By Chris Onuoha
Bishop Charles Ighele is the General Superintendent of the Holy Spirit Mission (aka Happy Family Center). Ighele speaks on the continued closedown of churches and effects of lockdown.
The lockdown order by the government is going to three months now. How has it been with you and the Church? What is your own experience?
Actually, it has affected everybody, not only the Church. It has been a very bad experience for the very poor in our midst and the people who depend on what they get a day to feed and meet their daily family needs. Things are so bad that we have to identify poor families in our midst.
Then, we began to see how we can sacrificially give them foodstuff every two weeks. We have close to 80 branches of our church all over the country that are taking care of the poor, and that is a dimension to this pandemic experience. Some people were almost dying of hunger.
Another aspect is that some churches with membership of less than 50 people are having it hard. Some of the pastors’ salaries come from the church.
With their tithe and weekly offering of about N2, 000, coupled with their salaries of maybe N6, 000 and other miscellaneous expenditures used for their electricity bill and generator gas, operating becomes difficult. But with the lockdown, these pastors have nothing at all.
When you go out to the field, it is a sorry sight. For people like us, also affected by the lockdown, it may not be the same, but we now have to identify with some of these pastors in need, for help.
Another aspect of the pandemic is inadequate observance of social distancing by some people from poor homes. In our quest to reach out to these poor families, we observed that they live in a cluster; about 20 people living in same compound, using one toilet and bathroom.
Then, it becomes difficult to maintain social distance. It is really a sorry site.
With the lockdown, the economy seems to be on the nosedive. How do you raise money to take care of these members of the church?
A church should be organised in such a manner that there should be something kept for the rainy day. We should have used these funds to pay our pastors or attend to other needs.
But all we did was to ask our pastors to spread the money they have to help members and see that they manage it well. Our pastors complied. All official expenditures were stopped.
I also started with my personal resources to make sure these immediate needs were met.
Churches were expected to reopen on the 21st of June in Lagos but they have now been asked to remain closed by the state governor till further notice. How do you react to this development and what is this telling to the Body of Christ?
The governor may have acted on advice from some of my colleagues in the Lord. The Church is divided politically, supporting parties and personalities and then, in terms of doctrine, it is highly doctrinally divided.
Why a section of the church sees that Jesus Christ will never want his real Church closed down because of a disease which is what I also believe, there are also those who would say, ‘let us divide and close everything down until the pandemic is over’. Men are challenging the efficacy of God’s power upon the land.
When you look at other associations in the country such as the transport, business people and others, they are giving government pressure to reopen.
Now, only the Church is divided, with the exception of private school owners who are also crying out all over the country. What surprises me more is that the division is seen among men of God.
This is shameful. If all other groups can speak with one voice, why should men of God not do so? The governor has respected us senior pastors as stakeholders, but when it comes to opinion, some say different things entirely.
And with the statistics of opinion at his disposal, what do you expect him to do?
As far as I am concerned, the Church is an essential body and I blame my constituency for this continued lockdown of the place of hope and faith building.
In Brazil, where many people are dying, the Church is an essential body; in Tanzania, the same thing is happening. I call what is happening to the Church in Nigeria now as a spiritual poverty.
If we cannot see ourselves as an essential body, what do we expect politicians to do? I know that majority of pastors are angry. What some Christian leaders are telling politicians is not helping the body of Christ.
Government had initially listened to the Church and has taken a decision to reopen churches but some spiritual leaders who sing a different song jeopardize the genuine intention of the decision.
The figures of the virus cases are rising daily while the Church remains closed. Would you say the Church aided the rise? In Europe where people are dying in thousands and recording more than the figures we have here, essential places are operating and coming back to normal life.
Nigerian people are religious in nature and spiritually starved. They want to call on their God to intervene in this matter, the traditional way.
More so, a section of the Church has been saying that the world has gone digital and that meeting together to hold services can be replaced with online services.
Some also say that God is in your heart and that you can worship him in your home alone or anywhere. They are not fully correct. What these people do not know is that the hallmark of Christian worship is congregational worship. We congregate, hence the word congregation.
We are meant to assemble, hence we are called churches assembly. The word ‘Church’ means an assembly of the people. It is from the word ‘ecclesia’, the coming together of people as in Hebrews 10:25 which says, “We should not forsake the assembling of ourselves together as the manner of some is.”
I do not want to be counted among those who disrupted the people not assembling because of a disease. I appeal to the governor not to be among them. I see him as a wise man.
But we know that COVID-19 is very much around and a reality. Do you think churches can control the spread?
I am not really happy with government. I know quite a lot of men of God have not also behaved well in that respect. Some are quite after money and say what they like, while some of the churches are like business centers.
But there is still genuine Church of Christ. Now, I tell you, when things like this happen and the genuine Church prays, God can intervene. In this case, I saw that government removed God totally out of the equation, out of the solution – government closed down the Church, the Mosque, and everything.
I am really surprised because I thought that Nigerian governors are so religious. I was equally shocked that even pastors were arrested for assembling members for prayer. Many people didn’t like it. The 1346 Bubonic Plague, also called the ‘Black Death’, also started from China before spreading round the world. That was when quarantine started.
That pandemic lasted more than five years and wiped half of the world population and was more devastating than Covid-19. And in the midst of it, King Edward of England commanded churches to pray.
But this time, I can’t remember any governor asking churches to pray, instead, it was clamping down on churches as if they were part of the problem. I think they should repent of this, and I am saying this as a spiritual father.
Some governors overstepped their spiritual boundaries of giving to Caesar what is Caeser’s and to God what is God’s. At the end of the day, we shall all die and give account of what we did to put God first in governance.
Churches should pray and get committed. But the irony is that some pastors who were afraid of death were equally shouting that churches should close down. I mean you are a man of God, you love your life, but not unto death.
A pastor should stand out as a spiritual person among the people to direct on what to do to build their faith spiritually. At this period, the faith of many is down because there is no church or mosque to give them hope. It is a period of spiritual poverty all over the land. It is not good for mankind.
The President of Tanzania, who has PhD in chemistry, took a different stand and asked churches to pray. Jesus directed that Holy Communion should be given but some governors stopped it.
They should have devised means of observing that with respect to social distancing instead of stopping it entirely. Sharing of communion differs from orthodox churches to the Pentecostal faith.
Our pastors wear hand gloves naturally during Holy Communion and also command the congregation to lift the bread and wine by themselves. Jesus said ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar and to God, what is God’s’.
Can you speak more on the preparations your ministry has on ground for the observation of the guidelines if and when churches reopen?
The guidelines have been in place since the pandemic started. In our ministry, they have been there. Before now, what we did was for families to sit together in the church.
We did it before the lockdown came and we will carry on the practice whenever the church reopens. We have already arranged the church seats two meters apart, with temperature check gadgets at door posts alongside other measures.
But in our church, if your temperature is high, we don’t send you home, rather there is a separate room where we minister to you and take the next steps from there.
We don’t drive members home because Jesus said that we should not drive members away.
…but part of the guidelines is that old people and children should not attend church programmes. Are you also going to send them home or welcome them?
I think government and the Christian community are going to iron it out. Like I said, what we are doing before the lockdown came into effect was for families to sit together.
We closed down the children church because we were advised by one of our medical personnel in the church that children cannot do social distancing because of their nature.
More so, it is not everybody that has that particular faith for healing – with the saying that ‘this disease will not touch me.’ In that case, we have to think of everybody’s interest including those who have little or great faith and those with no faith at all.
These little children stay with their parents to make sure they don’t run around while in the church.