written by GWC Alumnus, Margaret Gichuki, reflecting on her experiences as she ministers in Kenya during COVID-19
For most of my life, I had no idea that greeting can take place in any other way than with a real handshake. Though in some cultures greetings have been conducted in other ways, a hand-to-hand grip is the most common. While growing up, shaking hands with one’s elders required a little bowing and choice words, while with one’s peers one could hear the magnificent thwack of a hearty handshake. Greeting by handshake still remains one of the distinctive characteristics of the honour culture in African society, but with the outbreak of COVID-19, it may require careful thought on how to preserve this greeting culture without a handshake. COVID-19 has rudely dealt with our unique cultural expression, by forcing people not to give handshakes or be near to those they love.
After my graduation from George Whitefield College, I enrolled for my master’s degree in the Africa International University from 2017-2018. While at it, I learnt about engaging in different cultures in anthropological and social studies, which stirred my passion as a missionary. I have since been working with various mission agencies that help with reaching out to people for Christ. I have been involved with pastors, training them for evangelism and discipleship; doing mentorship for young people, reaching out to high schools and primary schools; working with the inter-religious council of Kenya, as a representative of the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya; along with prayer and intercession. All these ministries have been carried out face-to-face, needing me to be physically present in a variety of meetings. Some have used online platforms from the word go, while others have had none. However, COVID-19 has meant a change of strategy and a forward-move in introducing various ways to meet virtually instead of not at all.
At first, COVID-19 was taken as a big joke when it arrived in Kenya, as various myths had made the rounds; the myth about black skin having more melanin which resisted the virus, along with the “higher temperature on the African continent” myth and “the lemon tea” myth. These made things appear inconsequential around the deadly coronavirus. When the government began to caution those working in the transport industry, supermarkets and individual citizens to use hand sanitizers, as in many other countries, this commodity was out of stock, and when available was going for the price of ivory!
The church had one service after the government’s first announcements on how to practice social distancing. Many churches openly disregarded the directive of keeping a one-meter distance and were seen flying in the air as they chanted songs and powerful prayers to hold the Corona-demon at ransom while others held hands. Only a few adhered to the rule. In fact, after much research on how Kenyans had perceived the virus, it was found that many were not yet aware of the looming danger though lack of social distancing. It was from then on that all social gatherings were suspended for the good of all Kenyans.
Immediately, there was a curfew introduced from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. to help manage the social events which had taken their nighttime toll. Only shortlisted essential services providers were allowed to be on the streets during the curfew. When social gatherings were cancelled, and the church was not listed among essential service providers, some clergy began to riot but to no avail. Some are still seeking permission to hold prayers in their churches and others have been put in custody for breaking the law. This makes it harder for the few genuine, law-abiding clergy to get any leeway on the said matter.
The poor have been hardest hit by the pandemic since their businesses were forced to close or cease trading in the curfew hours. The curfew’s first days were quite challenging as people were used to working at night to get their farm products or fish from the regions to the city for sale. Some were brutally beaten, with two fatalities, due to curfew enforcement by the police.
As I stated earlier, my ministry engagements had to do with social services that require engaging groups of various sizes. The partial lockdown has affected the way I previously undertook ministry as we could no longer hold church meetings, small groups, school visits or even training. This resulted in conceiving ways through which we could continue making a social impact in the lives of people in a healthier way. It called for the use of live streaming for church services, YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp, Zoom and Hangouts. All in all, communication changed completely. With fewer hours to do business, the economy has also seen a decline, which affects how much people can spend on data bundles for browsing the internet and for talk-time.
Had it been clear that COVID-19 would last longer than expected, people could have been mobilised on the importance of being online and instructed how to utilise Facebook or other online platforms. The challenge for several churches is to know how to best reach people through online platforms going forward. WhatsApp has been used in the past to conduct classes and still remains one of the greatest online tools to communicate, especially in Kenya. In addition, we have made use of Hangouts and Zoom apps which allow people to attend a live meeting. Our services have been aired live on TV, Radio and Facebook and YouTube apps. It is evident that the airwaves are awash with the gospel through the week and on Sunday using the Christian Radio and TV programmes; and, though not every church has managed to reach out to their congregants using the above means, Kenyans can tune in for nourishment. My workplace has also been online, using online platforms for internal communication.
A few days ago, I received a call from one of the pastors from the townships who I had been training, asking me how to best reach their congregants together with her husband. She did not know how to keep in touch seeing that they depended on the small offerings from those members, who had not shown up for church for obvious reasons. Some have no smartphones to allow a WhatsApp message or video calls. I advised her to create a text and send SMS to all the members to wish them well and discover how they were doing since this is cheaper and a sure way to reach those she cared for.
There are elderly or less exposed clergy who don’t even own a smartphone, or if they do have one, don’t have the know-how to host live services or classes. This has brought things to a stand-still in a way that makes them wonder if the world has literally come to an end. Other clergy have felt that the Corona-demon is stubborn and wicked since it seems not to recognise their weapon of warfare, which is fervent prayer.
Some trainees have not been dutiful in attending classes. They login late or don’t show up at all, without prior warning or apology. In addition, some of them lack expertise in running the apps, and leave their mics on, causing distortions. Another disadvantage of virtual meetings is that trainees can be multitasking while in class, making concentration and their contribution to the topic minimal.
While some people have thought that online methods were a better way to reach the people, it has been shocking to discover that those who are present in the slot allocated for a church service number only about 10% of the congregation who attend a ‘normal’ service. There are those who don’t have the finances to air their programmes on radio or TV stations that could reach a variety of members from different congregations.
At the moment, it is best to say that the Chief Shepherd of Psalm 23 will do His work diligently since no one has got full control over the “scattered sheep” all over the country and the globe except Him. There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother, and that is Jesus Christ who bore our infirmities and carried our sicknesses on the cross of Calvary. Though the pandemic posts a lot of difficulties to humanity, I am rescued from the worst and deadliest pandemic of sin. We should pass the message of hope to the whole world, that Jesus took away our fear of death since He is the resurrection and life. Those whose hope is in Christ have already passed from death to life and shall reign with Him forever even though the virus may suppress their immunity at the present moment. I have my face mask on, but also have my shield of faith with me!
In conclusion, there is a wave of discouragement and despondency that has rolled across the world of today, and we know that what used to be the norm has changed dramatically. It falls upon the church to re-strategise how to deliver much-needed resources and the hope of the gospel to a dying world. They have to stop crying over spilt milk like the Africans who may be stuck on the supplanted culture of handshakes. It is a time to call to God in prayer and draw nearer to Him since He, alone, never keeps his distance, no matter the situation.