Saturday, March 28, 2020

As America Becomes Number 1 in World Coronavirus Infections, the "Beautiful" Idea of Packing Churches for Easter: My Commentary

An update on the story I shared with you recently (and here), about First Assembly of God church in Greer's Ferry, Arkansas, which hosted a children's crusade March 6-8, and then discovered that some three dozen church members who attended that event were infected with coronavirus: that story continues to gain international attention, as with this recent NBC news report

Arkansas has now seen three people die of COVID, and of those three, two have been members of the Greer's Ferry church. As I shared several days ago, the county in which Greer's Ferry is located, a largely rural county in north Arkansas, is a hot-spot of coronavirus infection now, and I have been told by people close to the Greer's Ferry church story that multiple people in the county have been infected with coronavirus by members of this one church. 

As the postings linked at the top of this posting also state, it appears that the infection that spread among members of the Greer's Ferry church came to that church from another huge Assembly of God church on the borders of Greene and Christian Counties, Missouri — James River Assembly of God church. Members of that church came to the children's crusade in early March and were apparently infected with the virus, though they did not know this.

By March 13, the James River church had been told by local health officials that it likely had church members who were infected, and those officials encouraged the church to stop holding services and hosting events like choir practice, Sunday School, prayer meetings, sing-togethers, etc. The church insisted on ignoring that advice and went right on and held services on March 15.

Now the two counties from which the James River church draws members — Greene and Christian Counties, Missouri — have the highest infection rates in the Missouri Ozarks. Granted, Greene is where Springfield, the major urban center of the Missouri Ozarks, is located. Springfield is also home of the international headquarters of the Assembly of God churches, and it is thought that the infection in the James River church came from French visitors to those headquarters who found themselves infected after they returned to France around March 8. The national office of the Assembly of God churches employess umpteen folks in Springfield.

Christian County is, by contrast, largely rural and with a population a third the size of Greene County.  The James River church is one of its socioeconomic focal points, with services drawing over 15,000 people on any given Sunday. 

As we try to wrap our heads around that church story from Arkansas and Missouri, where churches are the epicenter of infections spreading into the wider community, the man at the helm of the US response to the pandemic — the nation that now leads the world in the number of those infected — has suddenly announced that he wants the US "open for business" again, with the "beautiful" idea of starting the "re-opening" on Easter Sunday. As AP reports

President Donald Trump's "beautiful" idea to reopen the U.S. economy by Easter Sunday and pack church pews that day was dreamed up during a conference call among business leaders desperate to get the country back up and running. 
But his target date for easing coronavirus restrictions is another outstretched hand to a group he has long courted: evangelical Christians.

Words have power, and foolish words can lead to tragic consequences: as Sarah Pulliam Bailey writes, pastors who had just convinced their church members to accept the fact that it was socially responsible to cease services and to stop hosting gatherings are now saying that the announcement by the man leading the US response to the pandemic about Easter has left them "gobsmacked." As she notes, Catholic bishops have also been getting hateful letters informing them that no one is sick and they did were very wrong to shut down Masses.

And in Mississippi, a state that is the very heart of white evangelical Trump-loving culture in the US, right-wing Republican governor Tate Reeves has announced that his state is going to pull against the tide and re-open for business. As the report I have just linked states, at least one Mississippi mayor, Mario King of Moss Point, is indicating that the governor's action has had the immediate effect of causing people to rush back to church — in contravention of all sound medical advice about how we should all be behaving in this pandemic.

I am hearing similar reports in my own state, which neighbors Mississippi, of a similar effect of the "beautiful" idea of packing churches on Easter to show we're open for business. I'm hearing that many of my fellow citizens who have bridled at the notion of practicing social distance because of a Democratic hoax are now eager to get church services going again. Even as our state's governor tells us that in two weeks' time, the models of medical experts predict that our state rate of known infections will perhaps rise from 384 to 3,500….

As Katherine Stewart writes yesterday in an article entitled "The Religious Right's Hostility to Science Is Crippling Our Coronavirus Response," 

Donald Trump rose to power with the determined assistance of a movement that denies science, bashes government and prioritized loyalty over professional expertise. In the current crisis, we are all reaping what that movement has sown. ...
This denial of science and critical thinking among religious ultraconservatives now haunts the American response to the coronavirus crisis. On March 15, Guillermo Maldonado, who calls himself an "apostle" and hosted Mr. Trump earlier this year at a campaign event at his Miami megachurch, urged his congregants to show up for worship services in person. "Do you believe God would bring his people to his house to be contagious with the virus? Of course not," he said. 
Rodney Howard-Browne of The River at Tampa Bay Church in Florida mocked people concerned about the disease as "pansies" and insisted he would only shutter the doors to his packed church "when the rapture is taking place." In a sermon that was live-streamed on Facebook, Tony Spell, a pastor in Louisiana, said, "We're also going to pass out anointed handkerchiefs to people who may have a fear, who may have a sickness and we believe that when those anointed handkerchiefs go, that healing virtue is going to go on them as well."

And as Greg Graziosi wrote the same day in an article explicitly citing the story of Greer's Ferry First Assembly of God church, 

Though Mr Spell has garnered the most media attention for unapologetically holding services - other Christians have condemned him and a petition to have him arrested has been circulating - he's not the only pastor who has defied orders.  
Tom Walters, pastor of Word of Life church in Pennsylvania, apologised for defying government recommendations against large group gatherings.  
Pittsburgh's Action 4 News reported the group held a "a large church service" on Sunday.  
Mr Walters said he felt "led to" hold the service but apologised nonetheless.  
"Please believe me when I say that it was not out of arrogance or defiance, but solely for the purpose of praying for our churches, communities, and nation," he said. "We certainly want to be a blessing to our community and have certainly tried to be in years gone by. My heart was so heavy to experience the amount of hateful comments we received, but I guess I can understand." 
Other pastors have been less repentant.  
Greg Locke of Global Vision Bible Church in Tennessee insists his church will stay open during the coronavirus lockdowns. According to the Christian Post, Mr Locke claims Facebook deleted one of his church announcements because it violated the site's policy on Covid-19 information.  
"I'm beyond fired up at this point!!! Y'all need to WAKE UP. Facebook removed my service announcement post and said to keep the church open was promoting a crime. WE ARE NOT CLOSING!!!" he wrote on Twitter.  
Mr Locke's Twitter profile claims he is an "outspoken pastor" and that he "refuses to bow to the politically correct idol of our culture."  
He has recently promoted the Twitter hashtag #DemocratsHateAmerica and called an attempt by Senate Democrats to include funding for Planned Parenthood in a coronavirus stimulus bill "crack-smoking demonism." 
In an interview with The Tennessean, Mr Locke claimed his church was "an essential service." 
"It's important for us to remain open. It’s not because we’re trying to prove a point," he said.  
Mr Locke said the church conducted extra cleaning before their most recent service and provided hand sanitising stations and face masks for congregants.  
"We want people to know we are a clean environment, we're a safe environment and we want people to know that we’re a necessity, we’re an essential in the community," he said. 

It appears that "pro-life" white Christians are about to be the death of many of us in the US. And that their objective hasn't been "pro-life" in the least, even as they've demanded the right to enshrine their minority beliefs in law and judicial decisions and to force them on all the rest of us….

Some churches are displaying the most shockingly anti-social, irresponsible attitudes possible at this dire moment in world and US history, and are modeling anti-communitarian behavior that is going to result in needless deaths. When church members, whether 4 or 45, insist that their spiritual needs should trump public safety and they need to gather in churches or cathedrals to sing, dance, chant, watch every televised Mass they can get their hands on — whatever — they are modeling for all the rest of us irresponsible, anti-social, and ultimately death-dealing behavior.

There is no reason whatsoever for churches to be hosting gatherings at this point when we have been told over and over to practice social distance and in that way safeguard not merely ourselves, but the rest of the community. Churches and church members should model socially responsible behavior

Members of a religion that claims to be based on a founder who was all about self-giving love surely can find spiritual moorings other than church hobnobs — of any sort — in a time of pandemic. The fact that we are wedded to a handful of spiritual practices that require us to be in church (close to our priests and bishops, since what are spirituality and religion without them?) shows how theologically impoverished we have allowed our spiritual imaginations to become.  (And speaking of what we can do to overcome social distance and keep on singing when we allow our imaginations to expand, see this subsequent posting.)

As a footnote to this story, check out this recent report of the serious coronavirus infection now hitting a Florida retirement community. Then check out this report from a few weeks back about that very same Florida retirement community whose members were telling reporters at that time that, no ma'am, I don't intend to stop shaking hands. I'm a hand shaker! The report also features pictures of the community's members flocking to dances and defying the advice of medical experts to practice social isolation.

And now we see what the outcome of that belligerent stupidity was, as rates of viral infection soar in this community.

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