ACTS AND COVID-19—Finding hope and peace in God’s call
by Innocent Sezibera
My journey with Jesus started at the age of 15 in a little Pentecostal church in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, about 15 miles away from northern Rwanda. Two years later, I enrolled in a four-year diploma program in a Pentecostal Bible college run by Swedish missionaries. In 1985, I graduated and began the ministry with great excitement, not knowing what was awaiting me ahead. I was only 21 years old. Later, I understood the real challenges of serving God—in the DR Congo first, and in Rwanda right after the genocide.
I moved to Canada in January 2003. My wife and our children joined me a while later. In December 2012, God called us to plant a church in Edmonton. The first few years were so challenging as we struggled with growing pains, but nothing was comparable to our previous ministry in Rwanda.
My new chapter started in March of this year when Alberta reduced gatherings to no more than 15 people due to COVID-19. Since then, I almost lost my appetite for everything. For those who know me, throughout March and April, I lost weight slightly, not because I was worried about losing my pastoral job, but because of my concerns for the ministry. I don’t get paid by the church. I have a full-time secular job which allows me to serve the church on evenings and weekends.
Our last Sunday on-site was March 15. During the following week I was under heavy pressure, wondering what would be next. I had never led a service online, nor had I posted a video on Facebook, YouTube or any other social media platforms prior to the pandemic. While I was wandering into uncertainty, the following Scripture verse came to my mind: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).
In light of this, I announced a seven-day period of fasting and prayer which we had to start every day with early morning prayer on a conference call. As we concluded the seven days, I felt new strength to rise to the occasion. I also felt great hope and peace to get through the pandemic while I was sharing the following Scripture verse with the congregation: “… the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is loyal to Him” (2 Chronicles 16:9, NKJV).
On March 22, we had our first Sunday service via conference call. Afterwards, we started to meet on Zoom for the overnight prayer time on Fridays and on Sunday. As the days went by, I noticed that the number of participants was reducing progressively on Zoom, both on Fridays and on Sundays. People were getting tired of spending time online, and others did not embrace this new way of doing church. Some said there was no difference between a service on Zoom and watching a video on YouTube while working, taking a nap, etc. Week after week, I wondered where we would end up, and I wasn’t sure whether the online church would last a few more months if the lockdown had to continue.
In spite of the one-week prayer time that renewed my strength, hard memories of my ministry in Rwanda resurfaced. When COVID-19 was alarming the entire world in April, it was a commemoration of the Rwandan genocide. My family and I were in DR Congo during the Tutsi genocide, but we followed all the atrocities that were happening on the other side of the border. When we moved to Rwanda in July 1994, only three months after the genocide had stopped, I didn’t think that one day I would be happy to live there. Corpses were scattered everywhere in the country and houses were abandoned, many of them destroyed. Most of the cities smelled of death and uncertainty, and the social fabric was in tatters. Two years later, God gave me the opportunity to join the national executive committee of the largest Pentecostal church in Rwanda. By God’s grace, during my six-year term I contributed significantly to the rebuilding of the church and the country. Every time I face difficult challenges in ministry, my old memories in Rwanda resurface, just as when David was about to defeat the giant, Goliath (1 Samuel 17:33-37).
Before I conclude, I want to share what I have already learned in the Book of Acts during this pandemic. A few weeks back I decided to read the book, chapter after chapter, to remind myself of the times in which the apostles and fellow believers served God. In the first century, they were exposed daily to numerous horrors for their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Though they had the choice to give up, they chose disgrace, suffering, and even death for the sake of God’s kingdom. As I continue to read the book, I am reminded constantly that it’s not a matter of how bad the situation is. Rather, it’s a matter of God’s calling on us. More than ever, these servants of old have been my models to navigate through the pandemic: “… we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20, KJV). It seems to me that it is easier to serve Him during the crisis of COVID-19 than in the first century.
On June 21, we resumed our service on-site. Eighteen people showed up. The following Sunday, 29 came to church, and on July 5, 36 joined us on-site. At the same time, for the last three Sundays we have been doing live streaming for those who cannot come to church in person, especially mothers with children and seniors. God is still at work!
Innocent Sezibera lives with his wife and five children in Edmonton, Alta. They attend Goshen Christian Assembly, where he serves as senior pastor.
This article appeared in the October/November/December 2020 issue of testimony/Enrich, a quarterly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. © 2020 The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. Photos by Johnny McClung and Gabriel Benois on Unsplash.