MONROVIA, Liberia — Deep in the New Kru Town slum, a short walk from the Atlantic Ocean, a handful of people in a tiny, dark room on Sunday sought help with the Ebola epidemic the way the faithful have for millennia: by appealing for divine intervention.
Dressed in their brightly colored Sunday best, they prayed and sang, dancing to the beat of a drum and a few gourds wrapped in beads and shaken in unison.
“Other people are sick and in hospitals!” one woman shouted.
“Yes!” the nine or so other congregants, including a couple of small children, responded.
“We are glad to be alive!”
“God, we thank you for keeping us alive! God, you are great. Amongst all other gods, you are great, oh Lord!”
If the schools were open in this Ebola-ravaged country, the small room would be part of Kongee Konwroh Community School. But even when the education system is functioning, on Sundays it is the humble Christ Deliverance Chapel of the Original Free Will Baptist Mission Church of Liberia and a source of hope for some of the poorest people in one of the poorest countries in the world.
Formal gatherings of any kind are discouraged in Liberia these days, because the lethal Ebola virus is spread by contact with other people’s body fluids, including sweat and saliva. In addition to the schools, most workplaces are closed. Sporting events have been canceled. But people in their best clothes could be seen everywhere in Monrovia on Sunday, heading to one place where they might find some solace together.
Religion plays a major part in Liberian life. According to the nation’s 2008 census, its population of about 4 million is 85.5 percent Christian and 12.2 percent Muslim. People who claim no religion and a small number who follow indigenous religious beliefs round out the rest, along with tiny groups of Bahais, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists.
The school-turned-chapel’s walls are made of concrete blocks, painted a fading yellow and green. Timbers hold up the corrugated metal roof, which slopes down beyond the walls to form an overhang, also held up by rough-hewn branches.
Remarkably, an adjacent hallway of the same school, literally steps away across a sandy courtyard, is home to a second church, the Faith Power Temple of the United Christian Church Incorporated. In the long, narrow sanctuary, song and prayer were belted into the morning air with the same fervor and a similar percussive beat, though the congregants hail from a different tribe.
“The church needs 500 blocks to begin the construction works of the Temple,” a small printed program noted. “It has less than 400 blocks.” Also: “Deacons Stephen Quaye and Otis Freeman gave the church one bag of cement, and Rev. Sunday T. Sipply gave the church one bag of cement.”
In a more affluent church in another part of town, God was being asked to help those who helped themselves. No one made it through the front door of the Jubilee Praise and Worship Center without first having Konah Kennedy take his or her temperature with an infrared thermometer. A helper wrote the number down on a bit of paper, which was then stapled to each person’s clothes — proof that he had no fever, one of the early signs of Ebola infection.
Bishop J. Allan Klayee said he began studying Ebola when the outbreak began in distant Lofa County and took steps to educate and protect his congregations at 16 churches, including this one in a large building that accommodates hundreds. Now, the bishop sends “Ebola prevention teams” into poorer parts of his community, hoping to change habits that aid transmission and raising money to buy necessities such as extra water buckets for some families.
He said the issue of Ebola would be raised during the service — “We preach according to the situation,” he noted — and claimed that none of his more than 16,000 members has become infected. Statistically, that seems unlikely in a country where more than 2,000 have contracted the virus and at least 1,224 have died. But many here still don’t believe that Ebola is real and are afraid to admit that they might have it.
“It is true that most Liberians, they deny the issue of Ebola,” Klayee said in an interview before the service began. “But as for me…I read about it.
“Because the Bible says it: We should be wise,” he added. “The whole thing is about…hope.”