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May 14, 2020Culture

When States Don't Talk with Churches about Covid Timetables, Tensions Increase

We need a better way and a clearer plan for churches in IL, CA, and a few other states-- a follow up from my article for the Religion News Service.
When States Don't Talk with Churches about Covid Timetables, Tensions Increase
Image: By Kristopher Kettner via Shutterstock

Governors are leading the conversation about opening up now— and that’s led to mixed responses depending on the state.

In our divided time, one governor's response is considered reasoned by one news network and reckless by another. Fox News has repeatedly praised Governors Abbott of Texas and Kemp of Georgia, while CNN has valorized Governor Cuomo of New York and Governor Pritzker of Illinois.

I live and serve in Illinois, where Governor Pritzker announced on May 5 the Restore Illinois plan, dividing the state into four geographical regions. Each region must go through these five phases based on certain markers in order to be reopened completely:

  • Rapid Spread: What the state was in from March 21 to April 30.
  • Flattening: Began May 1, allow "nonessential" retail businesses to open for curbside pickup and delivery, state parks to open, among others.
  • Recovery: Manufacturing, offices, salons, and others with capacity restrictions; no more than 10 may gather.
  • Revitalization: Restaurants and bars can reopen with limitations on capacity; gatherings of 50 or fewer allowed.
  • Restored: The economy is fully reopened. This only happens when there is "a vaccine or highly effective treatment widely available or the elimination of any new cases over a sustained period.”

While there are already questions about how the plan will impact businesses, my concern here is its impact on churches. Under this plan, no gatherings over 50 will be allowed until Phase 5, which will likely be many months or a year or more. I believe this fails to acknowledge how churches function, and (unlike how businesses are being treated) does not show the kind of partnership and communication we need right now.

It is important to note that Illinois is the outlier, both in its timetable and its lack of communication. Other states have similar, though not quite the same, struggles. (Note, Pritzker may have had some conversation with the Catholic church.)

On the other hand, some states are partnering with their churches, using percent capacity and other means to talk about an opening timetable. While no state is responding perfectly and each has unique challenges in fighting the virus, this model of partnership between churches and government officials needs to be.

Circling back to my recent Religion News Service article, I want to outline in more detail why Illinois needs to engage its churches and work on a better plan that reflects the reality of church.

Let me again be clear: I do not believe Illinois needs to open now or soon. I do believe that governors need to work with and better understand the plans churches can make-- now or soon.

Times and Spaces Rather Than a Fixed Number

We need to move forward with caution and care, particularly as this has impacted our communicates of color disproportionately. In my article, I mentioned two pastors who have similar concerns and would love to work with the governor (and, I should add, they want to also work with the mayor of Chicago).

James Meeks is a key leader in the African American community and Wilfredo de Jesus in the Latino community. Pastor Meeks shared with me this morning:

Nobody loves our church members like we do. We are capable of developing plans that protect our members. We’d like to share with the governor what our plans are-- our social distancing may be better than most places. We are not going to put our mothers, brothers, and others in harm’s way.

Recognizing the spirit in which Pastor Meeks was writing, Governor Pritzker's recent comments show a focus on group size, not spacing and mitigation, and represents the wrong approach for churches.

As I wrote about this plan:

It will not only hurt churches’ ability to survive this crisis but could also exacerbate the mental health struggles beginning to take hold across the country. Pastors are impatient to engage the increased suffering of people in the churches and in their communities. That work often involves meeting with people in person.

For Christian leaders who want to wait, it is becoming increasingly difficult to persuade them to hold tight and remain distant from those who need their help— particularly with what appears to be no communication and little understanding of how churches function.

The example I gave was Moody Church-- an outlier itself, but an easy illustration of the point. Limiting the group to 50 people in a room that seats almost 4000 makes little sense.

The issue is not a fixed number like groups of less than 50; times and spaces are the two critical metrics. Fifty people in a church that seats 50 is obviously a problem. Fifty people in a church building that seats 300—properly distanced and practicing appropriate mitigation—provides more opportunities for safety. As does 400 people in a room that seats 4000.

Many churches are more than capable of adding service times and creating safe spaces for worship. Typically, the space between pews means that skipping every other row creates a six-foot space. Marking off a space three seats (24") apart on the rows to be used will allow the spacing in terms of width, with the exception of families who can sit together.

These are not demands, but rather ideas aimed at generating discussion. But, we need to have that discussion in IL, CA, and beyond.

Keep in mind, I was among the first to argue in a national publication (March 12 in RNS as well, and before President Trump acted to shut down the country for 15 days) that we should consider not meeting when it was still a controversial question, writing,

God will bring us back together, stronger and more on mission than ever…Listen to your health department. See what your local schools do. Consider the age of your congregation. And then, decide accordingly…We love gathering in person — with feet and faces — but for now, we may best love our neighbor by gathering via electrons and avatars.

Even as some media outlets have focused on fringe churches resisting lockdowns in late March and April, the overwhelming majority of pastors have been quick to listen to medical experts. But after two months it is time to at least have a discussion about how churches can make the social distancing limitations work in a way that meets the needs of our communities.

Not tomorrow. Not next week. But not wait without end.

The Costco Comparison

The title of my RNS article was, “If Costco can reopen safely, why not Illinois churches, Gov. Pritzker?”

Anyone who has written for a publication knows that writers don’t pick the titles (although they did run it by me). Not ones to pass up the opportunity, several people online were ready to pounce: Retail is different! You are in and out! There’s no talking!

Ironically, most of the people focused on the customer experience—as if the only person in the Costco situation was the consumer. That certainly is a position of privilege, but one single person mentioned the employees. Those employees are working eight or more hours a day, interacting with dozens, if not hundreds, of customers at checkouts and in the aisles. Their opening had less to do with the nature of the industry than with its essentialness to our society.

Moreover, my point wasn’t a direct comparison, but rather the underlying mentality that went into opening Costco and other grocery stores. Recognizing their importance, government officials worked with grocery store owners, union representatives, and medical experts so that Costco could open with appropriate measures. We need to talk about how churches might do the same— with medical experts to work through the issues.

Given the unprecedented nature of this crisis and the ambiguity about the correct pathway forward, dialogue has proven a far more fruitful aim than blanket pronouncements either for or against opening.

I just think it is time for the conversation in partnership, like businesses have already have had. If Costco can make it work— for not just their shoppers, but their employees— let’s start a conversation about how churches can.

When we don’t have that partnership and conversation, we can end up like California, where 2,000 churches plan to open in defiance of the governor’s orders.

Partnership is a better way.

An Opportunity for Vision and Leadership

I don't think we can have this kind of open-ended restriction for months or years among churches without sustained discussion. Left in the dark and out of the process, some churches have already begun to push on these issues. I don’t want them to make irresponsible decisions, but I understand their frustration when they are given little hope and no voice.

Rather than putting the state at odds with churches, we hope to continue to be co-belligerents with our officials against this disease. The most successful leaders during this time are those who have been able to convey a vision of unity—one that demonstrates that we are truly in this together. As I mentioned at RNS, Pritzker has already declared churches a critical, indeed essential, component of tens of millions of Americans’ lives.

We must graciously and lovingly speak up and say that if churches have been important for 2,000 years, then they are still vital today.

I am not asking for an opening now, or an opening at an irresponsible time. I am asking for conversations with the governor aimed at a plan that reflects the reality of churches better.

I can get churches in the Zoom room with the governor and anyone he designates. Members of Congress have championed this request and we are happy to coordinate with synagogues, mosques, temples, and more. There is an opportunity here for vision and leadership—an opportunity for us to find common ground aimed at finding ways we can serve one another and our community in a culture that more often incentives division.

Illinois has a ways to go before churches can meet, but friendly conversations with public health officials about how they could make it work, along with a more realistic timeline, would be an encouraging step.

Even that coordinated timeline can change as we follow the science, knowing that the disease is ultimately setting the timetable. However, the lack of a plan that takes into account the unique characteristics of churches—from size to questions of singing and much more— does not create the kind of partnership we will need to beat this disease.

Governors can do better. Churches care for their people and can work with the government to look at safe timing and safe practices so that, if and when that time comes, people are protected and congregations continue their good work.

It’s not the time to open in Illinois or in many other states, but it is time for governors to talk to churches and strategize together on the metrics and the times when we can.

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