By Edelia “Dr. Jay” Carthan,
President Donald Trump announced Friday that his administration deemed houses of worship “essential” and called on governors to allow churches to reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Today, I am identifying houses of worship, churches, synagogues, mosques as essential services,” the president said during a white House briefing. “Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics essential, but left out churches and houses of worship. It’s not right. So I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential,” Trump exclaimed.
“I call upon governors to allow our places of worship to reopen now,” Trump said. He threatened to “override” governors who defied his orders but it is unclear if he has the power to do so.
Governor Tate Reeves issued guidelines for churches to reopen safely during his daily press briefing last week. “I want to remind everyone that in our state churches were never shut down,” Reeves said. “It was important to protect our freedom of religion. It is important to recognize it is a slippery slope when the government starts telling our religious institutions that they cannot meet. But I did ask pastors and churches to do the right thing.”
Reeves guidelines call for churches to replace choirs with solo performances. Avoid passing offering plates, and sanitize shared resources after each use, i.e., restrooms, doorknobs, counters, microphones and seats. The guidelines also include using controlled points of entry and exit from the sanctuary.
Jerry Young, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson, said it is too soon for these measures and his church won’t open anytime soon. Young, who is also president of the National Baptist Convention, USA said, after speaking with ministers from across the nation, that his organization will make the recommendation to churches to not hold traditional services.
Noting the disproportionate effect that COVID-19 has had on African-American populations, Young said in a televised interview, “We need to be extraordinarily careful and very prayerful about how we approach this issue… For me, there are just simply too many variables of uncertainty for us to talk about June 1.”
Rev. Joe May, who has been pastor at Anderson United Methodist Church in Jackson for 18 years, also said he does not think it’s safe to reopen at this present time. “We don’t want to rush back to church. Church is not a building. The people are the church,” he said. “We will continue to do morning devotionals, Bible study and Sunday service via technology. We will open when it is safe.” May also echoed Young and stated that African Americans have the highest rate of cases and are the least tested.
Mount Helm is the oldest black church in Jackson. Founded in 1835, it began with several enslaved blacks worshipping in the basement of First Baptist Church and later became a separate body in 1867, the year the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified. C.J. Rhodes has been the pastor at Mt. Helm for the last 10 years.
He has assembled a task force made up of select members of his congregation possessing expertise in medical, legal and organizational matters to help with the direction the church will take in order to do the least harm to the health and well-being of their congregation.
“The campus may be closed, but the church is open,” Rhodes explained. “I appreciate the guidelines set forth by the governor’s office, and I know my colleagues are eager to get back to traditional services. However, I don’t think that in-person worship is the way to go at this time,” Rhodes said. He sent a letter to his congregation projecting that the church will restore in-person services in July if it’s safe to do so by then.
One minister, Hosea Hines who started Christ Tabernacle Church in August 2009 and has been a pastor for 49 years, seems to have gotten a head start on integrations of virtual alternatives for ministry. He said God put on his heart about two years ago to put sermons in a non contact format because of the drones, online shopping and other changes in society.
“Hebrews 10:25 says ‘not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together,’” said Hines. “So it’s not about meeting physically. We are assembling through modern technology using Facebook live, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter to stream three times a week to keep our congregation uplifted during this pandemic.”
While the president and governor are encouraging churches to reopen, the Mississippi State Department of Health reported 247 new cases and over 13,000 total cases of the coronavirus and 625 deaths.
Black pastors are hesitant to open while the coronavirus is still spreading rapidly. Most of the pastors are concerned with the high number of cases in the African-American community, and will remain closed until the numbers decrease in spite of the governor’s and president’s request to open churches and houses of worship.
Ultimately, the preservation of public health will rest heavily in the hands of trusted faith leaders, as much as government officials.