While traveling to a denominational meeting, my eyes were immediately drawn to the front page article in the September 15 Wall Street Journal. “A Doctor’s Hard Decision” by Drew Hinshaw was about John Vallentine, a doctor volunteering on a rescue ship in the Mediterranean Sea. The Golfo Azzurro is dedicated to helping immigrants who are floating on rafts, desperate to escape to Europe and begin a new life. The ship was traveling south to locate a rubber dinghy packed with migrants. The raft was beginning to deflate, putting many lives at peril.
As the Golfo Azzurro was steaming toward the raft, the ship’s radio interrupted to say that a lone West African man who was rescued from the water by another vessel was desperately ill. They needed a doctor immediately. What to do? Change direction to try to save this one man or continue on their mission to save many more people on the rubber dinghy? Doctors use many methods to triage or prioritize care, but, still, decisions are not often clear-cut.
Dr. Vallentine, age 70, was a professor of ethics in his home country of Australia until he retired and is now devoting his life to rescuing migrants from the waters that can lead to a new home and life. Vallentine was accustomed to dealing with very difficult moral and ethical questions regarding the treatment of the ill, yet, still, the decision was agonizing.
Valentin said, “It’s all about finite resources in a world of infinite need. Do I look after this one, that 10, this 600?” What to do? Change course to save one man who might even be dead by the time the ship got there, or simply stay on course to find the overloaded dinghy and let the sick man die? Don’t make me choose!
The next day, I became involved in conversations with other United Methodists around the Commission on a Way Forward and the future of our beloved church. One person shared how their congregation is having holy conversations around human sexuality and said, “Our church is divided around this issue, as are many other churches. However, most of our congregation is committed to remaining united in our diversity. We believe our greatest witness to the world is that we can continue to worship, serve, and share God’s love together in the midst of our differences. Our fear is that The United Methodist Church will split. Please don’t make us choose one side or another!”
Humans have always lived in a world where we are faced with complex choices. The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy witnesses to the fact that when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness for forty years, they were often tempted to go astray and follow the ways of the people in the land. But Moses tried to bring them back by reminding them to choose wisely.
I call heaven and earth as my witnesses against you right now: I have set life and death, blessing and curse before you. Now choose life – so that you and your descendants will live – by loving the Lord your God, by obeying his voice, and by clinging to him. That’s how you will survive and live long on the fertile land the Lord swore to give to your ancestors: to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Deuteronomy 30:19-20, CEB)
Dr. Vallentine made the difficult decision to change the ship’s course and head toward the man who was gravely ill and was having seizures. Once this man was on the ship, the crew tried to summon a helicopter to come and take him to a hospital on the mainland, but none were available. It was a no-win situation. They could not evacuate the man, nor had they been able to travel toward the dinghy that was deflating.
Almost one-third of all migrant boats that leave Libya sink and most West African migrants can’t swim. No one could help the dinghy that was taking on water. Meanwhile, Dr. Vallentine and the Golfo Azzurro landed six hours later at Lampedusa, an Italian island, to get help for the old man who was gravely ill.
The doctor told his crew, “I feel a little responsible and sad because of the amount of energy involved in this operation for one person, but we chose to do what’s right for this man. We think that this man represents every man.” Don’t make me choose!
Indeed, every life is precious. In the Social Principles of our United Methodist Book of Discipline, the language used around abortion reflects the enormity of the choices we often have to make. “We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers.” (¶161K) I was in that situation myself when I was pregnant and experienced serious complications. There are not always clear answers. Don’t make me choose!
In order to survive, our local churches are faced with similar choices. How will we choose life in the midst of declining worship attendance and resources? How can we realign our priorities so that we can focus our energy outward rather than inward? How do we let go of activities that do not align with our mission, vision, and strategic priorities and focus on those ministries that will make a transforming difference in our communities? Don’t make us choose!
How do we overcome the temptation in local churches to spend our time at the fellowship gathering after worship talking to our friends rather than greeting and engaging those who are first-time guests? When resources are limited, do we start a Sunday class for special needs children, throw our energy into using the church as a homeless shelter once a year, or travel to the nearby city once a month to cook dinner at the rescue mission? Do we set aside what little staff money that is available for a parish visitor, a middle school youth coordinator, or a nursery coordinator? How do we make prayerful decisions when there are no easy answers? Don’t make us choose!
At a conference level, how do we decide what positions will need to be eliminated when budget cuts are necessary? How do we decide which ministries should receive conference funding and which need to secure their own funding? How do appointive cabinets decide when it is time for a local church to intentionally discern its future? When do congregations admit, “We’ve tried everything we know how to revitalize this church, but it’s not happening. We are using up all of our reserves. If we can’t continue, let’s save what little we have left to leave a legacy in this community or give our assets to another church that is making a difference in discipleship, ministry, and outreach.” Don’t make us choose!
The man who was ill, Mr. Osei, was finally flown by helicopter from Dr. Vallentine’s ship to Sicily but died in the ambulance that was taking him from the landing strip to the hospital. Several days later, the Golfo Azzurro ended up back in the place where the deflating rubber dinghy had been. The crew saw the remains of two recently deflated rubber boats in the water. There appeared to be no survivors. No one knew what happened.
Did Dr. Vallentine make the wrong choice? He did what he could on a boat that was dedicated to rescuing migrants. He acted with integrity, using the best knowledge he had.
- Can you and I “choose life” by loving the Lord our God, obeying God’s voice, and by clinging to God’s grace?
- Can our local churches, each one precious and unique, “choose hope” by giving ourselves away in love to our communities?
- Can The United Methodist Church “choose unity” by focusing on our common mission to make disciples rather than on what divides us?
Lord, when we experience tragic conflicts of life with life and our hearts cry out to you, “Don’t make us choose!” inspire us to choose life and love by acting prayerfully and humbly together.