With churches and pastors coming under fire for defying shelter-in-place mandates for holding religious services—two pastors were arrested in the last week—civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton called on the heads of the country’s largest historically black religious institutions and other faith leaders to halt services.
This is usually a busy time of year for churches across the country. Holy Week is approaching, capped off by Easter on April 12. But with the coronavirus pandemic prompting shelter-in-place mandates across the country, concerns about the safety of their congregations should be leading church leaders’ decision-making, Sharpton said.
On a video conference call Wednesday, Sharpton drew a line between civil disobedience and some pastors’ insistence on defying public health recommendations. He minced no words.
“I have been arrested over thirty times for civil rights and civil disobedience—twice for ninety days and another forty-five days for standing up for people’s civil and human rights,” Sharpton said, according to a press release. “These separate incidents involving leaders of faith putting people’s lives in danger is not a matter of civil or human rights, nor is it a statement of faith. It is self-aggrandizing, reckless behavior of those Shepherds who would risk their sheep rather than lead their sheep.”
He was referring to Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne of the River at Tampa Bay, Fla., and Pastor Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church in Central, La. Both were arrested this past week: Howard-Browne was charged with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order, while Spell was hit with six counts of disobeying powers of government.
As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, Howard-Browne held two services at his church last Sunday, both of which drew hundreds of congregants. Spell held a funeral last weekend, where more than 100 people were said to be in attendance.
Louisiana’s guidelines prohibit gatherings of more than 50 people. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued a stay-at-home for the state of Florida.
Howard-Browne and Spell, both of whom are white, seemed proud of themselves for their disobedience.
“It’s not a concern,” Spell told CBS affiliate WAFB about the coronavirus. “The virus, we believe, is politically motivated. We hold our religious rights dear and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says.”
After being issued a summons for his disobedience, Spell responded: “Never been more proud to be persecuted for the faith like my savior,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
“We are not a non-essential service,” Howard-Browne said during his Tampa Bay services. “You’re probably going to get infected at some other place, not here.”
For the love of all that is good and (dare I say it) holy, we ought to get one thing clear: “essential service” isn’t some ointment you sprinkle on a gathering or establishment that magically prevents people from getting infected. Of course, there is no law preventing churches from organizing or holding services for their devoted—they just need to take those gatherings online. Many essential services are also operating with less staff in order to accommodate local and state government mandates on how many people can assemble in one place.
As other congregations have adjusted—live-streaming sermons or posting them on YouTube—it might behoove leaders like Howard-Browne and Spell, both of whom lead large congregations that aren’t in want for money, to put the safety of their flock over their egos.
That, of course, would require tapping into a greater sense of spiritual responsibility, rather than using the self-righteous robes of the “anointed” as a shield. If only there were some book, full of parables and time-worn wisdom, that told you how to do that.
Rev. Sharpton and National Action Network Board Chair Reverend W. Franklyn Richardson plan to continue holding a series of calls will continue to discourage churches from observing Palm Sunday and Holy Week services in person.