The Federal Government has given guidelines for Christian and Islamic congregational worship to resume. While some Christians see the guidelines as too strict and anti-church, others feel it is even too early to reopen the churches. In this interview, Chairman, Christian Association of Nigeria, Akwa Ibom State Chapter, Dr Ndueso Essien, explains the rationale for the strict guidelines and other issues.
The guidelines for the reopening of churches appear too strict. Some people have disagreed with CAN’s acceptance of the guidelines, arguing that places like markets reopened without so many restrictions.
You see, it is wrong for people to compare the church with the market. We all know that it is better to prevent a disease than to cure it. The pandemic came and affected our country which is part of the world and we have it in the state too. It is the mercy of God that the effect is not severe as it is in other parts of the country. The government in its wisdom decided to also put imposed safety measures. It is well known that the market place is open and has enough fresh air. People buy in haste and move away. But in the church we have air conditioners and fans in closed buildings and as you go out, you meet people you never met for some time. The next thing is shaking and hugging at a very close proximity and asking about the families. That fraternity happens in the church, but in the market it is all about business because the sellers won’t much time talking with you. Social distancing is already being observed there.
But in the church there is dancing and close contact. People will visit the pastor’s office and touch the table surface. As one person leaves, another comes in, placing the hands on the same table too and sitting on the same chair and all that.
The fact is that some people who clamoured for churches to open were not really doing so because of the spirituality of the church. Most of the people were more interested in the material benefits they derive. Most of the people now take pastoral work as a commercial venture. Everybody has a call today and that is why anything is happening in church. Murder and rape cases are happening in churches, because people think church is the easiest way to get money from the people. With the lockdown, they had financial challenge. When you clamour for the opening of the church are you really clamouring because the spirituality of the people is ebbing and you would want to prop it up? Or you are clamoring because there is nothing more to eat.
Some people believe that the CAN should not have accepted everything the government said. What is your view?
The way people talk, you would think the government coerced CAN to accept. That is an insult to CAN leadership. By the time people begin to die in churches, God forbid, when churches begin to be stigmatized and people now even shrink from churches, that’s when people will understand the severity of the pandemic. Once people begin to stay away from the church because of COVID-19 infection in the church, then the church will lose members greater than what it is now.
Consider that the church holds communion, probably one cup is used for all the people or you use those small vessels and you have 20 or 40 vessels and yet you have 200 communicants. By the time you exhaust those 40 vessels served to the first of communicants, the tendency is for the servers to rush back to the vestry and fill the small vessels from the jar and then serve the next 40 people with same vessels touched by other people. Do you know what the first person has deposited on the vessel? It is now recommended that immediately after the first 40, people have to wait; you must wash the small vessels before filling them with the communion wine for the next set of people. That is hygienic way because of the present time.
After this time, you will discover that lot of things will change. The practice of flipping hand kerchief and fanning each other will stop. That is some of the things we have recommended. The most difficult people to control are those people who call themselves Christians or pastors; so it’s not all that easy.
There’s also this angle that maybe if people were allowed to pray in the church, the pandemic would not have come to Akwa Ibom.
A lot of people have said so, but in South Korea, we heard that church was going on when one infected person joined in the worship service. Two weeks after the church service, about 41-43 choristers were infected because the church came to pray without observing the guidelines. So it was not that the church should not come together to pray, it was that the church should observe the necessary guidelines.
You see, when people say I have to exercise faith, this same people will build their houses and put powerful burglary proof with dogs outside. If the same people have faith, they should sleep outside or sleep in their houses and keep their doors open. The people need to gather but they must be careful to observe safety measures, because that is why God also gave us sense. A person will see a furnace and will even hold the daughter and say, ‘don’t go there.’ Why don’t you use faith and go into the fire. The pandemic is there, cover yourself with face masks, observe social distancing, wash your hands, sanitize and pray to God. Our people say, you pray, bale out water from a leaking boat.
Looking at Akwa Ibom State which is said to be 95 per cent Christian and against the background of the pandemic, what are your thoughts?
I would say that Akwa Ibom is 99.9 per cent Christian population because I don’t want to acknowledge the existence of any other person that will come and begin to destroy people and do any other dangerous thing. What I would say is that this pandemic is here for a lesson. Let us not completely see it as a negative thing. There are several positives that will come with it. It didn’t come to kill everybody and destroy everything. There is a lot people need to learn. In fact even worshiping God, staying at home, like somebody said it was also enough to see how much gospel you have had so that they can use the residual knowledge of God to live a life and lead their family members. It is not always that a pastor will talk to you. You should become a pastor in certain situations.
But if throughout the three months, you didn’t affect your family, you didn’t tell anybody the word of God, then you are of all men most miserable. Economically, people also learn as the state government here has set up economic recovery team. It means that people will also learn new ways of approaching the economy, political system and all that.
Therefore let nobody see COVID-19 as a completely satanic thing because God has His agenda and knows how to work in mysterious ways to achieve His purpose. I also want the people to please keep to the relevant guidelines and observe the restrictions in the interest of their families and other people. Take responsibility for your safety and that of other people. They should be patient about weddings and burials. Those things will be done. Government has said that as we move on, it won’t take too long depending on the atmosphere; they will relax the thing gradually if Jesus tarries. Churches should cooperate with CAN so that the church would not be embarrassed, because if by tomorrow, security agents move to churches and drag the pastors and lock them up, our people will begin to say the security operatives have embarrassed the church.