Dispatch

The Pulpit Takes On a Plague

While some Liberian religious leaders are harnessing fears over the Ebola outbreak to further an anti-gay agenda, other churches are preaching peace, calm, and a chlorine rinse.

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

MONROVIA, Liberia — The pews were packed in Bethel Cathedral of Hope on Sunday, as some 600 well-dressed Liberians prayed for an end to the Ebola crisis. The Rev. Wolo Belleh beseeched his charismatic congregation: "Look back, look back at all our country has suffered. Look back at those who have been taken from us. Praise God!"

Religious leaders here in Ebola-hit Liberia have offered controversial solace to their flocks, with some providing genuine health protection information from the pulpit, and others blaming immorality — saying that the epidemic is God’s way of exacting punishment on the African nation.

As the epidemic unfolded this spring, the Liberian Council of Churches declared that God was angry "over corruption and immoral acts." In May the country’s new Catholic Archbishop Lewis Zeigler spoke of Ebola and declared that it existed because of sins, and that "one of the major transgressions against God for which He may be punishing Liberia is the act of homosexuality." Since these pronouncements were issued gay activists have told reporters that they feel threatened, while some religious leaders have seized on the Ebola crisis to promote anti-gay legislation, calling for the death penalty for sodomy.

Such is the religious establishment’s views. But some popular Christian pastors, especially charismatics and Pentecostals, have shunned the condemning of homosexuals and divisive declarations that the immoralities of the few are responsible for the Ebola deaths of the many. Some have focused on messages of prevention, using the pulpit to teach virology 101.

The gospel choir of Bethel Cathedral of Hope belted out, "Be strong!" as a Marvin Gaye-style tenor sang, "The weight of the world seems to weigh you down. God will love you — be strong! Just think of the Lord tonight. Don’t gang up — be strong! Hallelujah!"

As is true for all of Liberia’s churches these days, the congregation of Bethel scrubbed their hands under chlorine rinse before entering the church, and congregants chose their positions in the pews with care, leaving sufficient space between them and their neighbors to ensure they would not accidentally bump into another worshipper and possibly catch Ebola in skin-to-skin contact.

Reverend Belleh praised his congregation for observing the Three Days of Fasting and Prayer to Stop Ebola — a national prayer event from Oct. 29 to 31 that most of the Christian churches in the country supported. Noting that Liberia’s epidemic appears to have taken a downturn in recent days, Belleh proclaimed that their campaign had served its purpose, declaring, "God heard Liberia! Father, we thank you that demons are gone … sickness and diseases that we have feared have been defeated, in Jesus’ name."

Turning to Psalm 133, "How good and pleasant it is for people to dwell together in unity," Belleh commanded his congregation to search for unity and urged them to remember that, "God is not a god of discrimination. He’s a god of everybody."

Belleh further warned that, "Whenever an enemy is about to attack, he brings a spirit of disunity. It is a weapon of darkness. When he pulls apart what God has put together, there are certain people who will never feel at peace. They will enter into your family, your business and peace will be sheared. And instead of peace, trouble starts. The enemy knows how to fight a child of God, especially when he attacks from the inside. Wherever there is disunity the people are robbed."

Soaring in volume and energy, stomping his feet to drive his points home, Belleh exhorted, "You see evil when people cannot be together! When you live in an atmosphere of division you expose yourself to the evil of disunity."

Sweltering in the steamy-hot church, the congregation shouted approvals and "Hallelujah!" to Belleh. Like its fellow Ebola-suffering nations of Guinea and Sierra Leone, Liberia still reels from two ghastly civil wars that came to an end 10 years ago, leaving every family with the emotional and physical scars of brutality and the slaughter of some 250,000 people. The word "unity" holds special resonance in this land. And amid Ebola’s rise the country has been rife with wild rumors and conspiracy theories, claims that the foreign doctors were injecting the virus into victims, that the newly arrived U.S. military hospital builders were part of a secret plan to overthrow the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and that there is no virus at all — just a conspiracy to foment fear so that "somebody" (fill in the blank) can take over the nation.

But "the Church plays an important role in educating the people," Belleh told me. "The pulpit is God’s instrument to redirect the people" away from wild rumors and conspiracy theories.

"The Church is responsible for everything that is happening to the nation, and we need to take responsibility for that," Belleh explained to me after services concluded. Exhausted from two hours of sermonizing in back-to-back services, Belleh collapsed into an armchair in his office and spoke of "the Church," meaning all Christian faiths, combined, in Liberia. Belleh is appalled by statements issued from Catholic leaders and the Liberian Council of Churches. He says, "The Church has failed. It has not united the people, not held them together. It is dividing the nation," in pursuit of power and influence for given denominations or religious leaders. But Liberia, Belleh insisted, is God’s most glorious country, created by freed American slaves, "via God."

At the close of Sunday’s service Belleh told his congregation to stop thinking of their country as a place of doom — either from poverty, war, or disease. "As I am talking to you, miracles are right here," Belleh shouted, to a din of "Amen!" and "Hallelujah!" from the audience. "But the thing that is hurting you is your perception, the way you see things," he continued. "All Liberians are blessed! They are on the soil of the continent of Africa!"

As the congregation stepped into the blazing Sunday sunlight many smiled at one another, but resisted the hugs and touches that normally follow services. In place of physical affection they tried to exude warmth to one another, nodding and looking into each other’s eyes in unity.

Laurie Garrett is in West Africa covering the Ebola epidemic and will be reporting regularly from the ground over the next two weeks. 

Laurie Garrett is a former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Pulitzer Prize winning science writer.

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