Kenya's ban on large faith gatherings to slow the spread of the coronavirus is not preventing church leaders from spreading the Gospel.
With gatherings of more than 100 prohibited, pastors at rural Dirakho United Methodist Church pondered whether to prepare and preach sermons into a camera in an empty sanctuary. Considering only one out of 10 church members is able to access livestreamed services, according to the Rev. Rosemary Iseren, they decided against it.
Instead, Iseren chose to take worship door to door in a service she dubbed “D2D.”
She said her church was the first United Methodist congregation on Kenyan soil and so it leads the way for other local churches in the region.
“(They) get their spiritual bearing from the stem that is Dirakho,” she said, on taking the lead during the lockdown.
Every Sunday, Iseren hits the road, delivering her sermons to scores of people in their village homes, and she said she relishes the reception she has received.
The services offer an atmosphere of hope, she said, as Kenya attempts to contain the coronavirus. There have been 11,673 confirmed COVID-19 cases and at least 217 deaths, according to the latest Johns Hopkins University data.
“In my mind, mandatory social distancing provides a theological test,” said Iseren. “After three and a half years of pastoring, it was my first time announcing the cancellation of Sunday worship gatherings. I’ve never canceled — not for bad weather, power outage or even personal illness.”
She said at first, the church welcomed members to pray over the phone, share encouraging verses or send texts with any pressing needs. They mailed resources and envelopes so members could send in their weekly offering, said Iseren. “(But) the process wasn’t successful as our members aren’t tech-savvy.”
That’s when church leaders turned to D2D to connect with members in worship during the quarantine.
“On our first visit, members were empowered to lead their households in worship using a basic booklet containing weekly Bible passages from Luke’s Gospel with questions to help leaders engage with listeners, including a place to take prayer requests, a written prayer and a familiar hymn with intentionally sparse liturgy that required zero preparation,” she said.
The church also set up a buddy system, pairing each member with a shut-in buddy, a member buddy and a ministry partner buddy to contact every week.
Iseren explained that a shut-in buddy is someone nearby who can join the member for smaller home fellowship of no more than five people, while a member buddy is a friend from the church that can offer distance fellowship. A ministry partner is a church leader assigned to guide the pairing during the small group fellowships.
Emmanuel Juma, assistant pastor at Dirakho United Methodist Church, said he has missed the personal interaction at church, however, “there is a strong bond among the church members, despite not being able to meet in person. D2D continues to bring us together.
“It would not be possible if people didn’t invite our mobile church into their communities. It has been wonderful seeing our church members during the D2D worship services,” he said.
The Rev. Risper Wandera of Namioso United Methodist Church said the quarantine has been a practical reminder that his job is not to do the entire ministry himself, but “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”
Namioso UMC adopted the D2D worship plan started by Dirakho.
“D2D offers an opportunity for us to renew our appreciation of the value of prayer at home and in private,” Wandera said.
Okumu Singi, a longtime elderly member of Dirakho UMC, has been working from his village home since last year, but noticed a change during the pandemic.
“I have been very aware of the way our pastor has been checking on me and on other friends and colleagues to try to reduce the sense of isolation that can be very difficult for many people,” he said.
“I have been touched by this and have realized that a phone call, email or even an old-fashioned letter to older friends and relatives can make a big difference and can brighten up people's days in ways we may not imagine,” he said. “I hope to continue doing this, even when COVID-19 restrictions are over.”
The Rev. Carol Alois Ososo, a retired elder in the Kenya-Ethiopia Conference who is now deployed as Busia District superintendent, said he has been impressed with how churches have adapted to the COVID-19 restrictions.
He said the pandemic will challenge church leadership in ways they could not have imagined.
“But in times like this, the gospel of God with us carries a heightened weight of hope,” he said. “Be encouraged that creativity within the bounds of faithfulness is the correct course of action.”
The Rev. Wilton T. Odongo, secretary to the Kenya-Ethiopia Conference and Nairobi District superintendent, said that while he remains connected in Nairobi, he misses having contact with those in other districts, especially “those who are struggling economically, socially and in other ways, those who are excluded, discounted, discarded.
“My prayer as humanity weathers the current storm,” he said, “is that the entire human family will find itself drawn into a greater sense of unity. … My hope is that the new patterns of ministry established during this season will bear fruit long after the virus is eradicated and that the post-pandemic world would be marked by more concern for others and an appreciation of the church as a community and a sharpening of people's listening skills.”
Maiga is a communicator for the Kenya-Ethiopia Conference.
News media contact: Vicki Brown at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.