God and Social Distancing: Faith in the time of coronavirus.

LAGOS, Nigeria — It’s 8:45 am on Sunday at The Tribe Lagos. The Tribe Lagos is the Lagos arm of a Christian community focused on “renewing the Culture with the Gospel and expressing God’s heart to the world.” Usually, by this time, the venue for The Tribe Lagos’ Sunday service is dimly lit with orange-coloured bulbs that dictate the mood, replete with smiling faces, a wide range of colourful dresses — both corporate and native, young people in small clusters catching up on their friends, an usher at the door welcoming and directing people to their seats, and loud drumming. 

But today’s service is different. It will be held in a small office space, about 6km from their usual venue. The new venue will be lit up by 2 main LED lights anchored firmly on their stands. There will be no drums. Only microphones, guitars and the 10 people present in the room. Everybody in the room is essential – the three-man choir group practising a few songs possibly from their worship playlist, a technical team trying to ensure everything goes smoothly and the rest who shuffle between witness and support – looking at their phones intermittently to ensure the stream is fine. Just as the service is about to begin, one of the officials moves around with a  bottle of hand sanitizer. He squirts a quantity to each person present and then proceeds to use it on himself. 

“Your phones on silent everyone,” he orders, as he ensures that everyone has a seat and that the view captured from the two iPhones — both mounted on a tripod and designated to broadcast the service on Instagram and Youtube — are as they should be. 

It’s now 8:55 am. Diazno, who is one of the choristers present in the room, emphasizes the order and flow of the chosen worship playlist to the other members of the music team — a guitarist and another soloist — as they rehearse again. ‘You can have it all’ by Bethel Music, a song that acknowledges God’s supremacy and surrender to God is on the playlist. He cocks his head sideways, closes his eyes, and makes movements with his hands, as if playing an imaginary piano. It feels perfect. It is perfect. Then he stops them midway. They check in with the technology team to be sure that the sound is flawless, that the camera captures all of them in the frame. Everything has to be perfect. 

Open Browsers. Lights. Doors shut. Cameras. Final Check. Click. 

“We’re live now,” he adds, shuffling between his laptop screen, the Instagram app on his phone and a myriad of electric cords stretched across the room. 

“Good morning. It is so good to have you at church”. It is Ferdy Adimefe, the senior pastor of The Tribe. He looks around, as if to welcome everyone making up the congregation, and then begins to preach his sermon. 

This is Faith in the time of the coronavirus.

With 50% and 48.1% population identifying as Christian and Muslim respectively, a rapidly growing number of protestant churches, religiously motivated laws and religious dominance in law, and a myriad of church denominations all claiming their space, religion drives Nigeria. Religion and religious authority in Nigeria is the basis of socialization and mobilization; for electing political leaders, for legislating morality, for designing family life and work structure. It is projected that by 2060, Nigeria will be in the top 3 countries with the largest Christian and Muslim populations worldwide and the only country to top both lists. 

Religion is always in the room.

Social Distancing enforced

Two months ago, the Coronavirus was just a disease outbreak in Wuhan, a city in China. For Nigerians, the disease was never going to get to Nigeria. For other Nigerians like Adedotun Adeniyi, the country had in the past dealt with Ebola, and would deal with this problem the same way. “The rest of the world suffered, but we contained it. It is unfortunate that Dr Ameyo Adadevoh had to die, but the whole country was saved from Ebola” Adeniyi explained. 

This sentiment has changed. By the 11th of March, The World Health Organisation had labelled Coronavirus as a pandemic; at the time, the virus had invaded 114 countries and killed more than 10,000 people. The World Health Organisation also challenged other countries to prepare and escalate emergency measures to ensure that the spread of the virus is curtailed. At the time, there were only two confirmed cases in Nigeria. However, over the span of a week, the number of cases had quadrupled; 6 new cases had been confirmed, bringing the cumulative number of confirmed cases to 8.  In order to limit the spread, the Lagos State Government ordered schools to shut down and banned public gatherings of more than 50 people, particularly religious gatherings. 

“I thought it was a responsible thing for the Government to do,” Ferdy says about banning religious gatherings. “The state needs to do what is required, and the Church needs to do what is required”. He explains that there was no conflict at all in his heart, as a pastor, with what the government had directed and what the church needed to do — shutting down all offline services. As soon as the announcement was made, The Tribe immediately cancelled its Thursday service scheduled to hold that evening and subsequently, other services going forward. “We also knew that we needed to work alongside the government in providing resources that will educate the public without producing fear,” Ferdy adds. Asides announcing the change from offline to fully online services, The Tribe Lagos has put out an infographic on what faith should look like in the face of a pandemic. This infographic detailed guidelines for people of faith who want to remain faithful to God, and who understand the reality of living in the times of a pandemic — how to take necessary precautions in the wake of the pandemic while not giving into fear. And it wasn’t just churches like The Tribe Lagos. Mega Churches around Nigeria boasting of over 20,000 in attendance every Sunday; Daystar Christian Centre and House on the Rock also cancelled their services and moved fully online with banners on their website and social media platforms providing information on the virus and the movement to online platforms. The Catholic Church wasn’t left out. Archbishop Alfred Martins of the Archdiocese of Lagos made a statement on Saturday encouraging all Catholic faithfuls to partake in the holy day but in their various homes. 

And this was followed strictly.

At the entrance of many churches in Lagos, security men were positioned to redirect people who insisted on coming to service. 

“A particular woman I drove to church today was sent back by the security,” Ona, a driver for the ride-hailing company, Bolt says. Ona had driven a couple of people to church that morning, some of whom were sent back to their houses due to the directive.

Task Force officials on the back of a pick-up truck leaves the premises of Apostolic Church headquaters after enforcing government directive on social gatherings at Ojota in Lagos, on March 22, 2020. – Nigeria, the most populated country in Africa, on March 21, 2020 tightened restrictions in three states on places of worship, airports and bars to try and protect its population against the new COVID-19 coronavirus. In Lagos state, Abuja and Ogun, churches, mosques, social gatherings, football viewing centres and night clubs must restrict attendance to 50 people, according to new regulations drawn up by the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 coronavirus. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP) (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images)

Same Content, New System. Any Difference?

On Sunday, March 22, more Nigerians Christians worshipped online than ever before in the country. Churches recorded online views in thousands and tens of thousands. House of the Rock, Lagos led by Paul Adefarasin recorded about 30 thousand views on their Sunday service broadcast on Youtube and Facebook. The flow of the services, however, did not change from the way it had been. 

At The Tribe Lagos the number of choristers needed to sing were reduced to only the essentials needed for a good ministration, to get perfect harmony. Diazno, a chorister who ministers at the Christian community believes that there was nothing different about the nature of his ministration that morning. He said that the shift to the online audience this week didn’t feel any different to him. But for Ferdy, preaching to iPhones, with cords, and film lights was definitely new. “It felt different, but not necessarily in a bad way,” he says,  adding that the feeling would linger for the rest of the month. 

“But we need to do what we need to do; put the word out there and have people come back over and over again to listen to them”. 

For regular church attendee, Ifreke Inyang, the experience felt different. For him who had not missed a Sunday Service in the last five years, Inyang felt like he wanted to go to a live audience service but “there was nothing I could do about it,” he says.

Spiritual Health Care for the Vulnerable.

Religion in Nigeria often acts in dual ways. On one side, it functions as a tool of power, oppression and dominance; on another, it gives meaning, joy and happiness to the lives of many of its adherents. The 2018 National Depression Report by Happiness Company, ‘Joy, Inc.’ propounds this. The research revealed that people with greater religiosity, who attended services at least once a week, and who were committed to religious practices and rituals had fewer depressive symptoms. “The religiosity of our audience shows us that religious places of worship can be great partners as we aim to draw the attention of people to the need to pay more attention to their mental health and wellbeing,” the research states. Which brings forth a challenge — as religious communities shut down all form of physical communication – physical counselling to spiritual connectedness, a community of support, group prayers – and many members can no longer connect with the rituals of religion in the ways that they usually do, there might be consequences to their mental health, ranging from loneliness to anxiety but as it stands, we’ve never been in such a situation where faith is online. The risks are numerous. Worse, the ban on public gatherings might extend for over a month, depending on how well, and how fast the government is able to contain the spread of the virus. Some religious organisations are working to ensure that this is not the case.

For The Tribe Lagos, facilities have been set up to ensure that the community is still closely knitted and the spiritual needs of all the members are still met. For about a week, the church has used Zoom – an online meeting and conferencing application that allows for multiple participants – to conduct daily morning prayers, “I am setting up a devotional in this period too, to help people navigate the thought conundrums of their mind”. The Tribe is also strengthening her online community on WhatsApp and Telegram where all the members engage with one another. The Church is also exploring audio forms of messaging like podcasts.

Others, like the Celebration Church International are exploring a hybrid solution; smaller communities and online livestream. Members are encouraged to meet in their pockets of small groups — about 10 to 20, distributed all over Lagos to worship, pray and study the bible. At the venue for the small groups, livestream facilities are made available to connect with the lead pastor’s sermon. However, people like Ifreke believe that this move might be tough on those who are new to the faith and will need discipleship from a physical community. 

A priest measures the body temperature of Lagos State Commissioner for Home Affairs, Olanrewaju Elegushi (L), on inspection to enforce the government directive against social gatherings at the Methodist Church of Trinity, Tinubu in Lagos, on March 22, 2020. – Nigeria, the most populated country in Africa, on Saturday tightened restrictions in three states on places of worship, airports and bars to try and protect its population against the COVID-19 coronavirus. In Lagos state, Abuja and Ogun, churches, mosques, social gatherings, football viewing centres and night clubs must restrict attendance to 50 people, according to new regulations drawn up by the Presidential Task Force on the COVID-19 coronavirus. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP) (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images)

Defying the Law, Holy Defiance or acting in strong faith?

While some Churches in Nigeria have chosen to stay on the side of safety and comply with the government’s directive, many have flouted that rule. 

On the evening of Saturday March 21, Pentecostal Pastor, Biodun Fatoyinbo, took to his Instagram to announce that the Commonwealth of Zion Assembly (COZA) would be conducting Sunday service as usual, despite the outbreak of the disease-causing virus. In the post, he said that in the spirit of social distancing, considerable space will be made between the worshippers. He also affirmed that electronic thermometers will be used in the church, alcohol-based sanitizers will be available, the airflow systems will be effective and that the Blood of Jesus will put the enemy — in this context, the coronavirus— at bay. 

So, while some were in their homes connected to their churches through their devices, many churches around Lagos, other services housed people in the hundreds and thousands, even in the face of an outbreak.

There are many reasons for this; while churches like COZA choose to hold physical services despite the government’s ruling, there are many who do not have the luxury of choice. Many Nigerian churches do not have the technical know-how, capacity or resources to host a livestream. For these churches, there has never been a need to utilize these resources, and a law banning religious services means that those services do not hold at all. “The fact that these churches don’t have online services means that older people are definitely going to come out today”, Ona laments. 

There is also a crop of religious people who believe that either the virus outbreak is a hoax, or that God is faithful enough to deliver them from it, even if they come in contact with it. 

Then, there is the problem of ignorance, cult-followership, and leader-worship in religious institutions.

The question however is; “are all these reasons valid enough to maintain the exposure of people in the wake of a pandemic?” In Christian lingo, What Would Jesus Do?

On Sunday, the defiance wasn’t without consequences. Churches in Lagos and Ogun states who violated the restriction were invaded by the police/task force designated to ensure compliance to the restrictions. The implications of keeping a church open are numerous. Asides the obvious fact that it contributes to the looming outbreak of the virus, it also sends a message to members of the religious community that the state is the enemy, impeding on their religious right to gather when in this context, that is not the case.

A virus redefining religious traditions.

For Christians, Sunday is a special day of the week, and not just because it’s a holy day. But because of all the preparations that go into it. Families ensure their clothes are selected and ironed, even days before. Only the best clothes, shoes, and accessories are worn on Sundays. Ifreke’s routine follows this pattern. Once the weekend begins, Ifreke says he starts looking forward to service; the sermon, praise and worship, choir ministry. “I start to pick out my clothes and imagine myself in the service,” Ifreke says “sometimes as early as Friday”. But within a week, all of that has changed. Perhaps this quick switch is a hint of what is to come; a glimpse into the ways in which people will express their spiritual faiths in the future — smaller communities, breakout churches and online churches that provide a buffet of communities — both local and international — where believers can find their fit based on their beliefs, rather than what seems available. 

Elsewhere in the world, denominations are also finding novel ways to spread the word of the faith. Over in Washington USA, priests have started to offer drive-through confessions sessions, and house to house eucharistic processions. More people are tweeting sound-bites from the sermons — as seen in a surge of mentions, and photo tags to Daystar Christian Centre’s Twitter page on Sunday. The updated YouVersion Bible app now comes with a prayer feature where users can create a prayer list, start a prayer chain, and invite friends to pray with them.

Ferdy affirms that Christians can choose to see beauty even in the outbreak, by hoping that something good, and new can come out of this. 

Televangelists might be the biggest winners

Although Daystar Christian Centre, where Ona has been a loyal member for 5 years, has an established live streaming service, he will not be joining their service today. “I am waiting for the sermon by TD Jakes to come on,” he says pointing at his radio. As a driver in Lagos, joining a live streaming service will not only be distracting (as that required him to keep his eyes on the road, and on the screen), it is inefficient. He will be using his phone to accept rides, receive calls from people who want to go from one place to the other in Lagos. It’s why for him, the radio is his most efficient way to consume a virtual sermon. TD Jakes is one of the most established televangelists in this part of the world, having more airtime than many Nigerian pastors. 

But, Ona isn’t the only one. Although internet penetration is gaining ground in Nigeria, the speed and cost of internet services prevent many Nigerians from joining even their church online broadcasts — just like Ona. 

As churches now begin to take their online broadcasts seriously, looking for more ways the people who are better positioned to take advantage of this time are Televangelists who have established their space in religious broadcasting and on the platforms that are easily accessible, radio and television. 

Where is God in all of this?

Religious people tend to believe that there is a grand plan; an intelligent design by God which is supposed to lead to a particular end. This outbreak is no different. Many have attributed the outbreak to either a warning from God, a consequence for the sins of men, or a call to repentance. The President of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Rev. Samson Ayokunle, in a special sermon on Sunday, claimed that sin, disbelief in God, and the imminent second coming of Jesus Christ is the reason for the outbreak and the shield against the pandemic is belief in Jesus. Ferdy disagrees. “First of all, I need to disabuse the minds of many people,” Ferdy says. “God is not responsible for the virus. God doesn’t bring evil.” 

Ferdy believes that it is irresponsible to ascribe the outbreak to an act of God’s will. “What we embrace at The Tribe is that God is a good God and the lover of the human race. God is completely, totally in a good mood,” he says laughing. He thinks most people who have embraced the faith, embraced a warped view of God. What the Bible affirms, Ferdy says, is that God will be with us in the midst of it. If one believes in the existence and sovereignty of God, however, it is normal to want to see and understand what God thinks of this. 

Ferdy’s Theology of God presupposes that man has been given a measure of sovereignty on earth, and in this situation, we are supposed to play our role — caring for one another, enforcing social distancing, redesigning better systems, self-isolating as needed, working on medicines and vaccines. 

“We also keep hope alive knowing that God heals” Ferdy asserts. 

Back here in Lagos, the time is 11:10 am, “Thank you for joining us in service today,” the anchor for the service, a young lady cuts in after the senior pastor, Ferdy concludes his sermon, looking directly into one of the film lights used to illuminate the room. The lady then makes announcements of the changes to service time, and structure to be effective from the next day. The 3-man choir sings a cover of No Longer Slaves and other songs of worship to God as the service draws to a close. 

Guitar strikes.

The IT team begins to unpack — disconnecting cords, folding tripods, and unmounting light sources. A smile appears on Pastor Ferdy’s face. 

It’s day 1 of Sunday Service in the time of Coronavirus.

Bolu Akindele is a writer and journalist. His work covers religion, health, and social justice as it concerns identity and development across Nigeria and West Africa.

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