FONTANA, Calif. (Christian News Network) — A coalition of churches in California have announced their intention to resume in-person services on May 31, regardless of whether the government expressly gives the green light or not, and with social distancing and other protective measures in place.
A number of pastors with Church United, led by Jim Domen, advised on Thursday that they and others plan to open their doors on the calendar date of the Christian Pentecost, regardless of whether or not Gov. Gavin Newsom has approved stage three of his reopening plan at that time. Thousands of pastors in the state will likely join them.
“We’re not here to be activists. We’re not here to be rebels. We’re here to be helpers,” said Danny Carroll, pastor of Water of Life Community Church in Fontana, where the press conference was held. The megachurch typically sees 8,000 people each Sunday.
Newsom has a four-stage “Resilience Roadmap” to gradually reopen business and other outlets, with stage two just beginning last Friday. It allows small businesses, such as florists and bookstores, to offer curbside pickup (no in-store shopping) and for childcare facilities and non-essential manufacturing plants to resume activity.
Churches, along with hair salons, movie theaters and gyms, will be allowed to open at stage three. A date has not yet been set for that phase.
Stage four would be a complete reopening of the state, allowing even concerts and other large gatherings.
On Thursday, the various pastors present spoke on the essential nature of the church and the work that they have already been doing in the midst of the pandemic to help their community.
“We have pastors in the south, in Chula Vista, feeding hungry people a mile long in cars, social distancing. How can the church not be essential?” Domen asked. “The Chula Vista Police Department is surrounding [them], making sure people stay in their cars and helping because there’s a mile long [lineup] of traffic getting free food.”
“This church we’re standing in today is feeding thousands of people,” he continued. “They’ve been doing this for years … They have a heart for the poor … [and] they have free medical clinics — the only free medical clinics in this community. Tell me: who offers free medical?”
“Our church made 10,000 masks for doctors. We made gowns. We made all sorts of things when there was an enormous shortage,” outlined Matt Brown of Sandals Church in Riverside. “Our church came together to provide electronic devices for seniors who are isolated, who haven’t seen their family members in six weeks.”
“[The governor is] not concerned about that, but suddenly when we want to gather to pray or to worship, he [won’t allow it]. To me, that’s hypocritical,” he said.
Brown noted that “just because COVID-19 has occurred, it doesn’t mean life has stopped,” outlining that a toddler was run over by a car last week and another family was involved in a head-on collision, and his church wants to minister to families such as these.
“Because the governor has listed us as non-essential, we are torn between caring for our people and his order,” Brown expressed with frustration.
“The church is more than an institution. It’s more than a Sunday gathering. It functions seven days a week,” explained Diego Mesa, pastor of Abundant Living Family Church in Rancho Cucamonga. “Whether it’s the poor, whether it’s the sick, whether it’s the emotionally disturbed, or whether it’s people bereaving in life over losses … [a]ll of us as pastors are called to our cities, our communities …”
He noted that many people are hurting due to the pandemic, whether it be due to a loss of a job or because of a broken marriage, and “we just want to care enough to reach out to help people today where their need is at.”
The pastors outlined that they would like to open their doors to the public for worship just as they successfully distributed food, as they see the Church as an essential service to the community. Carroll explained that clergy have been in contact with Gov. Newsom’s office about their request and he has asked that they submit a plan on how they can resume services safely.
He said that possible reopening measures could include limiting the size of the gatherings, holding multiple services throughout the day to accommodate all of the people in a safe manner, as well as using plastic seat covers that can be discarded with each service. Plexiglass may also be installed and masks and gloves will be made available.
“If anyone cares for the people who walk through these doors, I do. I want them safe. I want them healthy. I have dedicated my life to serving them,” said Jim Franklin, pastor of Cornerstone Church in Fresno. “But as important as their physical health is, so is their spiritual health.”
He cited a number of concerns regarding the ongoing lockdown, such as feelings of despair, child abuse and domestic violence, and a rise in suicide cases.
“COVID-19 is real and something must be done. I understand that. But there is a saying that the cure must not be more deadly than the disease,” Franklin said.
“The mandated closure of churches is having a significant and detrimental secondary effect on the citizens of California,” he opined. “We thank the governor for working tirelessly in his effort to protect the public’s health, safety and welfare during this pandemic. We fully support reasonable measures to help flatten the curve. As pastors, we take our responsibility seriously. The interest in public safety, however, must be balanced, narrowly tailored, to accommodate the opportunity for the public to exercise their religious freedom.”
Franklin explained that his church will take similar precautions, requiring six-foot distancing, making masks and gloves available, disinfecting high-traffic areas and asking those who are over 65 or vulnerable to stay home. No group fellowship will be allowed and no childcare will be offered at this time.
The pastors have released a “Declaration of Essentiality for Churches” advising of their intention to open their doors on May 31. They invite other church leaders in the state to sign it.
“As ministers of the gospel, we have complied with the orders of governing bodies to cease meeting in-person as has been our practice for nearly 2000 years since the first Day of Pentecost. We respect the governing authorities and their role in public safety,” it reads. “However, the governing authorities have suspended our meetings indefinitely, refusing to provide a date upon which we can lawfully commence our practice of worshiping God together in our houses of worship.”
“While we are thankful to the governing authorities for the significant efforts made to protect the public from COVID-19, the remaining threat of COVID-19 is outweighed by the severe restrictions upon the free exercise of our religion that we deem ‘essential,'” the declaration continues. “We are committed to public safety and will follow reasonable guidelines established and applied to similarly situated organizations.”
The pastors state that they hope Newsom, along with Public Health Director Dr. Sonia Angell, will revise the executive stay-at-home order to declare churches as essential, and they are willing to meet and communicate with the governor’s office to reach a solution — as they have sought to do.
“The state list of essential critical infrastructure workers includes ‘workers supporting the entertainment industries, studios, and other related establishments, provided they follow COVID-19 public health guidance around physical distancing.’ If making a Hollywood movie, television program, or porn video is essential, shouldn’t a church be declared essential?” asked attorney Robert Tyler, the president of Advocates for Faith & Freedom, which is representing the pastors.
“Allowing the religious community to be heard and respected will inevitably lead to a mutually beneficial resolution,” his organization stated.
According to The Sun, Newsom acknowledged the charitable work of faith-based institutions on Thursday and seemed to express a willingness to work with pastors who want to open their doors sooner than later.
“Our fear is simply this: Congregations of people from far and wide coming together in a closed space at a large scale remains a point of concern and anxiety for us,” he explained. “We are working on guidelines for physical distancing and working with faith leaders talking about unique conditions in their own facilities. Nothing is etched in stone.”