Praying through the pandemic

Pentecostalism in Nigeria preaches that prayer, not political action, is the solution to COVID-19.

Canaanland, outside Lagos, Nigeria. Image credit Seamus Murphy/VII Photo.

On February 28, as COVID-19 spread across the globe, Enoch Adejare Adeboye, General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), posted a short video online to his millions-strong following across Nigeria. “I want to assure you,” he announced to the camera in his distinctively calm and cavalier manner, “that there is no virus that is going to come near you at all. I believe that this is a time for God to show you clearly that there is a difference between those who serve him wholeheartedly, and those who do not.”

At the time of this broadcast, the pandemic appeared to most Nigerians like a distant phenomenon. In late February, few cases had been recorded and health officials, though braced for a sudden outbreak, were confident in their ability to contain it. Just over a month later, things look less certain. As of early April, cases were appearing across several states (including Lagos, Osun, Oyo and Kaduna), and numerous government ministers were self-isolating. Despite this surge, many remain confident in the government’s ability to contain the situation given their handling of the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Others have speculated that Nigeria’s youthful population may lead to herd immunity that stems the spread.

Alongside such optimism, however, is a growing realization that decades of underinvestment, privatization and political short-termism has left both the healthcare system and the economy poorly-equipped to cope with such a far-reaching crisis. A conflict over limited resources—with the rich hoarding supplies and pharmacy stocks dwindling—has laid bare stark economic inequalities in cities like Lagos and Abuja.

There is also growing concern that a largely privatized and chronically underfunded health service will quickly buckle. Others have questioned whether lockdowns are sustainable in cities where many livelihoods depend on mobility, and where large sections of the population live in close proximity, often with poor sanitation. A deep economic shock also seems inevitable, given the size of Nigeria’s informal economy as well as its continued dependence on rapidly-devaluing oil exports.

As COVID-19 has gripped Nigeria, it has shaken Adeboye’s congregations—emptying church services usually attended by thousands. But the virus has also transformed worship in Nigeria. For RCCG and most other churches, daily sermons have moved online, with communal worship now taking place in private isolation, mediated by bibles and digitalized lists of prayers. Hours-long services are now live-streamed, motivational psalms tweeted, and financial contributions payable digitally. But while the RCCG has adhered to a ban on large gatherings, other Pentecostal pastors have resisted social distancing measures, in one case arguing that given the importance of worship in Nigeria, shutting churches would be equivalent to shutting hospitals. Though the RCCG were quick to comply with social distancing measures, the church has demonstrated concern about the extent of government provision for communities affected by COVID-19.

State support for citizens affected by coronavirus has been slow to materialize. Moreover, such efforts are often distrusted by citizens when they do arrive. The RCCG, conscious of this distance between state and citizen, has extended their corporate social responsibility program (retitled as Christian Social Responsibility) to distribute food packages to neighborhoods and supply PPE and ventilators to hospitals. Alongside these small-scale efforts intended to fill the gaps left by a disjointed and dysfunctional public health system, the church has continued its wider campaign of positioning itself as the chief provider of social security and dependable leadership in Nigeria. Despite moving worship online, the RCCG has therefore been able to restate its profound social and political reach within Africa’s biggest democracy because of the crisis—rather than in spite of it.

As the pandemic has advanced and the situation evolved, the church’s central message has remained the same. In line with his early pronouncements, Adeboye has declared the pandemic part of God’s plan; a test of faith in which the power of prayer will shelter true believers from the virus. Portrayed as part of a divine unfolding rather than an unforeseen tragedy, Adeboye has been able to frame the pandemic as a divine wake-up call. “God” he proclaimed in late March, “is using coronavirus to show the world that he is still in control of the affairs of men.” In fact, he subsequently announced, God had warned him about the coming deadly plague some months ago, though he had resisted telling followers about it for fear of interrogation by state authorities.

For Adeboye, the pandemic is more than just a virus; it’s a divinely sanctioned opportunity to test one’s faith. The virus, he recently said, is a “public holiday declared from heaven.” Good Christians should therefore take the opportunity to fast diligently, donate to the church abundantly, and pray as hard as possible for salvation. “Your testimony,” Adeboye told followers on March 30, 2020 will be that “a thousand have fallen by my left and ten thousand by my right, but none has come near me.”

In professing the power of prayer to combat complex social problems, the RCCG, like many other Pentecostal churches, emphasizes individual responsibility. In placing such strong emphasis on prayer and personal discipline rather than on state deficiency or social inequality, Pentecostal churches depoliticize the COVID-19 crisis and distract from enduring sociopolitical realities. Putting prayer before politics, Pentecostal leaders continue to divert attention from the structural problems that make crises such as this one so potentially destructive. By talking past the continuing realities of wealth disparity, inadequate public healthcare, global inequality and the absence of a welfare state, and instead prioritizing immediate, localized, and surface-level solutions, Pentecostalism effectively directs the negative outcomes of such crises towards society’s most vulnerable—away from those that can afford to shelter away from its biological and economic effects. Although a focus on prayer is not exclusive to Pentecostals, many such churches mark themselves by their prioritization of prayer as the most effective tool for achieving radical change.

For Nigeria’s Pentecostals, individual actions, taken collectively, can cause a spiritual revolution that may then have political outcomes. However, the Pentecostal version of a political revolution is an interiorized neoliberal one, prioritizing the agency of the individual rather than the political power of the collective. And as COVID-19 advances, Pentecostal churches continue to encourage self-isolation and prayer as the best inoculation against this disease. As Adeboye told online worshippers during a Sunday service in early April, “One more time, I’m telling you my children, relax, all is going to be well. What you should do is praise God.”

Further Reading