Over the past weeks, as a new Coronavirus surged across the planet, churches have been grappling with how to respond. The very nature of religious institutions—how they connect people and are often centered around large gatherings—looms with heavy responsibility. In South Korea, over half of the country’s early COVID-19 cases were traced to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, where a woman attended services while already feeling ill, likely starting a deadly cluster of infections and even leading prosecutors to look into bringing charges of gross negligence against the church’s leader, the BBC reported.
Across the globe, the 13 World Divisions of the Adventist Church have been grappling with how best to serve their constituents and communities. Rapid developments, combined with how most Divisions operate across multiple borders, make for complicated situations. Here are updates from around the world, with some of the information that Division offices have shared publicly.
East-Central Africa Division
So far, the East-Central Africa Division has not released any statements on their website or social media about how the Coronavirus is affecting their operations. On March 18, the Division’s Twitter account did share a tweet from Hope Channel Kenya, saying that an evangelistic campaign at the Newlife SDA Church was canceled. According to church statistics, the Division has 2.5 million church members, including over 1 million in Kenya alone.
As of the latest statistics from the World Health Organization, six out of the East-Central Africa Division’s 11 countries have seen confirmed cases of the Coronavirus. So far, the virus hasn’t hit Africa as hard as other parts of the world—some health experts propose that warmer temperatures and higher humidity may slow its spread, though this remains a matter of contention. Many experts worry that the virus could soon have a severe impact across the African continent.
“I don’t believe, if we have a large influx of people with the virus, we can cope,” Dr. Oyewale Tomori, a professor of virology and former president of the Nigerian Academy of Science, told the New York Times on Tuesday.
On their website and social media, the Division shared a Russian translation of a message from General Conference President Ted Wilson and Dr. Peter Landless, the director of Adventist Health Ministries for the General Conference. On March 18, the Division shared a video message from Secretary Viktor V. Alyeksyeyenko. Church workers and members should support one another during difficult times, Alyeksyeyenko said, and follow the recommendations of government officials.
Based in Moscow, Russia, Euro-Asia has a membership of 107,252, according to the Adventist Yearbook. The Division’s territory also includes much of Eastern Europe. A large portion of the Division’s members are in Russia, which has only recently reported its first death from COVID-19. The country was aggressive in restricting travel early in the crisis, but according to medical professionals contacted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, actual cases are likely much higher than what the government has reported.
On March 16, in a detailed press release, Inter-America announced they had banned travel for their workers over the next 30 days, and were canceling major events throughout the territory. Although the Division encompasses countries in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, it's headquartered in Miami, Florida.
“Safety is of utmost importance for the church in Inter-America as well as the world church during this situation,” Elie Henry, Division president, said. The Division held a video conference to speak with leaders throughout its 24 unions. “If the local government makes a decision, we must follow it. If you are ordered to be quarantined for two weeks, then you must obey,” Henry told church leaders, also reminding them to practice careful hygiene and social distancing.
Staff from the Division’s Miami office will work remotely until at least the end of March. Inter-America’s Mid-Year Executive Meetings and Pre-meetings, originally scheduled for early May, will be held through the video-conferencing system set up with all 24 unions, Henry said.
One of the current epicenters for COVID-19, northern Italy, is located in the Division, and on February 26 a press release gave an update.
“As the Coronavirus epidemic (COVID–19) is starting to grow in Inter-European Region—especially in North Italy the last days—we can see that governments can be very quick in taking drastic measures like locking down territories, closing schools and other institutions,” said Valérie Dufour, of the Division’s Health Ministries department. “Also contrary to some information that may circulate, at this day nobody knows how the epidemic will develop and when it will come to an end.”
The Health Ministries department also created a webpage with key health information and links to government resources. On March 12, the Division announced all events and meetings were suspended through the end of April.
On March 17, administration decided to close the headquarters in Switzerland and move to working remotely for at least two weeks. “Considering that this extraordinary working arrangement in the current general situation unavoidably generates stress, a small team has been put into place who will help to keep the bonds as a team and to alleviate the effects of isolation,” the Division announced. “This group seeks to offer to their colleagues moral support, a laugh, or simply a moment to talk, or to pray together.”
“After we have done our best to follow all the instructions on how to proceed regarding this kind of disease, let us lift our eyes to God and put our confidence in Him,” Division President Mario Brito said in a message to constituents on March 19.
North American Division
As the pandemic crisis escalated in the United States, North America issued a statement on March 13 giving guidance across its territory. The Division ordered all staff to cease work related travel until June 24 and canceled all Division-sponsored events during the same time frame, including the Sonscreen Film Festival and Pathfinder Bible Experience.
“We are supporting our unions and local conferences in suggesting that churches and schools strongly reconsider the need to meet over the next two weeks,” the statement read. “If churches have live-streaming capabilities, those options should be utilized to provide virtual church services for their members.”
Along with sharing information from the WHO and CDC, the Division shared an information page from Adventist Risk Management addressing the crisis. On March 16, the Division announced it was moving its Maryland operations to a “virtual office” with all employees required to work from home. At the end of the month, leadership would reevaluate the situation.
“NAD leadership is urging all union and conference leaders in the Division to carefully consider advisements given by their state and local governments regarding the safety of their communities,” the latest statement said. “Everyone plays an important role in helping to contain the spread of COVID-19.”
Northern Asia-Pacific Division
As it includes both South Korea and China, the Division has been in the center of the crisis since the start. Although the overall population is the largest of any Division’s area, membership is comparatively small in the predominantly non-Christian regions. Headquartered in South Korea, the Division has so far republished information from the General Conference but not provided any other specific information about its operations.
On February 11, Andrew McChesney of Adventist Mission reported that the first Adventist church member had died from COVID-19 in China. At that time, Robert Folkenberg Jr., president of the Adventist Church’s Chinese Union Mission, said that there were other church members known to be fighting the disease.
South American Division
Since January, the Division has been sharing updates with information from the government health authorities. Its offices are in Brazil, which has the largest number of Adventist church members of any country.
On March 12, the Division recommended that each region evaluate whether to suspend in-person church services, and if services were canceled, support home-group work. Classes at educational institutions should only be suspended at the direction of local governments, the recommendations said.
The following day, several large events were cancelled, with the Division announcing a World Adventist Youth Day event would transition to an online program. As part of the now online event, Adventist youth were invited to participate in challenges to benefit the community during the crisis. The first challenge would be offering to help neighbors who were in isolation with their shopping.
South Pacific Division
South Pacific includes Australia, Papua New Guinea, and many of the surrounding island nations. On March 8, Division president Glenn Townend addressed the outbreak in a brief post on his Facebook page, which was then shared the next day by the Division’s Adventist Record publication. Townend urged church members to focus on prayer, Christian compassion, and good hygiene.
Also, on March 9, David McClintock, education director of the South Pacific Division, gave an update in the Adventist Record. "We are following the advice of the local education and health authorities—we want to be proactive without being alarmist,” he said. Schools would emphasize hygiene and review or cancel overseas travel.
On March 10, church leaders in North New South Wales and Western Australia decided to cancel upcoming camp meetings. “We know that camp meetings are a time for our church members to come together for fellowship and spiritual growth, and we know there will be many people disappointed to hear they have been cancelled,” said Jorge Munoz, president of the Australian Union. “But as a Church, we believe the physical health and wellbeing of our members is very important.” Soon thereafter, the Victorian and South Australian Conferences followed suit.
The South Pacific Division announced that preachers would not travel to Papua New Guinea for a large evangelistic campaign in the first half of May. The future of the campaign itself would be up to local church leaders, who should follow the guidance of their government, the Division said.
March 17 brought the strongest action yet, when officers of the Australian Union and its conferences decided to recommend a suspension of in persons services for all Australian churches through the rest of March and all of April. It was an “unprecedented measure” for the Australian Church. However, following guidelines of the Australian government, Adventist schools would stay open for the time being.
Southern-Africa & Indian Ocean Division
Like other parts of Africa, COVID-19 cases in the Division have lagged behind some world regions, but large concerns loom for the near future. South Africa, where the Division is headquartered, so far has seen by far the most cases on the African continent.
On March 6, Division President Solomon Maphosa presented a video statement on Facebook addressing the Coronavirus. “The prophecies of the word of God are fast fulfilling around us,” he said. “We just were attacked by the HIV and AIDS not too long ago, and now when we thought we had it under control here comes this Coronavirus. I thought it would be contained in China, but just a little while ago I heard that it’s even very close to us … It is time for us to go on our knees.”
“It’s a global problem now,” Maphosa said.
So far, the Division has yet to share how churches on the ground are affected.
Southern Asia Division
The Division encompasses India and many of its bordering countries but has a limited web and social media presence—no recent updates or news releases are readily accessible.
On March 19, Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics, and Policy, which operates in India, told the BBC that although the epidemic was several weeks behind some other countries, “India must prepare for a tsunami of coronavirus cases.”
Southern Asia-Pacific Division
Following orders from the Philippine government where the Division is based, on March 16, leadership announced that staff would work from home for the coming two weeks. Travel for employees would also be halted until at least the middle of April. “All residents/employees who enter [the Division] campus should subject themselves to thermal temperature reading by the guards,” Human Resource Director Kevin Costello said.
Earlier, on March 11, the Division issued general guidelines for its territory, based on WHO recommendations. On March 19, it gave a health advisory with recommendations for disease prevention, diet, and exercise during the crisis. Beyond the Philippines, the Division’s territory includes populous countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam.
The first public information shared to the Division’s 22 countries across northern and eastern Europe came on February 26, with advice from the General Conference Health Department. At that point, the Division was not canceling any programming.
On March 12, the Division announced all events would be canceled until the end of June. Already by then, church services in some of the Division’s countries had been suspended by local governments. In the United Kingdom, Trans-European staff worked to utilize technology to work from home, as recommended by the British government, holding their regular staff worship by video link.
Victor Hulbert, communication director for the Division, hosted a video titled “Coronavirus: Words of Hope” with three other staff, who each filmed on their smartphones from home. “We are still committed to doing our jobs, and I’m seeing that commitment right across our Division in the very many countries that are under some kind of lockdown, Hulbert said. "In places where churches are closed, where we can’t be together, we are still committed to doing our job.”
“I want to thank those of you that have transformed your worship service from a physical presence to online,” Raafat Kamal, president of the Division, said in the video.
West-Central Africa Division
According to a March 19 press release, Division leadership the previous week implemented travel restrictions for employees and recalled those who were away. The Division also suspended all large gatherings in its territory, indefinitely. On March 18, the Division’s home country of Côte d'Ivoire prohibited gatherings of 50 or more people for the coming two weeks. For that same time frame, the Division will close its offices and have employees work from home.
“The Administration of the Division is urging the administration of the various Unions, Conferences, Missions, and Institutions to see to it that at all levels, local governmental recommendations to prevent the spread of virus be enforced by the leadership and followed by members,” the press release said. The Division also shared detailed instructions for constituents and employees across its 22 countries. Local church leaders should “appoint someone that will be responsible to coordinate all the hygienic measures” and regularly share updates with members.
Several countries in the West-Central Africa Division were at the center of the Ebola epidemic in 2014-16, with church organizations and hospitals heavily involved in the mitigation efforts.
Alex Aamodt is the Roy Branson Investigative Reporter for Spectrum.
Image courtesy of Adventist.org.
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