Ebola-hit Liberians keeping the faith

The faithful gather for a prayer service like any other in Liberia`s sweltering Resurrection Baptist Ministries church, except today the reverend is taking time to explain why Ebola has forced a change in the seating arrangements.

Monrovia: The faithful gather for a prayer service like any other in Liberia`s sweltering Resurrection Baptist Ministries church, except today the reverend is taking time to explain why Ebola has forced a change in the seating arrangements.

"We have created space between the chairs and we have enlarged the aisles. This is the rule of Ebola," Joseph Johnson tells his flock, as they fan themselves in the cloying heat of a Monrovian summer morning.

"We have to make sure you don`t have body contact with each other. When Ebola is contained we will get back to our own rules."

Johnson prides himself in doing God`s work, but lately the prayers have taken a back pew to announcements on the deadly virus sweeping Liberia and other parts of West Africa.

The Ebola virus has killed over 1,500 people in four west African countries since the start of the year, spreading through contact with infected bodily fluids.

Liberia has borne the brunt of the epidemic, burying almost 700 people who got too close to an infected friend, lover, relative or, perhaps, patient or passenger.

Monrovia, a devout, predominantly Christian city of at least a million people, has churches of a wide variety of denominations on almost every street corner, as well as the occasional mosque.

Liberians, well accustomed to seeking solace in their faith, and in spiritual leaders like Joseph Johnson, have not stopped coming to services during the Ebola outbreak.

The preacher has a reputation as a firebrand.Left hand in the air, right hand clutching a Bible to his chest, he closes his eyes and beseeches the congregation to stand.

"We ask you, oh Lord, to come to our aid. We ask you because you are the only one who can help us," he cries.

"We are dying, Ebola is killing us, it is killing your children. Our doctors have become powerless and who do we go to if not you?"

He asks the newcomers among his flock to stand so that they might be welcomed by his regular faithful.

"Do not shake their hands. Just salute them and tell them welcome. That is enough for now," he chides.

Only then can the sermon begin, but even this part of the service is all about the epidemic.

"Ebola is not a fabrication, it is a reality. No pastor should fool you to say he has holy oil for Ebola. You will give him your holy money and you will die," he warns.

"Do not say that you are praying every day so you will have body contact with people and God will protect you. God did not say so."

Mopping sweat from his face in the oppressive heat, the tough-talking pastor takes a swipe at the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, which was criticised for its early inadequate response to the crisis."The government we have in this country is the cause of innocent people being killed today by this deadly virus. When the virus entered for the first time from Guinea, a responsible government would have taken the necessary precautions to stop it at the border," he roars.

"They sat down and allowed it to eat us gradually until it got into the city. Here we are today, topping the death toll. The health system has broken down. Innocent people are dying on the daily basis."

A woman at the back of the congregation begins to sob uncontrollably and an awkward silence descends on the service.

The reverend knows what to do. He bows his head in a mark of respect and then stares from one member of his flock to the next.

"She has lost a loved-one because of Ebola," he confides.

Services in Johnson`s church were once joyous occasions, with congregation members squeezing together on the wooden pews, shaking hands and hugging.

But there is not much joy to be seen among the religious of Monrovia these days, just grief, despair and -- sometimes -- hope in the possibility of salvation.

Before entering the church, everyone has to wash their hands thoroughly in chlorine solution and, once inside, people keep their distance.

Before Johnson finishes his sermon, he runs the churchgoers through Ebola`s version of the Ten Commandments -- a secular checklist of dos and don`ts that might offer protection from an earthbound Hell.

"Keep your children home. Do not let them get out. For seven weeks now my children have been home, none of them is allowed to get out," he says.

"Do not eat bush meat, do not touch dead bodies, and do not touch the vomit, urine, saliva or any bodily fluid from the next person. Take the necessary precautions and God will do the rest."

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