A major Nigerian pentecostal preacher has vowed to continue holding Sunday service for thousands of his followers, spurning worldwide medical advisory against physical contact at a time of blazing coronavirus.
David Oyedepo brushed aside the potential hazards of his decision to defy government restrictions on social gatherings across Nigeria, saying some members would rather look up to Sunday service as the only viable means of treatment against COVID-19, a strain of coronavirus that has killed more than 15,000 people and left tens of thousands bedridden across the world.
“Shutting down churches would be like shutting down hospitals,” Mr Oyedepo said during March 22 Sunday service that streamed live online. “There are many, many places that would never have any medical solution but in church.”
Mr Oyedepo held the service at the headquarters of his Living Faith Church (Winners Chapel) on the outskirts of Lagos on Sunday morning, the same day that Nigeria’s coronavirus infections jumped to 30 and health experts were raising alarm about the importance of social distancing.
A police spokesperson told PREMIUM TIMES officers showed up to ask Mr Oyedepo not to hold service for the health benefit of his members and society, but he proceeded nonetheless.
The preacher held two services within hours apart even though the government had placed an indefinite moratorium on religious gathering amidst scramble to contain the spread of the virus.
The service in Sango-Ota, which falls under Ogun State but keeps a close proximity with the nation’s commercial capital, held without provision of hand sanitisers to members, according to two people who attended.
“They also did not check for our temperature before hundreds of us went into the church for service,” Tunmise Ogunlolu, a member of the church, told PREMIUM TIMES. “But everyone was visibly afraid throughout the service.”
Ms Ogunlolu said she and many others attended the programme to see whether Mr Oyedepo would announce indefinite suspension of service pending the containment of COVID-19, “but I was not too disappointed that he did not postpone.”
“The anointing that we received at church yesterday was very important to myself and other members,” she added. “But I am not sure I will take the risk again next week.”
Another member who attended the service said it was “obviously scanty.”
Winners Chapel boasts of some of the largest congregations in Nigeria. Its headquarters can hold as many as 250,000 people during overflow, and Mr Oyedepo himself has once been listed amongst world’s richest pastors by Forbes, Reuters reported. The church also has hundreds of other branches in Nigeria and other countries.
Although the headquarters, officially dubbed Canaan Land by the church, had long assumed a community of its own, some of its administrative functions are still subject to state and federal laws in Nigeria.
Yet, the church was left out when law enforcement authorities besieged worship centres across Lagos and Ogun to enforce social distancing measures on Sunday. Several churches were closed in downtown Lagos and some communities in Ogun for apparent violation of a widely publicised ban on gatherings of more than 50 persons. The number has been reviewed downward to only 20 in Lagos.
But the fear of security agencies to enforce the ban at Canaan Land might not be unconnected with Mr Oyedepo’s towering influence and friendship with political bigwigs across the country.
A spokesperson who declined to provide his name even though his number was listed on the church’s website said he was just learning from PREMIUM TIMES that service held.
“I never knew there would be service today, you are just telling me now that you saw the evidence on the Internet,” the official said, promising without fulfilling to call back and provide clarification.
Above the pack
Winners Chapel appeared to be the only church in its category that held service against public health directive on Sunday. A cascade of Sunday service cancelations began amongst other mega and minor pentecostal churches across the country following meetings with state governments throughout the week.
Some churches, like the Commonwealth Zion Assembly and Methodist Church Nigeria, that initially asked members to show up for Sunday service later decided against it at the eleventh-hour, urging their members to obey public safety directives instead.
Most of the churches used the Internet and other forms of mass media to pass message to their members at home on Sunday.
Mr Oyedepo himself acknowledge the essence of government’s directive in statements preceding his declaration that the church was more important than the hospital for some members.
“Every measure being taken is only to preserve lives,” Mr Oyedepo said. “We will subscribe fully to whatever preserves lives.”
He also said churches are coming up with other means of passing sermon to members outside the church, saying it would help “avoid up and down movement.”
Yet, the preacher said he would continue to hold physical Sunday service for potentially thousands of members in continuous violation of existing public order.
“It is not a number of people that makes fellowship, it is the gathering of the brethren,” he said.
Although the legality of the shelter-in-place directive of governors has been a subject of debate on social media, the police have said they would enforce it because it has the support of the majority.
Abimbola Oyeyemi, Ogun police spokesperson, told PREMIUM TIMES officers were at Canaan Land on Sunday to enforce compliance, but Mr Oyedepo and his ministers thwarted their efforts.
“Police officers were there to caution them but they refused and held their service,” Mr Oyeyemi said.
Mr Oyeyemi admitted to PREMIUM TIMES that the church’s action was inappropriate, but officers had overlooked it with the hope that such would not happen again going forward.
“We hope that by next week Sunday they would listen to the voice of reason and comply,” the police chief said. “Nobody is above the law.”