Molly Kilete, Abuja
The sight of Pope Francis walking through Rome’s empty streets praying for an end to the coronavirus pandemic in March was a sign about the precarious state of the world. Seeing the Pope addressing an empty basilica on Easter Sunday underscored the devastation wrought by the novel coronavirus on religion, and especially the Church.
For the clergy, the lockdown is a new, shocking reality. Suddenly, they found themselves without their large congregation on Sunday, like a shepherd without his herd, and therefore unable to discharge their apostolic duties including attending to the spiritual needs of their congregation. What was worse, critics blamed clergymen for various reasons, accusing them of failing to forsee the plague before it happened and while castigating a few who reminded their congregations to remain steadfast in paying their tithes.
Some clergymen shared with Saturday Sun their experiences in this trying period. Their perspectives encompassed the role they are playing in their congregations and the lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pastor Muyiwa Adebayo (Pastor-in-charge, RCCG Recharge Centre Zone, Abuja)
For Pastor Adebayo, the lockdown has been an unusual, difficult experience. “Because we are used to meeting people, counseling, praying and teaching, it hasn’t been easy not going to church and fellowshipping with the brethren,” he said.
Responsibilities of pastors, he averred, now include helping the congregation to cope with the new drastic development. “We have to encourage people that they would not die, that they would live because the blood of Jesus will speak for them. Because it has been like this before in the Bible and they survived and we are going to survive also. I will make reference to 2 Samuel Chapter 24,where David had to count his people and God took offense and instead of God dealing with David and his family even as David wanted, God decided to deal with the whole nation. The whole nation was one million three hundred people but at the end of the pestilence, seventy people had died. It’s not meant to kill everyone, those that their time hasn’t come will still live and they will live to declare the glory of God according to Psalm 118 verse 17.”
Additionally, pastors found themselves becoming a source of hope for their church members. “I have a lot of people calling me to help them with food. Many don’t even bother to ask how I am faring, but they want to get from me, not asking if I actually have. They want something, they want money, they want food, they want everything, not minding if I have myself. And because of my office, I don’t have a choice, I have to share what I have with them, I believe they are in more desperate situation than I am. So whether the door of the church is open or not, I still do my pastoral work: sending messages, encouraging people and letting them know that this time will pass and better time will come and they will be alive to share the time; we speak words of encouragement to kill fear and to prevent boredom as much as we can. We try to do that on social media and we call them, using our airtime for all these. I also give out to my people. At least I have done that to over 20 people and there is the possibility of doing more if there is an extension of the lockdown.”
According to him, the COVID-19 pandemic and the inevitable lockdown it forces on the world holds some lessons for the world.
“One, it shows that God is truly in charge. Anybody that does not believe in God now should believe in God. God coordinates the whole world. COVID-19 is not a Nigerian problem; it is a global problem. It means that there is somebody in charge of the world that is supervising things. Somebody is at work looking at things, especially when there is no cure. It is the same person we should look up to so that we can get cured. That is what the Bible says, that we should look up to Jesus as the Israelites did in the wilderness when they looked up to the serpent and they were able to get their healing. So we should look up to Christ and get our healing.
“Two, it shows that after the Rapture, an incident of this kind will happen. We need to prepare and be enraptured, to avoid living after then, because what is worse than this will happen after the Rapture has taken place and those left behind have to face the antichrist, according to the Bible. The Antichrist has not come yet; what is happening now is the preparation for the coming of the Antichrist.”
Ven. Emmanuel Eguakhide, Vicar, St. John’s Anglican Church, Lugbe, Abuja
According to Ven. Eguakhide, that the country has been locked down by government to curb the spread of the coronavirus does not mean his spirit has been locked down. “I still have a very vibrant relationship with the Lord, which is the most important thing,” he said.
He added: “It is expected of ministers not to let their spirits to be knocked down. By showing some measure of vibrancy, by being active in everything they do, they should be an example to members who may be feeling downcast. I have tried to be that to my church members especially when they want to be despondent. I make them realize that despite the situation, we have to be happy because our spirits are not locked down. We can still commune with the Almighty God; even in the deepest places of the earth, God is there, that is what Psalm 139 tells us.”
He pointed out the consequence of the lockdown n for the church: The aura of meeting and preaching to people, ministering to a large congregation is no longer there. “For example, on Palm Sunday, all that I did was to bring palm fronds to the entrance of the church, blessed it and asked members to take part of it for their personal use. As it is now, that spirit of fellowship in terms of cooperate fellowship is missing––and everyone is missing it. However, the spirit of personal fellowship should become stronger at a time like this.”
On how he keeps in touch with his congregation: “We connect through social media. We have the church’s WhatsApp group chat where I drop prayers and members respond. Once in a while I put words of encouragement and members respond. I do that also on Instagram, Facebook and other veritable media by which we network. But we are missing the physical, cooperate fellowship. It is not easy, but I believe that God will see us through.”
This perilous time has further accentuated his leadership in the church: “I have got myself to a position whereby whatever my member complain about, I see myself to be in the position to be the answer and the solution to them. For example, those who don’t have food, if they come to the vicarage, whatever I have, I share with them, even before the directive from the bishop, I have already started doing that, ensuring that those who come asking for food get food. In as much as I am doing that, nobody asked me about my own welfare; nobody is asking me, pastor how are you feeling, do you have anything to eat?”
Blaming pastors is uncalled for and unnecessary, he said.
“I believe God allowed the pandemic so that people can understand His sovereignty, his control over the affairs of men. The virus is not a permanent thing; it will go and after it has gone, what will be the fate of those who blaming ministers? This is not a period for us to blame anybody. It is a period for us to be re-align ourselves with our maker to see how we can improve our relationship with God, whether the virus affects us or not, before we go to meet our maker.”
His advice to members: “They must keep hope alive. COVID-19 is not the end of the world. It is a thing that must come and go. And in the phase of all that is happening, members must not allow their spirits to be dampened. Members must not allow themselves to go into depression (there is no need for that at all) but instead see this period as a period for which God wanted them to do what they need to do which they have not been doing before and by the time the phase is over, we will all have every reason to give God the glory.
While there are lots of lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic, the biggest lesson for him as a minister is the imperative of being prepared – to live his life ready for the coming of the Lord.
He articulated: “I must not wait until the emergency come before I begin to run up and down. I must prepare ahead of time for emergencies as far as I am concern. That is one major lesson it has taught me. The coming of the master is going to take people by surprise just the same way the COVID-19 lockdown took so many people unaware, for example, in terms of stocking their houses with foodstuff, and having cash at their disposal.”
Rev. Jonathan Bello, Vicar St Peters Anglican Church, Kurudu
There is one reason Rev Bello is comfortable with comfortable lockdown: “I can no longer relate with my church members as I used to before like preaching the message to them. They come around, we go to them and that way we get to know what they are passing through. As it is now, nobody is coming around, everybody is a suspect, and nobody is coming closer anymore. The fellowship is no longer there. So it is a very serious challenge and a burden to me as a pastor and I am not finding it easy at all. That’s why we are trusting God that God should take away this challenge from us.”
He spoke on the challenge before pastors. “One of the most difficult challenges our people are going through now is that there are some families who do not have anything to eat. And there is no way you will be happy as a leader to see your people suffering and you cannot meet their needs.”
This need of the church takes its toll on church leaders. “One thing people fail to understand is that it is a human being that occupies the leadership position of the church in the name of a pastor. People believe that their problems are solved as soon as they go to him for prayers, which is not bad. However, in this period, the demand on men of especially, especially, in the area of finance has not been easy as they are not being able to meet with the demands from their church members. For instance, yesterday, a member came to my house crying that he has no food and I shed tears seeing a man like me crying. I went into the store and brought out what I had and shared with him. Another came for financial help and I gave him the little that I could because I could not provide what he was asking for. I gave him some food.”
As much as he is trying, Rev Bello is aware that there is no way he is gong to meet all the demands of every members of his congregation.
“Even if we cannot meet their financial and material needs, the prayers and the words of encouragement that we speak to them go a long way to comfort their troubled souls. Where we cannot meet all their needs, we believe God can raise people that will meet such needs,” he said.
He stated specifically the lockdown has put additional pressure on pastors. “There are some who earn their living on a daily basis, people who only get money when they go out. The pressure on us is mostly from this category of people who can no longer go out to work for their daily bread and therefore, needing one form of assistance or the other.”
He pointed out an inherent lesson in the novel coronavirus conundrum: “God is God. No one can compare with God. ”
He said: “This COVID-19 doesn’t have respect for anyone. Everybody is looking unto God. Everybody is trying to be very careful. And people indeed have learned to be careful because moving anyhow as such can put you in trouble because you can contract the virus without knowing. Everybody is being careful. Personally, it makes me to be more serious and to be seeking the face of God.”