Tuesday, March 24, 2020

News Breaks That 34 Members of an Arkansas Church Are Infected with COVID: My Reflections on the Curiously Slow Learning Curve of Churches

Jose A. Del Real, Julie Zauzmer, and Ava Wallace, "Without guidance from the top, Americans have been left to figure out their own coronavirus solution"

On March 15, Jose A. Del Real, Julie Zauzmer, and Ava Wallace reported for Washington Post

In Arkansas, the Rev. Josh King met with the pastors of five other churches on Thursday [i.e., March 12] to decide whether to continue holding service. Their religious beliefs told them that meeting in person to worship each Sunday remained an essential part of their faith, and some of their members signed on to Trump's claims that the media and Democrats were overblowing the danger posed by the virus. 
"One pastor said half of his church is ready to lick the floor, to prove there's no actual virus," said King, lead pastor at Second Baptist church in Conway, Ark.

By this point, Americans were being told that a pandemic wave was about to crest in the US, and that it was critically important we learn from the experiences of other countries how to flatten its curve. On March 5, under a healing "March 5 coronavirus news," CNN posted a video in which journalist Ivan Watson reports from South Korea that all across Asia, any event involving large gatherings had been cancelled or seriously altered. He specifically refers to the cancellation of church services as a way the region had learned to help flatten the curve of infection.

We were being told by this date to pay careful attention to how South Korea, in particular, had managed to flatten the pandemic curve. We had learned that one way South Korea kept its infection rates relatively low was by stringent tracking of vectors of infection from person to person. We also knew that South Korea had stringently encouraged churches to stop holding services, after it had been discovered before the final week of February — before February 23 — that a "superspreader" in a church in South Korea had managed to infect around 40 people, who then spread the infection to others. The woman had fever on February 10, refused to be tested, and continued going to church services after she was advised to self-quarantine. Her church became a "perfect petri dish" for infection, spreading infection far and wide.  

All of this was well known to anyone reading the news prior to the end of February. It appeared in article after article published in English-language news outlets, so that Americans had all the access they wanted to this information prior to the first of March — if they cared to listen.

On March 12, churches in Rome were shuttered, another event widely publicized in the English-language media. Note that this event took place on the very same day that a pastor in Arkansas was reporting that his congregants were ready to lick the floor to prove that the pandemic was a Democratic hoax. The Italian bishops had ordered for all public Masses to cease in Italy on March 8.

And now a parallel story: from March 6-8, a church in Cleburne County, Arkansas, Greer's Ferry First Assembly of God church, held a "kids' crusade." Yesterday, media reports (and see the previous link) state that 34 members of that church who attended the "crusade" are now infected with coronavirus. They include the church's pastor and his wife. I had already been made aware of this story by people close to the situation who have told me that members of an Assembly of God church in Missouri attended the crusade, and they are thought to be the source of the COVID infection in the Arkansas church. 

I've also been told that members of the Arkansas church are now proven to be vectors of infection within the wider community, where the viral infection within the church community has now spread outward into the community at large. I have not been able to verify either that Missouri church members came to the Greer's Ferry "kids' crusade" and that the infection spread from them to the Arkansas church, or that transmission from the Arkansas church into the community of Cleburne County has been proven. I have no reason to doubt either report, however. The people who have shared this information with me are highly credible sources.

I think, but again, do not have positive information to confirm this, that the church in Missouri from which the coronavirus transmission to the Arkansas church is thought to have occurred is James River Assembly of God church in Springfield, Missouri. By the time the James River church, which has 15,000 weekly attendees, was in contact with the Greer's Ferry church (if my sources are correct) at the "kids' crusade," members of the James River church had come into contact with foreign visitors who later tested positive for the virus, and local health authorities notified church members that anyone who attended one of its March 8 services had likely been exposed to coronavirus.

On March 13, the Springfield Director of Health advised churches to start practicing social distancing, but also said that church services for March 15 could continue. Then this happened — this is an excerpt from the article I have just linked:

On the same day [i.e., March 13] as Goddard's advice, James River Church posted to its Facebook page that it would go forward with "services at all of our campuses" for this past weekend, moving to online services thereafter. 
"YOU DO NOT WANT TO MISS THIS SERVICE!" church leadership told the congregation last week. 
The church added, "This morning, after visiting with city, county, and health officials we received their blessing to hold services this Sunday at all of our campuses." 
The blessing did not come from the Christian County Health Department, administrator Cindy Bilyeu said this week. She acknowledged she was surprised by the church action.
James River took precautions for last weekend, according to its social media, banning hand-to-hand contact along with "offering buckets" and prayer lines for the sick. Door handles were to be sanitized throughout the building during and after every service, with hand sanitizer available throughout the building. 
Bilyeu, with Christian County's health department, said she thought the James River church "blessing" comment referred to remarks by Goddard and other officials in Greene County. She noted James River has at least two campuses north of the county line, and the flagship in Christian County, off Highway 65, is located close to the line. 
Brandon Lindell, James River executive ministries pastor, told the News-Leader this week, "We received the blessing from the Springfield-Greene County Health Department to have services this (past) weekend. That’s who we talked to who gave us the blessing."

To recap: Greer's Ferry Assembly of God church in Cleburne County, Arkansas, held a "kids' crusade" March 6-8. I have been told that members of a Missouri church that I think is James River church in Springfield, Missouri, attended this event. 34 people in attendance at the Greer's Ferry event have now tested positive for coronavirus. I have been told that members of the church have transmitted the infection into the local community.

Someone who attended a service at James River on March 8 was thought by local health officials to be positive for coronavirus and had symptoms, so health officials warned the James River church that its members might be carriers of infection. Despite this, and despite encouragement on March 13 by a local health official for churches to cease gatherings, James River went right on and held services on March 15: "YOU DO NOT WANT TO MISS THIS SERVICE!" 

I have been unable to find any information from either the church website of Greer's Ferry First Assembly of God or its Facebook page about when that church last held services. Both pages are curiously lacking any information about that critically important fact. 

In discussing this timeline on Facebook with someone who lives near the Arkansas church and knows many more details about the story than I do, I am hearing that we should give these churches a break because "the learning curve has developed at a slower pace than the infection has." I'm not comfortable reaching that conclusion, however. The learning curve was very clear even before March began: for any of us who wanted to learn, it was clear what was coming to the US and that we needed to learn from the experience of other countries. We knew before March began that the big outbreak in South Korea had come quite precisely from a church, when one of its members ignored health officials' urging that she self-quarantine.

We knew by early March that Italy had cancelled church services to try to deal with its spiraling rates of infection. We knew all of this — and we knew people were dying in droves — by March 12 when an Arkansas pastor said his congregants were willing to lick the floor to prove that the pandemic was a Democratic hoax.

And when not a few Arkansas churches were belligerently continuing to hold services despite the pleas of public health officials to shut them down…. (A cousin of mine in Oklahoma who is, I think, in her 80s emailed me just this past Saturday to say she was going to go to Sunday School and church the next day, on March 22. She later told me she did just that.)

So I'm wondering why churches, in particular, have been very slow to follow a learning curve that was pretty clear to a lot of people as medical officials warned us what was coming and how we needed to respond.

That video of advice about preparing for the pandemic that CNN posted on March 5 — the day before Greer's Ferry started its "kids' crusade": it specifically cited the case of South Korea and how South Korea kept the pandemic curve down by insisting churches not meet (among other precautions).

We were being told for quite some time up to that point to pay attention to how South Korea had handled the pandemic and kept infection rates lower than in some other countries. Patient zero in South Korea, who was carefully tracked as a source of infection — and this careful tracking is one way the South Koreans kept infection down — was told she was infected and told to isolate herself.

She responded by going to a buffet in a hotel and going to church. Multiple transmissions were then tracked from that one person refusing medical advice.

I'm wondering why it has taken churches, above all, so long to learn that they need to stop gatherings and practice social distance. It's not as if these are difficult-to-understand points or as if they weren't being strongly urged on us from late Feburary into early March.

And it's not as if these same churches have not been shouting for years now that they are pro-life, pro-life, pro-life.

Yet the church in Missouri that, I think, sent members to the Greer's Ferry event on March 6-8 was still announcing it was intending to hold services as of March 13, when it had been informed that its  March 8 service had probably exposed church members to infection, and when Springfield Director of Health advised churches on that same day, March 13, to stop holding gatherings. This was four days after all public church services in Italy were shut down, so it's not as if churches in the US had no information from elsewhere about how important this step was. Italy then followed its initial step of shutting down Masses by closing all churches on March 12.

Certainly I'm concerned about those at the Arkansas and Missouri churches who are now sick — and about the people they have infected. But I'm not comfortable with saying, "Oh, well, people have to work and of course those church members went to their jobs, not realizing they were spreading infection."

But they went to their jobs knowing that at least some church members had likely been exposed to infection — from what I can gather — and also after the church in Missouri continued holding services days after it had been told explicitly that people were likely infected in that church. This seems to me totally irresponsible, and when people's lives are at stake when churches (or any other group — but churches have stood out in this regard) behave irresponsibiy, I don't think it's unfair to criticize and call them to accountability.

If, God willing, we make it through to the other side of this horrible time, we need to be asking some serious critical questions about "pro-life" white Christians in the US, and how they are affecting those outside the walls of their churches. And whether they are really proving to be purveyors of a pro-life ethic in American culture and political life, or in actuality, are proving to be purveyors of something quite different from that….

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