There are a number of stories emerging that reveal how COVID-19 outbreaks can be tied back to evangelical churches. Many clamored to re-open only to become tools to transmit the virus. This blog was noticing this development when the New York Times published an article about this issue on July 8, 2020. That article drew Ed Stetzer’s ire in a Christianity Today article which is also covered in this blog post.
Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver … in the end, the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.
But Jesus told him, “No! The Scriptures say,
‘People do not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Matthew 4:4 NLT
The other day while working and doing some research I was looking at the Dallas Morning News. I was poking around to see what was being said about evangelical churches meeting during a pandemic. Texas, as you know, is exploding with the coronavirus. While researching on the website, the Dallas Morning News had an interesting article that had medical experts advice on what was high vs. low risk. You can read that article in, “How risky is going to the mall or traveling by plane? 14 Texas experts rank daily activities.” In the article they had a chart ranking what was low risk vs. high risk. And according to the Texas Medical Association one of the most riskiest things a person can do is go to church during a pandemic. I have the chart below. Study it, and look at how activities are ranked.
Now here is the problem. During the March to May shutdown or shelter in place there were some churches who met illegally in violation of safety and health codes during a pandemic. Others screamed about religious freedom and were trying to force re-opening. Some even resorted to lawsuits. Others started meeting again after individual states re-opened. It was then that I started to notice something in individual publications and newspapers. There was an uptick in articles talking about COVID-19 spreading in different churches. I was collecting a few of them for a post when the New York Times actually wrote about this topic. But in the opinion of this blog those evangelicals who pushed to worship and, thus did so, have made this pandemic worse and caused great harm. This article is going to look at some examples and follow up on a previous article written. That prior article is called, “ When Church is Deadly: A Look at Some COVID-19 Outbreaks in North American Churches
Churches Who Defied State Law and Health Department Regulations And Remained Physically Open When Other Places Closed
There are multiple examples I could use for this claim. However, one prominent that has been in the media is a Pentecostal church which embraces Christian nationalism in Northeast Oregon. The Lighthouse Pentecostal Church in Union County, Oregon is led by Jesse Baker. It appears he took over the church from his parents who also ran it. Lighthouse is part of the Pentecostal World Fellowship. They have a large congregation with a large amount of people from the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands are a chain of islands in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and the Philippines. Lighthouse has planted five churches in the Marshall Islands. Here in the United States they have been active in planting like minded Pentecostal churches in Oklahoma; Rock Springs, Wyoming and Spokane, Washington.
During the COVID-19 pandemic when Oregon went into shelter in place, Lighthouse continued to meet. They defied health orders and had a graduation ceremony, wedding and several religious services. In response to President Trump’s call for churches to re-open Lightbhouse “reopened” (Question how does one re-open, when you still are operating and have not closed?) to heed Trump’s call. The response is that 236 members of the congregation contracted COVID-19. It became such a threat that it delayed and reversed the opening procedures for Union County, Oregon and became an issue in Oregon. In the state of Oregon the outbreak of COVID-19 at Lighthouse amounted to being nearly 50% of all COVID-19 infections in Oregon, according to the Portland Oregonian. When the outbreak occurred it landed a number of people from the congregation into the hospital and several in the ICU.
If you want to read more about Lighthouse Pentecostal Church you can do so in the following articles.
- Oregonian, “Oregon’s biggest coronavirus outbreak yet is linked to Union County church, state officials confirm.”
- Oregonian, “Everything we know about the eastern Oregon church at the center of state’s largest coronavirus outbreak.”
- ABC News, “Church tied to Oregon’s largest coronavirus outbreak.“
- Business Insider, “236 people got the coronavirus after an Oregon church held services during lockdown — more evidence that religious gatherings are superspreading hot spots.”
Example of Churches Who Opened and Thus Spread COVID-19
There were many churches that longed for opening and did so. Some beat the drum of religious freedom. While others decided to re-open because the leadership in their state encouraged or said it was safe to open. In many cases the costs of re-opening have been deadly. These are some examples:
Calvary Chapel San Antonio
Calvary Chapel in San Antonio, Texas is led by Ron Arbaugh. He led the church to open and as a result over 50 people contracted the COVID-19. One member of the congregation is in the ICU on a respirator. What had happened is that they had re-opened in May after following “the letter of the law.” 50 people contracted COVID-19 and Ron Arbaugh claimed full responsibility for what happened. It should be pointed out that the pastor and his wife are one of the people who contracted COVID-19. Arbaugh wrote the congregation about the situation and its posted on the website. You can read more about this situation at The Friendly Atheist in, “A Texas Pastor Irresponsibly Reopened Church; Now 50 Members Have COVID.” and in the local San Antonio press, “More than 50 people test positive for COVID-19 at San Antonio church that allowed hugging.“
Community Baptist Church in Noel, Missouri
This church is a Southern Baptist Church in the corner of Southwest, Missouri. They had a spike of COVID-19 including their pastor Josh Manning. The church closed its doors due to the concern of the coroanvirus. In this situation it appears as if the pastor tried to act responsibly. You can read about this story in the Associated Press in, “Rural Missouri pastor: Virus ‘just started to sprout up’“
Graystone Baptist Church in Ronceverte, West Virginia
In this Baptist church in Greenbriar, West Virginia an outbreak in the state of West Virginia was traced back to this church. Eventually in late June of 2020 at least 40 people were infected with COVID-19 but this would still grow. The pastor according to my research did not enforce people to wear masks, and allowed handshakes. Even in the Beckley, West Virginia newspaper after the outbreak which lead to three deaths the pastor said that he would still not require masks. On the Facebook page of the Greenbirar County Health Department they had a lively discussion about this COVID-19 situation. In this tragedy three people died including someone who had practiced social distancing effectively who went back to church and contracted the virus that killed him. This is what the New York Times said about this situation.
Congregants at Graystone Baptist Church in Ronceverte, W.Va., began to fall ill 10 days after Sunday services resumed in late May, with masks optional. There have been at least 51 confirmed cases and three deaths tied to the church, local health officials said.
Charles Hiser, 82, was the first of three churchgoers to die after contracting the virus.
His daughter, Libby Morgan, said her father had lived alone and had spent the last few months cooped up at home to stay safe. She brought him groceries and talked to him regularly on the phone so he was not lonely. But Mr. Hiser missed going to Graystone Baptist, where he had attended services for 30 years or so, his daughter said. So as soon as regular services resumed, he went right back, eschewing a mask.
Within two weeks, he had tested positive for the virus.
“I felt like, gosh, I was thinking he’d be safe there,” Ms. Morgan said. “You know, you’re in church. Just like a child that goes to school is supposed to feel safe.”
The church is now reopened, again, after a two-week closure.
A New York Times Article Draws Ed Stezter’s Ire
On July 8, 2020 the New York Times published an article called, “Churches Were Eager to Reopen. Now They Are Confronting Coronavirus Cases.” In the article the Times reported as to how many COVID-19 situations can be tied back to places of worship or evangelical churches. In response to the article Ed Stetzer had a fit in the pages of Christianity Today. He used the Times article to state this is why people distrust the media. They are stating the obvious and he claims that many churches have cooperated and they are exaggerating the situation. Read what Ed Stetzer writes in this regard.
I’m a subscriber to The New York Times. Good journalism matters.
And, good journalism needs context. There are over 300,000 churches in the United States, the overwhelming majority who are doing amazing in their COVID response.
Articles like this remind us why the Knight Foundation and Gallup found in a 2018 poll that Americans trust toward the media continues to decline. Most adults have lost trust in the media. Articles like this won’t help in rebuilding trust among church leaders.
Don’t misunderstand: gathering is risky, and proper protocols need to be followed. But, churches are doing so. Pastors care for their people and have represented the balance between gathering and safety overwhelmingly well.
Will there be an outbreak at a church that follows the rules? Yes. there will be. Just like there will be at colleges that meet this fall, and at Amazon warehouses, big box stores, and at workplaces. This disease is insidious and spreads easily. That’s why we need to continue to be careful.
However, articles like this create a false narrative concerning churches and places of worship, cause people to believe reporting on religion can’t be trusted, and it enflames rather than informs.
Reading the responses to my original tweet is instructive. The Times is already written off by many people of faith. However, I’m not among those yelling, “Fake news.” Yet, when stories are poorly framed, it has consequences.
Ed Stezter said that using a Calvary Chapel in the article is a bad example given the problems of Calvary Chapel. He called for the New York Times to take churches seriously and that they are taking care of people. You can read his response in, “Churches, Coronavirus, and The New York Times.”
It All Goes Back to Science…
In writing about evangelicals and the COVID-19 pandemic I am working on a theory that I would like to state here in this post. When one considers the issues that are happening with COVID-19 and evangelical theology, what happens is that these problems all go back to many evangelicals rejection of science. The legacy of the Scopes Mokney trial hangs over evangelicalism and haunts it. Much of what is happening could easily be prevented by evangelicals embracing science. Yet many can’t, and that is why these problems are looming. As I reflect on that post by Ed Stetzer I think the real issue is that Stetzer is angry that the New York Times is calling it out. Let’s be honest many evangelicals publicly proclaim to be born again. And even while claiming that look at what is transpiring. Some evangelicals in my view are addicted to church and modern worship in the same way that some people are addicted to opiods. They go to church to get their fix or to meet someone. These places fill and manipulate human desires for contact and friendship. So the New York Times calls it out and and that sets Ed Stetzer out. What fake news often means today is “I don’t want to hear that, its true and it hits close to home.” Likewise when you consider the claim by Stetzer that most churches are following the rules (and to be fair a lot are doing so…) The fact of the matter is that many are not. Articles like that New York Times piece deserve to be written. But when you consider the growth of COVID-19 and how some evangelicals are rejecting face masks, social distancing, etc.. many of these problems go back to evangelicals still rejecting science.