Liberia Conquers Ebola, But Faces A Crisis of Faith

imageMONROVIA, Liberia — 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.

In Monrovia, the Liberian capital, as many as 40 pastors died after contracting Ebola from ministering to their congregants, said St. John York, the council’s secretary general. Most were Pentecostal, the fastest-growing Christian movement in Africa, he and many Pentecostal pastors said.

It was in mid-June that a sick woman was brought for a healing prayer to United God Is Our Light. A leader in the women’s group, Tewa Fayiah, long active in recruiting new members, brought the ailing visitor to the church, where she stayed until her death. After hands were laid on her — and then on those who got infected after touching her — the disease tore through the church, killing eight members, or about a tenth of the congregation.

In a pattern seen across the hot zone, the virus quickly widened beyond the church.

The church caretaker, a young father of four named James Fallah, was taken to a nearby clinic where he died just hours later. At the clinic, called Logan Town, he passed the virus to an employee and set off a separate chain of infections that killed at least 15 people, including one of Liberia’s top basketball players, according to dozens of interviews with church members, health workers, family members and residents.

The Rev. Edward Kellie, the head pastor who co-founded the church two decades ago, also fell ill, though he said it was not Ebola. He was absent from his congregation for several weeks. The health authorities placed the church building under quarantine, leaving the members with no place to meet and worship.

“People were angry with the church leadership for taking in sick people in the church — it’s a place of prayer, not a hospital,” said Mr. Moseray, 42, the assistant pastor, explaining that some members had yet to return. “We’re still around them, talking with them to come back.”

Others singled out Ms. Fayiah, who had brought in the sick woman. Despite being a member since 1986, Ms. Fayiah has not returned to the church since the deaths last year.

“People were angry with her because of the deaths,” said Marita Kettor, 43, a longtime member. “She knows the woman’s condition, and she comes and brings the woman in.”

Across the country, pastors and church were getting infected around the same time, prompting religious leaders to intervene. The Inter-Religious Council of Liberia worked with Christian and Muslim officials to spread a common message down the ranks, calling for a temporary ban on prayers and funeral practices that involved touching the sick or dead.

Most hewed to the new rules, except Pentecostal churches, which were the most fervent deniers of Ebola, said Mr. York, the council’s secretary general.

Bishop Amos Sesay, the founder of Word of Faith Ministries, a Pentecostal church with 45 branches in Liberia, said seven of his pastors had died of Ebola despite instructions that they cease dangerous practices.

“Some of them believed that they have the Holy Ghost and they can’t be affected by Ebola,” Bishop Sesay said.

At United God Is Our Light, the church reopened its doors after 27 days. But few came at first.

“People had doubts in their minds about God,” Ms. Kettor said. “I said, ‘Papa God, why, what is this again, that we’re going to go through again?’ We just finished a civil war and now Ebola is in town. I wondered if the end time was coming.”

Ebola’s apparent randomness also took a toll. Scientists believe that some people have a greater resistance to Ebola, or even immunity.

But to church members, the deaths of some, though not others, challenged their faith. The widow of the church caretaker survived, while church members who briefly laid their hands on him during a prayer got infected and died quickly.

“We didn’t really understand this thing,” Mr. Moseray, the assistant pastor, said. “Actually, it became a mystery.”

After he recovered, Mr. Kellie, the senior pastor, began visiting members’ homes.

“ ‘Praise God,’ I told them,” he said. “ ‘God loves you. I’m appealing to you. Please come back.’ ”

After staying away for half a year, Mary Quito, a longtime member, returned to the church building, a place that had been filling her with terror.

“We trust in our God, that it’s safe,” she said. “Even if we enter here, God will work his miracle.”

Eventually, most came around to the belief that Satan had brought Ebola into Liberia and into this church, a message still repeated in Sunday sermons.

“I was vexed with the devil,” said Esther Fallah, the widow of the caretaker. “I can’t get vexed with God.” Sitta Jusu, 39, the head of the choir, said of the church, “We are still together.”

To recreate the unity and commitment that existed before Ebola, church leaders recently began holding the Friday morning prayer sessions once a month, as well as a monthly night session during which members spend the entire night praying together.

Most members have at least returned now. But conspicuous by her absence was Ms. Fayiah. Church leaders and the women’s prayer group had visited her home, offering forgiveness, asking her to come back. But she left the area and had not been seen in weeks. Until she returns, some members said, the church would not be completely healed.

“We as a church have to go to her and find her,” said Mr. Vayombo, the church secretary. “We, as a church, need to go and tell her, ‘Come, everything is over. Everything is over.’ ”

Source: The New York Times

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