In the wake of Ebola, New York Times explores Liberia's 'crisis of faith'

This was the top headline on the front page of Sunday's New York Times:

Liberia Conquers Ebola, But Faces a Crisis of Faith

The Times reports on churches, which helped spread the virus by laying hands on victims during prayers, fighting to come back:

MONROVIA, Liberia — It decimated hospitals, schools, families, fortunes and, for many, even their faith.
Now, it is officially over. The Ebola outbreak has ended in Liberia, the World Health Organization announced Saturday, an enormous milestone that seemed impossibly far off last year when dead bodies blocked roads and the sick prayed for ambulances that never came.
Desperately, the country is trying to rebuild just about everything, from its health and education systems to its economy and international image.
But in the dim hall of the United God Is Our Light Church, its generator turned off to shave costs, the congregation has been trying to repair something more fundamental: its spirit.
“Some of you are thinking that this church will die,” the church secretary, Joseph Vayombo, recently shouted in the small Pentecostal church here, no longer able to contain his frustration at all the empty seats around him. “There are people here who want this church to die.”
The large circle of plastic chairs inevitably drew attention to the low attendance at Friday morning prayer, a monthly gathering intended to bring together a church torn asunder by Ebola. Three, four, sometimes half a dozen empty seats separated the attendees from one another.

In Ebola's wake, the faith angle is certainly important.

Credit the Times for recognizing that and giving this story prominent attention.

The opening scene at the church paints a compelling picture of the aftermath. However, the vague nature of some of the descriptions — small Pentecostal church, large circle of plastic chairs, low attendance — detracts from it. Why not count and provide concrete details?

I'm curious, too, about the timing of the prayer gathering. Why Friday morning? Wouldn't a church typically meet on Sunday? (I'm typing this before my morning caffeine, so there's every chance I'm missing something obvious.)

Later in the story, readers learn more about the Ebola experience of the Pentecostal church:

Last year, after congregants at the United God Is Our Light Church laid their hands on a visitor with Ebola during a healing prayer, eight members died within weeks.
Some survivors blamed the church leaders; others accused the person who had invited the sick visitor. The church was placed under quarantine, closed for services during the greatest period of anguish and loss. Members scattered as Ebola raged through their city and shook their faith.
“Ebola brought problems in churches; it brought problems in relationships,” Philip Moseray, the assistant pastor, told the faithful. “But God is in control, and we’re not giving up. We are trying to rebuild. We are trying to overcome.”
The events at United God Is Our Light were repeated in countless other churches across West Africa’s Ebola belt.
The sick, unable or unwilling to seek treatment, were sometimes brought for prayers inside churches, which became sanctuaries for them. But the practice also ended up spreading the virus.

Keep reading, and the Times delves into Pentecostal beliefs that apparently contributed to deaths:

Across the country, pastors and church were getting infected around the same time, prompting religious leaders to intervene. The Inter-Religious Council of Liberia worked with Christian and Muslim officials to spread a common message down the ranks, calling for a temporary ban on prayers and funeral practices that involved touching the sick or dead.
Most hewed to the new rules, except Pentecostal churches, which were the most fervent deniers of Ebola, said Mr. York, the council’s secretary general.
Bishop Amos Sesay, the founder of Word of Faith Ministries, a Pentecostal church with 45 branches in Liberia, said seven of his pastors had died of Ebola despite instructions that they cease dangerous practices.
“Some of them believed that they have the Holy Ghost and they can’t be affected by Ebola,” Bishop Sesay said.

At the end of the story, the Times quotes a handful of United God Is Our Light Church leaders and members concerning their faith journey — from the Ebola outbreak to now. 

Quotes such as "God will work his miracle" and "I was vexed with the devil" reflect the newspaper's willingness to let the leaders and members describe the experience in their own words.

Kudos to the Times for allowing their voices to be heard.

To be sure, this story provides a snapshot — not an all-encompassing portrait — of religion in Liberia after Ebola. But it's a nice start.

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