Faith lead­ers: Too soon to open churches

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - COMMENTARY - By Mark Parker and Ari­ana Katz

We, as 95 mul­ti­faith reli­gious and com­mu­nity lead­ers in Maryland, are deeply con­cerned about Gov. Larry Ho­gan’s May 27th de­ci­sion to re­sume in­door gath­er­ings at 50% ca­pac­ity for wor­ship.

In Maryland’s “Roadmap to Re­cov­ery,” re­leased by the state on April 24th, the “low risk” stage of the re­open­ing plan was to in­clude “lim­ited at­ten­dance out­door wor­ship gath­er­ings.” The “medium risk” stage of the plan sug­gested that, at some point, “in­door reli­gious gath­er­ings” with small groups might be ap­pro­pri­ate. The “high risk” stage of the plan in­cluded ap­proval for “larger reli­gious gath­er­ings.”

The roadmap says: “There is no re­al­is­tic time­line yet from any of the sci­en­tific ex­perts for achiev­ing this level, as this re­quires ei­ther a widely avail­able and FDA-ap­proved vac­cine or safe and ef­fec­tive ther­a­peu­tics that can res­cue pa­tients with sig­nif­i­cant dis­ease or pre­vent se­ri­ous ill­ness in those most at risk to reach a full re­turn to nor­mal con­di­tions.”

There does not yet ex­ist a widely avail­able and FDA-ap­proved vac­cine, nor safe and ef­fec­tive ther­a­peu­tics for this virus. Re­turn­ing to in­door pub­lic wor­ship now, at the be­gin­ning of what ought to be a data-driven and de­lib­er­ate re­open­ing process, could have po­ten­tially dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences for faith com­mu­ni­ties and all res­i­dents through­out Maryland. We col­lec­tively re­ject ab­so­lutist ar­gu­ments and at­ti­tudes that present false choices be­tween pub­lic health and eco­nomic well-be­ing.

We re­ject ar­gu­ments that at­tempt to dis­con­nect the free ex­er­cise of re­li­gion from the health and lives of our fam­i­lies and neigh­bors. We re­ject ar­gu­ments that would claim that peo­ple of faith have a par­tic­u­lar divine pro­tec­tion from the virus. We re­ject ar­gu­ments that state (or sim­ply im­ply) that some lives are less valu­able than others or ought to be sac­ri­ficed in the name of eco­nomic re­cov­ery.

Our con­sid­er­a­tion here is par­tic­u­larly for older in­di­vid­u­als, peo­ple who are in­car­cer­ated, peo­ple ex­pe­ri­enc­ing home­less­ness, peo­ple of color and peo­ple who are un­doc­u­mented. Many of those peo­ple are called “es­sen­tial” and yet are too of­ten treated as dis­pos­able. In­door reli­gious gath­er­ings that con­vene large groups of peo­ple from mul­ti­ple house­holds for an ex­tended pe­riod of time are par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous given the vir­u­lent na­ture of COVID-19.

Those groups usu­ally in­clude peo­ple who are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble due to their age, weak­ened im­mune sys­tems and other pre­ex­ist­ing health con­di­tions.

They also of­ten in­clude young chil­dren who may be silent vec­tors of the dis­ease and of­ten strug­gle to prac­tice so­cial dis­tanc­ing. Wor­ship ser­vices reg­u­larly in­volve uni­son chant­ing, speak­ing and singing, which have been linked to sub­stan­tial in­fec­tion clus­ters. Cen­tral to many wor­ship prac­tices are pray­ing in close prox­im­ity to one another, be­ing in phys­i­cal con­tact with others and shar­ing com­mu­nal meals.

What is legally per­mis­si­ble is not al­ways what is in the best in­ter­ests of our com­mu­ni­ties within and be­yond our houses of wor­ship.

As lead­ers re­spon­si­ble for the well-be­ing of our con­gre­ga­tions, faith com­mu­ni­ties and neigh­bors, we con­sider be­gin­ning to gather for in­door pub­lic wor­ship at this time to be pre­ma­ture and ir­re­spon­si­ble given per­sis­tently high num­bers of hos­pi­tal­iza­tions and deaths, and given the lack of a vac­cine or proven ef­fec­tive treat­ment. We urge our clergy col­leagues and peo­ple of faith to be care­ful and pa­tient, to fol­low the rec­om­men­da­tions of rep­utable pub­lic health of­fi­cials and the med­i­cal com­mu­nity, and to for­mu­late com­pre­hen­sive and safe re­open­ing plans spe­cific to their needs.

That will nec­es­sar­ily in­clude en­sur­ing ap­pro­pri­ate pro­tec­tive equip­ment and hand san­i­tizer are avail­able in each house of wor­ship. We call on the gover­nor’s of­fice to part­ner with us to en­sure that ev­ery faith com­mu­nity has ac­cess to an ad­e­quate stock of these sup­plies and equip­ment so all those who wish can wor­ship both freely and safely.

De­ci­sions about re­turn­ing to dif­fer­ent forms of pub­lic wor­ship ought to be grounded in science and be guided by a par­tic­u­lar con­cern for those most vul­ner­a­ble in our so­ci­ety. In all of these things we ought to be mo­ti­vated by love for our neigh­bors — our neigh­bors who might come to wor­ship and be ex­posed to the virus, and our neigh­bors who might be put at risk by those wor­shipers in the broader com­mu­nity. Love for neigh­bors is the defin­ing so­cial ethic of our faith tra­di­tions, and it shapes our response to this pan­demic and our con­sid­er­a­tion about a re­turn to pub­lic wor­ship.

We im­plore our elected of­fi­cials to be sim­i­larly guided by that ethic, to be re­spon­si­ble and re­spon­sive part­ners with us in car­ing for our com­mu­ni­ties, and to be con­sis­tent in their ap­pli­ca­tion of pub­lic health ex­per­tise to their de­ci­sion-mak­ing on be­half of us all.

Mark Parker (BreathOfGo­ is the pas­tor of Breath of God Lutheran Church and Ari­ana Katz is rabbi of Hi­nenu: The Bal­ti­more Jus­tice Shtiebl. They write on be­half of nearly 100 faith lead­ers.


Is it too soon to re­open churches shut­tered be­cause of coro­n­avirus? Some faith lead­ers be­lieve so.

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