• Low turnout as worshippers obey leaders’ stay-away directive
• Excitement in other churches
• Divergent views on impact of closure on crime
Many churches reopened in Lagos State yesterday for worship after about five months of closure in adherence to COVID-19 safety protocols.
The Federal Government had, on March 30, directed cessation of movements in Lagos Ogun and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) as part of measures to curb coronavirus spread in Lagos. Since then, worship centres in Lagos had remained shut.
But Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State, penultimate Saturday, announced reopening of worship centres in Lagos for yesterday, with 50 per cent of members to attend in each service.
But unlike the surge experienced on May 4 when the Federal Government directed that the ban on markets, banks and others be partially lifted, the resumption of churches was greeted with cautious optimism.
The low turnout may have followed arguments by some prominent church leaders against resumption of churches shortly after the Lagos State Government announced the partial lift of ban.
The Serving Overseer of the Citadel Global Community Church, formerly known as Latter Rain Assembly, Pastor Tunde Bakare, had, last week, faulted the decision to reopen worship centres in the month of August, saying it was the month Nigerian Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, projected that COVID-19 would reach its peak. He urged worshippers not to be “deceived by government or religious leaders and to ignore the directive of the Lagos State Government on reopening of worship centres.
“I have to appeal to you once again, please keep safe and do your best to stay alive. Do not let anyone, whether religious leader or governmental leader, to drive you like a sheep to the slaughter.
“If they (government and the authorities) said the month of August was going to be the peak of the infection, why should they ask people to rush in (re-open churches) again?
“Please keep safe and do your best to keep alive by keeping all the necessary rules. We know that, by the grace of God, this pandemic, like the others before it, has an expiry date. It shall not see our end. We shall see its end in the mighty name of Jesus,” he said.
Reacting to the guidelines for reopening of churches, the Founder/Senior Pastor of the Household of God Church International Ministries, Chris Okotie, described attending church services in veiled faces or masks as mocking God.
In a statement titled: ‘Why we can’t wear mask in church’, he urged members of the Household of God Church not to resume service.
Okotie’s message was contained in a 28-minute voice recording sent via WhatsApp to his church members.
Optimism for reopening further waned when other church leaders like Dr. Daniel Olukoya of the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries; Pastor Sam Adeyemi of Daystar Christian Centre; Prophet Temitope Joshua of Synagogue Church of All Nations; Dr. Odukoya of Fountain of Life Church; and Pastor Poju Oyemade of The Covenant Church, deferred the commencement of physical services to later dates.
Some worshippers, however, took part in congregational services in many churches that opened their doors.
In some of the churches visited yesterday, automated hand wash units and hand sanitiser dispensers, soaps, water and infrared thermometers were provided.
Also, banners with ‘No Mask, No Entry’ were displayed to prevent worshippers without face masks from entering church premises. Worshippers also observed social and physical distancing as seats were adequately spaced with stickers indicating sitting positions.
To commemorate the reopening, the General Overseer, The Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) worldwide, Pastor Enoch Adeboye, congratulated Nigerians and gave assurance that the end of COVID-19 was imminent.
Adeboye, who spoke yesterday at the headquarters of RCCG, Ebute-Metta, Throne of Grace, said, “In the House of God, you will be in God’s presence and God’s House is the House of the great physician where you are assured of total and divine healing.
“In fact, when you go to the house of God, you go to the house of all sufficient God where all your needs will be met” he said.
In the same vein, the General Overseer and Senior Pastor, Foursquare Gospel Church, Rev. Sam Aboyeji, assured Nigerians that the COVID-19 pandemic would soon come to an end with the reopening of churches.
At the Living Faith Church, A.K.A. Winners Chapel, Dominion Centre, in FESTAC Town, the Provincial Head, Alex Aina, said worshippers were excited to resume. He said the church installed 15 automated hand washing units with soap and automated hand sanitiser dispensers at the entrance and within the church premises.
At the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), Kings Royal Palace at FESTAC Town, Abiodun Oseni said messages had earlier been sent to members through the church media platforms informing them of the protocols.
Oseni, who is an assistant pastor, said: “At the beginning of each service, a message is projected to inform everyone of the protocols. Nobody comes in without a face mask. When the service is on, everyone wears theirs and those who use face shields are to also use masks. After each service, there is a decontamination of the hall before the next one commences,” he said.
An elder in RCCG, Tolu Ogunbonojo, who spoke with our reporter, expressed joy that the ban on churches by the government was lifted, saying the lockdown accounted for increase in cases of suicide and crime in the society.
He noted that the government ought to see the church as a partner in building a sane society and ultimately engage them.
He said: “We are happy that the churches have resumed not so much because of anything but mainly because we realize the importance of fellowship. People need fellowship, you would agree with me that since the lockdown, there have been high rate of crime in the society. Even the suicide rate has skyrocketed. When people come, they listen to the word of God and they are refreshed and their hope is renewed. The church is not only a place of spiritual healing but also a place of physical healing where people can come and get encouraged that they need.”
But the Chairman, Christian Association of Nigeria, Lagos State, Prof. Alexandra Bamgbola, when asked if the high cases of crimes and suicide was due to church lockdown, said there was no statistics to back the claim.
“This is an allegation, I have not seen any scientific data to confirm this, though, and this is Nigeria, where one hardly finds data. But I believe the necessary authorities and bodies may have facts to confirm this.”
On why some churches refused to open, Bamgbola said, leaders of churches may do as the spirit of God led them.
“The interest of the congregation is paramount, while the salvation of souls is also very important. Church leaders should do as the Spirit of God leads them.”
Also the President, CAN, Samson Ayokunle, stated that although the lockdown of churches might have contributed a little to the high rate of crime and suicide cases, other factors were majorly responsible.