Loving your neighbor as yourself in the face of death and bigotry

COVID Volunteers at a hospital

At the peak of the COVID second wave, one volunteer texted in our WhatsApp group, “Team, please take a moment to pray. The time is 8:35 AM, and I am already coordinating for 14 burials and cremations. It is a sorrowful moment.”

These volunteers were overwhelmed with what was happening around them. Everything looked so unreal.

They have been answering desperate calls to help organize an oxygen cylinder or an ICU bed day after day. A few patient’s attendants were inconsolable. “Please help my mom, let her aso not die like my dad.” Another attendant called and said, “ Reshmi (39) passed away last night, but thank you so much for all that you have done. Continue helping others.”

These volunteers stood with them and encouraged them. They called several hospitals on their behalf. But, unfortunately, despite their best efforts, a few patients died on their way or even after getting a bed.

The heart-wrenching part of this crisis is not merely the number of deaths but the horror and helplessness they faced as they were left alone to fend for their lives. Even after losing someone, families could not give a dignified farewell as many were hospitalized due to the infection or far away abroad. Others were afraid of the virus and left their dead in the hands of the volunteers.

One volunteer texted, “Yesterday at the cremation grounds, about 15 pyres were burning together, and only about 12–13 of us were there totally. Many of the bodies were just brought in by ambulances with no relatives accompanying.”

These men and women are no special people. They had their fears and questions yet are compelled to serve the poor, hungry, sick, and the dead. Why have they risked their lives to love their unknown neighbors in the face of death?

Volunteers shifting a body from ambulance at a cemetery in Bangalore

They loved their neighbors in the face of death.

While watching how people who died due to COVID are inhumanly buried in mass graves, some people moved with compassion came forward to help provide dignified burials. Even teenagers came forward to serve.

A 19-year-old Psychology student Justin who wants to become a clinical psychologist, was inspired by his uncle to help organize COVID burials since July 2020. During the day, he is at the cemetery, and in the evenings, he attends his online classes. Even today, he goes out there delighted to serve the families who feel helpless with unfamiliar COVID burial protocols. To date, he has assisted for over 200 burials.

Another volunteer, Joshua, a 26-year-old interior designer, joined the team, hearing the need for more volunteers. At first, he was scared about dead bodies, but now he has overcome the fear and is now willing to take a break from his business to serve at the cemetery.

Along with other amazing volunteers, they carry bodies from the ambulance to the burial site on a stretcher or a trolley which is usually a long walk. If the body has not come in a body bag, they first wrap the body before bringing it out of the ambulance. They do this with all precautions in their PPEs, whether sunny or rainy, from morning till evening.

If the family wants to see the deceased’s face, they open the bag and check if they should view it. Sometimes they advise not to view it as many bodies are not cleaned and prepared for burial; several times, they come with oxygen masks still on the face. Sometimes the face is bloodied while removing the oxygen tubes in the hospital. Since the body is highly infectious, they make sure the family sees from a distance for only a few seconds.

One of their painful experiences was when they buried three people from the same family within a few days. They recounted another harrowing experience was burying an overweight man where the arranged coffin box was not in the correct size. They struggled to place the body properly in the coffin but could not. When they were lowering the coffin into the grave, the coffin broke. Thankfully the family understood the situation.

Volunteers at a cemetery in Bangalore.

They loved their neighbors amidst helplessness

An elderly couple locked themselves in their home with the fear of COVID. But sadly, they too got infected. When the lady was feeling breathless, their neighbor took them in their car from one hospital to another. After three hospitals had denied admission due to lack of vacancy for ICU, the lady passed away in the car.

Now no mortuary is willing to take the body for the night. For three hours, they went from one morgue to the other. At last, they contacted Angela, who advised them to come to a particular hospital where she arranged space in the morgue.

When Angela met that uncle, he was in shock. He was helpless with his dead wife beside him in the car. She arranged a bed for him in the Emergency and took the body to the morgue. The next day she coordinated the lady’s burial according to the wishes of her husband and the son, who is in Canada. Even after three weeks, the man is still in ICU, and she visits him sometimes with food.

Angela is an animal protection activist in Bangalore. Last July, after completing her volunteer work with the migrant workers, she got a call to help with a COVID burial as there was no one to bury a deceased person. Angela did not know what and how to do this but rushed to the cemetery. Since then, along with her team, she has coordinated over a thousand funerals.

It wasn’t easy for her. In one of the earliest funerals, the body was not in a coffin. With bare hands and just a mask, the team had to bury the body. But while lowering the body into the pit, it fell. She was terrified. Even the gravediggers could not help because they had no protective gear.

Through all this, she says, “I was not a very spiritual person before this COVID crisis, but I met God at the cemetery; it changed my life.”

A volunteer performing last rites.

They loved their neighbors in the face of bigotry

Ashwin runs his own business and has been actively involved with other volunteers from different faiths to help provide dignified cremations to COVID victims irrespective of their caste or religion.

One day after placing the body on the pyre, a Hindu priest asked him if he could help with the ceremony of cremating this elderly woman since no one from her family had turned up. Ashwin said, “As a Christian, I struggled with it at first; what if I do something wrong? But then felt this was what Jesus meant when He said to go the extra mile.” So he performed the entire cremation ritual breaking all the so-called walls we created by religion. He became the son of that family that day.

Another day he and his Muslim friend got a call to immerse the ashes of an elderly Hindu man in a river as his children could not do it due to hospitalization. Again he was hesitant, so he asked one of his Hindu friends for help. Since his friend was unavailable, Ashwin thought, “if my Lord has asked me to love my neighbor and help them in time like this, I will do this.”

The next day he and his Muslim friend drove 150 km to the Cauvery river and immersed the ashes at a secluded spot to avoid any attention given the political climate in the state.

COVID Volunteer feeding a meal to a patient

They loved their neighbors even when it is not easy

Maria is an HR professional. Recently she took a career break as she felt God was leading her for something important. She has two young children below seven years. As she was waiting and praying, her youth director at Church called for volunteers to help COVID patients in the hospitals. She felt God calling her for this. With encouragement from her family, she signed up.

These volunteers are trained and put up in a separate accommodation during this period. They help the nursing staff attend to patients in COVID wards and ICUs. Like feeding them a meal, helping them freshen up, changing bed linen, changing diapers and assisting bedpans, etc.

The rest of the time, they sit beside patients and talk to them, holding their hands. Maria recounts a conversation with an army uncle who is always prim and proper. He told many things about his life. He lost his first wife to suicide and his second wife to cancer. His children have disowned him. There was so much hurt and unforgiveness bottled up for years. Though his condition was deteriorating, he was holding on to so much bitterness.

She said, “I asked him to try giving his worries to God, to let go of the hurt for his well-being. I knew my words would have no impact on him as his wounds were deep. Yet I tried.”

The next day his condition was critical; he did not recognize her. She said, “He didn’t want to open his eyes. So I sat for about half an hour just stroking his hand, whispering that he will be ok. In his semi-conscious state, he was crying and murmuring that he had done many wrongs and that this is a terrible end for him. Uncle may not have too many hours left, but he taught me how important it is to have peace within.” I hope God spoke to this man through her about forgiveness and peace.

So why love?

If you have to choose between “loving your neighbor as yourself” and “fixing the global COVID crisis,” which do you think advances human flourishing? We all know that technology and material resources alone cannot advance the common good. The problem is within us.

One of the volunteers said, “COVID has been a leveler of sorts.” The virus has not distinguished between the rich or the poor, white or black, Brahman or Dalit, Christian or Muslim, Catholic or Protestant. Instead, it has unmasked the self-centered illusions we have covered our hearts and minds for so long. Our pride, bigotry, and greed have sadly detached us from our neighbors; therefore, we dehumanized our world and poisoned our planet.

The love the volunteers have shown to unknown neighbors may not have saved all the lives, but it sure brought comfort, dignity, and hope.

Our mutual hatred and suspicion for the ‘other,’ which has escalated in our country lately, are rooted in the belief that all people are not equal. We cannot truly love our neighbor unless we believe that all people are intrinsically equal, irrespective of their caste, creed, or gender. We cannot logically affirm this equality without believing in human dignity, which is bestowed on every human by a loving God who created us in His image.

In the light of this truth, Jesus commanded us to keep these two commands, “Love your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. And Love your neighbor as yourself.” He said, on these two commandments, hangs all righteousness.

Love is the supreme ethic; it is the path towards human flourishing. However, it is not merely about loving those who love us. Recently I read this quote online. “When Jesus said, love your neighbor, he knew your neighbor would act, look, believe, and love differently than you. That’s the whole point.”

We cannot love until we first encounter God’s love. Those who experienced love through these volunteers are filled with gratitude and joy. Only God’s love can compel us to love our neighbors and even our enemies. One patient wants to adopt four COVID-orphaned children. Another wants to quit his successful IT job to serve people.

How beautiful will it be when we know that we are loved by God and take that love to our neighbor? Who is that difficult person next to you that you can love from today? Take that small step today, and heaven will come to uphold you. Our world is desperately longing for it.

*Volunteer names are changed.

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Mark Raja

Mark Raja

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I mostly write to clarify my understanding. You will find my articles on themes like beauty, faith, hope, culture, and common good.