[A note: This opinion piece was written on May 25, 2020 and was accepted for publication by cleveland.com for on-line and print in the Plain Dealer. Later on that same day, the news broke of George Floyd being killed by 8 minutes, 46 seconds of a policeman’s knee on his neck. Though the Opinion Editor assured me they still planned to use this piece, I withdrew it. I still believe in what I wrote, but with increasingly limited space in newspapers, there was just more critical subject matter to be covered.]
Here’s what I wrote:
Places of worship are essential.
Not to those who never or rarely attend. But to the 45% of Americans who attend worship at least monthly, you’d get little argument. To the hundreds of families, I served as their pastor, regular church attendance was essential. For some, it had been essential for their entire lives, from birth to death.
The people I served didn’t need the president to tell them church is essential, as he did. In a hurried announcement timed to coincide with Memorial Day weekend, he threatened governors if they refused to follow his wishes. Few took his threat seriously, believing an American president has no such overriding power. I am a retired pastor who keeps touch with hundreds of colleagues across the country. None of them suddenly opened their buildings for worship on May 24. Churches in Ohio were never required to close, though most followed the restrictions of Governor DeWine’s March 23 Stay-at-Home order.
The president’s careless words disrespect the intense planning that church staffs are engaged in for when they can reopen. His brash bravado implies the work of the church hasn’t happened because their buildings have been closed. He could not be more wrong. Churches still worship every Sunday morning, hold mid-week bible studies, small group discussions, hours of prayer, etc. Churches do this on-line with YouTube, Zoom, Facebook Live, and conference calls. Some are quite skilled with large technology budgets. Others are learning as they go. It doesn’t matter. Jesus says when two or three are gathered, he is there among them. That is a promise kept whether we are together in a pew or seeing each other as small squares on a video screen.
Church is not just weekly worship. The outreach ministries that happen beyond church walls and with persons who might never attend worship, are what give authenticity to being Christian. Our president fails to recognize the outpouring of love as shown through church- based feeding ministries for just one example. During the pandemic, a group of churches launched a new community food distribution in Shaker Heights. Another church in South Euclid greatly expanded its monthly effort, now handing out bags of much-needed groceries in their parking lot, while they are masked and maintaining social distance. They do home delivery for seniors and others with health risks.
A Rocky River church gives public Christian witness by having white flags in their church yard – one for every person who has died in Ohio from Covid19. A Lakewood church started a fund for families affected by loss of jobs. Churches held virtual celebrations for graduating seniors. Another pastor offers a challenge to join her in a daily reading aloud of the names of 1,000 of the recently deceased published in the Sunday New York Times. By speaking their names, we honor their lives. The National Council of Churches streamed an ecumenical memorial service, A Time to Mourn, which gave loving tribute to all who have died with sacred music and heartfelt prayers.
Churches are not closed. Essential church is happening.
Pastors have figured out how to provide pastoral care, how to preside at on-line and socially distanced funerals. As early, if not first, responders, pastors recognize the heavy grief carried by so many who are unable to be with dying loved ones. They care for the hardships of being newly unemployed. Pastors’ work through these difficult days has indeed been essential. They are not in a hurry to open their buildings because pastors are acutely aware of people’s vulnerabilities. They will not put their congregations at risk of catching and spreading the virus.
Christian activist, Shane Claiborne wrote: “Wouldn’t it be great if churches were the last places to reopen because of how obsessed we are with loving our neighbors and protecting the most vulnerable?”