One week after a gunman entered Sutherland Springs’ First Baptist Church and extinguished the lives of 26 congregants in November 2017, more than 500 people gathered under a white tent in a baseball field to attend the church’s next Sunday service.
Given the trauma that the shooting inflicted on the small South Texas community, it would have been easy to understand if First Baptist had temporarily suspended services, or if the church’s parishioners determined that the pain was too raw to gather again so soon.
But this was how a community healed. After all, if the individuals who met under that tent had simply needed the guidance of scripture, they could have stayed home and read their bibles. If they’d simply desired to commune with their higher power, they could have done so in solitude with a silent prayer.
This gathering, like so many others in this country every Sunday, was about something more than faith. For millions of Americans, church is a place to find fellowship, to nurture a sense of community, to forge your deepest friendships. It’s where faith is not only affirmed, but celebrated and shared.
That’s why the closing of in-person church services across the country, as part of a social-distancing response to the infectious spread of the coronavirus, has been painful for many people of faith. They’ve temporarily lost the part of their lives which would best help them cope with the alienation and sadness we’re all wrestling with right now.
Of course, a global pandemic doesn’t respect faith and it doesn’t check its destructive intentions at the doors of a house of worship.
That’s why it was necessary for San Antonio, and the other major cities in this state, to include, in their recent stay-at-home orders, a temporary requirement that church services only be conducted via video or teleconference calls. It’s also why the statewide order that Gov. Greg Abbott unveiled on Tuesday was disappointing.
Abbott deserves credit for recognizing, albeit belatedly, that the municipal leaders of this state did the right thing when they shut down non-essential businesses and mandated that people stay home. He did the right thing by making that policy a statewide directive.
He undermined the policy, however, by exempting churches from that order.
Abbott did hedge a bit on the details, indicating that church services, when possible, should be conducted “from home or through remote audio or video services” and stating that all in-person gatherings should be canceled in communities that are “experiencing substantial community spread.”
One of the problems with this directive is that “substantial community spread” is a hazy concept in legal terms, and we have to think in legal terms, because Abbott’s Republican ally, social-conservative crusader Steven Hotze, and three Houston-area pastors filed a petition Monday with the Texas Supreme Court, challenging the constitutionality of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s stay-at-home order.
“The free exercise of religion cannot be taken lightly and should not be sacrificed at the altar of political expediency,” the petition states.
Most San Antonio pastors seem willing to abide by social-distancing principles for combating COVID-19. But Abbott’s order can be used by rogue pastors to validate their reckless actions.
Joel Garza, the pastor of Robstown’s Bridge Church, willfully violated a March 25 Nueces County stay-at-home order prohibiting gatherings of 10 or more people, when he held in-person church services last Sunday.
In response to allegations that he’s being irresponsible, Garza told a TV reporter, “Now more than ever, I believe that the doors of the house of the Lord should be open.”
Garza’s stance followed the blueprint of Tony Spell, pastor of the Life Tabernacle Church in suburban Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who welcomed 1,265 people to last Sunday’s church service. Spell has dismissed COVID-19 as a “politically motivated virus.”
Abbott’s “substantial community spread” standard is faulty also because there are infected people among us who are asymptomatic and don’t realize they have the virus.
Dr. Nate Link, the chief medical officer of New York’s Bellevue Hospital, recently pointed out that New York City had only about 300 cases a couple of weeks ago, while now it’s up to 30,000. Link said only one thing separates New York from other, less-ravaged communities: two weeks.
During the catastrophic 1918 influenza outbreak, Dr. John Robertson, the health commissioner in Chicago, defied public-health orthodoxy by choosing to keep churches open.
“The greatest factor in fighting influenza is the morale of the people,” Robertson said. “Nothing will so fill them with courage and confidence as participation in public worship.”
It’s an argument that Garza and Spell would make today; that the spiritual nourishment provided by communal worship has health benefits that can’t be quantified. Unfortunately, at the moment, it also carries risks that can’t be ignored.