Within the United States there is discussion about re-opening churches. This blog wanted to step back and write a post, one of advice to the leaders of the EFCA’s Eastern District which is led by Dr. Cedrick Brown and Tony Balsamo. When you consider the situation of re-opening church there are a number of issues to contemplate. This post is trying to stay rooted in facts and encourage sound decision making for a policymaker. This is also coming from someone told to stay at home by a doctor for asthma reasons.
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts.”
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;
James 1:19 ESV
Front page of the New York Times for Sunday May 24, 2020
Tony Balsamo on prayer for May 16, 2020
On September 10, 2002 the New York Times wrote about Anthony Coladonato. On September 11, 2001 he showed up for work at the World Trade Center. Coladonato was the Vice President of Technology for Cantor Fitzgerald. And tragically he was one of the people who died at The World Trade Center on that Tuesday morning. The New York Times wrote a profile about Anthony Coladonato as part of their “Portraits of Grief” series. The Times eventually wrote about each of the 2,977 people killed on September 11, 2001. On Sunday May 24, 2020 as the national death toll from a pandemic – one of the most serious since the Spanish Flu of 1918 – approaches 100,000 dead, the Times swung into action again. The newspaper dedicated the entire front page and a few other pages to 1,000 lives and wrote briefly about the people who were lost due to COVID-19. This blog post has the front page leading this write up. So why mention all this? I think what the New York Times is doing is putting a face on the pandemic just as their “Portraits of Grief” put on a face to those sadly lost on September 11, 2001.
Today there is a growing debate about re-opening churches in the United States as the COVID-19 pandemic goes on. This post is just some thoughts to the EFCA’s Eastern District leadership about re-opening churches during this ongoing medical crisis. Previously I wrote a post about my journey to move away from evangelicalism in, “Reflecting on My Decision to Reject Evangelical Christianity. Its Too Corrupt, Political and Intellectually Shallow.” So these comments come from an outsider to evangelicalism, but someone familiar with evangelical culture. In addition, before I continue I should also let Tony Balsamo and Dr. Cedrick Brown know that this post is being written by an asthmatic who was told by his asthma doctor to shelter in place. That said there is much that needs to be stated, and my hope is that this encourages the Eastern District leadership as it navigates some difficult decisions.
The Danger is High for Immuno-Compromised And Other High Risk People Like Myself
The danger during this time for immuno-compromised people and other high risk is high. Who does that encompass? Well it includes people who have asthma and other lung diseases like myself. Also at risk are those who have heart disease, cancer, HIV, diabetes, and lupus which are all examples. These diseases happen in people of all ages from the young to the old. How many congregations may have had someone who was diagnosed with leukemia and the person was seeking treatment through chemotherapy? Here is another aspect to consider you can have people who healthwise are changing but don’t know it. They could be developing heart disease but they haven’t gone to their doctor and it hasn’t been caught. This blog is not trying to scare individuals its just that some of this is hard but its best to be aware and knowledgeable than not know.
Don’t Be Pressured, Don’t Open Yourself Up to Risk
Some people in congregations may place pressure on pastors to open. They may not understand the seriousness of the disease. On the flip side others will be frightened of decisions that will be made. Tragically I know two people who told me of deaths related to COVID-19 and of several who physically struggled with the disease. Its a shock to process. This is a disease I don’t think will be understood until you know someone who has dealt with it, or you have lost someone to this disease. And the response to people is all across the board. For some its minor, for others its severe and for others its fatal. This blog has some thoughts that I want to convey about that down below in discussing the virus. But don’t have churches be pressured into opening from external pressure. Re-open a church when its safe and the risk is much lower. One issue that needs to be stressed is how contagious COVID-19 can be. Spend some time reading and studying the following Centers for Disease Control report. It deals with a church in Arkansas that had two people show up who were positive for COVID-19. 35 out of 92 were infected and three died. The infection also spread into the community. Also watch that segment from MSNBC that discusses COVID-19 outbreaks in churches.
The problem that the EFCA will run into is that if churches open when they are not prepared then the concern is that it can open itself up to legal risk. What happens if Bill Kynes Cornerstone here in the Washington, D.C. area or George Davis’ Hershey Free in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania opens too early and people get sick and a few die? Could those entities be placed at risk from a lawsuit or more? Its an honest question that needs to be asked. And honestly the EFCA does not need to be in such a situation. That said, I acknowledge that it is tricky. When is the right time to re-open? That is hard to answer, but before the EFCA discusses re-opening let me remind you of one of the darker aspects of the 1918 Spanish Flu.
Remember the 1918 Spanish Flu Which Killed a Large Number of People Came in Waves
While this blog is very critical of 9 Marks it also has to acknowledge that from time to time 9 Marks will write a solid article. The other day the pastoral assistant to Mark Dever who is Caleb Morel wrote a strong article that should influence your decision making process. Caleb wrote about the history of the Spanish Flu in the 1918 pandemic when churches started to re-open. It wasn’t just churches it also was silent movie houses, public places and more. At the end of October churches were allowed to re-open and then within about a month, December 11, 1918 the Spanish Flu began its second wave. It led to a lot of additional death and there was debate about closing again. You can read the article in, “Caleb Morell of 9 Marks Writes About How Washington, D.C. Churches Responded to the Second Wave of the Spanish Flu in December of 1918.”
So here are some questions the EFCA needs to consider. This can help steer your decision making process.
- What is the EFCA going to do when there is a second wave of COVID-19? If churches open and then COVID-19 surges what is going to happen? Are churches going to close? What will happen to those in churches or pastoral staff who become sick?
- What is the EFCA going to do if there are multiple waves of this disease? How do you mitigate that risk?
- What is the Eastern District staff going to do to support churches in a crisis? The Eastern District leadership can become over extended during such a situation. By the way quick observation as I listened to Tony Balsamo and Dr. Cedrick Brown on video they sounded a little horse. You are probably exhausted in helping people through this pandemic but don’t burn yourself out in this difficult situation.
What the Eastern District should do is come up with a plan so that if the second wave comes the District will be prepared. Consider the signs and indicators and pay close attention to them. Its best to be safe than sorry. Especially when people can be lost during this pandemic.
Social Distancing and Other Difficult Challenges Inside a Building
Another aspect to consider is that social distancing can be hard inside a building. This virus is of greatest risk in enclosed buildings and crowds in the open. The Italy outbreak of COVID-19 can be tied back to a soccer match between Spain and Italy that acted like a petri dish for the virus. There are a number of questions that exist inside a building. Yes you can forgo coffee, Bibles (or encourage people to bring their own or read one on their smart phone), encourage them to wear masks, etc… But in an environment of pews how do you break out seating that is about six feet away? What if you have churches dependent upon school systems for worship who are closed? In regular buildings what do you do about air flow? Do you require EFCA churches to regularly clean their air ducts and change filters more often or after every service or each Sunday? Do you bypass congregation singing and hang plastic before the worship band to interrupt air flow? Will the temperature be taken of everyone who wants to step inside a EFCA church? Restaurants in California are wrestling with this issue and last week the San Francisco Chronicle had an interesting interactive (my hope is that you don’t run into the paywall.) that can show how some of these issues are possibly dealt with.
Remember There is Much We Don’t Know About COVID-19
Its important to remember that we are about three months into this COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. There is much that we don’t know about the virus and that is natural. It takes time to learn and medical science is working the issue hard. Tony Balmsao and Dr. Cedrick Brown, this blog has a question for you. Do you remember when AIDS and HIV were new on the American scene in the 1980s? Do you recall the hysteria and people asking questions of if they could use water fountains? Do you recall the confusion and uncertainty about how this disease is transmitted? It took science time to understand HIV and AIDS and how it worked. Today there are a lot of treatments for that disease but we still do not have a vaccine for HIV. They never found a vaccine for SARS because the virus disappeared. It took a number of years before they found a vaccine for MERS which occurred in the Middle East. So while science is working the issue it takes time. Its hard to write that because people want a result immediately but this will be a difficult topic for the science community to tackle.
While Its Hard to Stay Closed More People Will Respect You
If an EFCA church can’t open safely then the best bet is to find workarounds until it can be safe. The other day I was reading about some of the churches in California that were pushing for re-opening under the claim of religious freedom. As I studied their belief pages of several I realized that a number were charismatic, engaged in Christian nationalism, and also believe the prosperity gospel. They are loud and are protesting, but they don’t represent the majority of evangelicals on this topic. By working in a calm manner, communicating patience and being efficient the Eastern District can build respect for the EFCA within people and communities. What if people in the community of Sparta, New Jersey wanted to attend Sparta Evangelical Free in person because they respected and were impressed by how the church conducted itself with patience during the COVID-19 pandemic? By the way I think that is neat that Sparta Evangelical Free offers drive in services where people stay in their car. But what if wisdom, and restraint especially in a time when some evangelicals wage the culture wars leads to greater respect for the EFCA? Wouldn’t the EFCA want to be in that position and claim the moral high ground when the COVID-19 pandemic is finally managed or complete? Trust is earned and seldom given. If the Eastern District and the EFCA did that it could build a lot of trust when this pandemic is over.
The United States is Going to Have a Rough Few Years
This is going to be a hard section to write because I think this also taps into my own fears. I believe that one should be a realist. And not float around communications that people want to hear. So as someone home bound due to this COVID-19 virus I think the following needs to be said. The United States I fear is going to have a few hard years. It may take two, three or four before we get through this. What if the COVID-19 virus just disappears like SARS did? What if it took four years or much longer before a vaccine was found? What if science can’t find a vaccine? I think people can take it better if people are told the truth and reasoned with. Its much better than being strung along. So I hate to say this but in doing some analysis the evidence leads me to the conclusion that this might take some time to work through. There will be no quick fix. There will be no magic pill. And I fear saying this but I think there will be a lot more death. However, of all that exists I think the EFCA is well suited and situated to help lead in this medical crisis. I don’t think as many EFCA churches engage in the culture wars as those in the Southern Baptist Convention. While I have bumped onto occasional Christian nationalism in the EFCA while writing this blog, the fact remains that the Southern Baptists are worse in this area. I thought the recent behavior of the EFCA President was noble during the coronavirus outbreak. This was written about in, “During the COVID-19 Outbreak President Kevin Kompelien is Calling on the EFCA to Pray for Those Afflicted by the Disease.” So what if the Eastern District and the EFCA as a whole paved a way forward in this area and helped people to get through this difficult situation? When the history books are written or grad students are doing their dissertation or papers on evangelicalism and the COVID-19 pandemic what if future historians and those studying this issue two generations down the road wrote about how the EFCA responded to this in a strong and healthy way? What if the Eastern District helped break new ground in how to respond to a pandemic? This blog hopes that can be achieved. This blog wishes that people in the Eastern District stay healthy and safe during these challenging times.