The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has had an unprecedented global impact, touching every nation around the world. The congregations in all of our churches are facing challenges; some are health related, some economic, and some due to isolation. In all cases, we are looking to God for solutions. Following are reports of how our churches have responded to the pandemic in each region of our work.
South Korea was one of the first countries to have a severe outbreak of COVID-19 and to implement a widespread national shutdown. At that time, our South Korean churches closed and began tuning in to a livestream service hosted by the headquarters church in Seoul. South Korea was also one of the first countries to reopen, and beginning May 1, the Seoul congregation resumed Sunday morning services with new distancing and hygiene measures in place. At the end of April, South Korea District Superintendent Jeong Min Kim contacted the Portland headquarters to say their congregations were doing well and they were praying for those in the United States, where the disease had spread rapidly.
Our congregations in the Philippines were placed under strict quarantine in April, forcing them to cancel their Easter camp meeting. However, the ministers assigned to preach were able to livestream their sermons, which was a blessing to the local congregations as well as some Filipino expatriates who would not have been able to join services under normal conditions. During the closure, Philippines District Superintendent Joseph Ruiz began livestreaming Sunday morning services from the Bagong Sikat headquarters church, and he hopes to continue doing so even after the quarantine is lifted.
At our church in Kawasaki, Japan, public services were canceled for at least two months, though members were able to meet occasionally in small groups and also developed an online Sunday school option for children. Our two churches in Australia are also faring well despite closures.
The nation of India faced one of the harshest national lockdowns in the world, restricting 1.3 billion residents from leaving their homes between March 25 and May 18, under penalty of up to one year in jail for violation. We have about eighty churches in two Indian states, and during the closure the majority of our church members were unable to work, much less gather for church.
When the lockdown began, Rayudu Raju, the District Superintendent of Andhra Pradesh State, explained that the situation was especially dire for the many widows of the congregations. With a donation from the Portland headquarters church, Reverend Raju was able to buy rice, dal, and oil to distribute to those in need. One of the few exceptions to the lockdown was the transportation of essential goods, so he hired a truck and began delivering the food. At one point he was stopped by police, but when they understood his mission, the officers thanked him fervantly and told him he could travel anytime he needs to. They were able to make deliveries to six villages and the recipients were overjoyed (see photos at the end of this article).
In the United Kingdom, for several weeks gatherings were restricted to a maximum of two people. Since our headquarters church in London had already been webcasting services for some time, they initially replayed services from their archives and held call-in prayer meetings. Soon they organized services through a video conferencing platform, with workers webcasting from multiple locations. Western Europe District Superintendent Isaac Adigun reported that though there were severe outbreaks of COVID-19 in Spain and Italy, our saints there have remained healthy.
The Scandinavia camp meeting was canceled as it normally is held during the Easter holiday, but the Scandinavia headquarters church in Stavanger, Norway, has been streaming services twice weekly. Scandinavia District Superintendent LeRoy Tonning said viewers have joined from Tromso and Bergen, Norway, as well as Denmark and even some places in the United States and Africa.
The majority of our brethren in Romania do not have streaming capabilities, so when churches there closed, pastors encouraged families to have their own times of worship at home. Travel between towns has been strictly prohibited, with large fines for violations, but pastors have been able to stay in contact by phone and have confirmed that all our church members remain healthy. Recently, churches were allowed to begin gathering in groups of up to eight with physical distancing in place. Ted Bora, the Western Romania District Superintendent, said the believers there are doing very well and staying united in prayer.
Our work in Africa is organized into three districts: West and Central Africa (WECA), where we have over one thousand church locations in seventeen countries; Southern Africa, with about seven hundred churches in nine countries; and Eastern Africa, with about one hundred and seventy churches in six countries.
Adebayo Adeniran, District Superintendent of WECA, reported that their well-organized hierarchy of regions, districts, zones, and neighborhoods has proved beneficial during the forced closures, as it allowed workers to effectively check in with congregation members and make sure they were doing all right. Easter services at the headquarters church in Lagos, Nigeria, were canceled, but food that had been intended for special meals was used instead as relief for church families in need. They were already webcasting services from the Lagos, Nigeria, headquarters church as well as broadcasting the twenty-four-hour Heritage Radio station, which proved an excellent way to continue ministering to the church body. Reverend Adeniran expressed concern for those in Cameroon, where there had been civil disorder prior to the pandemic. He stated, “It’s really a challenging time. However, our God has been more than sufficient for all our needs.”
In Southern Africa, District Superintendent Oniyas Gumbo said the economic impact of closures will be very challenging in his region, which was already financially distressed. Churches in several of the countries there have been using video conferencing to hold mid-week Bible studies and to livestream Sunday services, though in some areas the technology for meeting online is still not accessible. One such area is Malawi, where Chris Mateyu is the country leader. He noted that most people in Malawi do not have phones, and even fewer have smart phones, so using multimedia platforms for church is not an option for them. However, when Malawi went into a strict lockdown during the Easter holiday, church members were able to use a public address system to preach to the whole community, enabling them to reach hundreds in their homes with the Easter message. Reverend Mateyu has never visited the headquarters church in Portland, but he said he was blessed to be able to join a headquarters Sunday school class on May 10. One challenge the Malawi saints still face is that they had been greatly assisted by Zimbabweans in the past, which is no longer possible as Zimbabwe faces its own restrictions.
Eastern Africa District Superintendent Boniface Banda reported that the April camp meeting held annually in Lusaka, Zambia, had to be indefinitely postponed. However, churches are allowed to gather in groups of up to fifty, which has made it possible to hold services by dividing larger congregations into smaller groups. At the Lusaka headquarters church they formed three groups: two take turns meeting at the church and one meets at the campground.
Global travel restrictions had an especially significant impact in the Caribbean islands, which normally receive tens of thousands of tourists daily. Eastern Caribbean District Superintendent Michael Anthony said that in the British Virgin Islands, half of the private sector has lost their jobs and citizens were put in a strict lockdown for several weeks, with only a few days permitted for restocking necessities. The Eastern Caribbean camp meeting was canceled as the churches moved to media platforms, and they were glad to report that a young man was saved after joining a call-in meeting held by our church in Antigua. By mid-May, the Road Town church on the island of Tortola was one of the first to implement necessary health measures and apply with the local government to reopen their building.
In the Dominican Republic, District Superintendent Deivys Pichardo said that local congregations quickly moved to a variety of media platforms for weekly meetings, but for special events like the Easter services, they combine for nationwide services. Jamaica District Superintendent Rohan Clough said our churches in Jamaica had not been webcasting previously, but they were able to watch webcasts of branches in other countries until they could set up their own digital strategy. In Haiti, District Superintendent Rolland Deler related that the saints there have not suffered greatly from the pandemic so far. The Haitian government has implemented fewer closures than most because they do not have resources to survive with a closed economy. Concern for our churches in Haiti remains as the nation was in an extremely vulnerable condition prior to the pandemic, and any further distress could be devastating.
Our work in South America includes about twenty-five churches in four countries. The leader of our Sunday school program in Iquitos, Peru, is a nurse and she was hospitalized for six days after contracting COVID-19, but is expected to make a full recovery. Church members in Chile were grateful that they could hold camp meeting this year; it ended on February 16, just weeks before the enforced closures began.
The epicenter of the viral outbreak in the United States has been New York City, and we have seven churches in or near that area. Josephine McElveen, the District Superintendent of Southern and Eastern United States, related that the response of our East Coast churches included holding twice daily prayer meetings, with members of several congregations joining together in prayer. The Brooklyn, New York, church was one of the first in the country to organize a week of online-only special meetings, with guest ministers from the East and West Coasts.
The world headquarters church in Portland continued to webcast live services from the church at its regularly scheduled times, but with no audience, minimal workers present, and new health measures in place. Not only the Portland congregation but many others from around the world said they have been blessed by the services and felt the Spirit of God with them as they watched from home. The Portland Sunday school classes were moved to a video conferencing platform, and a class for adults that began in Pullman, Washington, quickly grew to unite some two hundred participants from all of our West Coast branch churches, as well as other regions and countries. For younger ages, Portland Sunday school teachers collaborated to produce a weekly video with singing, a Bible verse, a Bible story, and an object lesson. In addition, many other United States branch churches also hosted online Bible studies, prayer meetings, and services, presenting people with more opportunities to join for church than they could ever attend in person.
In Canada we have about a dozen churches and groups, and they have been able to meet locally on a number of media platforms, as well as join the online services offered from the United States churches. Canada District Superintendent Chris Hewlett said, “I believe God does have the attention of many souls during these uncertain days. May God, by divine inspiration, use this worldwide coronavirus pandemic for good. Let us pray for a harvest of souls.” Just a few days later, the pastor of the church in Kitchener, Ontario, reported good news—four individuals had prayed through to salvation since the pandemic began.
We do not yet know what the final outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic will be, but as our people around the world continue looking to God, we trust He will help each congregation with every challenge it faces. We have already seen a variety of creative solutions employed to continue worship from a distance, reaching audiences in ways we had not done before. Though our international camp meetings and other special events have been canceled, we are encouraged to see many of our saints uniting from all over the world to worship and study God’s Word together online. As we thank God for what He has already done, may we have a renewed determination to support each other and hold up one another in prayer.
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