Author’s note: This is the founding article for a series of articles highlighting the community outreach ministry of Formation Counseling Services (FCS).
Beginning in the year 251 A.D., a devastating plague pounced upon and swept through the Roman Empire, wreaking incredible misery and destruction. What became known as the Plague of Cyprian, after St. Cyprian, the bishop who chronicled the events, killed 5,000 people per day during its zenith. Understandably, many, if not most all people who could, fled the plague-stricken regions for the sake of their lives.
What was much more difficult to understand was the Christian response to the Plague. Christians, many of whom had been scapegoated as the reason for the Plague, stayed behind in Rome, in Alexandria, in Carthage, and in other places around the Empire, to minister to the sick and dying and to bury the dead. In the midst of their own loss of family and friends, while they were sick and suffering themselves, at the risk of death by disease or by persecution, without regard for whether those they helped were Christians or non-believers, “followers of the way” (as they were called) remained to care for the sick, to wash the unclean, to feed the hungry, to console the dying, to comfort the grieving, and to bury the dead.
The actions of those early outreach Christians spoke loudly to many who were touched by the demonstration of a faith that was worth dying for and a love that was absolutely unconditional. Christianity’s explosive growth across the Roman Empire has been attributed to the remarkable witness of the Christ-followers who were willing to minister to those in great need—some of the most desperate people in some of the most desperate circumstances. Communities were transformed by Christians reaching out to others…and so was the entire Roman Empire.
Some seventeen hundred years later, the witness of those third century Christians continues to fan the flames of “love for neighbor” in the hearts of followers of “the way, the truth, and the life.” And still today, as then, communities are being transformed by Christians across the world who are willing to reach out to others in the midst of their own life struggles, while they are sick and suffering themselves, at the risk of death by disease or by persecution, with great generosity to the point of extreme sacrifice, without regard for whether those they help are Christians or non-believers. May God continue to raise up an outreach army of Christ-followers whose faith is worth dying for and whose love is so unconditional that communities are transformed by His touch through them.