church members worship in person despite stay-at-home orders
EBENSBURG, Pa. (AP) — The message posted on a recent Sunday on Crossroads Alliance Church’s sign read “Walk By Faith – Not By Sight.”
And inside the sanctuary, a crowd of approximately 25 parishioners served as a testament to those words, gathering together despite stay-at-home coronavirus orders and singing “I just want to worship” with the seven-member praise band playing in front of them.
“I feel like I’m meant to be here,” said church member Rick Paige, of Carrolltown.
“I respect what our leaders are telling us – and I wear a mask when I see other people wearing them. But I don’t walk in fear. I know I’m protected.”
A few attendees wore masks into the church. But most entered without facial coverings and congregated together in pews at the rear of the sanctuary – out of view of a video camera that was live-streaming the service to Facebook followers.
Church organizations aren’t banned from continuing to operate during the ongoing COVID-19 shutdown.
But at the urging of state leaders and federal health officials to slow the spread of a pandemic blamed for killing more than 55,000 nationwide the past two months, religious leaders across Pennsylvania have halted traditional public services, reaching out to the faithful through online broadcasts and other means, including drive-in worship.
Cambria County Emergency Services Coordinator Art Martynuska said the county recognizes people have the right to hold religious services. But they should also consider personal safety at the same time – staying at least six feet apart from one another, wearing masks “and considering risk factors” when they make plans to go anywhere, he said.
“We applaud people for exercising their faith. And we want to get back to socializing, too. But we also want to make sure people are safe,” he said.
Crossroads Alliance Church Pastor Kevin Stock said his church closed for a few weeks.
But he said he couldn’t keep the church’s doors closed any longer, saying that it’s come to a point where he believes following man’s laws means ignoring God’s commandments.
He pointed to Scripture in Hebrews, guiding Christians to “make it a habit” to continue meeting together.
“God is commanding us not to give up the habit of meeting together,” Stock said.
‘Right to get together’
And in his sermon, Stock quoted the fourth chapter in the book of Acts – when government representatives tried to stop Peter and John from sharing their story of Jesus’ resurrection.
“I’m thoroughly convinced we’re in a major spiritual battle over the soul of the nation – and it’s not just this corona thing,” he said.
Stock described himself as “a patriot.”
“I love my country,” he said. “I try to obey the civil laws of this country. But when these laws go against what God is telling us to do, I’m following what God says.”
Stock said he doesn’t doubt COVID-19 is real – but questioned how it’s different than SARS in 2003 or any other widespread virus.
He suggested fear – not laws – is keeping many at home, adding that Christians are giving up their Constitutional right to worship.
“We have a right to get together and intercede for our leaders and against this virus – to pray for truth,” Crossroads member Diane Detwiler said.
‘God is with us’
Across the region in recent weeks, many other church leaders have been lifting their hands in prayer – for many reasons involving the coronavirus pandemic.
But they’ve found ways to do that while adhering to social distancing guidelines that medical experts say saves lives.
Mount Calvary Lutheran Pastor Scott Klimke said he understands that many fellow Christians miss attending the traditional church services that have become a vital part of their lives.
But he urged the faithful to consider both faith and wisdom during these stressful times.
“For me, I’m reminded of an important passage during the temptation of Christ, where the Devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple,” Klimke said.
“And he tells Jesus to throw himself off, because the Scripture says God will catch you. But Jesus responds, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”
Klimke said: “If we’re ignoring the advice of all of the medical professionals and local pathologists, I believe that’s what we’d be doing – putting him to the test.”
Ebensburg United Methodist Church Pastor J.R. Virgin said his church canceled public worship services after Gov. Tom Wolf issued a statewide stay-at-home order April 7.
Virgin said the church didn’t want to tempt people to disobey that order – “particularly if it was deemed unsafe to leave.”
To keep the church and community connected, text message prayer requests and daily praises are shared during online services.
Small group Bible studies allow members to meet face-to-face through Zoom video conferencing.
But he said the decision was made with fellow church members’ health in mind.
“Nowhere in the Bible does it say we’re immune to the illnesses of the world,” Virgin said.
“We’re just as susceptible as anyone else. It only says that God is with us in the midst of whatever this world may bring.”
‘Irresponsible and ... risky’
Cambria Township police Officer Jonathan Szczur said the township was not aware Crossroads Alliance Church was holding services again until cars were spotted in the church’s parking lot late Sunday morning.
“Our opinion is that it’s irresponsible and inherently risky, especially given the number of older people who often attend church,” Szczur said.
But that doesn’t make it illegal, he added.
The department has received numerous complaints about people failing to adhere to social distancing guidelines over the past week.
Among them, one resident called to report fast-food workers who weren’t wearing masks at a drive-up window, Szczur said.
But there were no complaints about Crossroads Alliance Church over the weekend, he said.
Information from: The Tribune-Democrat, http://www.tribune-democrat.com