After Ebola Outbreak, Liberian Churches Confronted With a Crisis of Faith

Worshipers at United God Is Our Light Pentecostal church in Monrovia, Liberia. After an Ebola patient was brought for a healing last year, eight congregants died. Credit Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times
Worshipers at United God Is Our Light Pentecostal church in Monrovia, Liberia. After an Ebola patient was brought for a healing last year, eight congregants died.
Credit Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

It decimated hospitals, schools, families, fortunes and, for many, even their faith.

Now, it is officially over. The Ebola outbreak has ended in Liberia, the World Health Organization announced Saturday, an enormous milestone that seemed impossibly far off last year when dead bodies blocked roads and the sick prayed for ambulances that never came.

Desperately, the country is trying to rebuild just about everything, from its health and education systems to its economy and international image.

But in the dim hall of the United God Is Our Light Church, its generator turned off to shave costs, the congregation has been trying to repair something more fundamental: its spirit.

“Some of you are thinking that this church will die,” the church secretary, Joseph Vayombo, recently shouted in the small Pentecostal church here, no longer able to contain his frustration at all the empty seats around him. “There are people here who want this church to die.”

The large circle of plastic chairs inevitably drew attention to the low attendance at Friday morning prayer, a monthly gathering intended to bring together a church torn asunder by Ebola. Three, four, sometimes half a dozen empty seats separated the attendees from one another.

A man started banging on a drum; a woman rattled a shaker. Two women took to the middle of the hall, dancing confidently, hands clapping in the air.

“Don’t mind if somebody’s not here,” the assistant pastor exhorted. Everybody’s gaze seemed to settle on the empty seats surrounding him.

While Ebola still haunts Guinea and Sierra Leone, where infections have dwindled but refuse to disappear, Liberia has passed a remarkable threshold: at least 42 days since its last Ebola victim was buried, or twice the maximum incubation period of the virus, according to the W.H.O.

Even before reaching that official marker, the nation was trying to stitch itself back together after more than 4,700 deaths from the disease, by far the most of any nation in the epidemic. Liberia has reopened markets, clinics and schools, eager to move past an outbreak so devastating that it “has changed our way of life,” as President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf put it.

Similar efforts are taking place inside churches as well, bedrock institutions in West African society that were at once a place of succor and a source of contagion during the outbreak.

Like many people here, church leaders often denied that Ebola, a disease new to West Africa, was real. At an emergency meeting last July, the Liberia Council of Churches, the country’s main group for Christians, described Ebola as divine punishment for acts of homosexuality and government corruption.

Shocked by the skyrocketing number of deaths, religious leaders later began leading efforts to stop practices that could transmit the virus. Now that the epidemic has passed, many church leaders are trying to repair the damage left behind.

Across Monrovia, churches have been responding by holding special prayers, revivals and workshops, all with the common purpose of refastening ties frayed by Ebola, a disease that made many fear and doubt those closest to them.

Last year, after congregants at the United God Is Our Light Church laid their hands on a visitor with Ebola during a healing prayer, eight members died within weeks.

Some survivors blamed the church leaders; others accused the person who had invited the sick visitor. The church was placed under quarantine, closed for services during the greatest period of anguish and loss. Members scattered as Ebola raged through their city and shook their faith.

“Ebola brought problems in churches; it brought problems in relationships,” Philip Moseray, the assistant pastor, told the faithful. “But God is in control, and we’re not giving up. We are trying to rebuild. We are trying to overcome.”

The events at United God Is Our Light were repeated in countless other churches across West Africa’s Ebola belt.

The sick, unable or unwilling to seek treatment, were sometimes brought for prayers inside churches, which became sanctuaries for them. But the practice also ended up spreading the virus.

It is impossible to know how many church officials or members died of Ebola from such contact, but the numbers are high, according to the Inter-Religious Council of Liberia, the country’s main umbrella group for Christian and Muslim institutions.

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Norimitsu Onishi

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