Fear of Ebola keeps churchgoers away – in Washington

Health workers carry the body of an Ebola virus victim in Kenema, Sierra Leone, June 25, 2014.Reuters/Umaru Fofana

Hardly anyone in the US has caught Ebola. However, fear of catching the deadly virus resulted in the congregation of a church in Washington, DC, dropping by a quarter as worshippers at Trinity Episcopal Church stayed away.

Interviewed by the NPR news service, Rev John Harmon said that he had wondered why 50 members of his church had stopped attending until he began to receive telephone calls expressing their concern.

The church includes worshippers from 20 different nations, including some in West Africa where the virus has hit hardest. Harmon told NPR: "Some folks called to say, you know, I'm not coming to church because I don't know who's traveling."

In fact no one in the church had travelled to the region, though the congregation had raised $5,000 to help combat Ebola. However, scare stories about the virus had had such an impact that many were terrified of catching the disease.

Harmon addressed the members' concerns in a Sunday service. "In the middle of the service, we just had this conversation," he said. He invited members to speak about their fears and brought in doctors to tell them about how Ebola is caught and spread.

Harmon asked anyone traveling abroad to skip church for three weeks, even if they were not traveling to West Africa. He and the ushers also use hand sanitizers. "I use them when I get back to the altar, [as a] visible sign that we are expressing care for each other," he said.

Since the church addressed the issue head-on, congregations have picked up again. However, some remain unconvinced. One usher, Adolphus Ukaegbu, told the Christian Post of an elderly woman he used to bring to Sunday morning services. "She told me she was advised not to come to church, because there are so many West Africans in the congregation. And since then, I haven't seen her."