By Kathy L. Gilbert and Phileas Jusu
June 8 was a bright and happy Sunday at the dedication and opening of Valunia United Methodist Church in the village of Monghere.
Sierra Leone Bishop John K. Yambasu was among the distinguished guests, who also included the Paramount Chief James B.N. Vonjo III, the Queen of the Rosary School marching band and most of the village.
A mini-mob scene ensued when the doors opened and excited worshipers rushed to fill every plastic chair inside the new sanctuary.
That was one of the first Sundays Yambasu warned the community about Ebola.
Now months later, the Monghere community knows the grief of losing families and friends to Ebola, but church members still rush through the church doors anytime they open.
“In situations of distress and calamity, Africans draw closer to God for divine intervention,” Yambasu said, “This is especially so when every attempt to contain Ebola seems not to work.”
Buy more chairs
On the first Sunday in November, members of Charles Davies United Methodist Church had a dedication service for 40 new chairs purchased by the men of the church. The chairs help with overcrowding.
“People believe the house of worship is a place of solace,” the Rev. Sahr Fallah said, “So when they feel hopelessness; when they feel all is lost, the only place they can find hope is in the church.”
Since Ebola has devastated Sierra Leone, some things have changed at church. People try to adhere to the new ABC rule – Avoid Body Contact.
It’s hard for people to not hug, Fallah said, but they are adapting.
“Today, after sharing the communion, Rev. (Georginia E.M.) Maligi wanted to hold hands with colleagues but was swiftly reminded about the ABC rule and she quickly withdrew her hands. That is how difficult it is even for us pastors,” Fallah said.
Early in the outbreak, some people did avoid churches and other crowded places because they did not know how the disease spread, said the Rev. Solomon Rogers, Yambasu’s assistant and a member of the Sierra Leone Conference Ebola Response Team.
“Now, people know a victim has to show strong signs of the disease before they are infectious,” he said.
“Besides, people are crowding into the churches as a desperate way to seek God’s divine intervention for a disease that now seems to defy all human efforts to contain it. Hence the churches have become overcrowded even by far more than before the Ebola outbreak,” Rogers said.
Yambasu said churches have suspended all baptisms and laying on of hands.
“We pass the peace by laying our right hand on the chest and gently bowing before the person you wish to greet or shake hands with,” the bishop said.
Holy Communion is a must in almost every United Methodist church, so that continues.
“Both the wafer and the wine are received from the tray by the worshiper,” he said. Shared communion cups are washed in a bowl of chlorinated water or soap water and rinsed before being used by another worshiper.
Behind quarantine lines
The Kenema District, near the epicenter of the outbreak in Sierra Leone, has been under quarantine for months. The people are suffering from a lack of resources since the restrictions have stopped businesses.
“It is feared a good number might not resume business after the quarantine because they would have used up all their savings,” said the Rev. Andrew Forbie, district superintendent in Kenema.
“The experience of people here is scary,” he added. “There are days we lose to Ebola loved ones we just joked with the previous day. Hence God becomes our only source of hope and consolation.”
Changes to burial practices
Some of the most difficult cultural changes have involved funerals for those who have died of Ebola.
The World Health Organization has released a 12-step routine for burial teams to make sure everyone stays safe, since the bodies of those who die from Ebola are even more infectious than those who are ill.
“We don’t go to the homes of members who die of Ebola; neither do we attend the burials. Like in the case of Dr. Rogers (Dr. Sahr Rogers worked at a hospital in Kenema) who was our member, we held a funeral service in the church here about the same time he was being taken to be buried. We, here, still do not attend Ebola burials and we advise our membership not to,” Forbie said.
Burial teams, dressed in protective clothing, remove bodies from homes. They are told to include the family in any burial arrangements.
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa began in March in Guinea and quickly spread to neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia. The number of cases worldwide is more than 13,000 and 4,818 have died mostly in the West Africa countries.
Since the start of the outbreak, Bishops Yambasu and John G. Innis, Liberia, have worked with United Methodist Communications to send out SMS Frontline text messages daily with information on how the disease is spread and how to keep from being infected with the virus. Included in those messages are Scriptures and words of comfort and hope.
New text messages now include guidelines for Christian burials.
Forbie said an Ebola task force from the Sierra Leone Conference donates food to churches to distribute to people under quarantine.
“For our members who lose loved ones, we visit them and give money to the family after the 21 day quarantine period. We do pray for them on the phone during their moments of grief while in quarantine,” he said.
Forbie is willing to make phone calls at any time of the day or night.
“I wake up about 2 a.m. and call people who are going through stressful moments and pray with them.”
Jusu is a communicator for The United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone. Gilbert is a UMNS multimedia reporter based in Nashville, Tennessee.