Places of worship are open, but mostly empty

Months after the reopening of religious institutions, many congregants remain at home. Despite this, church leaders are optimistic about the role they can play in relieving distress.

Pastor Tito Mhlongo*, 76, feels around his bedside table, picks up his tattered Bible and opens up a page in the book of Ezekiel. He counts five new R100 notes, before putting the Bible down and clutching the notes close to his chest. 

“I couldn’t sleep, but God heard my prayer. I was wondering how we were going to survive next month and dreading going to the pay point to collect my money,” he says, explaining that his granddaughter gave him the money when he least expected it. 

Adjusting the sunglasses he is wearing indoors, Mhlongo says he has not enjoyed a cent of the R350 special Covid-19 social relief of distress grant. He is a pensioner and usually collects R2 100 at the offices in Daveyton, Ekurhuleni. He used to run a church at a local primary school, but now runs one in his yard. 

He lost his wife to diabetes four years ago and is raising sons, who are unemployed, as well as his grandson, without much help. Mhlongo, who has cataracts in both eyes, says trying to cater for all of them with just one grant, instead of two, has been difficult. Handing over his expired licence to show his age, he explains that he borrowed money from umashonisa – loan sharks – before lockdown level five in March, securing the loan by handing over his identity document. 

“I took a loan for R2 000 to buy some stock at Dragon City including portable radios, traditional Zulu shirts and other goods. When I started, I had to knock on doors and convince people to buy, but at some stage, people were even calling me and coming to me asking me for new goods,” he explains. “Business was going fine until this lockdown started.”

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Mhlongo says many people opted to stay at home and others held on to their last few coins.

He has not seen his identity document since he took the loan, the interest on which has increased exponentially. During the first month, he was charged R500. This increased as he defaulted on repayments.

“You must now choose between groceries or increasing interest. I dreaded going to the pay point because I don’t even enjoy or see that money. I cannot even pay for or buy things because I need to pay back not only the interest, but the original amount I owed, you see,” he says. 

Once he hands over the R500, Mhlongo will owe R1 000.

Empty churches

The government allowed places of worship to reopen, President Cyril Ramaphosa explained on 26 May 2020, to take care of the spiritual, psychological and emotional wellbeing of all South Africans. He added that the closure of churches “worsened the distress of communities who [were] unable to worship in congregation”.

According to the new rules, a church may have no more than 50 congregants at a service, which can take place for only a limited time, and the venue needs to be thoroughly cleaned, among other measures. Ramaphosa also suggested congregants hum instead of sing to avoid spreading the virus through airborne transmission. 

Three months after the announcement, a large number of churches remain closed, opting to use virtual sessions. Mhlongo says congregants have not been coming to his church as much as before lockdown.

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“You saw the chairs in the house? I used to use those and set up a [blue and white] tent over here in the front of the house for our Sunday services. But now less people are coming so we just worship inside the house,” he says, referring to his three-bedroom Reconstruction and Development Programme house in Etwatwa, Ekurhuleni.

Mhlongo explains that he is no longer receiving church and Sunday school materials and resources from the main church in Boksburg as a result of the lockdown. Pastors have also been told not to attend training sessions and classes unless they have tithe money, which he does not. 

Effect of places of worship reopening

Bishop Shadrack Moloi, president of the Council of African Independent Churches, an affiliate of the South African Council of Churches, says the council is happy with the reopening of places of worship because it means they can provide support to families affected by Covid-19, especially to those who feel depressed or have no food.

“We could not support our people. Now we are able to. The opening of the church assisted us. Now [congregants] can come to church and inform us about the challenges they have. There are a lot of people who have lost their loved ones. Some have lost their jobs,” he says.

Tinyiko Maluleke, a professor of African spirituality and culture at the University of Pretoria, says the decision to reopen churches was likely motivated in part by the public’s distress during this time. “Psychologists are working hard. More people will begin to fear they will die or experience more grief. [Religious figures] will have to spring into action, and it’s possible that the government … thought of that [when considering the decision to reopen].”

But Maluleke also speculates that it is possible the upcoming 2021 elections swayed the decision, as churches are influential in elections. “[The government was] under pressure from too many lobby groups and trying to send as many olive branches as possible … to those they thought could influence people and lead to social instability or [cost] them votes,” he says. 

According to Ebrahim Bham, an Islamic scholar, the president and relevant ministers held a virtual meeting in May with religious leaders. A week later, the reopening of churches was announced. 

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Bham says most mosques have opened with varying degrees of attendance, but a few have remained closed in Gauteng and the Western Cape, citing precautions against Covid-19. Bham believes there is a fine balance between worshipping and taking the necessary precautions, but feels the move has allowed for “prayer in times of uncertainty, giving people hope and solace”. 

Policy and political analyst Somadoda Fikeni says the government’s decision cannot only be seen through a political lens. “There are people who are foreign nationals [who] are not included in government assistance. They may need assistance. There are people who are homeless. Some need counselling, psychological help and so forth, and the church has a fantastic infrastructure to deal with some of those things and relieve government of the pressure.”

But Fikeni warns that there has been a rise in the spiritual black market, saying that “with unemployment, everyone who once addressed a crowd can say they have the skill to become a pastor … it’s certainly easier if you are a spiritual tenderpreneur to have this tax-free arrangement”. 

Maluleke says the Covid-19 crisis will not fix endemic problems, including the regulation and taxation of churches. “We all wish that the Covid-19 scenario should become an opportunity to fix … problems [including] economic disparities, policy and regulation gaps. Some of these things cannot be fixed in the short term. You would need much more basic legislation,” he says, adding that the would-be solutions would be too rushed to implement during the pandemic.

Mega churches remain closed

Mega churches, which have up to 20 000 congregants, are still severely limited.

Speaking to The Citizen earlier this year, Pastor Joshua McCauley of Redemption Church in Greenstone, Edenvale – one of the many places of worship that opted to remain closed – said “the restrictions imposed of less than 50 people … means gathering for regular church services might be practically premature for many churches”. 

Maluleke says the churches that have chosen to remain closed are not doing it for the good of the community. “It’s not practical for them. What will they do with 50 people? The whole regulation is not practical. There was very little thinking.”

* Not his real name.

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