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Pastors explain push to reopen churches in coronavirus pandemic

Pastors explain push to reopen churches in coronavirus pandemic
  • While most of the country remains under phased social distancing orders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, some faith leaders across the US are making a First Amendment case to open up places of worship.
  • Three pastors explained to Business Insider why they’re fighting to open up.
  • “I’m not afraid to get COVID-19 when I go to Home Depot and neither should anyone be afraid when they come to church,” one pastor, Diego Mesa, put it.
  • On Friday, President Donald Trump said he would force governors to open up places of worship, even though he doesn’t have the authority to do so.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Diego Mesa was driving in Southern California on Thursday evening when he passed shops selling donuts, clothes, and cannabis.

It boggles his mind that these businesses were marked as essential and permitted to reopen on May 8, as Gov. Gavin Newsom’s reopening plan moved into its second stage. Churches, however, were shelved until the plan’s third phase — lumped in with personal care, exercise, and entertainment facilities.

“Our ideals differ in what we view as essential,” Mesa told Business Insider. “When we are deemed as non-essential, there’s an agenda there.”

But this isn’t about who’s right and who’s wrong, he added.

“Opening church is not the issue,” Mesa said. “It’s about whether I have the right to open the church. And, according to the First Amendment, I do.”

As the pastor of the Abundant Living Family Church in Rancho Cucamonga, Mesa is among more than 1,200 religious leaders in California who’ve signed a Declaration of Essentiality for Churches, vowing to host in-person services on May 31, Pentecost Sunday, with or without Newsom’s blessing. 

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Gabriel Baseman runs a livestream of Easter Sunday Mass on April 12, 2020 at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in South Orange, New Jersey.

Elsa/Getty Images


Attorney Robert Tyler is representing the Cross Culture Christian Center in Lodi in a lawsuit against Newsom, alleging that the state’s public gathering ban violates religious freedom granted by the First Amendment.

He told Business Insider that next Sunday’s act of civil disobedience was sparked by religious leaders seeking recourse amid the pandemic.

“They began to say that this order by the governor has gone too far and too long,” he said. “The governor is deciding based upon his own subjective decisions as to what he thinks is essential and what is not essential. At some point in time, we have to be allowed to get over the fear and allow these essential ministries to meet again.”

As of Friday, the coronavirus has infected 1.58 million Americans and killed 95,276, according to Johns Hopkins University.

But, Tyler said, the disease and virus-related deaths are one part of this crisis. The other part encompasses unemployment, economic and financial hardships, isolation, depression, addictions, suicide, and other traumas.

“The pastors are seeing a huge need and have decided that they need to take a stand and do what God’s called them to do,” Tyler said. “And they will do so using all appropriate safety precautions recommended by the CDC and local governments, just as Costco and Walmart are required to do.”

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A group of worshippers wear face masks and maintain social distancing at a May 18 mass at Madrid’s Santa Barbara Church that reopened to the public after 64 days of closure due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images


In April, the Justice Department got involved in a federal lawsuit brought by a church in Greenville, Mississippi, over local officials’ efforts to stop drive-in services in a bid to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. “Religious institutions must not be singled out for special burdens,” Attorney General William Barr wrote then.

If authorities allow concert halls, cinemas, and restaurants to resume business, they can’t stop houses of worship from doing the same, he said.

“Even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers,” Barr wrote. “Thus, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity.”

On Tuesday, Eric S. Dreiband, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, echoed the sentiment. Newsom’s current plan to reopen California demonstrates “unequal treatment of faith communities” and “discriminates against religious exercise,” he wrote.

“Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights,” Dreiband added.

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Trump makes a statement to reporters about reopening U.S. places of worship by declaring them “essential” in the midst of the pandemic.

REUTERS/Leah Millis


In Europe, and elsewhere in the world, many places of worship have already been permitted to reopen with safety measures in place.

But Tyler’s legal efforts haven’t been successful so far. In a ruling on May 5, a federal judge in Sacramento denied a request from the Cross Culture Christian Center to reopen.

“Even in times of health, government officials must often strike the delicate balance between ensuring public safety and preserving the Constitution’s fundamental guarantees,” US District Judge John A. Mendez wrote in his ruling. “But during public health crises, new considerations come to bear, and government officials must ask whether even fundamental rights must give way to a deeper need to control the spread of infectious disease and protect the lives of society’s most vulnerable.”

Tyler is now moving the fight to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court, where he’s hoping the judges will weigh in his favor.

“We’re asking the Ninth Circuit to rule that the governor’s order treats churches unlawfully by not allowing religious assemblies to meet on the same terms and conditions as secular organizations,” he said.

On Friday, President Donald Trump entered the cultural fray. He announced plans to designate houses of worship as essential services and told them they can open immediately — even though he doesn’t have the legal authority to override state rules.

“I call upon governors to allow our churches and places of worship to open right now … These are places that hold our society together and keep our people united, the people are demanding to go to church and synagogues, go to their mosque,” he said.

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A woman sings during an Easter Sunday service at The Friendship Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland, which was kept open by Pastor Alvin Gwynn despite an order from Gov. Larry Hogan to remain closed amid the coronavirus pandemic.

ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images


Several super-spreader events in the United States and South Korea have been traced back to places of worship, where large numbers gather indoors. In Texas, the Holy Ghost Catholic Church reopened its doors on May 2. But less than two weeks later, all services had been called off indefinitely after five members of the congregation tested positive for COVID-19 and a priest who died on May 13 may have had it as well. In Mississippi, the First Pentecostal Church was burned down on Wednesday after drawing criticism for violating stay-at-home orders by holding an in-person service on Easter.

Asked if he’s concerned by the possibility of parishioners contracting or spreading the virus during in-person services, Tyler said everything in life comes with some amount of risk.

“I think it is probably more likely for someone to die in a car accident than of COVID-19 in many parts of California,” he said. “The church isn’t saying we want to meet just because we think we have a constitutional right to do so — we want to meet because there are so many important needs of the community that need to be addressed.”

“Individuals need to be able to come together, to love and support one other again, while taking all the same precautions that any secular enterprise would,” he added.

Pastor Paul Chappell of Lancaster Baptist Church told Business Insider that it’s been over 10 weeks since he’s been able to minister in person to the church’s nearly 7,000 members.

During the pandemic, he’s used Zoom to livestream services, and the church’s staff has prepared meals for elderly community members and dropped off lunches at local hospitals. Other services, like youth meetings and marriage and crisis counseling have been paused.

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A church staff takes worshippers’ temperatures as they wait to attend the first service open for believers following the easing of measures against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Thessaloniki, Greece, May 17, 2020.

REUTERS/Murad Sezer


Hundreds of pastors across the state have been “very compliant” with the stay-at-home orders, Chappell said, because the Bible encourages them to “obey and support authorities.” However, he said, it also contains “scriptural commands to assemble.”

“The general idea is that if the Walmart just down the street can have 300 shoppers,” Chappell said, “then a church with similar square footage could use the same generally accepted practices and provide worship for the people. We believe that churches are as competent to accomplish this task as any other service industry.”

Next Sunday, churchgoers at Lancaster Baptist will be asked to wear face masks and gloves and will have their temperatures taken as they enter. Chappell said the church will enforce social distancing measures, allowing only up to 20% of the church’s maximum occupancy, and that he’ll host four instead of the regular two services. Also, he said, electrostatic sprayers will be used to sanitize the campus after each of the small services.

Chappell said there’s always concern about people falling sick, but they need to be weighed with the need to worship.

“Our rights are concerning to us as well and we have a biblical mandate to worship,” he said. “We’ve been patient, but we feel in our conscience that it’s getting to a point where we would need to follow the scriptures.”

According to Chappell, a breakdown in communication between government leaders and clergymen has made this an increasingly politicized issue. But the goal, he said, isn’t to make a fuss: It’s to simply move forward with “humble resolve.”

“I would say to someone who opposes our decision that they have every right to abstain from worship and we have every right to worship — that’s the greatness of this country,” he said.

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Ribbons hang in remembrance of victims of the coronavirus pandemic outside the Grant African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston on May 19, 2020.

Steven Senne/AP Photo


For his part, Mesa has turned to technology to stay connected with over his church’s over 15,000 members. Their viewership numbers have been “off the charts,” he said. And a lot of that traffic is coming from people who have been affected by the coronavirus and are turning to religion for community, hope, and answers.

However, Mesa said, there’s a discernible difference between people “watching a screen where they see a fire log versus an actual fireplace.”

Many elderly longtime parishioners of Abundant Living Family Church don’t have the digital know-how to be able to log into Zoom or Facebook Live. “Their relief has been cut off,” said Mesa, who’s been calling them on the phone every week and delivering groceries to their doorsteps.

“Many of them go to their windows or balconies and say, ‘It is just so wonderful to see your face,’ or ‘I’m a widow and I miss my spiritual family,’ or ‘I’m lonely, this is the highlight of my week,'” Mesa said.

Others who are suffering in silence are healthcare workers who toil for long hours on the frontline of the pandemic, where they’re inundated with sickness, trauma, death, and even suicides.

Many are sleeping in hotels or garages, separated from their loved ones, in an effort to protect them from the virus.

Mesa quoted one nurse, who told him: “I need my church community because I’m giving, I’m giving, I’m giving, I’m helping to pour into the lives of others, but my cup is running dry.”

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A woman prays during a Roman Catholic service at St. Bartholomew Church during the coronavirus outbreak in Queens, New York, on May 15, 2020.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters


So, Mesa said, he feels confident in the robust safety guidelines of his church, which mirrors Chappell’s.

“At the end of the day, I’m not afraid to get COVID-19 when I go to Home Depot and neither should anyone be afraid when they come to church,” Mesa said. “Number one, the infection and mortality rates are down, and number two, we’re exercising optimum cleanliness and sanitation that is far beyond what you would get anywhere else.”

Even though Abundant Living Family Church can seat up to 4,000 worshippers, Mesa is also planning to ask the congregation to reserve seats online because only 700 people will be allowed to sit in the pews on May 31.

People who are over 65 years old or have underlying health conditions are being asked to stay home as are those who simply feel uncomfortable.

“As much as the governor is a servant of the state, I am a servant of God,” said Mesa. “As a governor, he has a term limit. We have signed lifetime commitments to serve the people that he is supposed to be working for, so he needs to allow us to do that.”

Religious leaders in California have garnered attention for turning to litigation and defiance over state moratoriums on religious gatherings.

But this friction is showing up across the rest of the country as well.

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A parishioner prays outside the closed doors decorated with Easter lily flowers at the Christ the King Church Roman Catholic Church in Los Angeles Sunday, April 12, 2020. Churches were empty, but Californians celebrated Easter from their homes and even in their cars as residents endured the fourth straight weekend under statewide orders to stay indoors to slow the spread of the coronavirus. California Gov. Gavin Newsom implored people Friday not to be complacent even as the state’s top health official said the COVID-19 outbreak might not be as devastating as officials had feared, due in large part to people heeding orders to avoid close contact with others and remain at home as much as possible.

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes


Pastor Brian Gibson of HIS Church, which has two campuses in Kentucky and another two in Texas, founded the PeaceablyGather.com movement to speak out on behalf of religious freedom that’s enshrined by the Constitution. On Sunday, he’ll be in Chicago alongside Pastor Joseph Wyrostek at the Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church.

“Every day a house of worship is closed, a little bit of liberty dies,” he said. “We have a constitutional crisis in America and if Americans don’t speak up and speak out, the fabric of our nation is going to be torn in a way that can’t be repaired.”

Gibson described feeling enraged when he was stopped from hosting a drive-through Easter Egg giveaway service, where social distancing was going to be followed and church staff members were protected with masks and gloves.

Meanwhile, he said, across the street and within viewing distance of the church, baristas were making lattes, fast food restaurants were serving fries, and people were buying liquor.

“But the message to us was the church isn’t smart enough to give kids candy in the name of Jesus,” he said. “We started asking ourselves: Is this fair? Is this constitutional? Is this religious targeting? The answer is absolutely yes.”

The Bible says there’s a time to be “lamb-like, to be quiet, to be meek, to be mild,” Gibson added, but that moment has passed. Religious leaders now need to roar like lions and take a firm stance against “tyranny” and religious oppression.

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Olivier Ribadeau Dumas reopens the Lourdes Roman Catholic sanctuary, in southwestern France, Saturday, May 16, 2020, after being closed on March 17 for the first time in its history.

AP Photo/Bob Edme


Gibson said he welcomes opposition from community members and government leaders, saying “That smells like liberty to me.”

He also issued a call to action to people who believe that big-box retailers and general merchandising stores are essential, but don’t view churches in the same light. 

“Those businesses operate strictly on the basis of cash in, cash out,” he said. “Do you know what the church has done for 2,000 years?”

“It’s prayed for the sick, it’s built hospitals, it’s built universities, it’s married people, it’s buried people,” he continued. “Go and see if the Walmart will bury your dead. Go and see if the Walmart will pray [for] and bless your children.”

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Pastors

A response to woke pastors concerning Breonna Taylor

ANALYSIS/OPINION: This past Thursday, an evangelical pastor of The Wesleyan Church posted the following on Facebook. “The sad story of Breonna Taylor and the announcement yesterday from the District Attorney shows, in shocking form, why we need law reform in our country. No one should have died that day. If the police were ‘within the…

A response to woke pastors concerning Breonna Taylor

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

This past Thursday, an evangelical pastor of The Wesleyan Church posted the following on Facebook.

“The sad story of Breonna Taylor and the announcement yesterday from the District Attorney shows, in shocking form, why we need law reform in our country. No one should have died that day. If the police were ‘within the law,’ then the law needs to change. Period.”

He went further, “And don’t tell me ‘mistakes were made.’ Breonna is dead. Sorry, she can’t hear you.”

Well, seeing as this pastor made his comments public, I will do likewise with my response.

Dear Pastor,

What laws exactly would you change? Would you demand that the police secure a duly issued warrant? They had one. Would you require that they announce themselves before entering the building? They did. Would you compel them to wait until fired upon before returning fire? That’s precisely what happened.

So, I ask again, what exactly would you change?

Pastor, I can’t hear you.

Your silence is deafening.

And, while I’m waiting for you to respond with your insight concerning legal reform, let’s deal with your comment that “mistakes were made.”

I agree.

Mistakes were, indeed, made.

Breonna Taylor made mistakes. Any honest critique has to acknowledge that once living with a suspected drug dealer, her ex-boyfriend, is not a good idea.

Breonna’s boyfriend at the time of the incident, who had a conceal carry permit, made mistakes. Engaging in a gunfight with police in a dark hallway is right up there in my book.

The media made mistakes. Demonizing law enforcement is at the top of the list as far as I’m concerned.

Teachers have made mistakes. Peddling the anger, resentment and racial suspicion of Critical Race Theory is foremost among them.

Politicians have made mistakes. Lying about their oath to defend the U.S. Constitution and the law of the land strikes me as being pretty obvious.

Pastors have made mistakes. Preaching about “systematic” rather than personal sin has to be a biggie, doesn’t it?

And, yes, in this situation, the police made mistakes too. When fired upon, they shot back and accidentally hit Breonna Taylor rather than the guy who was trying to kill them.

Pastor, in case you missed it in your intro to the Bible class, we live in a broken world. Mistakes are made. Bad stuff happens.

But here’s a bit of wisdom from someone who didn’t have nearly as much education as you, my mother.

You see, my mom understood human depravity. She knew there are bad people who do bad things. And in this context, she taught me the principle of association.

Mom told me over and over again to be careful who I chose as friends. She understood the old axiom that “you’re known by the company you keep” and that “bad company corrupts good character.” She repeatedly said (OK, let’s just admit it, she harangued me!), if you don’t want to be accused of using drugs, then don’t go to parties with people who do. If you don’t want to be charged with theft, then don’t go into a store with “friends” who shoplift. If you don’t want to get killed in a drunk driving accident, then don’t get in a car with anyone who’s been drinking.

What she was teaching me was quite clear. It was my responsibility to stay away. Stay away from these situations and stay away from these people. In other words, my mom taught me that if I wanted to avoid bad stuff, then I should stay away from people who were doing bad things.

And here’s the thing – Because I listened to my mother, I was never, ever, ever, at risk.

No one ever had cause to secure a warrant to search my home or my car.

The police never falsely accused me.

I was never harassed.

I was never involved in a gunfight.

I was never the subject of an arrest.

Bottom line: I never felt that any laws needed to be changed because I didn’t break any of them or hang out with those who did.

My friend, Virgil Walker (who happens to be Black, if that matters to anyone) adds to my mom’s wisdom.

He says he will never be arrested or shot by the police.

Why?

First, because he does not break any laws.

Second, because he does not hang out with those who do.

Third, if he ever has cause to interact with the police, he does exactly what they tell him to do.

Pretty basic, really.

Perhaps if someone had loved Breonna Taylor enough to teach her these simple truths of personal responsibility rather than the political pablum you all are peddling, she’d still be alive.

Perhaps teaching the importance of personal virtue would be of greater value than your virtue signaling.

And by the way, I am still waiting for your response. Like I said, the silence is deafening.

• Everett Piper (dreverettpiper.com, @dreverettpiper), a columnist for The Washington Times, is a former university president and radio host. He is the author of “Not a Daycare: The Devastating Consequences of Abandoning Truth” (Regnery).

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Evangelical

Evangelical pastors pander to radical Black Lives Matter

ANALYSIS/OPINION: Dear woke evangelical pastors,  What in the world is wrong with you? Why in God’s name would you stand in solidarity with an organization that seeks the destruction of Christianity? You are supposed to believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the evangel, and it’s good news. You are supposed to believe in sola…

Evangelical pastors pander to radical Black Lives Matter

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Dear woke evangelical pastors, 

What in the world is wrong with you? Why in God’s name would you stand in solidarity with an organization that seeks the destruction of Christianity?

You are supposed to believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the evangel, and it’s good news. You are supposed to believe in sola Scriptura and the inerrancy of the Word. You are supposed to believe in personal sin, personal confession, personal repentance and personal holiness.  

What happened to you? When did you lose your conviction? When were you given over to a reprobate mind? When did your heart of flesh become a heart of stone? When did you lose your soul?  

There was a time, oh, let’s say about five minutes ago when you were defined by preaching salvation, not social justice. The world knew you for your revivals, not your riots. You were characterized by your piety, not your politics. It seems like just yesterday that your belief in God distinguished you, not your worship of government.  

What happened? 

How in the name of all that is right and holy could you possibly now march with an organization that laughs in the face of all that Jesus taught and died for? How could you be so ignorant? How could you be so arrogant? How could you be so wrong?

Have you not taken the time to do a 30-second Google search of the mission statement of the organization with which you now align? 

Here’s what Black Lives Matter explicitly says about itself on its own website: 

“We … do the work required to dismantle cisgender privilege. We build a space that … is free from sexism, misogyny, and environments in which men are centered. We dismantle patriarchal practices … We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure … We foster a queer-affirming network … with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking …” 

And they are rabidly anti-Semitic and pro-abortion to boot! 

Have you not read this stuff? And if you have, do you not care? 

How can you stand with an organization that mocks God, denies the Bible, belittles men, demeans women and subjugates generations of black children to the dysfunction of fatherless families?   

You claim to be Christian leaders, but you stand in solidarity with a group that promotes anger and revenge, one that calls for revolution rather than repentance, one that waves a banner of pride rather than penitence, one that foments resentment and laughs at forgiveness. 

How can you be so blind?   

Have you not read your own Bibles?  

The broken ideas of BLM are not godly, and they are not Christian, and any pastor suggesting otherwise diminishes the imago Dei to little more than a hyphenated construct of division rather than unity. 

Your cooperation in the lie of intersectionality and racial conflict is sin, pure and simple.  

Why aren’t you telling your followers that to be a Christian is to be born again, not born that way, that we have died to self, that we are new creations, that we are neither “Jew nor Greek,” and that we are all one Body in Christ?  

Why aren’t you preaching that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God — not just whites and not just blacks — but all?  

Why aren’t you telling people that the only solution to this mess is personal repentance rather than casting blame? 

Why aren’t you preaching confession rather than conflict?  

Why? 

Your complicity in the enemy’s deceit has encouraged tens of thousands to play the “hater” card rather than confess their own hate. Your apostasy is rife. There is a reason that culture has cast you out and trampled you underfoot. Your salt has lost its savor. Your light is extinguished. There is a reason your churches are empty and dark. 

What are you thinking? Jesus never told us to harbor resentment and stew in the emotions of how we’ve been wronged. In fact, he told us to do the exact opposite. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors is not about fixating on who has harmed us. It is about forgiveness and shame on you for preaching otherwise.   

Archbishop Vigano recently said, “There are [now] mercenary infidels who seek to scatter the flock and hand the sheep over to be devoured by ravenous wolves …; a deep church that betrays its duties and forswears its proper commitments before God.”  

“Mercenary infidels … A deep church that betrays its duties and forswears its proper commitments before God.” 

Hmm.

Someone else once suggested the same: “In the last days there will come … men who oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith … Their folly will be plain to all …” — St. Paul 

• Everett Piper (dreverettpiper.com, @dreverettpiper), a columnist for The Washington Times, is a former university president and radio host. He is the author of “Not a Daycare: The Devastating Consequences of Abandoning Truth” (Regnery).

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