In the 53 years between John Mark Carpenter’s first and most recent trips to Liberia, its capital city of Monrovia exploded in size. With people closer together, controlling the spread of the Ebola virus becomes that much more difficult.
“When we first knew it back in 1961, there was about 100,000 people there,” said Carpenter, who began his work as an evangelist. “Now there’s 1,700,000 people there, so it’s extremely crowded, and that’s what makes it so hard to contain any virus like the Ebola virus.”
The 84-year-old Gainesville man, who now teaches Sunday school and is a member of First Baptist Church, made his most recent trip with his family in April during the first notifications about the disease.
“They had already, at different places, started putting out hand sanitizer,” his wife Betty Carpenter said.
Spending 26 total years in the country, John Carpenter planted churches and did pastor training in Monrovia, while his wife Betty worked in a publishing house.
“We were there during many of the ups and downs,” he said. “We were there when the civil war broke out, New Year’s Eve of 1989. We lived through the first part of the civil war and had to be evacuated.”
The Ebola virus, coming to the American consciousness largely through the patients transferred to Emory Hospital in August, is spread through bodily fluids. When returning stateside this year, Carpenter experienced some of the fear for contamination.
“Even when we were there this year coming back in April, there was no screening at the airport in Liberia. But when we got to Ghana ... one of the staff of the plane came back to me and told me that I was going to have to leave the flight,” John Carpenter said.
The staff member said it was because he was believed to have a fever, which Carpenter contended he did not have. His daughter, a nurse, confirmed his health.
With closer quarters, the spread of the disease is more likely, John Carpenter said, coupling with the affectionate Liberian culture.
“They like to touch. They like to hug. They’re a very intimate people,” John Carpenter said.
The Carpenters’ first trip spanned from 1961 to 1976, with the couple returning to the United States when Betty Carpenter was diagnosed with cancer.
“I thought I had said goodbye to Africa,” she said.
But after treatment, the Carpenters knew they wanted to go back, spending 1983-1993 in Monrovia. John Carpenter spent eight of those years serving as president of the Baptist Theological Seminary.
As the population has grown since their first trip, isolation and quarantine are difficult to execute.
“It’s just a hard thing to evaluate, hard thing to make any sense out of, because it’s almost impossible to confine themselves the way they have to be to not communicate the disease to other people,” he said.
A young man working for the Ministry of Health once was a student of the seminary during Carpenter’s presidency. The young man attempted to transport an infected woman with his car to a medical facility. During the drive, she vomited, leading to exposure and the man’s death, John Carpenter said.
“You wait every day to see if someone you’ve grown really close to is ill,” Betty Carpenter said.
For families that become infected, resisting touch goes against basic human nature, Betty Carpenter said.
“If you have a sick child, how are you not going to touch your child?” she asked.
After his most recent trip, John Carpenter said a pastor has continued to hold the usual church services, but shaking hands has been eliminated for fear of the virus’ spread.
“At least some people are trying to be mindful of the way things are done and how the disease is communicated, but it runs against everything they’ve always believed and practiced,” John Carpenter said.
With the Second Liberian Civil War ending 11 years ago, the country is still reeling from the destruction.
“The thing that has broken our heart is those poor people have gone through 14 years of civil war. ... People would just lose everything,” Betty Carpenter said.
After hearing a gunshot, John Carpenter left his meeting to head over to his wife. The streets were crowded with people flooding in both directions. Bus passengers screamed to not let the bus stop.
“If they stopped, they would have been overrun,” Betty Carpenter said.
John Carpenter recalled a woman who was patting the seat of the bus, thanking the bus as a godsend.
“I think she thought that bus was her salvation,” he said.
As the situation escalated in Liberia, the Carpenters were evacuated to Ghana, spending eight months in the nearby West African country. John Carpenter worked as a principal for a pastors’ training school, before the family was “unceremoniously” removed due to unprocessed government documents, he said.
Every week the Carpenters receive two to three calls from Liberia, which has kept the Gainesville couple abreast of the situation 5,000 miles away.
Married for 65 years, the Carpenters first met in 1947 at Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland. The couple now has five children, 16 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. After entering retirement, John and Betty Carpenter stayed close to the church, with John teaching Sunday school and Betty working with the citizenship program at First Baptist Church.
“I think we panic for no reason, people who were expressing their fear when they brought the first Ebola patient to Emory Hospital,” he said. “As long as we are not in physical contact with a person who is infected, we don’t have anything to worry about.”