As coronavirus cases continue to spike nationwide, many governors are encouraging people to stay home and issuing orders banning large gatherings.
Frustratingly, however, some governors continue to send muddled messages by doing and saying things that could encourage houses of worship to hold public services. In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster (R) issued a stay-at-home order yesterday but when asked about churches meeting for Easter this weekend said, “We recommend that those services continue, of course.”
While McMaster urged churches to employ social distancing or meet outdoors if possible, there’s no guarantee that they will. Around the country, there have been several cases of religious leaders defying local orders and holding large services.
In Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) is trying a different approach. While the state is not requiring houses of worship to cease in-person meetings, officials have made it clear that such gatherings, even if they supposedly include social distancing, are strongly discouraged.
Last week, in advance of several major religious holidays, Wolf pulled together religious leaders from Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities to issue statements on the need to keep houses of worship closed.
Senior Pastor Mark Kelly Tyler, Ph.D., of the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia made a point that will doubtless resonate with many believers: A church is more than a physical structure.
“This is an excellent time for all of us to remember that the church is not a building, but the people who make up the congregation,” he said. “We must do everything within our power to save the lives of those we’ve been called to shepherd. If that means livestreaming the worship services and holding Bible Study in video chat rooms, so be it.”
Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom in Pittsburgh also made an important point: Religious communities are called upon to protect their congregants and neighbors.
“Judaism teaches us the highest value is to save a life, not only our own but how our behavior impacts others’ lives, their freedom and their health,” said Bisno. “It is in everyone’s best interests to practice social distancing, so we are finding new ways to gather, support and celebrate one another. We have an obligation, a religious mandate, to recognize the responsibility we have to the wider community. Our preference to be together does not override our responsibility to stay apart until the threat has passed.”
It would have been better if Wolf had declared that in-person services by houses of worship don't meet the criteria as critical public services that can stay open, but since he chose not to do that, the voices of these religious leaders are all the more important. They’re a necessary reminder that a faith community exists outside of its four walls and that during these difficult times, there are many ways for believers of all stripes to gather (remotely!) for community, fellowship and celebration.