An evangelical church network in California will ignore Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive prohibitions this month, opening sanctuary doors for communal worship despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
According to Fox News, California Church United, representing roughly 3,000 churches and 2.5 million congregants statewide, announced Thursday that it will return to conducting in-person services by Pentecost on May 31 rather than await the third phase of planned societal reopening.
Newsom, the first governor to introduce a statewide executive stay-at-home order, finally pushed California into Phase 2 of its reopening effort on Friday, allowing retailers to recommence on-site sales under substantial health and capacity restrictions, KABC-TV reported.
Newsom did not, however, definitively indicate when the “Phase 3” reintroduction of public dining and in-person church services might come — and that left local church leaders unwilling to cooperate.
“Our churches are part of the answer, not part of the problem,” Water of Life Community Church senior pastor Danny Carroll said. “We’re an essential part of this whole journey and we’ve been bypassed … kicked to the curb and deemed nonessential.”
The decision was reportedly not easy for church leadership, leaving several pastors torn between extending more personal care to their local congregations and submitting to the authorities, who they conceded are doing their best to protect the health of the community.
When the former eventually won out, however, rebelliousness and defiance were not a part of the equation. Instead, it was a Christian heart of service that informed the decision for Sandals Church pastor Matt Brown and Church United pastor Jim Domen.
“My church made 10,000 masks and gowns for doctors while practicing social distancing,” Brown told The Sun of San Bernardino County. “We feed people and procure electronic devices for seniors who are isolated. [Newsom] has no problem with all of that. But when we want to gather to worship, he has a problem.
“We have a pastor in the south, in Chula Vista feeding hungry people a mile long in cars, socially distancing,” Domen said, according to Fox. “How can the church not be essential?”
“It’s the heart of Jesus to love and care for all people. The heart of God supersedes government,” he added.
Until recently, churches across the state have been steadfast in adhering to Newsom’s orders with few exceptions, conducting Sunday worship and other gatherings online. With no end to the ongoing pandemic in sight, however, and with political leaders seemingly in no hurry to reopen places of worship, the church network saw no better time than Pentecost to revive in-person services.
Described in the Bible as the day on which the Holy Spirit was bestowed, as promised, upon early Christ-followers in Jerusalem, Pentecost is an annual Christian celebration of God’s faithfulness and a believer’s rebirth.
According to an official statement publicized through the church network’s legal representatives at Tyler & Bursch, LLP, a symbolic Pentecost reopening may not in fact occur, with some churches seeking to get started even earlier.
The religious significance of in-person services, celebrations and community interaction have not swayed Newsom from his fears regarding increased viral transmission at larger gatherings, even after a Thursday meeting with local faith leaders.
“Our fear is simply this,” Newsom said. “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. 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.”
“I take very seriously those concerns about people of faith and I’m very sensitive to those who want to get back to church,” he said. “But the health of those communities is foundational.”
Such a rationale does not seem, for some, to have taken the sting out of government officials classifying religious centers no differently than sporting stadiums and retail locations.
“We are not the MLB or the NBA,” Carroll said. “We are not a gathering of strangers. As pastors, we bury these people. We bleed with these people.”
“We are a family, not a group of strangers.”
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.