Pandemic Fears, Realistic Response

Ebola. The word alone in a news headline is enough to make me want to click and read more.


And the media certainly know how to play off my fears. All they have to do is insert the word crisis and they know they’ve got me.


I live in suburban Ohio, between Cleveland and Akron—very close to the area where Dallas nurse Amber Vinson visited last weekend before she was diagnosed with Ebola. A few area schools have been closed and cleaned “out of an abundance of caution”; a bridal store she visited has been closed; and Vinson’s friends and family who had direct contact with her are being quarantined for 21 days (including three who work on the same college campus as my spouse). My husband got a notice about it at work, my younger daughter’s daycare sent home a notice, the pediatrician asked about possible exposure when I called to make an appointment, there’s a countywide Ebola hotline, the list goes on.

It feels to me like level of panic in this area is at an all-time high.

I don’t want to bury my head in the sand here and skip the news altogether, but I also need to be realistic: it’s more likely at this point that I’m going to die from a car accident or the flu than Ebola. There is a very real Ebola outbreak, but right now it’s in West Africa.

How do I manage my own personal fears while also working to help solve the problem? This was my quandary late last week when I remembered a series of resources MennoMedia developed a few years ago about pandemic preparedness.

Back in 2009, medical authorities were warning that the world was due to suffer a flu virus on a global scale, equal to or greater than the international pandemic of 1918. They warned that, despite our advanced medical technology, thousands of people would die and many more would become sick. People would fear for their health. Naturally, people would want to protect themselves.

So we at MennoMedia considered: How would the church respond to a pandemic? Do we have a plan? Will we retreat in fear, or are we ready to be God’s light in the midst of suffering?

We developed a series of pandemic preparedness resources. It has three parts:

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The Beyond Our Fears guide is designed to be part of a congregational study series, but it can also be a personal resource for inspiration and learning.

This series was written not to raise our fears, but to do the exact opposite: to prepare the church to shine as God’s light in the midst of such crises, to respond to our call to be people of healing and hope. Even if these crises never occur, the resources (especially the ones for adults) will help us think through our mission as Christians and how God calls us to join the work of healing and hope in our families, neighborhoods, and world.

Most of us would rather not think about worst-case scenarios such as Ebola in Ohio (or anywhere else, for that matter), a new flu pandemic, or devastating hurricanes or tornadoes. But governments and municipalities are creating plans to be prepared for each of these crises. So shouldn’t we, as ordinary people of faith, be spiritually prepared? Why not know before the crisis what kinds of actions and attitudes are most consistent with our faith? Why not think together about how is God calling us to be good stewards of the future? Let’s face it: crisis has always been a fact of human existence on this planet, and it can hit without warning.

Because these pandemic preparedness resources are perfect for such a time as this, MennoMedia is offering 20% off any of the three titles this week. Just use code BEYOND14 at checkout. I encourage you to take advantage of the sale and to consider these issues with your congregation.

Now to part 2: the matter of stopping and controlling Ebola in West Africa. There are so many inspiring stories of what’s being done in Africa. But, as experts warn us, more work needs to be done to contain and control this virus. Dollars are needed—quickly—to aid in this work. In the last week on the news or in my Facebook feed, I’ve heard of people giving to the following organizations. Click on the name of the organization to make your own contribution.

Manage your fears; make a donation. That’s my recipe for realism and action amidst worst-case scenario reporting.

How are you coping with fears of Ebola or other crises? If you have children, how are you talking about Ebola with your children? Has your congregation used any of these resources?

Amy Gingerich, editorial director

Amy Gingerich

Part 2: What people read first at Third Way Café

Part 2 (and check the end for a free book offer)

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In Friday’s post, we looked at what events in the news or nations propelled people to check out their questions about Mennonites or Amish at a website like Third Way Café. Today we’ll look at where they go first.


The top traffic pages are ALWAYS the “Who are the Mennonites?” section, so we want to help people get to those pages easier and faster, and to help them find useful information instead of bouncing off in two clicks. But, there are additional, notable, well-used pages. The top five pages/sections accessed in the last year (July 28, 2012, to July 28, 2013) include these:

Overall, we average about 39,000 page views a month and 18,000 unique visitors, with about 80 percent being first time visitors to the site (with the resulting bounce rate of some 80 percent—common to other sites as well). The number of new visitors each month has increased; we used to average about 65 to 75 percent new visitors. I’m going to attribute that to more casual interest driven by things like the reality TV shows on Amish. (Again, comment please if you can think of other reasons: increase in interest from Mennonite/Amish romance books, memoirs, Naked Anabaptist, big names like Brian McLaren, More with Less cooking, etc.?)


Third Way Café is also there helping the general populace sort out Mennonites, Moonies, Mormons, and Muslims. And yes, believe it or not, from previous studies (not online, in archives) the general public confuses all these different faith groups that they don’t much understand, that all happen to start with “M.” There is a great four-part ditty some creative folks came up with about common confusions:

Third Way Café also helps people sort out confusion between Mennonites, Amish, Conservative, Old Order, Old Order Mennonite, Hutterites, River Brethren, Swarztzentruber Amish and many more groups. (See various FAQs here.)

Both predecessor organizations of today’s MennoMedia agency have worked at these issues for a combined total of well over a century and a half: helping people understand Mennonites, Anabaptists, Amish and more. Undoubtedly crowd-sourced information (from bloggers and aggregators like Reddit etc.) will become more important for Third Way Café.

Here’s MennoMedia’s own video take helping people sort out their confusion:

Third Way Cafe website is ready for some updating and focusing (see earlier post on new directions) with better accessibility from mobile platforms (smart phones, tablets, etc.). Thirty-eight percent of our traffic comes from mobile, a number increasing every month.

Most of this interpretation of Mennonites used to come one letter, postcard or phone call at a time, and was answered by painstaking correspondence of the various agencies. Third Way Café grew out of the ministry of Mennonite Broadcasts, Inc., founded in the early 1950s which, through its over-the-air broadcast ministries, prompting inquiries from all over the U.S., Canada and the world about Mennonites and what they believed.  Even before Mennonite Publishing House and Mennonite Media/Third Way Media formally merged in 2011, Third Way Café was handling these types of electronic inquiries for Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Publishing House/Network. And yes, some of the questions are still answered personally—mostly by email, but occasionally by old fashioned snail mail and landline phone.


Angela and Erwin Rempel, volunteers,
respond to most personal inquiries to Third Way Cafe., a sister site to Third Way Café entirely in Spanish, also receives good views from all over the world, and especially Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, the United States, and Spain, in that order. The visitors bounce from 250-500 a month, also with observable spikes.

Third Way Café has attracted support from some small Mennonite-related foundations and individual donors; like Wikipedia and other classic but popular sites, it prefers not to host ads at present (but that could change).  MennoMedia seeks to keep Third Way Café sustainable for the long term. It attracts a few clicks to the MennoMedia store but hardly enough to pay any portion of a salary.

But there is much more than the sustainability of a website at stake here: the sustainability of reliable, vetted, quality information for the general public on Mennonites, Amish and Anabaptist. What is that worth to you? What is it worth to the denominations in an era when electronic and mobile forms of communication increasingly dominate? We believe the Mennonite churches want to maintain a strong electronic presence to help the increasingly wired inquirers who come our way!

Head on over to our Facebook page for Third Way Cafe, like it, and make a comment. (We’re pushing for 1,000!) I will personally send a free copy of Ask Third Way Cafe: 50 Common and Quirky Questions about Mennonites, (Jodi Nisly Hertzler, Cascadia, 2009) to one name drawn randomly. Tell us you read Mennobytes blog, or whatever comment you care to make about Third Way Cafe and I’ll put your name in the hat, so to speak. Deadline Wed. August 7 midnight ET.


Melodie Davis
Managing editor



Part 1: When there’s news about “Mennonites” that is not so good

Recently MennoMedia’s marketing director, Ben Penner noticed a huge spike of visitors on our Google Analytics for Third Way Café website on July 7. My mind immediately sorted back through what was in the news about Mennonites at that time? Um … something about Mennonites, Canada, Manitoba, assaults against children?

GoogleAnalyticsTWCJuly2013Screenshot of July stats,Third Way Cafe, with July 7 surge. Doubleclick for larger view.

Yes. A story about more charges in an assault case broke there July 4—and by July 7 (when folks in the U.S. were finally getting back to their computers from the long U.S. holiday weekend, I surmised) perhaps that was what drove the traffic at Third Way Café to its highest peak in six months: over 3,400 visitors in a single day. The previous huge surge was Nov. 12, 2012, which we attributed (almost without a doubt) to the final episode in the Breaking Amish reality TV show series.

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Poster from an earlier stereotype-busting print campaign by Mennonite churches.

Last fall we noted a weekly mini-spike as each episode aired on Sundays from Sept. 9 to Nov. 11. We saw similar mini-spikes each week for Amish Mafia. Is that good? Please share your thoughts and comments if you can attribute the traffic to other “Mennonite/Amish” news/events. We’re open to other interpretation/guesses!

I’ve been following these spikes for years and have reported on them formally and informally in news releases and in “look at this” e-mails to my co-workers. Instead of being happy, though, they make me sad because so many of the happenings that drive people to find out more about Mennonites are tragedies:

Lesser mini spikes occurred after things like

But the reality TV shows featuring Amish lead very often to regular surges every time an episode airs, which is disturbing, but maybe good in another kind of way. Sad that it took a reality TV show to propel people to seek more information, but good that a site like Third Way Café exists. Obviously there are hundreds of sites including all of the agency/institutional sites for our denominations (Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada) but the agenda for agency sites is more about helping the constituency understand, access and interpret agency resources and people, while Third Way Café is more about giving accessible information to the general public: in content, in language used (no Mennonite alphabet soup on the site, I hope), in issues addressed.


Next time we’ll look more in depth at what content most people access first when they do visit Third Way Café.

Check out the book, Ask Third Way Cafe: 50 Common and Quirky Questions about Mennonites, by Jodi Nisly Hertzler, published by Cascadia, 2009.


Melodie Davis
Managing editor