mission Board — a commitment of two-to-three years. The group was founded in 1845 at the first Southern Baptist Convention; its goal is to "bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the lost peoples of the world."

Whitworth and the other Baptists teach English three days a week in Forecariah, two hours east of the capital, Conakry. He also goes out and talks to people about his faith.

There are a lot of challenges. The locals speak Soussou. The official language of Guinea, a former French colony, is French. Luke Whitworth, from Pickens, South Carolina, speaks neither of those languages.

And he signed up to spread the gospel of Christ in a predominately Muslim country.

Then came Ebola. When the virus was identified, the IMB gave Whitworth the option of packing his bags.

He never really considered it.

"The Lord has given me the strength to do what he's called me to do, and we've actually had more doors opened to us through this," he says.

The Baptists began educating villagers about how to protect themselves against Ebola. Those messages don't always get a warm welcome because of suspicion toward strangers.

Ebola is a frightening disease, he says. His parents and twin brother and friends back home worry about him. But they've been supportive all the way.

He says the arrival of Ebola in the U.S. helped friends and family understand better what was going on in Guinea.

"Because it made the situation more real to them, so it shined light onto what I was having to deal with and what the people were having to deal with here," he says.

Which of course, didn't make them worry any less.

But whatever happens, Luke Whitworth believes it's part of a plan.

"I do enjoy it a lot," he says. "It is definitely challenging, but this is where the Lord has me and I'm happy here."

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Whether it's health workers, soldiers or journalists, many outsiders have been called to serve in the Ebola hot zone. They calculated the risks, prepared, went to work. Well, this story's a little different. It's about a young American missionary who arrived just as the Ebola outbreak started in Guinea and decided to stick it out. From the capital, Conakry, NPR's Kevin Leahy has this profile.

KEVIN LEAHY, BYLINE: Luke Whitworth got to Guinea in December of 2013. His Christian faith had deepened throughout college. And he was eager to begin work as a Baptist missionary. Around the same time, Ebola got to Guinea.

LUKE WHITWORTH: At the very beginning, I'd never heard of it.

LEAHY: The virus was spreading through Guinea's forest region in the south. Whitworth had just begun a two-year stay.

WHITWORTH: You know, the death rate and what it actually did to the body, it was scary.

LEAHY: But today he's still here. The 23-year-old sits down with us in the Baptist mission's open-air lobby in Forecariah. It's a mining town about two hours east of the capital. He's clean-shaven with dark, wavy hair pushed to one side, wearing a T-shirt and shorts, socks, sandals with a disarming smile. Whitworth and the other Baptists teach English here. The locals speak Susu. The official language in Guinea is French. Luke Whitworth, from Pickens, South Carolina, speaks neither of those languages, and he's trying to spread the gospel in a predominantly Muslim country; all challenging enough, but Ebola? When the virus was identified, Whitworth was given the option of packing his bags and heading home, but he says he never really considered that.

WHITWORTH: The Lord has continually sustained me and given me the strength to do what he's called me to do, and we've actually had more doors open to us through this.

LEAHY: The Baptists began educating villagers about how to protect themselves against Ebola. Those messages don't always get a warm welcome, though. Earlier this month, two African Baptists from another mission were badly beaten by suspicious villagers not far away. So Whitworth doesn't push too hard. After all, Ebola is a frightening disease, he says. And, of course, it worries his parents and twin brother and friends back home, but they've been supportive of his decision to remain in the hot zone. And he says the arrival of Ebola in the United States helped them understand what was going on in Guinea.

WHITWORTH: Because it made the situation more real to them. And so it shined a light onto - to what I was having to deal with and what the people were having to deal with here.

LEAHY: Which, of course, didn't make them worry any less.

WHITWORTH: You know, my friend joked around. He said if you die over there I'm going to come kill you.

LEAHY: He says that with a smile, but whatever happens, Luke Whitworth believes it's part of a bigger plan.

WHITWORTH: I do enjoy it a lot. It is definitely challenging, but this is where the Lord has me and I'm happy here.

LEAHY: So he is staying the course here in Guinea where his mission and the Ebola epidemic began simultaneously. Kevin Leahy, NPR News, Conakry. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.