With the lockdown renewed for another two weeks, and the growing need for basic essentials, the churches now have good opportunity to exhibit charitable works and provide the vital essentials that people in their immediate communities need. In this interview, former National President of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria Youth Wing (PFN Youth Wing) and tele-evangelist, Dr. Abel Damina, who leads one of the biggest church congregations in Akwa Ibom State, bares his mind on how the church can rise to the occasion, to touch lives with charity.
How did you feel when you first heard of the Coronavirus outbreak in Nigeria?
Well, when I first heard of the outbreak of the Coronavirus, not just in Nigeria but in China, I felt compassion, I felt like the devil was out to kill, steal and destroy in line with his primary role as the Bible tells us. My heart went out to the families being devastated, lives lost and people being tormented with pain and who are in respiratory agony. When it got into Nigeria, I was worried, simply for the fact that a lot of people were not prepared mentally and physically informed on what to do. So, my concern was how the government was going to get information out to help people to be prepared for what was coming.
And then suddenly churches were shut down; everything shut down. How did this get to you?
When the churches were shut down, for me, it was a welcome development because I see that as preservation. It was not persecution. The government is not persecuting the churches. The reason for the shutdown is obvious. There is a pandemic, not just in Nigeria. People are dying, lives are being threatened, people are being afflicted and that is because of its contagious nature. So, the natural thing to do, as it has always been with all pandemics, is for everybody to be able to shut down so that the virus can be contained. So, for me, it was a welcome development and I expect that everybody should be able to comply and see that as a preservative measure, not persecution.
Ironically, many churches are not seeing it from this perspective and I guess that is why some churches are still opening their doors for members for normal physical worship, despite the ban on public worship. Do you think this is ideal under normal circumstance?
No, it is not. I think they think it is persecution. It is a wrong mindset. The Bible says if eating meat will offend my brother, I will not eat the meat, so that my brother will not be offended. There are many who believe that because they have Christ, the virus will not affect them. But there are people who don’t have the same belief with them. So, it is natural for the government whose responsibility is the protection of the citizenry, to take measures to protect the citizenry. So, those churches, I think it is because they are not properly informed, or they are becoming fanatical, otherwise, even in the Bible, when Jesus was born and his life threatened, the angel of the Lord appeared to Mary and Joseph and asked them to take Jesus to Egypt until things were better. If that could be done to Jesus to preserve his life, there is nothing wrong with the decision that the government has made, for churches to temporarily shut down. By the way, the church is not really shut down. The church is not the building. The church is bigger than the building. Human beings are the church. The Bible tells us that God does not dwell in buildings made with hands. Human beings are the church; we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. So, the church is not shut down. As long as people are in their homes and they can still pray to God, they can listen to teachings via CDs, on social media, they can watch the television and hear the word of God (for example we are on WAP TV every Thursday to Saturday), they have their bibles in their houses, the church is marching forward and it is not out of place for the government to ask everybody to calm down a bit, let’s contain the virus and then life can be back to normal.
A few church leaders are making donations to the government to support the fight against COVID-19. At your own end, what are you doing?
What we are doing is first of all, taking responsibility for the people in our immediate constituency. The first thing we are doing is to look inwards. In our own local assembly, we have people who don’t have money, who don’t have food and who didn’t prepare for this situation. So, the first thing we did was to find out within our congregation, who don’t know what to do to keep their families going during this period. So, we organised foodstuff for everybody within our local assembly and made sure that people have food to eat throughout this period of the lockdown. We have created various distribution centres within our city. Members who run out of their own foodstuff at any time can always go and get food until this lockdown is over.
How are you doing this and what results have you achieved?
We have our city broken down into districts and in every district, we have a pastor and we have zonal welfare leaders; all needed foodstuff are with the zonal district leaders. So, when people need food, they go to their district pastors who will get the food for them from the zonal welfare leader and it is very effective; everybody is able to get food at any time and their needs are being catered for.
But markets have been shut down in Uyo. How is this affecting the free food programme, considering the size of your church?
We bought enough foodstuff before the markets were shut down. We have enough to go round while the lockdown lasts.
Would you say that COVID-19 is a form of punishment from God to the human race?
A lot of people are propagating that COVID-19 is a punishment from God. What kind of God will want to punish his people with pain, disease and torments? What kind of God is that? My Bible tells me that God is a good God. All good and perfect gifts come from God. The Bible tells us that God is light and in him, there is no darkness at all. The Bible tells us that God is a father. And a father’s responsibility is to protect his children from pain, harm and destruction. When I look through the pages of the Bible, I see God revealed in Jesus. Whatever Jesus never does, God never does. Jesus is the perfect revelation of God. Jesus is the express image of God. Jesus went about doing good, healing those that were oppressed by the devil. Jesus never inflicted anybody with pain. In fact, when there was a storm in the sea and they were about to perish, Jesus stood up and rebuked the storm and stopped the rage. Jesus himself said I can do nothing of myself; what I see the father do, that is what I do. So, it is obvious that God is not behind COVID-19. The only part God plays is to bring healing, mercy, intervention and to make science come up with a breakthrough on the cure. The Bible tells us that God so loved the world, not the church. God loves the whole world. The Bible tells us that God is not holding the world accountable for sin because he has punished the sin of the world on his Son, Jesus Christ, on the cross. God’s part in COVID-19 is to intervene, to bring solution, cure and healing for those that are afflicted and preserve humanity.
What lessons are there for us to learn from the COVID-19 experience around the world?
There are many lessons to learn. First of all, suddenly governments are on lockdown. Businesses are shutdown, the busiest human beings are all in their houses; some of them are being quarantined. Some of them that caught the virus are in isolation. So suddenly, all the things that looked very important before now are no more important. Everybody has shut down and everybody now has only two important things in life – relationship with God and relationship with your family. Those are the lessons to learn. Once COVID-19 is over, in the post-Coronavirus world, people will learn to really prioritize, to know what is really important in life, to know the things that really matter, to know the things that you cannot really do without. The Bible says a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of things he possesses and when we are able to re-prioritze, it helps us to pay more attention to those things that are more valuable, the things that really matter when the chips are down. Those are part of the reasons to learn from this pandemic.