The church in Zimbabwe and COVID-19 interventions

By Admire Masuku & Nathan Guma

These are trying times. Times when those who are weak in faith and those who have no disposable incomes are going through a rough patch. The world’s notable organisations, entrepreneurs – great and small – and well-wishers have become soldiers defending their own against the threat of the invisible killer – COVID-19.

But as this gallant pack continue on the warpath – seeking for the pandemic cure, global citizens are staying indoors owing to COVID-19 sponsored lockdowns. In Zimbabwe, people are starving in silence and some are overwhelmed by fear of the unknown. It is a double tragedy – especially for the vulnerable and informally employed. According to World Food Programme about 8 million Zimbabweans are food insecure.

As this happens experts have warned of a rise in mental illnesses. “COVID-19 has caused a lot of fear. And, when you have fear, you enter into a zone of worrying,” doctor and psychologist Sacrifice Charisa told Trevor Ncube in one of his episodes.

The Coronavirus is yet another emergency when the government, civic organisations and the church are called upon to stand with the affected who are psychologically traumatised.

The pandemic is bad news for vulnerable groups.

Rita Madziva, 58, a widow who stays in Mbare a few kilometers south of the capital,Harare, used to survive on vending prior to the pandemic and the resultant lockdown – is overwhelmed.

“I stopped paying tithes because I was getting very little money,” she says. “The lockdown has made it worse for me.”

Over the past few weeks, she has anxiously waited for government aid in vain.

Though Madziva is a trusted lieutenant, she says the church has hardly returned her the favor.

“Situations like these can cause mental health complications,” says psychologist Noreen Dari.      “The pandemic can force people into hopelessness which is a factor in mental health issues such as depression and suicide.”

With government aid not enough for them all, and sometimes promised but never delivered -all the vulnerable have is each other. Since the lockdown was first pronounced on the 30 of March, 2020 people have not started receiving cash relief of a paltry ZWL$ 200, equivalent to US $ 4.

In the midst of this confusion and deprivation, some have turned to the church for solace – both materially, spiritually and psychologically.

Ironically, the public has, lately, been critisising some prominent pastors for allegedly failing to help the poor in crises situations. Critics say the modern church has abandoned works of charity and true gospel and morphed into a business enterprise swept away by gosprenuership popularly called prosperity gospel.

Bishop Lindon Masaya says some of these churches have contributed to psychological torture than healing.

“This issue even affects me,” he says. “Before COVID-19 came, the church was a bustle with fleets of cars parked outside chapels. People would regularly give to the church when it was in its time of need. Now that people are in need, church has seemingly neglected its people.”

He adds that many churches have done nothing more than create WhatsApp groups to connect with their members.

While such innovations ensure that the church is in constant touch with congregants, Dari cautions that there is a risk in sharing unverified information leading to anxiety and stress.

Social critic, Samuel Mapondera adds a log into the fire. He chastises ministries for their profit-oriented approach to the gospel.

“Ministries are more like businesses, they survive on offerings. However, traditional churches should lead the way in terms of disaster management,” he says. It seems mainstream churches offer better support than ministries and pentecostal churches.

Adventist pastor, Edward Madzorera believes mainstream churches are an exception when it comes to social responsibility.

“Catholicism, Seventh Day Adventists and Dutch Reformed Church have been leading in terms of that,” he says. “Mainstream denominations are not known for the gospel of prosperity but they run major institutions providing different services to communities.”

He adds that mainline churches are unlike modern Pentecostal denominations which are a one man band and the leader takes all. “We are yet to see what they give back to the community.”

But Minneapolis (USA) pastor, Jon Bloom disagrees. His account published by Desiring God Church says most mainstream churches are rich in love but deplorable in material riches.

However, the criticism does no totally dwarf critical interventions by other churches which continue to provide light and care at a time when people are bereft of hope.

“We donated foodstuffs to 1,400 families in Ntumbane, Njube, Lobengula and Lobengula East,” says Reverend Kenneth Mtata, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, as he outlined the council’s COVID-19 response.

In addition, ZCC is “training pastors on psycho-social support,” adds Reverend Samuel Sifelani, the church’s Ecumenical liason and empowerment officer. “The first program targets 115 pastors from across the country selected from member churches.”

ZCC has 29 denominations.  Other church groupings are chipping in to augment government efforts in assisting the needy.

The Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe (EFZ), an umbrella body for 841 evangelical, para-church organizations and pentecostal church denominations, formed in 1962 has partnered various organisations to offer assistance to vulnerable groups.  EFZ general secretary, Pastor Blessing Makwara says member churches have demonstrated love by reaching out “during crisis and normal times, ministering to the spiritual, social, physical and economic needs of God’s people.”

The church also partnered with the Epworth Local Board (ELB) in a COVID-19 awareness program and donated 200litres of diesel.  In Mashonaland East, EFZ partnered Tear Fund to respond to COVID-19 in Murehwa and Mutoko where they installed 10 hand washing facilities, disturbed 2,000 bars of soap, and offered psycho social support.

EFZ has not only been influential in social responsibility but has work with various institutions including Higherlife Foundation, Zimbabwe Elections Support Network (ZESN), Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP), the Ministry of Health and Child Care among others to promote peace, human rights and social accountability.

Pastor Makwara, however, agrees that many churches are struggling and not in a position to help congregants.

“Some churches have struggled to feed their pastors while the pastors have too failed to feed their congregations,” he says. “The majority of members do not have other ways of raising finances “except tithes and offerings which are collected and received almost every gathering, and other congregants who relied on informal trading have also been affected “thus increasing the population that is struggling” to get basic needs.

For a long time the church had clung to traditional methods of spreading the message – physically visiting churches and relaying the gospel but COVID-19 has seen some becoming innovative.

“We are live streaming various services on our different social media platforms,” Sifelani says. “We are also using zoom for the conferences and WhatsApp for e-learning.”

However, Makwara says few churches, especially in urban areas managed to adjust to online church services. In most cases, “pastors don’t have money to buy data and airtime to be calling or live streaming, while the congregants don’t have data or airtime to download voice or video messages shared.”

Zimbabwe Christian Ministers Association (ZMCA) in conjunction with Higherlife Foundation is providing COVID-19 quarantine facilities, says Bishop Christopher Choto, the organisation’s president.

“Facilities in Harare, Gweru and Bulawayo will be opened soon,” he says. “We have also been providing spiritual support and care in isolation and quarantine centers, hospitals and communities.”

They too, like ZCC and EFZ have been conducting online seminars to offer psychosocial support and reaching an average of 350 pastors per week.

Bishop Choto adds that that the church is also helping spouses of deceased ministers who are struggling to cope and working together with the Ministry of Health and Child Care to offer psychological support.

Social scientist and lawyer, Norest Ndawana acknowledges the role played by the church.

“The church has been pragmatic,” he says. “It is telling people in need to contact and help those in need. Those willing to help are being encouraged to do so via online platforms as home visits are not allowed.”

Bulawayo Polytechnic Principal, Reverend Gilbert Mabasa says the church is hard at work

“Different sects, denominations, congregations and sects are responding in different ways. There is no formula on how people respond to events that unfold in life,” he says.

Whilst some churches have been caught unaware by the virus, others have had a tradition of social responsibility, building communities and promoting peace and development. Not all churches are resting on their laurels – some are and have set up structures that ensure that the needy are ring-fenced from fangs of poverty and deprivation.

Admire Masuku is a Journalism lecturer while Nathan Guma is a Journalism student,both from  Harare Polytechnic.They write in their individual capacities.