It’s hard to understand why any churches would still be holding services in person.
According to Gov. Andy Beshear and news sources, some churches in Kentucky and all over the country are still open, still holding services and still risking the lives of their parishioners. A church is a guaranteed hotspot for COVID-19 transmission, to particularly deadly effect given the average age of many parishioners. As we saw in Hopkins County, where a church revival led to two dozen new cases, the best intentions can go awry.
What’s not hard to understand is how difficult these closures are for many, especially during the holiest week of the Christian year. Holy Week describes Jesus’ journey into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, his crucifixion on Good Friday and his eventual resurrection on Easter Sunday. Churches are packed on Easter for those celebrating the divinity of Christ or simply the ritual of flowers and music that accompany the sacred holiday.
In the Catholic tradition, Holy Week is full of communal activity, from the foot washing of Maundy Thursday to baptisms, confirmations and numerous services. Bishop John Stowe of the Catholic Diocese of Lexington said it’s been very difficult for parishioners, especially those who believe their faith will protect them from harm, to stay away from church.
“But the Catholic faith is about faith and reason,” Stowe said. “And sacrifice is a large part of Christianity.”
Many of the churches across the Bluegrass, like the Cathedral of Christ the King where Stowe presides, are now livestreaming their services online and will continue to do so until given the all clear. When I asked Stowe what he would say to a pastor planning Easter worship, he was blunt:
“I would say it’s irresponsible,” he said. “It’s jeopardizing people’s lives.”
Carol Wade, the dean of Christ Church Cathedral (where I attend) said this very unique Easter reminds her of the first one, where the disciples, who had fled Jesus’ crucifixion, huddled together in private homes, full of fear and dread.
“I see this as an opportunity in a terrible moment in the history of the world where we’re being called back to the very heart of our faith and that can be something really hopeful,” she said.
There are plenty of ways to celebrate Easter at home and online. Instead of the vigil usually held in church Thursday night, Christ Church is holding a virtual vigil, where people at home can sign up for different time slots. Friday is a time to pray for and appreciate the sacrifice of first responders and Sunday will bring the hope of renewal, she said.
“My prayer is that God continues to give us the strength and perseverance to offer ourselves in love and do the right things for the sake of our neighbors,” she said.
Immanuel Baptist Church closed its doors but started a volunteer mission of about 600 people, everything from taking hot food to medical personnel to doing parades at assisted living facilities.
“I’ve never been more proud of our church than in the past three to four weeks,” said lead pastor Ray Green. “We’re sacrificing our time to be physically together, but it pales in comparison to the great sacrifice that Jesus made for us.”
Rev. Hank Ellington, associate pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, said it’s been challenging to condense all the Holy Week and Easter services into online formats but “we need to show leadership to work under the guidelines of the governor to protect our community as much as possible,” he said. “We think it’s smart and it’s the godly thing to do.”
Probably 99% of churches are closed, but that 1% could have a disproportionate effect on transmission. Jack Roberts, pastor of the Maryville Baptist Church in Louisville told The Courier Journal that he would rather go to jail and court than pay a fine for violating the the state order that closed churches. He said Beshear’s prohibition violates First Amendment and state constitutional rights. Roberts said he has encouraged social distancing at his church and asked people at high risk of infection to stay home and watch live-streamed services.
I hope the pastors doing this aren’t making some kind of political statement about how serious COVID-19 is. Sure, you have a Constitutional right to pray as much as you want. But opening your church doesn’t make you a rebel for Christ or some kind of religious martyr.
It just makes you selfish, someone who puts their needs above those of the community. It’s also short-sighted. As Gov. Andy Beshear is fond of pointing out, the churches open for Easter could have many fewer parishioners by Christmas.
But before we spend too much time blaming these errant pastors, we should also point out that their parishioners could also make a choice to stay home and instead take part in the numerous online offerings.
“The Lord God is not limited to one physical space and this is not a permanent situation,” Ellington said. “There will be a day we can come back together and oh, what a happy day that will be.”