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Two months without congregational worship… Clerics, other faithful share experiences

By Daniel Anazia, Isaac Taiwo, Ijeoma Thomas-Odia and Maria Diamond
06 June 2020   |   4:20 am
In my thirty-some years on earth, I don’t remember ever being away from church for two consecutive weeks. So, being away for about three months feels odd. I feel disconnected from God and this has nothing to do with my faith or believe in God...

National Mosque, Abuja

“In my thirty-some years on earth, I don’t remember ever being away from church for two consecutive weeks. So, being away for about three months feels odd. I feel disconnected from God and this has nothing to do with my faith or believe in God as that cannot be altered; it’s about the inspiration and strength you get from being in a place of worship among the brethren.

“I wake up in the morning and I pray with the family, especially for God to keep us safe from COVID-19 pandemic. But that is as far as its gets. I don’t have that motivation to exercise my spiritual duties and responsibilities as a Christian. It’s a feeling of emptiness, a void that can only be filled from worshipping in the congregation of the people of God.”  
Those were the words of Josephine Adenipekun, a member of Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) in Isolo, Lagos, who recounted her experiences as a result of the ban on religious gatherings by the Federal Government as part of efforts to contain the spread of Coronavirus.

Last Monday, the FG approved the “restrictive opening” of worship centres two months after they were shut. The Secretary to the Government of the Federation and Chairman of the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19, Boss Mustapha, announced the lifting of the ban on religious gatherings at the briefing of the PTF in Abuja. But he said the approval was granted on the condition that relevant containment protocols against COVID-19 be respected by all the affected religious groups in the country.

Nevertheless, the news was cheering to religious faithful in Lagos, who like Adenipekun, felt a gap in their spiritual lives during the lockdown on religious gatherings. To many of such people, there is nothing more important in their lives now than congregating with fellow brethren to worship the Almighty God.

“I believe Nigerians are better informed about the virus and would ensure that they protect themselves with facemasks alongside adhering to social distancing and other rules. The church lockdown has made me realise that worshipping in the presence of God is indeed life,” Adenipekun told The Guardian.

For Chidinma Nwachukwu, a member of Living Faith Church, aka Winners, also in Isolo, “it has been very odd to wake up every Sunday these past two months and not go to church.”

“I have never really been a fan of online service because of the environment I live. It is either a neighbour is playing music too loud or someone is knocking at your door for something. More importantly, it has been very difficult to pray on my own without prayer points and directions from the ministers of God. I can’t even count how many times I have tried to pray and found myself drifting. There is a lot of distraction and most times you end up abandoning the online service halfway. There is no connectivity when you worship in your home. As a Christian, I believe that the church is the safest place in the world to be.”

Ella Maxwel, a member of Dominion City in Oke-Afa area of Lagos, told The Guardian she has been missing the praise and worship session, and also the sermon in congregational worships. “Although I join online services on Sundays, it is not the same as being in the church and hearing the ministration in the church especially because of the distractions from other activities at home.

“Federal government should please lift the ban on worship centres because I believe a place of worship is a place of divine deliverance and healing, and with absolute faith in God, there will be healing possibility for those who have the virus,” she said.

Aderemi Adepitan, a member of Anglican Church, said the closure of churches due to COVID-19 pandemic negatively affected many members spiritually, especially those who love congregational worship. But he also noted that the situation positively aided some members in coming closer to God because they had time to read their Bible.

“It has brought down the spiritual life of those who love to attend crusades, deliverance and powerful programmes,” he added. The General Overseer, Evangelical Christ Apostolic Church, Lagos, held a similar view, saying it strengthened family altars unlike before when families depended on pastors to pray for them.

Residing pastor in charge of The Redeemed Evangelical Mission (TREM), Wealthy Place Parish, Ipaja, Lagos, Rev. Adekunle Olukorede, also said he missed corporate worship so much.

“I miss every aspect of the church especially corporate worship. There’s something about corporate worship. It lifts up your soul. I miss fellowshipping with people, as we have become family,” he said. He, however, noted that the adoption of virtual service during the period helped his church in attending to the spiritual needs of the members.

“Unconsciously, we have entered into a world order where virtual mode of doing things is the new normal. The problems posed by COVID-19 will not go away quickly so everyone must wake up and get used to the new normal. It may not be totally effective now, but soon everybody will learn and adjust. However, virtual service has helped to solve so many problems by bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to every doorstep; it has helped our evangelism and training. It has helped us to be innovative on new ways of doing things,” he said.

Gideon Ujoatuonu, a chartered accountant and mentor in a Pentecostal church in Ajao Estate, Lagos, said the church lost to the lockdown “the assembly of the faithful that brings about spiritual health, healing and rejuvenation of the mind, which all increase productivity.”

On what the Church has been doing to impact on the spiritual lives of members and the effectiveness of those efforts, he said: “We have consistently and committedly served the congregation by providing palliatives in terms of food material, prayers as well as intermittent calls to uplift their minds as we don’t see often again.

“Christians are soldiers of Christ. The church of God cannot be stopped. We cannot be tired. It looked frustrating at first but we have even acclimatised fully, having fellowships at home and in smaller numbers, praying that this trend would be transient and congregants would meet again to dance and rejoice before the Lord.”

Ikechukwu Ugwoke Esq, an elder in Christian Pentecostal Mission Headquarters, also in Ajao Estate, said the lockdown had both positive and negative impacts on people’s spiritual lives.

“For me, it has afforded me the opportunity to commune with God more than I used to because all the activities that usually engage my time were locked down. For the Church, it is currently impacting negatively in the area of income generation with which to run its operation and may eventually have a more devastating effect.

“Soul winning and membership may dip as a new way of life has evolved during this lockdown. Just as employers have suddenly discovered that some of its employees can actually work from home via internet and get the same result, the same way will some people, especially the youths who have been enjoying online services, want to continue thereafter,” he said. Ugwoke said he missed fellowship with the brethren the most during the lockdown.

“The Bible in 1 John 1: 7 said: ‘For when we have fellowship with one another, the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin’. My assembly has deployed various online platforms in teaching the word of God in order to keep watering the souls of members for effective growth. The leadership of my Assembly has also created an opportunity for enhanced family fellowship as outlines are being circulated on weekly basis for what we call family service.

“The head of every family is enjoined to teach its members in line with the outline every Sunday and other days and, by so doing, has renewed the awareness of the spiritual roles of each family head. These measures has been quite effective and has been able to encourage spiritual growth among our members.”

Catholic Archbishop of Lagos, The Most Revd. Adewale Martins, believes Christians are yearning for the return of congregational worship because it is part of their heritage. He said: “For us as Christians, to come together is part of our heritage; it is part of our being Christians. Immediately the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples, it brought together a lot of people that were attracted to the scene. Gathering in the church is a very fundamental part of worship. It has actually been a problem when we shut down. That is why we were disappointed that we were not being considered. However, we will continue to re-assure the government that the Church is ready to agree with the government and follow the instructions on preventive measures. We are interested in the welfare of our people. We do not want to kill our people. We do not want them to die as a result of COVID-19. We are interested in their safety. We are also anxious that they are able to come together to worship according to our tradition as Christians.”

‘Faithful Now Know Value Of Physical Church Services’
From Ann Godwin, Port Harcourt
CHURCHES and mosques in Rivers State were elated when Governor Nyesom Wike lifted the lockdown ban on religious gatherings recently. The easing of the lockdown was subject to some conditions like compulsory wearing of facemasks, social distancing and temperature checks during their activities. The state government also urged religious organisations not to have more 50 persons in each of their gatherings, threatening to close down any church or mosque that violates the order. 

Findings by The Guardian revealed that most churches and mosques in the state were complying with the directive. Speaking with The Guardian on his experience during the lockdown, the Coordinator of Showers of Blessings Christian Centre, Port Harcourt, Pastor Joseph Godwin, said he missed the atmosphere of praise and worship and the cordiality in relating with members.

According to him, the ban on religious gatherings affected the warm relationship between him and members of his church. He, however, said the period helped him to spend quality time in studying and praying.

“We were using online/live streaming service to minister to members but the responses were poor, ranging from network challenges, purchasing of data and the problem of phones types that don’t meet internet connection,” he said.

Also speaking, the General Oversea of Overcomers Christian Centre, Apostle Emmanuel Azaka, said the lockdown increased the value of physical fellowship. He explained that the manner members turned up in church after the lockdown displayed their hunger for the gathering of brethren. His words: “We missed the one-on-one contacts with brethren within the period. Though online church service was vital because it enabled us to reach out beyond our local audience, the truth is that it cannot be compared to physical fellowship.

“As a minister, we get inspired while ministering to the people physically. Sometimes, you may need to lay hands or prophecy. In all, huge lessons were learnt; the lockdown made members to value church service more because as soon the ban was lifted, their turnout showed massive hunger for the gathering of brethren.”

On his part, the head pastor of Christian Pentecostal Mission (CPM), Rumumoi branch, Port Harcourt, Rev. Chukwuemeka Obi, said he was able to reach out to his members through social media platforms during the lockdown.

But he emphasised that despite the impact of the online services in spreading the gospel, it would never be compared with the physical service, adding that online services were not how Jesus Christ structured the church.

“The scripture encouraged us not to forsake the gathering of brethren. So, corporate prayers are vital because the fervent prayers of the righteous availeth much,” he added.

Muslim, Christian Faithful In Oyo Yearn For Return Of Corporate Worship
From Rotimi Agboluaje, Ibadan
FOLLOWING the recent declaration by the Oyo State government that it was yet to lift the ban on religious gatherings, many faithful in the state have expressed their desire for the return of congregational worship.

Mr. Saheed Babajide Ogunbase, an Islamic adherent, told The Guardian he enormously missed congregational worship. He said he missed the lailatul quadri congregational prayers during the just concluded Ramadan.

“I missed the itikaf prayers where it’s usually done at the central jumat mosque in which Muslims usually vacate their homes for the last 10 days of the holy month, seeking God’s forgiveness and mercy. It didn’t happen during the last Ramadan for the first time in my life. I want the ban lifted immediately,” he said.

Another Muslim, Mr. Adeyemo Adeniyi, said: “Spirituality was personal before the closure and the same during the closure. God is still the same and He is with us either at the congregation or not. Let government lift the ban and let everyone follow instructions against COVID-19.”

Also speaking, the Founder of Safaudeen-in-Islam Worldwide, Prof. Sabitu Olagoke, said the present situation has altered and disrupted the structural design of Islamic worship styles. Olagoke said: “It has disrupted jumat services and asalatu. It has made adherents to become lazy. The motivation is no more there.”

Mrs. Omobola Odeyemi, a Christian based in Bodija, Ibadan, said the shut down of churches due to the pandemic has deprived her the opportunity of meeting her friends and fellow church members every Sunday, saying she could not wait for the reopening of worship centres.

Meanwhile, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in Oyo State has said churches were ready to comply with precautionary measures and guidelines the state government might issue in order to start holding services.

The state CAN Chairman, Pastor Benjamin Akanmu, who spoke while reacting to the continued ban on religious gatherings in the state, urged the government to reconsider the decision.

“My reaction to the continued ban on religious activities is in two ways. The first is the church wishes to begin services. The Bible says the prayer of the righteous is effectual. We can use prayers to correct what is not good. That is one part on congregating. The Bible says those who call upon the Lord shall be saved. How can those who don’t call on him be saved?

“The other part is fear on the part of the leaders; the fear of those who have been infected not to infect others. That may be the fear of the government. But the Bible says we should take our fears to God. Our advice is that if they give us conditions on precautionary measures, we can easily comply,” he said.

The National Deputy President of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN), Bishop Francis Wale Oke, however, cautioned that the ban was not punitive.
“It’s for the good of all. The church has continued to intercede and God has been hearing and answering prayers. Besides, the pandemic is nothing but a wake up call to everyone so as to know the awesomeness of God and as such, be closer to Him the more,” he said.

Allah Speaks To Us Through Sermons And We Miss That, Say Muslim Clerics
By Shakirah Adunola
THE Chief Missioner of Nasrul-L-Fatih Society Worldwide, Imam Maruf Abdulazeez Onike told The Guardian that the organisation acted proactively to limit the community transmission of the coronavirus amongst its members by voluntarily shutting all its mosques and worship places even before the directive from the government.

He said: “NASFAT has since moved its flagship programme (asalatu on Sunday) to a virtual mode, same as its Friday service, and has also introduced other online programmes leveraging technology to reach a wider audience. Of recent, NASFAT developed a set of guidelines for the operations of our worship places and offices once government lifts the lockdown.

“While we appreciate the brotherhood, congregational benefits, emotional support and social-economic gains that worshipping together would generate, the safety of our people is paramount and cannot be traded for anything, moreover, when the government has not told us that the curve is not flattened yet.” He added that the group misses the physical connection, handshaking and seeing the expressions on the faces of members but still connect and interface with members regularly through various online activities.

“NASFAT is conscious of the fact that worshippers come to places of worship for salvation and not for destruction or calamity, hence the extra measures being taken to protect them by God’s permission. I pray The Almighty Allah remove the pandemic soonest from the surface of the earth. Amen.”

Onike said what should be uppermost in the mind of Muslim leaders on the issue of re-opening of places of worship “is the main objective of Shariah nay Islam, which are promotion and enhancement of benefit and removal of harms.”

On his part, the Grand Mufti, Conference of Islamic Organisation (CIO), Sheikh Dhikrullahi Shaafi, said he misses many spiritual activities, which he rendered to the public before the lockdown. He, however, said the period afforded him the opportunity for closer interaction with his family.

“As a Muslim cleric, I missed my Friday Khutbah, that is, sermon. However, I lead members of my family in all the daily prayers including Friday prayers. 

“I also missed my series of public lectures, counseling and teaching of Islamic jurisprudence face to face. Despite all odds, we must thank Allah for the gifts of life and good health.”

He urged Muslim faithful not to see the action of the government as impunity but as a commitment to the wellness of the citizens.He noted that Islam gives priority to life and welfare. “We should all be patient and respect scientific facts. I also believe that mosques and churches are shut based on pieces of advice given by the medical experts. In recent times, the rate of infection has remained very high. I am optimistic the mosques and other places of worship would be opened after all the necessary measures and guidelines are finalised and approved,” he added.  

Chief Imam, University of Lagos (UNILAG) Muslim Community (UMC), Dr. Ismail Musa, said COVID-19 pandemic affected different areas and jurisdictions in unequal ways, noting that it undermined the several social and spiritual values of worship. He, however, noted that the basic objective of the Shariah is to preserve life, stressing that no effort should be spared to guarantee that.

“The mosque itself as a rallying point for effective management of Islamic activities has been unable to play its roles. People rush physically to the mosque to enrich their knowledge about God and how to relate with Him and His creatures. The vital educational programme has been seriously truncated. I miss the sermons and its impact, the pre and post-sermon activities. Allah speaks to us through the sermons. We are not used to the electronic mode of sermon delivery. Many potential beneficiaries are denied the opportunity of accessing digital sermons,” Musa said.

He added: “We have sensitised Muslims on the need to take advantage of the lockdown to deepen their relationship with God. For instance, individual night vigil prayer called tahajjud is much more spiritually rewarding than when performed in congregation. Through regular and special admonitions people are accessing crucial information about God. We have been utilising the opportunities offered by digital communication. The internet and phones have particularly been helpful in many respects. It has brought out the immense resources Allah has domiciled in mankind. We thank Him for them.”
For the Amir, The Muslim Congress (TMC), Dr. Lukman AbdurRaheem, the group has missed many programmes.

“We resorted to virtual options to keep our members and well wishers engaged. Some of the physical programmes that we missed include weekly lectures in over 300 mosques across the Southwest in including Abuja and Niger; monthly Adhkar prayer session; monthly public lectures across the functional states where TMC operates and spiritual counseling for Muslims”.

He said COVID-19 has taught Muslims and leaders of Islamic organisations that there are always alternatives in life.

“We should avoid insisting on our comfort zone. Every member has been taught and educated to take up the role of Imams in their respective houses. This has increased affinity, bonding and oversight over the spiritual and material wellness of the family members,” he added.

To the Imam and General Coordinator of Muslim Volunteer Groups to Lagos State Correctional Centres, Alhaji Muhammad Miftahu Alade, the ban on religious gatherings affected the spiritual uplifting of the Muslim and Christian inmates in Nigeria Correctional Centres (Prisons). He stated that Muslim and Christian clerics could not gain access to the inmates not to talk of teaching them the rudimentary aspects of their religion.

“The social distance imposed by the government greatly affected the inmates. When the chaplains could not gain access to the inmates, the inmates will misbehave; they will not be able to attend to their daily communion with God; they will be left without guidance and in effect, it will have negative effect on the custodian officers. The crime, which the government is trying to contain may escalate and lead to unsuitable circumstances.”

He urged the federal and state governments to allow religious activities in the Correctional Centres.

“There should be guidelines which the Imams, the Pastors and other stakeholders should abide by if they are to visit the inmates. Protective kits should be provided, social distance should be maintained, large gathering should be limited, and the government should assist us by ensuring that relief materials, which were donated by religious and philanthropic groups get to the inmates,” he said. 

Leader of the Muslim Student’s Society of Nigeria (MSSN), Lagos State Area Unit, Dr. Saheed Ashafa, said the lockdown experience has been unprecedented.

“It has overbearing effect on the activities of the organisation. All our regular programmes were suspended while special programmes of high spiritual magnitude were cancelled. For instance, our weekly Usrah is the spiritual gathering that nurtures our souls as students and shapes our well-being for all-round development. But we had to suspend all these. The suspension may have negative consequences on new members who are just coming up spiritually,” he noted.

He added that the group’s annual programmes like Lagos Qur’an Competition and Iftar 5000 were cancelled outright. “This is highly devastating when properly evaluated. These are programmes that bring large gathering of not less than 3000- 5000 members together. They are gatherings of high spiritual impact, which involve coming together to pray and fraternise,” he said.

Ashafa noted that the organisation has been impacting the lives of its members through online programmes.

“Our weekly Usrah still hold via Facebook and Zoom platforms. We organise daily academic coaching for secondary school students. We are organising capacity building training for students of higher institutions through these virtual platforms with seasoned experts and professionals as resource persons. But the truth is that these platforms are not yet as effective as the usual physical meetings. There are challenges hindering optimal performance,” he said.

The Civilian Imam of Nigeria Navy Secondary School, Ojo, Mr. Tiamiyu Adebayo said the lockdown deprived him of the opportunity to discharge congregational duties.

“The situation has affected the school’s religious activities. For instance, the weekly jum’at service whereby we pick a topic bordering on religion as well as humanity in general is banned. Secondly, the 9th month of hijrah calendar called Ramadan, during which we used to have programmes such as Ramadan Tafsiir, Iftaar- breaking of fast together, feeding the students and other rewarding programmes, just came and went like that because of COVID-19.”

Adebayo regretted that he missed all the rewards attached to congregational prayers during the period.

“I missed the rewards of congregational prayers which Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) said attracts 27 rewards per a congregational prayer,” he said.

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