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Government at Fault on Church Gatherings

The government of Malawi continues to flipflop on its decision to stop religious gatherings vis-à-vis Covid-19. While, generally, Moslems, Hindus and other religions heeded the call without resistance, Christians seem afflicted by the decision. You would think Covid-19 was specifically created to stop church gatherings only, and Christians are not going down without a fight.

One day, government will boldly announce that all social gatherings including church be completely suspended to protect citizens from contracting the deadly coronavirus that causes Covid-19. It’s predictable that on the next, you will read a circular from the Malawi Council of Churches to the effect that they had negotiated with government to continue gathering. This is bothersome.

While government makes known the reasons for banning such, the Council does not appear to be sensitive enough to take heed. Even in the absence of a governmental initiative to educate us, the reasons should be common knowledge. The Council only asks its clergy to continue conducting “physical” church services. More surprising is the fact when government makes the announcements banning such gatherings, it is not government that comes back to the people announcing a lift to the ban, but the Council of Churches. Then the government, through the Cabinet Committee on Covid-19, re-announces the ban and again, the Council comes back and tells its members otherwise. It is a circus.

What really takes places at these talks between government and the council? We would want to think that the clergy cannot get themselves involved in bribery. Were government officials, then, threatened with hell fire?

While it is understandable that Malawi at large is technologically behind to conduct online church services like a few in the country and many in the developed world are capable of doing, a threat as Covid-19 should be frightening enough for churches to persuade their flocks to pray from home. Admittedly, this is never the ideal situation, that praying from home is not the same as congregating together with fellow believers in the Almighty’s sanctuary. But since the breakout of Covid-19, we have not been living in ideal times.

Many of us miss the fellowship we enjoy when we come together and shout our hosannas and halleluiahs! For some among us, it will be the transformative rejuvenation that alien tongues give us. Yet for some, it will be the soul-elevating praise and worship. We miss the power of joint praise and worship, but it is not all in vain. It is for a good cause.

Hibernating in our houses on Sunday mornings is meant to protect ourselves from perhaps one of the most serious viruses our generation will perhaps ever encounter and, most importantly, to stop the spread of the disease. We have heard of how one Covid-19 patient infected others at a church gathering in South Korea and how that incident alone was responsible for 60% of Covid-19 cases in a country that has, today, suffered approximately 10,500 cases and at least 217 associated deaths. It is also a known fact that many African Americans in the United States of America have fallen victim of the pandemic and are dying in their multitudes because, among other reasons, they are so adamant to continue with church gatherings. Though small in population, they are currently counted as the largest demographic (50%-plus) afflicted by death from Covid-19 in the USA. A more solemn scenario comes from a Pentecostal Church which has become the latest cluster of coronavirus cases in Illinois (read article here). A little over half of the congregants that attended the church’s revival service on 15 March fell ill and some have already tested positive for the coronavirus. Closer home, one single source of most of the Covid-19 infections was a church gathering in South Africa.

Do we want to say that the infected and those affected did not have faith? If they continued going to church amidst all this, it means they had faith but got infected still. Are we trying to put God to the test?

We understand that the absence of physical sermons will deprive the clergy of their main, if not only, lifeline embodied in believers’ tithes and offerings. While churches that have gone online have also created or revamped digital platforms for “giving”, newer ways of payment do not guarantee that church income will stay up. Revenues will surely dwindle. Drastically. Some Christians will be lazy to make a K200 transaction, while others will find it outright unnecessary as everyone’s hardly hit, economically, by the pandemic. World over, the economy has suffered, and Malawi cannot be the exception. Businesses have and keep closing, jobs are being lost, and for the church to still expect to receive as they used to is outright unreasonable.

This is the time the church must stand with its people. In hard times. But when the church wants to continue milking its members of that last penny, then we must rethink the true mission of the church. When the clergy decide to risk peoples’ lives for a financial benefit, Jesus must be weeping again. Jesus would surely not sanction such selfishness. Have the clergy stopped in their tracks for once and asked what Jesus would have done in such circumstances?

This is not to say that the Church should not pray over the pandemic. It would be naively unchristian to say that. We believe in the power of prayer and have heard many a testimony about how God has healed some from Covid-19. Prayers of the believers can surely stop this pandemic. There is no doubt about the Church being at the centre of seeking God’s intervention in this pandemic but that should be done without giving the devil a chance. Let wisdom prevail on how this battle can be fought. Chain prayers and fasting from our homes is just one of the many ways this can be done. The church should be part of the solution not the problem.

As the church employs wisdom in how it supplicates over the pandemic, Covid-19 remains a public health issue and the government must take centre stage in dealing with it. However, in light of its dealings with the Church, why is the government so reckless in its approach when duty to protect citizens rests with it?

We are already talking of a person who came from Canada and was supposed to be in self-quarantine and follow all given protocols if he fell ill but went about the whole city of Lilongwe hoping from one medical clinic to another, using public transport. He was later got diagnosed with Covid-19 complications to which he later succumbed. While to an extent self-quarantine is an individual responsibility, government still needs to be seen to be enforcing the same and yet they have been absent throughout. It is already disturbing to imagine how big a catastrophe this single case will bring about. And yet the government is not interested in upping its game in the fight against the pandemic. In the midst of the pandemonium, it opts to get swayed by the church.

In the midst of a pandemic of this magnitude, government is irresponsible to let churches congregate as they please. We all have seen the havoc that Covid-19 has wrecked in China, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom and now in the USA. Can we afford to continue business as usual? Can the Government wake up from its slumber, please?!



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