Amid the coronavirus pandemic, many churches have been forced to make some hard decisions. Some of these decisions include how do we effectively minister to people who experience grief and loss? How do we help people who experience unemployment, food insecurity, and police brutality? How do we faithfully address issues of racism and white supremacy? However, one of the most pressing decisions local churches must face is reopening for Sunday worship service.
On July 5, my pastor decided to do just that. I felt horrible upon learning of his decision. There had been no church meeting nor widespread consensus among congregants. There was only the announcement. Why would anyone go against scientific data and evidence about the possible dangers of in-person gatherings? Why would anyone put a member’s life at risk? As one who loves his church and serves as an elder, my pastor’s decision to restart in-person services was problematic for several reasons.
It’s Theologically Irresponsible
Throughout Scripture, believers are encouraged to live in harmony. One way to achieve this goal is to consider others’ needs. We see this theme in many passages including, but not limited to: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Romans 14:15-22, Philippians 2:1-4, and Luke 10:25-37. In other words, we have biblical warrant to consider others’ needs even before our own. This is what Jesus demonstrated in his life and ministry. We can embody these teachings in a very practical way. These principles testify to our beliefs about people and God. Our actions become visible demonstrations to the world that we care and are concerned about the welfare of others. The coronavirus (COVID-19) has revealed the nature of our selfishness when we neglect others’ needs only to assert our right to gather. We should be helping to pay hospital bills, not creating a scenario for someone to
potentially become a hospital patient.
We fulfill the law of God by loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-37; Luke 10:25-28). No one wants to be sick. No one wants hospital bills. No one wants to walk across the grass of the cemetery to perform a committal. In this season, we must creatively imagine ways to remain a safe haven for all people, especially our church members. Faith leaders have a moral responsibility to keep people physically, emotional, and theologically safe. The question is, are we willing to do so?
It’s Not Safe
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Cook County, where my home church is located, has the highest number of confirmed cases as well as deaths in Illinois. Additionally, according to the Chicago Tribune, the coronavirus infection rate among young people could result in the state diminishing its reopening plan. COVID-19 has not disappeared. The state’s progress in tackling the disease is relative to the amount of available hospital beds. However, treating the sick is still a questionable task. In fact, many have lost access to healthcare because, in most cases, their insurance is tied to employment.
While we do not know a lot about COVID-19 and its long-term impact on the human body, we do know that people are still getting sick and dying.
Since the emergence of COVID-19, we have observed the pandemic being handled as a political issue instead of a health crisis. While it certainly is a national shame to witness this taking place, I believe that it’s worse in the local church. I expect politicians to be political about everything. Generally speaking, they rarely express their true views and values. Most will speak according to their donors, lobbyists, or even their political associations. They are not free. I never expected my local church to follow suit.
When the governor of Illinois issued the shelter-in-place order, the state did not assert its authority over local churches. It simply made suggestions, trusting local churches to do what is morally right. Then, the governor put a plan in place for reopening, with the initial phase omitting places of worship. Churches initially were not deemed essential, resulting in a longer wait for them to reopen. Consequently, churches began advocating their rights to gather in person without restrictions on capacity. This made it political.
To be sure, churches, especially the African-American church, have always been politically conscious. Speaking truth to power, informing congregations on voting concerns, raising awareness of economic development, and using political power to ensure better living conditions for improvised communities are simply a few ways in which churches embody politics. However, COVID-19 is not a political issue. It is a global health pandemic.
In conversations with local pastors who have returned to worship services, I have not heard one mention of prayer regarding their decision or that God led them to reopen the church. Most of their remarks were centered on their right to meet. But we serve a God who gave up His rights and laid down His life for the benefit of others. He calls us to do the same.