Churches face “test of faith”

…amid pandemic

By Maria Kandjungu and Paulina Ndalikokule

PERHAPS for the first time in the history of Christianity, churchgoers countrywide are unable to congregate on Sundays due to the threat of Covid-19 and the consequent lockdown, which saw churches, mosques and synagogues around the world close their doors, leaving members to worship in relative isolation at home.

Locally, people of all religious persuasions are prevented by the state of emergency regulations from gathering in numbers, an unprecedented development that has forced many faith-based groups to resort to new technology to reach the believers and the doubtful.

The government ban on all public gatherings, including churches, restrict any such meeting to no more than 10 people, who should be at least one meter apart at all times. In response to the emergency measures, churches across the country as of last Sunday suspended sermons.

Confidente found Inner-city Lutheran Congregation church in Windhoek closed and empty on Sunday morning as sermons were being streamed online.

The usually packed Immanuel Church in Katutura’s Freedom Land area that usually sees attendance of over 1 000 people on a normal Sunday and over 2 000 on a special occasion (such as Easter Sunday), was entirely deserted with the main gate locked.

Immanuel Church pastor Emma Nangolo told Confidente over the phone that they find it hard to offer services to members at a distance.

“It is hard because usually during troubling times such as this people turn to the church for comfort and guidance but in this situation, we find that we are almost helpless… We find that we are also at the mercy of the situation and people have to rely on the power of God with little human effort and comfort from the church.

“We are now doing counselling over the phone and people are usually emotional, and over the phone… there is limited comfort, so you just hope your words are enough for now,” Nangolo said.

She noted that whereas the current situation will likely cripple churches’ finances – as they largely depend on Sunday offerings – that was not their main concern.

“We anticipate financial shortfalls, but we are not a business so that is not our focus. Our focus is on how we are going to walk people through this difficult uncertain time… how we assist them through all the emotions and fears they are going through right now,” she said, noting that while this period is going to test people’s faith, the churches will continue to provide assistance and guidance the best they can with limited resources.

“Trust in God. He gave us his word that he will not leave us, nor will he forsake us. So pray and meditate on his words, wherever you are. Where he is mentioned he is there and his spirit lives in all of us,” she said encouragingly, adding that TV and radio stations would continue to broadcast religious programs and members who can, should tune in.

It was also not church as usual at the empty Catholic cathedral on Sunday, where two priests and a parishioner could be seen outside the imposing building, with one priest reciting a prayer at Mass, all the while respecting the one-metre social distancing rule from the others in attendance.   

“A priest has to say Mass every day, whether he is alone or with two or three people. Masses are still continuing in the Catholic Church but without the participation of people, so we have to pray for the people and also [to prevent the spread of] the coronavirus,” Catholic spokesperson Veranus Shiimi said.

He believes the government did well to prohibit big public gatherings at this time.

“They did it with consultation, not only by themselves. They consulted all the stakeholders, the important thing here is to combat the virus, whether you are religious person or a traditional person, we have to come together to fight the coronavirus.”

Shiimi advised that the closure of churches should not be seen as the end of the religious journey and encouraged the faithful to continue praying and hosting Mass with their families on Sundays in the relative safety of their houses.

“We have to adjust ourselves to this environment now because of the danger of coronavirus. We cannot come together as a community, parish or congregation. The best to do is just to adhere [to the regulations] until the situation becomes better, then maybe we can come back together again.

“The Catholic Church hosts live streaming so that we can keep connecting ourselves with the faith directives and remind people about the health precautions that are put up by the World Health Orgainisation and health ministries” Shiimi added.

A parishioner, Claudine Narimas said although she supports the decision to ban public gatherings she could not hide her frustration over missing church. She felt that government should have made allowance for important religious days, such as Good Friday or Palm Sunday and for Mass to be held in an open area outside the church with the attendance of not more than 30 people.

She said while she misses going to church and participating in the activities, like singing in the choir – they do have priests at various centres recording scripture readings that are shared with Christians through social media channels.

Another devout Catholic, Tracey Kampala who chose to embrace the ban and celebrate Palm Sunday at home, said the current situation although at times frustrating brought home the point that the church is not a building, and sacrificing one’s health just to go celebrate in one building is not worth it.

“God is not in one place and church is not a building. At the end of the day your faith is between you and God. It is not about dressing up and going to church.

“Our faith and belief is not in a building. Church is a gathering of people of Christ coming together in his name and we can do that at home. So spend time with your family, pray for and with them, celebrate with them.”