Praise the Lord and pass the masks

We are aware of the continuing debate about restricting churches during the pandemic. This is not an easy debate, but it is a necessary one. People need hope, faith and courage in these difficult times. Will their churches rise to the challenge to serve?

The government has not only the right, but the obligation to protect the people in national health emergencies like this one. At the same time, the constitution declares that church and state must be separate. High Courts in different countries are being asked to apply their minds and decide if government has the right to block people from practicing their religion for any reason.

While the courts are sorting that out, the reality is that Churches in Namibia have been closed for months. With Stage 3 rules in effect as of June 1st, they are able to re-open but a maximum of 50 people are allowed at one time.

Churches need money to operate. We can call on God for many things, but to ask for divine intervention to pay the City of Windhoek bill is not going to work. The donations from those attending church is one of the ways that Houses of God make their money. Closing them, has meant no revenue. Some of the church-push for re-opening has less to do with faith and more to do with pressing bills.

For many years Namibians have complained about pop-up churches led by pastors or apostles where members, particularly young women are ‘recruited’ and people blindly give away their cars, money or houses. There have been accusations of sexual abuse by criminal predators masquerading as church leaders. Some of these churches are led by foreigners who critics argue, are here to make a quick buck on vulnerable and confused Namibians.

Other churches large and small are also complaining. They too need money from donations each Sunday, but many seem to be more interested in the faith of their followers. They want to minister to the public, feed the hungry (spiritually or actually), and teach about the Gospels or whatever Holy Book used by their faith.

But how can “two or three gather in My Name,” (Mathew 18:20), in a time of COVID-19? Will people wear masks for a long, hot church service where they are supposed to sing, respond to the celebrant, take communion and other considerations? Will the church bathroom be cleaned after EACH use? Will people sit on pews the appropriate distance apart? Who will enforce any of this? These questions are left hanging. Churches are far too quiet about their plans.

Namibians largely cannot afford or do not believe in psychotherapy or professional counselling. For many, the outlet for inner feelings of insecurity, fear, or confusion could be the church. And yet, many churches are silent.

In other countries, churches have been holding online masses and services before empty pews. Church services have always been held on radio or television even before this pandemic. Gospel music is easy to find online. But is this enough?

Many Namibians living in rural areas used to walking kilometres to church every Sunday, have been left bereft and confused.

Church is a major social meeting place as well as a religious outlet. In Namibia, most people live far apart. On Sundays, people meet, sell things, share stories, and other necessary social interactions. That has been missing for too long.

But here is the problem.

Will rural churches prevent the hundreds of children and adults (with their coins for the collection plate) from entering? Will they limit mass or services to 50 people? Will the police stop the service to kick out all but 50 people? Probably not.

Will rural churches with no running water find a way to allow handwashing with soap and water for 20 seconds for each person entering? Will ‘social distancing’ miraculously make sense to people used to packing onto the pews?

Churches will open on Sundays and the infection, if it is there in a single person (we hope not) particularly if someone has crept across the Angolan border or left a truck stop quarantine or docked vessel or fled from Walvis Bay, could spread.

We will look to see if churches serve their flocks or if they expect their flocks to serve them.

Are services rolling one after the other to try to accommodate as many was possible on 50 member shifts, with pews sanitized between each service? Will churches make masks and perhaps out door speakers available? Will churches change their rituals to adjust to the new normal caused by the pandemic?

What is the plan for the choir? Larger churches could have 50 in the choir alone. With the pastor, ushers, deacons, altar servers, etc.., there will be no space left for worshippers!

Churches must take an action to spread their religion’s Word using the pandemic restrictions. It won’t be easy, but it must be tried.

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