■ Mosques, Muslims not spared
By ENYERIBE EJIOGU, CHRISTY ANYANWU, OMONIYI SALAUDEEN, KUNLE OLAFIOYE, BOLATITO ADEBAYO and FAVOUR ONWUKA
THE tough Nigerian economy is taking a toll on both Christians and Muslims and by extension, putting a hard squeeze on attendance to religious programmes, payment of tithes and offerings.
Clerics who spoke with Sunday Sun reporters bemoaned the hard times. Rev. Michael Onwuka, of The Worshippers Assembly Int’l. said, “The economic recession is really biting so much, it has affected everything. The rich are not left out, but we trust in God that things would be alright. The government may have a good plan but they lack the right approach to issues. Things should be taken step-by-step and one-by-one but they are muddling things up. Government should retrace its steps in certain things because change cannot just come overnight.
“These days people are no longer religious as they are busy looking for what to eat and how to train their children. It has affected church activities much. People no longer attend midweek services and Bible studies as before. People are struggling so much for survival. Saying that the recession has affected the church is stating the obvious. Is the church not in Nigeria? Who are the worshippers? Are they not traders, workers and artisans in the society? The recession is affecting Tunde, Emeka, Okon, Yakubu and even Yebowei. An adage in my place says: “odiri nja nma odiri onye bu ya” (when it is good for the pot it is good for the person that carries it). The members are the church and whatever affects their finances, affects the church.
“The church is a place that people come to worship and praise God joyfully but people are not happy because there is no bread to put on the table for the children at home. This is a time of prayer but people are feeling that God is no longer answering their prayers. Tithes and offerings have dropped. Attendance has also dropped. People complain that they cannot afford money for transportation to church. Some families no longer bring their children to church; some will even rotate the attendance to church. There are lots of excuses. A sister was asked why she was not in the church and she replied that she did not have money for offering.
He spoke further: “The children of God should not lose hope in God because during biblical times, there was famine in the land but Joseph had an uncommon wisdom that the famine did not reach Egypt. So people should pray that God gives them uncommon wisdom to survive. We should also map out a good strategy to survive. Our money has failed us, the government has failed us and the oil has failed us. The previous administrations in Nigeria refused to diversify the economy. Instead, they focused only on oil and now oil price has crashed. It is only the masses that are badly hit, but the crash hasn’t affected the leaders.
“In the Book of Psalms David said, ‘I will look unto the hills from where comes my help. My help comes from the Lord who makes heavens.’ We are living in God’s uncommon grace for the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. There is hope in a hopeless situation.”
A church accountant, Makinde Ojo told Sunday Sun: “The offering these days is nothing to write home about. The offering bowl is filled with N10 and N20. I’m talking about the adult section of the church, not the children’s section. The next highest denomination is N100. Seeing N1,000 in the offering bowl these days is just by the grace of God. I guess the majority who used to give N1,000 and above as offering have resorted to giving N500. Talking about tithing, the number of tithers has drastically reduced these days. Some members are complaining of irregular payment of salaries and stuff like that.”
A female member of a pentecostal church, who gave only her first name, Helen, revealed that she has not been regular in church because of offering money. She said: “In the past, we usually put our offerings in an envelope and the offering bowl was passed from pew to pew. But these days, our pastor now wants members to dance to the altar. The use of envelope has been barred in the service. You just drop your money into the bowl placed on the altar. That means you have to leave your seat and dance to the altar. It is embarrassing if you don’t have money with you and all eyes will be on you while others are dancing to the altar. One Sunday I had just N200, which I needed to pay my fare to work the following day.”
Agreeing with her, a church worker, Leticia, said the recession which has affected the church has also put her in dire straits: “As a church worker in this ministry, I have not been paid for two months, which is really unusual. I’m not the only one affected but every one of us.”
Early this year, Abosede, a female member of a pentecostal church made a resolution that her Sunday offering would be N1000, but she has been unable to keep the resolution on account of the dwindling state of her finances. Hear her: “I have seen myself defaulting on this promise. These days, I give N500. One of the Sundays I gave N200. It’s so sad. I feel bad about it but when I check my pocket at times and don’t find money and going to ATM machines could be frustrating on Sunday morning, I simply stay at home.”
Nneka Louis, a fashion designer and member of Winners Chapel said that ever since the APC took over government, life has been tough and affected her church attendance: “I don’t go to church as regularly like I used to do. My church is at Ota and going from my place at Satellite Town to Ota is quite far. Although we have buses around but even that token that we pay as fare, I don’t have it. So what I do sometimes is to go to a nearby church around me that will not cost me anything and I use the little change as offering.”
Another businesswoman, Favour Chukwuedo added: “In the recent past, my offering was about N200 or N300 but now because things are a little difficult, I have decided to cut down my offering. I now give N100 or even less; it is not easy and I know that God understands my present condition, when things change for better, I will increase my offering.”
Also hear Joseph Giwa, a driver: “ Things are really difficult now and as a Christian, I have stopped paying tithe since everything changed. I still give offering and my offerings haven’t changed, but that tithe I can’t pay it because it will solve other domestic problems I have. These days, I don’t get enough tips as I used to, so the tithe will have to wait till things change for better.”
Until two months ago, Mrs. Helen Tanimowo and her three children were regular faces at Cherubim and Seraphim Church, Oke Iyanu Parish, Sango Otta, Ogun State. The family’s membership of the church dates back to 2006 when it moved to the area. However, despite relocating to Alagbado, a suburb of Lagos four years ago, Helen and her children had resisted the temptation of changing to one of the churches around her until the month of April when she finally succumbed to the temptation. Her decision was influenced by the prevailing economic situation in the country.
Helen informed Sunday Sun that before now, she spent nothing less than N1, 700 per week to attend two services alongside her children. “But of late, I discovered that I can no longer sustain the expenses because of the situation of things in the country. So, we have chosen to worship at a nearby church, at least for now.”
Asked if her former church was aware of the decision, she said, “I informed the pastor and I think he reasoned with me even though he is not in total support of my decision. And as a way of showing concern, he had indirectly supported us by giving my children money on two different occasions when we attended the church recently.”
Aside the offerings, the pastors too are not finding it funny. The church members on a good day take care of the pastorate by supplying foodstuff, provisions, bottled water, etc, to their homes. But the reverse has been the case in recent times. The money for such upkeep is obtained from the monthly contributions of the women arm of the church. These days the women hardly contribute money to the common purse for upkeep of the pastorate, resulting in the pastorate suffering.
“Many children of God are now rationing their resources whenever they are called upon to fulfill their financial obligations in the church, lamented Prophet Timothy Olanrewaju of Christ Evangelical Mission, Alagbado, Lagos. “But personally, I believe this is a satanic device. The devil is capitalizing on the economic situation to rob people of their blessings. A sower is always a reaper. But when people refuse to plant, there is no way they can reap. I will urge children of God not to give in to such satanic manipulation,” he said.
Just as the Christian faithful are affected by the recession, Muslims have not been spared from the vagaries of the present time. Chief Imam of Ansar-ud-Deen Society of Nigeria, Sheikh Abdur Rahman Olanrewaju Ahmad, told Sunday Sun that the recession has proved to be a trying time for religious organizations.
His words: “I can tell you without any fear of contradiction that the economic crunch is putting a lot of pressure on religious organizations. Aside the fact that more and more members are now devoting more time to religious observance, there is also a phenomenal increase in the number of people to be taken care of not only spiritually but also financially. A good number of people who used to be gainfully employed are now out of jobs. There are now more widows, more orphans, more destitutes, more sick people and those who are outrightly hungry. All of these in the face of dwindling income from charity, I can tell you, this is a very trying time for religious organizations that are service-oriented not religious organizations that milk the congregation. The number of people who make regular contributions has decimated significantly and the responsibility of taking care of the underprivileged has quadrupled. In fact, they have multiplied many times over.
“So, we feel the pressure more because that is the last hope of the disadvantaged. There is no way we can reject them, there is no way we can send them back. And it is not enough just to preach to them to have faith.”
Similarly , Imam Abdul Hamid Alli noted that while attendance of regular daily prayers and the weekly Jumat service in mosques have not dropped because the prayers must be observed compulsorily, offering of sadaqah (voluntary alms) has dwindled, while some no longer contribute regularly to funds for mosque maintenance.
“What we do is to pray and encourage the congregation. All of us face the same predicament of economic recession, we can only manage and pray to Allah for the return of good times,” Alli said.
Hassan Salaudeen, a trader, told Sunday Sun that the effects of the economic crisis were felt by many Muslim families during the recent Ramadan fast. He noted that the usual exchange of food items among families reduced.
According to him, many parents could also not afford to buy new clothes for themselves and children to wear to the Eid praying ground.
Imam Alli, however, admonished Muslims not to lose faith in Allah. He said hunger, dwindling resources and even unexpected loss of close relations were among experience that Allah had forewarned the Islamic faithful about as tests of their faith. Quoting Quran 94:6, the Imam said, “Verily, with hardship, there is relief,” adding that Prophet Muhammad also admonished Muslims to be mindful of Allah; and know that victory comes with patience, relief with affliction, and ease with hardship.”
In the face of the difficult economic times, some Pentecostal preachers also hold the view that the prevailing situation provides great opportunity for individuals that would rise up and seize the moment. In the opinion of Rev. Dr Barth Owoh of El-Shaddai Pentecostal Ministry Int’l Inc. the present recession while not being exactly a new experience as it was even seen in biblical times and was so grievous that people ate everything including cockroaches, lizards, rats and just about anything else. He further explained that when there was nothing else to eat women entered into agreement to eat their children, he expressed the belief that the Nigerian situation would not reach that level.
He offered this advice: “Economic recession is an opportunity for people to create wealth and become great. It is a time of divine lifting as the Bible said, ‘When people say there is a casting down, you shall say there is a lifting up.’ It is in a time like this that Isaac sowed in the land of Gerar and reaped a bountiful harvest. Christians should do all they can to maximize this opportunity. This is not a time to be talking idly about what is happening in the society. It is a time to initiate a Plan B to create another source of income and livelihood. Even at this time people are still buying cars and building houses. We only need to discover the door that this opportunity is offering us. Many times opportunity comes through adversity.
“The truth is that the economic recession has affected the church so much. People no longer come to church regularly as they complain of lack of transport money to come to church. Giving of tithes and offerings in the church has also dropped. In fact, I will say that the religious bodies are the worst hit. The church encourages worshippers not to lose hope but to trust in God. The bible in Psalm 121 encourages us to look up to God where our help comes from. The churches should preach more on people having faith in God and discovering new means of survival. This is the time for people to believe in themselves and adopt the slogan, ‘I can do it’ and explore new opportunities. Like in my church, we empower our members by sponsoring skills acquisition programmes. We should believe in God, we should believe in our country. People should stop talking evil about our country. We are killing this country with our tongue because there is power in the spoken word. We should have a positive attitude and the change we are talking about should start with us.”
Speaking in the same vein, Prophet Timothy Olanrewaju of Christ Evangelical Mission, Alagbado, Lagos, encouraged people to move closer to God, assuring that the Almighty is a faithful provider. He asserted that Christ as the head of the church would never leave His people comfortless.
He explains: “As Christians, we have preponderance of promises by God which give assurance that God remains a faithful provider. Any Christian who has this understanding must act it and get inspiration from these covenants. However, Christians who fail to cling to these covenants are bound to feel the pinch of the current hardship.
“One major observation I have made is that I have had cause to counsel more people on the need to move closer to God because I have noticed that the economic situation is now taking its toll on some people, who appear to have no immediate answers to the problem. Some of them seem to get frustrated to the extent of venting anger on people around them. But as a leader, this is the time we need to enjoin our members to be closer to God.
Prophet Olanrewaju said that the church has a mechanism for ameliorating the sufferings of its members. “We have our welfare unit in place for people who may need one help or the other. And recently, we spoke to our members who are mobile to assist brethren around them when coming to church and when returning home because we felt that might be one of the factors behind the inability of some members to attend services regularly even though nobody has given such excuse whenever they fail to turn up for services.”
For people who are dropping off from regular church attendance because of the recession, Pastor Michael Alo of Pure Fountain Assembly has this word of encouragement: “There is a vacuum in the heart of every human being, which only God can fill. So you cannot take out the place of God in the economy.”
Another cleric, Pastor Samuel Effiong agreed with Olanrewaju that the recession is the right time to come closer to God, stressing, “People shouldn’t come to God only when they have money, the church isn’t about offerings alone. The church is about teaching the word and preparing people for rapture and so you shouldn’t get discouraged because you don’t have money. When some people say they are not going to church because there is no money, that is not right. In my church, for instance, we have some regular members who are not so regular again and we have some great givers who have withdrawn. But we are praying that things will change for better and Nigeria will be great again.”
That is a hope shared by Pastor Yinka Sobande of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, who told Sunday Sun: “We have been praying for our church members and for Nigeria as a whole, that things will change for the better. Aside from praying, we still tell our members to have more streams of income, not just one so that their standards of living can improve.