“Lord,” shouts the Reverend Joseph T.S. Menjor into a microphone. “We are tired of this situation. We are calling on you to cast this abomination from our country. Jesus, we want our land to be free of Ebola. Cast out this disease!”
The pastor is leading his people in prayer, but it is not a moment of quiet reflection. No, his congregation is on its feet, swaying to a gospel hymn, eyes closed and hands raised in supplication. At Menjor’s call, the 600 or so congregants of the Free Pentecostal Global Mission Church in the Chickensoup Factory district of Monrovia, Liberia chant a chorus of amens and launch into a cacophony of individual prayers, symbolically casting the evil of Ebola to the ground with repeated downward thrusts of their hands.
Menjor is not just trusting in God to solve the Ebola problem. The minister is taking concrete steps to protect his people, and his community, from an outbreak of a deadly virus that has already claimed 2,800 lives and sickened thousands more across Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Over 1,500 of those fatalities occurred in Liberia, with the densely packed seaside capital of Monrovia the worst affected. The disease, which is transmitted through contact with infected bodily fluids, has no vaccine, and there is no cure.
Preventing Ebola’s spread is the only solution, says Menjor. As with most establishments across the capital, large plastic vessels fitted with spigots and filled with a diluted chlorine solution flank the church doors. Ushers remind churchgoers to wash their hands thoroughly before entering. No one shakes hands anymore. Newcomers are greeted with broad smiles instead of the reverend’s personal embrace. While the church has grown in numbers since the outbreak — “When people are scared of dying, they flock to God,” chuckles Menjor — the pews are no longer tightly packed. The church offers two Sunday services instead, and broadcasts its sermons over the radio.
The Chickensoup Factory church branch, named after a powder soup manufacturing plant that used to be in the area, has also pioneered an Ebola Task Force designed to push the message of prevention into the homes of congregants and community members. Each Sunday, Rebecca Scotland, a founding member of the task force and a nursing instructor at a nearby teaching hospital, delivers her own talk before the sermon.
Combining drama with call and response, Scotland mimes Ebola symptoms for the congregation to identify. She fans her face and mimes taking her temperature. “Fever!” the congregation shouts. She feigns weakness, swaying on her feet. She clutches her stomach and bends over a pretend bucket. “Vomiting!” calls out a member of the choir. She squats in front of the pulpit and blows a raspberry into the microphone. “Diarrhea!” laughs the congregation.
The game of symptoms charades over, Scotland collapses in front of the pulpit, pretending to be sick. One of the prayer leaders, playing the part of a concerned relative, rushes to her side to offer comfort. Scotland jumps up with a stern “No!” The easiest way to get Ebola, she explains, is by touching infected people. “If you think you are sick, or someone in your family is sick, call 4455,” the national emergency hotline number. “The good news about Ebola is that there are survivors. It is not a death sentence. If you can get to the hospital, you have a chance.”
But knowing how difficult it is to find care in a city with more Ebola patients than room to treat them, she instructs the congregation on how to wear long sleeves and gloves before tending sickened family members. She explains how to mix a chlorine and water solution for cleaning hands and skin, and a stronger one for cleaning up vomit, blood and diarrhea. “Most Ebola infections happen at the bedside, when family members are caring for their loved ones,” she explains to TIME after the sermon. “If we can teach our members how to take care of themselves while taking care of their family members, we can go a long way towards stopping this disease.”
Scotland’s now weekly sermon was inspired by the illness of a beloved member of the church leadership, choir director Deborah Kamanda, who contracted Ebola caring for her younger sister and died Aug. 23. It was the first time Ebola had come to the congregation, and spurred the leadership into action. “We couldn’t save Deborah, but we knew we could stop that from happening again.” The task force, which was launched a week after Kamanda took sick, bore fruit immediately. Scotland’s guidance helped save Kamanda’s husband, Alex T. J. Kamanda, a science teacher who nursed his wife for eight days before a bed opened up in one of the city’s overcrowded treatment facilities.
While Kamanda, 39, stayed by his wife’s side, church members kept him in a steady supply of gloves, extra clothes and chlorine powder. “For me it was traumatic, seeing someone you love suffering so much, and not even being able to touch her without gloves, ” says Kamanda, sitting in front of the empty porch where his wife spent her last listless days before going to the treatment center. “But I didn’t get sick.” It’s a double blessing: his four-year-old son, who was staying with his grandparents at the time, still has a family, unlike the country’s hundreds of Ebola orphans.
The guidance of Monrovia’s churches is spreading beyond their congregations. When one of his neighbors got sick, Kamanda’s example inspired the victim’s son, Victor T. Bumbeh, to use the same protective measures. He didn’t get sick either. “It’s a fearful disease,” says the jobless 27-year-old. “I understand why people are afraid. But with the right protections, not everyone who touches it dies.” To members of the Chickensoup Factory church, casting Ebola from Liberia may start with God, but education, counseling and a good dose of chlorine are just as important.
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