The world is slowly opening places of worship for in-person (public) church services and other religious gatherings after closure due to the coronavirus pandemic. Beginning the end of May, countries in Europe, the Vatican, South Africa and some states in America progressively started to open places of worship albeit with guidelines concerning congregation size, frequent cleaning, use of face masks, hand washing and social distancing protocols.
St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, for example, opened doors again to congregational worship in mid-May. The closure of churches, despite the displeasure and culture shock surrounding it, was necessitated by uncertainty in regard to behaviour of the virus and the realisation that in some countries such as France and Germany, some Covid-19 cases had been traced to church.
In Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta has announced a phased re-opening of the country and allowed phased re-opening of places of worship. Following laid health protocols is demanded while restrictions remain for those aged below 13 or above 58 and the service must not exceed one hour.
This re-opening of the economy amid soaring Covid-19 cases and related undefined risks was wise though risky as we could not afford to live in immortal fear. The opening of places of worship will be celebrated as it was overdue especially when other convenient gatherings appeared to enjoy lesser stricter sanctions.
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The alternative of virtual church services didn’t reach significant number of followers who are elderly, digitally illiterate, lacking devices or internet connection and for those who did it posed real risk of losing spiritual flavour by watching sacred media just the same way we would enjoy a movie on Netflix.
Opening places of worship and connected institutions will avail to government effective ways of fighting the pandemic and without placing a hefty tea budget. This is because Churches, Mosques, Synagogues and even cultural shrines have the capacity for holding regular and structured community awareness gatherings. The comparative trust and moral authority enjoyed by religious organisations in Kenya more easily enables them to engage in health prevention and promotion interventions, mobilise compliance or deviance and ameliorate stigmatising effects of diseases. Religious organisations also own networks of health personnel and facilities, expertise in bottom-up community approaches founded in micro-community fellowships which would be useful in mobilising civic responsibility needed to flatten the curve.
Kenya’s religious organisation also have entrenched networks which easily, regularly and or in short notice, permits assembling of masses. Other than during facilitated political rallies, places of worship are the only constant venues of mass gatherings across gender, age or social-economic classes.
Actually, if the churches denied government agencies space for announcements during public service, many community and government activities such as chiefs would largely remain unknown to targeted groups.
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By gradually re-opening places of worship, the spaces can play a critical role in the war against this disruptive pandemic by providing willing students and free lecture halls for corona awareness, prevention, monitoring and evaluation interventions.
Furthermore, even as counties prepare extra hospital beds in lieu of expected high Covid cases, our places of worship during war and similar calamities have always provided space. This space will remain available to the sick in case the worst of the worst happens and Covid-19 numbers overrun our health system.
Matters faith generate a lot of emotions both positively and negatively. Reality is that some people have an unquestioned loyalty both to their religious doctrine(s) and to their pastor.
Re-opening of public worship will let church ministers exploit this loyalty to reach doubting Thomasses.
Faced with many conspiracy theories, mistrust of government figures and methods, selective application of World Health Organisation (WHO) Covid-19 guidelines such as social distancing and wearing of masks, there are people who still think coronavirus does not exist or doubt its severity.
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Religious leadership however requires prudent treatment and collaboration from government. The cohort was not pleased when a senior government official appeared to insinuate that ‘sadaka’ collections are the main motivation of keeping churches open.
Any reckless action or omission by government or political class that would erode the apparent goodwill and partnership offered to government by places of worship would be bad for all of us. Just imagine an angry minister whipping up emotions of the faithful into a frenzy and asking them to shake hands or ignore social distancing and hug each other. What of if an excited minister invites the sick for healing services?
This does not mean that action should not be taken against pastors who may opt to ignore caution and common sense concerning the health protocols offered by government.
During the early years of HIV/AIDS pandemic (and even now), the churches through their health institutions and community fellowships provided major support to victims and their families. This wealth of experience and institutional memory must be exploited to wade off labelling, ostracism and stigmatisation of persons infected or recovering from Covid. Lastly, re-opening places of worship gives us a place to pray that the curve flattens.
-Reverend Father Mbai is a Catholic Chaplain and lecturer in Criminology, Karatina University.