By Metropolitan Dr Makarios of Nairobi
These are truly trying times we are living in, a time when the entire world has almost halted to a standstill; social fabric which defines human interaction has been unwound by an invisible but deadly virus. Huge institutions have been forced to close down and ponder on the best way forward. Covid-19 has been so unforgiving to every living human being, young and old; it has ravaged our lives mercilessly.
Discovered in China in December of 2019, the novel coronavirus only reared its head in Kenya close to the middle of March 2020. Let me state upfront that “we weren’t prepared for what was to come”.
In a few days the numbers had started climbing, and such scenarios as previously witnessed in Europe were now in our front yard. First, the schools closed, then came the hotels and churches, the counties most affected were locked down and movement was limited to only essential services providers. The flights were grounded. The globe literally went on a standstill.
When schools closed, there was a kind of relief knowing that our children would not be a medium for cross infection in the likely case that the virus reached our most vulnerable populations, especially the sprawling slums. But there was a grave concern too; the majority of our children in our fully sponsored schools rely solely on the food we offer to them daily. Of great concern to us was our primary school at the Seminary compound, with over 290 pupils fully dependent on the meals and other essentials we offer to them.
Overcoming the hunger
To help the thousands of people locked down without casual work and others laid off their usual jobs without pay, I embarked on a rigorous project of providing daily food rations to families in our neighborhood as well as in all our parishes.
This was guided not only by the reports in the media but mostly through what I saw personally as I travelled to several parts of the Diocese to see the people and encourage them. The media, by the end of July 2020, reported that 3.6 million Kenyans faced hunger due to the Covid-19 effects. This number is among the 16% of the global population that is facing hunger and starvation. To make matters worse, this pandemic came at a time when many parts of the country were fighting a locust invasion, which decimated essential crops in the farms. As the swarm swept through the country, floods from torrential downpours were also sweeping what was left in the locusts’ path, sweeping crops and animals alike. The situation was grim and full of uncertainty. The church had to move in to combat the hunger threat, at a time when the government was fighting to control the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The Orthodox Church distributed food on a daily basis to the parents of our primary school, to the poor families in our parishes, to the old people’s homes, to our orphanages and even to members of the community around us and to the many street children who would otherwise sleep hungry. We have travelled to almost all corners of the country where we have Orthodox communities to distribute food. However, we did not limit our food rations to the Orthodox communities only; in our area there is a large Muslim community and we shared food with them too. In the face of a common invincible enemy, we saw the image of God in every suffering person, and it was our duty to minister to all regardless of their religious affiliations.
As I write this article, we are planning to visit the arid northern part of Kenya to distribute food to our Orthodox communities in the Lodwar and Turkana areas.
When such dire situations as the current one strike, we all look to international aid to help cushion and ease the burden. Regrettably, this was not the case, seeing that all nations were affected in equal measure and giant economies were brought to their knees. Therefore, our philanthropic endeavours were and still are much strained. Our sincere gratitude goes to the numerous well-wishers who saw what we were doing and volunteered their support, however little, to make our food distribution possible.
It is a strange time, when in the midst of a storm as fierce as this, one could not even run to the Church for refuge; even the Church had closed its doors. The local health authorities issued strict guidelines which we obeyed fully and most of our parishes closed down. Here at the Seminary School, our students had to go home as per the government directive. It was a great blow to our Seminary’s Academic calendar.
However, we had to adjust with the conditions and started a programme for distant and online classes so that our students from across the African continent would continue with their learning. It is a very expensive initiative.
Our Seminary Chapel of St. Makarios of Egypt, which has had daily services for as long as I can remember, was never closed down. We continued celebrating in it with the few people who were left in the headquarters of our Church. The Divine Liturgy was celebrated fully and those able to attend were receiving communion always. For this we glorify God.
Several other parishes in our Archdiocese continued with weekly Divine Services. This way the light and fervor of Orthodoxy was kept alive. Now all churches are open although with strict guidelines on sanitation and social distancing.
As for the Holy Communion, the Sacrament of Holy Communion was instituted by Jesus Christ at the Mystical Supper, in the presence of his disciples (Matt 26: 26-28) “…Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.” At the Liturgy during the Eucharistic Canon, at the moment of invoking the Holy Spirit, the bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Receiving Holy Communion, we are united to Christ; Christ abides with us and blesses us.
I communicated to my flock that attending Holy Communion cannot be a cause of transmission of diseases, because the faithful of all times know that attending communion in the midst of pandemic, on the one hand is a practical determination of self-surrender to the living God, and on the other hand a great manifestation of love. “…fear does not exist in love, but perfect love dispels fear.” (1 John 4:18.) Those who come “with the fear of God, faith and love” and absolutely freely without any compulsion, share the Blood and Body of Christ, which becomes “a medicine of immortality”, “in remission of sins and in life eternal”.
By celebrating at our chapel throughout the pandemic, I was trying, without fanaticism, aphorisms and dangerous experiments, to express the need to strengthen our faith in the Triune God, to uphold the sanctity of the Holy Communion, knowing fully well that the world will pose many challenges, Covid-19 being one of them. Many took this as a chance to advocate for many spoons to be used during communion. I exhorted our people “… not to conform to the pattern of this world…” (Rom 12:2) to respect the Mystery of the Mysteries and not to be distracted by hurried and targeted voices, bringing noting but confusion and noise.
We are not out of the woods yet, but so far here in Kenya we can see glimmers of hope. We cannot, however, fail to see what is happening in many countries in Europe where the pandemic is threatening another wave. As such, while we pause and look at what God has done for us, we also ceaselessly say a prayer for our brotherhood in Christ in the most affected countries as well as all over the Orthodox world.
To the many who have lost their lives to Covid-19; patients, doctors, nurses and care-givers, we ask our Lord to grant them peaceful rest. To their families, we ask for peace from God. To the survivors and those still struggling with the virus and its effects, have courage in the Lord. We are all in this together, and together we shall overcome.
— Makarios Tillyrides, Archbishop of Nairobi, was born in 1945 on Cyprus. He graduated from St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris in 1972 and later received a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University in 1976. He continued his post-doctoral education at the Louvain-la-Neuve in Belgium between the years of 1978 and 1981. Since 1977, he began missionary work in Africa where he became bishop of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria in 1992. Since then, Archbishop Makarios has been involved in the World Council of Churches and is a member of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.