Cosmas Omegoh and Christy Anyanwu

For churches in Lagos, moments of joy and thanksgiving are here again.  

Today, echoes of worship and rejoicing will be wafting again from the various churches’ roofs. Worshipers in those places have more than enough reasons to be joyful. And the reason is sufficiently clear. They will be congregating again for Sunday worship, the first time in more than four months.

However, some churches may not be joining in the comeback for several reasons. For TB Joshua, leader and founder of The Synagogue, Church of All Nations (SCOAN), he is still waiting for God to direct him on what to do. Also, his colleague and Senior Pastor of the Household of God Church International Ministries, Reverend Chris Okotie, said that he would not open as it is not biblical for faithful to come to worship God in face masks.

There are also some others who have expressed pessimism over the decision to reopen  places of worship so quickly, warning that COVID-19 is still very much at the corner.

Decision to close churches

The Coronavirus pandemic had brought in its wake the closure of worship centres across the city following a spike in the number of COVID-19 infections in the country. The Lagos State government feared the worse might happen. So, in a bid to curb community spread of the virus, it asked worship communities, across the state to cancel every religious meetings and pray at home. So, in March, adherents of the both Christianity and Islam began experiencing   Sundays without fellowships, and Fridays without jumat service.

The Lagos State government through its Commissioner for Home Affairs, Anofiu Elegushi, ordered that all high-density crowds be avoided in churches and mosques for four weeks. It moved to discourage gatherings exceeding 50 persons. Government rolled out COVID-19 protocols, which it said worshipers must observe for their safety. That came after an engagement with some religious leaders in the state.

Elegushi in a statement noted that the decision was taken in the interest of Lagos residents.

“We hereby agree we should suspend all religious congregation that is over 50 within the state for four weeks. It is easy to establish contacts of about 50 people.”

While acknowledging that the Nigerian constitution guarantees freedom of worship,  he asserted that “we are of the opinion that we should exercise our rights with extreme caution so as to avoid contacting and spreading of this disease.

“We hereby appeal to you to please pay close attention to people coming into our places of worship, anyone found showing symptoms of this disease should immediately be reported to the appropriate authorities.”

Later, a directive for an indefinite extension of closure of churches and mosques was issued – all a bid to stem community transmission of the deadly Coronavirus.

After further engagements with leading faiths leaders in the state, government through Elegushi expressed it fears, noting: “I want to tell you categorically that …the possibility of reopening religious houses was ruled out totally.

“They claimed that they cannot take such responsibility of ensuring that only 20 or 50 people are praying behind them. Like an Imam said he doesn’t know what is going on at his back immediately he is leading a prayer.

“So in the meeting, we ruled out in totality the issue of reopening the religious houses until we have a clear coast for us to do so. The Federal Government mentioned it, but it never ruled out the state in achieving that pronouncement; so all states will have to look at the possibility of doing so in their respective states,” he noted.

Options open to churches

But with churches closed for services as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, many of them switched to streaming religious messages via online media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, or broadcasting via terrestrial media like radio and television.

“I tried to do a live stream of Holy Masses on Facebook every Sundays, but the stream only worked until the first reading of the Bible, after that the Internet signal went down.

“However, I managed to access similar services through television channels and local radio programmes.

“But it feels lonely worshiping via any media. Although I know we can pray anywhere, but I miss praying at church,” Herbert Ajuma, a Catholic in Ojo, Lagos, said

Many other church leaders turned to various online platforms in order to feed their flock with the word of God.

The good news

Then on Saturday, August 1, came the good news. The Lagos State governor, Mr Babajide Sanwo-Olu, in a statement ordered that mosques and churches in the state would be reopened from August 7 and 9. Worshippers could congregate once again for service following noticeable drop in Coronavirus infections.

While addressing residents on the progress made in the fight against Coronavirus, he said: “Places of worship in Lagos will now be opened from Friday, August 7 for our Muslim worshipers and on Sunday, August 9 for our Christian worshipers.

“We will only be allowing 50 per cent of their capacity at either the church or the mosque. Churches that have Saturday worship day will also be allowed to start holding their Saturday worship. We must reiterate that places of worship are only permitted to have their regular once-a-week service on designated days.

“For the avoidance of doubt, there will be Friday worships for our Muslims followers and Sunday worships for our Christian followers.”

Excitement at reopening

Lady Ray Okoye,  a business woman, is upbeat that the directive will impact greatly on Christians as they gather today. “Definitely there is an air of excitement and joy.

“This is to be expected as we have all missed out on the fellowship that church offers,” she said.

She, however, called for caution saying: “Having said that there is a sense of caution.

“Most people I spoke to are committed to obeying the NDDC guidelines.

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“Moving forward, the church must adhere to all the guidelines the government has provided – social distancing, donning of face masks, limitation on church duration, to avoid another shutdown.

“I have the feeling that this is a probation period. The relevant bodies are watching to see if there would be a spike in the numbers recorded after the reopening of churches.

“Once, these are observed, it is my considered belief that all would be well.”

Similarly, Dr Mrs Nkiru Ifekwem, a lecturer, applauded the decision to reopen places of worship.

“It was a good decision.

“Besides physical healing, people need psychological and emotional healing too, which the church provides,” she said.

She added that she couldn’t fathom the peculiarity of the fear about the church which could be more organised and law-abiding than the market place.

“Nigeria is a country where people rightly or wrongly flaunt spirituality to the peak –  where people attach any form of illness to spiritual attack. For those people it works for them psychologically.

“Opening the church can give lot of Nigerians emotional healing. I may not be far from the truth if I say that some of the dead from Coronavirus might have survived if they had access to their priests or pastors.”

With similar sentiment of excitement, a lecturer, Omam Pat Agboro, said that he was looking forward to returning to church again.

“I am really looking forward to it. Although I have enjoyed the online services, but I really wouldn’t mind bonding with other people. At least see real faces.

“I know that my church, The Redeemed Evangelical Mission (TREM) believes in obedience to authority so compliance with laid down conditions wouldn’t be a difficult thing. The church is very big and can allow the one-meter-apart sitting recommendation.

“Even before the locked down and instruction to churches and public spaces, TREM installed and insisted on members having their hands sanitised before entering the church.

“So long as safety measures are in place, I think we are good to go. And I believe other churches and religious folks will do the same,” he said.

Counting on the benefit of the ease on churches Ajuma said: “My parish is like a community; we are like a family. After the Holy Mass, we usually stay for a while and then proceed to visit our members who are having life challenges. Thank God the lockdown on churches has ended. I hope everything goes back to normal again.”

Mr. Micheal Udemezue, a parishioner at Regina Mundi Catholic Church, Mushin, is among the Christian adherents that are excited at the reopening of his parish after many months of closure.

Udemezue lamented that he never believed that anything could ever keep him away from attending Sunday Mass and receiving communion for so long.

“I have been a Catholic since birth. And I have regularly attended Mass right from my childhood. I wedded and baptized all my children in the Catholic faith.

“But for over 40 years of my existence, I have never experienced anything that caused a complete stop of masses in parishes all over Lagos. It has never happened except for this COVID-19 pandemic that made the  government to close down our parishes since March. So, I am very happy to go back to church again,” he said.

Esther Okeleke, a member of Living in Faith Bible Mission, also said that she was happy about the reopening of worship centres by the Lagos State government.

“I am 79 years old, almost 80 years; I have witnessed several incidents in my lifetime, from the Nigeria-Biafra civil war, to natural disasters, and riots like the June 12, 1993 crisis. But I can tell you that none of these can be compared to the way this COVID-19 pandemic prevented us from going to church.

“The war in the 60s plus riots and several disasters didn’t stop us from going to church. So, I am happy that worship centres can now open in Lagos.

“Honestly, I missed praying and singing in church; they give strength and happiness to live my life. But I’m very relieved to witness the resumption of congregational gatherings at worship centres,” she said.

We don’t share in the optimism

However, Mrs Ifunanya Ezenwa does not share in the optimism surrounding the reopening of churches. According to her, she would not be going back to church so soon because she knew someone that contracted the Coronavirus.

She, however, acknowledged that social distancing, including the cancellation of religious gatherings, was pivotal to curbing the spread of the virus.

“I have a friend, a medical worker that contracted the COVID-19 virus. She categorically told me to always maintain social distancing. My siblings who are based abroad sternly warned me against going to any gathering at all. So, I won’t be going to any church for now.

“Honestly, I really miss going to church every Sunday. But for now, I’m still too scared of the virus.”

Another woman, Mrs Helen Ikpeme, told our correspondent that it was too early for the Lagos State government to reopen worship centres, warning that a spike in infection might well be on its way.

“It is good to reopen churches. But my take is that the decision is hasty.

“Although the worshipers have been urged to strictly follow laid down protocols, but don’t forget that some people might still be careless about such instructions.

“We shouldn’t be in a hurry to forget that just one infected person can also infect more than 30 persons. By the time he/she returns to church next week, he/she might infect 30 others who will in turn infect hundreds.