Christian faithful yesterday approached their hallowed sanctuaries in Lagos State with cautious optimism as services reopened after five months of closure.
For many, the announcement by the Lagos State government to reopen places of worship days after schools were reopened for SS3 students, seemed like an implied decline in the community spread of coronavirus, just as the daily collation of confirmed cases by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) also took a downward plunge last week.
There was expected to be a surge of worshippers at religious centres as was experienced at markets, banks, and bus stops on May 4 when the Federal Government eased the five weeks lockdown in the state, but the optimism that followed the announcement began to wane when leading 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 a later date.
Also on the eve of what would have been a grand welcome back service, COVID-19 claimed another high-profile casualty with the death of Senator Buruji Kashamu, leading to a fresh apprehension about the severity of the virus.
However, some worshippers still braved the odds in many parts of Lagos as most churches, which opened its doors for service complied with the COVID-19 protocols. In some of the churches visited yesterday, automated hand wash units and hand sanitiser dispensers, soaps, water and infrared thermometers were provided by the churches.
In a few of the churches, the protocols were only observed outside the church premises. Once inside, many were led ‘in the sprit’ in jubilant celebrations of surviving the pandemic so far and throwing the caution of physical distancing to the wind.
A digital analyst, Abiodun Thorpe, has said the reason why many Lagos residents are still not in tune with the virtual services offered by many churches on social media platforms is because of the attachment most worshippers attach to the physical building or location.
“Many Christians still believe church is a physical location and not in our hearts. During the lockdown, many people hooked up online to stream their church services. Few weeks later the number dropped significantly to around 300 people, sometimes 100 for a physical member church of about 5,000. This is because many still hold the belief that online service is not as potent as physical service, just like the debate between using Bible or Bible app on your phone in church.”
In spite of the cautious optimism, there was a constant feeling of joy and gratitude as faithful of both Christianity and Islam gathered for religious activities, following the reopening of mosques and churches across Lagos at the weekend.
At the Agege district of the Deeper Life Church, officials were at the entrance to ensure the health status of every member before being allowed into the church. Inside the Church, normal social distancing was also observed with every member wearing their face masks.
At the entrance of Christ Apostolic Church, Oke, Itedo Olorun Iyanu, Agege, before the officials to screen members was a huge banner welcoming worshippers with the warning: “No entry without your face mask”.
Also at the entrance of Foursquare Gospel Church, Headquarters, Sabo Yaba was the warning to stop before entry while inside was another signboard stating the conditions to be met before admittance boldly written which include, “wear your face mask”, “Check your body temperature” among others.
The General Overseer of the Church who doubles as the Senior Pastor told the congregation that observance of the instructions against the virus was to their advantage, telling them that “obedience is better than sacrifice”. Two services were held.
At Hoares Memorial Methodist Church, Yaba, where two services were also held, every member was subjected to the prerequisites before entry with social distancing strictly observed inside.
At the Anglican Church, Lagos Mainland, social distancing was observed where services were also staggered.
At the Oduduwa Police Central Mosque in Ikeja GRA on Friday, our correspondent observed that worshippers said prayers in a properly ventilated and clean environment, with stewards ensuring that windows were left open and ablution points kept tidy.
Sanitizers were also administered at the ablution points, while the Jumah prayers didn’t exceed the two-hour single service limit as part of COVID-19 protocol on the reopening of worship centres issued by the Lagos State Ministry of Home Affairs on August 6.
A healthcare product retailer, Aminat Bamigboye who was among worshippers at the mosque told The Guardian that the reopening had brought about a gradual but significant restoration of normalcy.
“I am very happy because the last time we were able to do was in March. It is been five months since that time when lockdowns were imposed to limit the spread of COVID-19. I am hopeful that everything else would get back to normal soon.”
For Hafiz Mohammed, the reopening was “remarkable”, adding that “it is pleasing to be at the mosque again to worship Allah and observe the Jumah prayers in congregation.”
While confirming how the mosque prepared for reopening, the Chief Imam, Oduduwa Police Central Mosque, Ahmed Jamiu said: “We made sure to abide by the rules and regulations of the government to prepare this facility for worship today. Before worshippers were allowed into the mosque, we checked their temperatures with infrared thermometers to determine those that were fit to go in. No one was allowed into the mosque without first having their temperatures checked.”
Earlier in his sermon, Imam Jamiu urged worshippers across the state to take personal hygiene seriously as efforts remain on course to defeat the coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking with The Guardian, John Ohiani, felt the timing of the reopening was wrong. “The reopening of churches is too soon because two days ago, we heard a report that we have over a million cases in Africa. If the social distancing rules are observed in the church, how about outside the church. There is bound to be some interaction like hugging, shaking of hands, warm embrace and close contact with people seeing each other after a very long time.”
“We should concern ourselves as a government to more pressing issues like education. We have so many educational platforms where they are having lectures through various online mediums, churches have also gone online and I feel people will be blessed whether they go to the four walls of the church or not.”
Also, Samson Imasuen, who recovered from the coronavirus pandemic said: “Some people are happy to go back to church at the same time some are still skeptical, for someone like me who just recovered from COVID-19, I don’t think I am willing to go back to church at this moment or even have anything that has to do with social gathering and I will advise those that think this pandemic is not real to get out of such dream because I was a victim.”