By Tai Sims
The Cincinnati Herald
The 1st Amendment of The United States’ Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law prohibiting the right to peaceably assembly.” Black churches are the very roots of the Black community. Black people have sought solace in places of worship since the time of slavery. Enslaved people would use religion as not only a place of refuge in hard times, but would also use religion as a way of communication to escape slavery.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in March, there has been a collective effort to protect religious freedoms by Black pastors, while also keeping their members safe.
Governor Mike DeWine, although he has the constitutional authority to close places of worship, has decided not to. However, in April, the Governor said, “Any pastor who brings people together in close proximity to each other, a large group of people, is making a huge mistake. It is not a Christian thing to do. It is not in the Judeo-Christian tradition to hurt people.”
In Atlanta, a group of Black clergy held a rally to advocate for pastors to keep their doors closed. While efforts by both spiritual and elected leaders both in Cincinnati and around the country have been to keep church doors closed for the safety of their members, here at home 100 Ohio pastors wrote DeWine a letter in April, asking him to lift the stay at home order.
The Baptist Ministers Conference of Cincinnati or BMCC had a meeting on a recent Sunday, where local pastoral leaders talked about whether or not to reopen their doors and, if so, when. Many religious leaders modified their rituals, hoping to contain the spread of coronavirus. For now, most church services will continue to be held virtually until further notice, mnisters said. Tithes and offerings for local churches have also been collected virtually or by mail.
The Rev. Mark Bomar, President of BMCC, said some ministers are reporting surprising larger numbers of people visiting their virtual Sunday services than attend church. One member with about 600 members reported nearly 2.000 people logged in to his Sunday services.
In almost all of the states that lead the nation in numbers of coronavirus cases, and which have issued blanket stay-at-home orders, there are specific exemptions for religious gatherings or acts of worship. The Rev. Damon Lynch III, Pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church, said that the most important thing to him and local pastors is testing. “We need testing.. the government has done a good job with communication, but we need testing,” Lynch said. Lynch expressed great concern about bringing his congregation back due to a lack of accessible tests.
Reopening the doors of churches like any other institutions will be a difficult task. “We have to have conversations and see what reopening looks like, whether that’s social distancing, or having hand sanitizer readily available or wearing masks, but we don’t know without the tests,” Lynch said, reiterating that the only way pastors open their doors is with proper and speedy testing.
As church buildings across the state of Ohio are green lit to reopen on Sunday, most Ohians are reluctant to jump right back into normal life. According to a poll by Baldwin Wallace University, 38.3% of Americans said they had lost wages or other personal income. Yet, 63.2% said they were concerned that restrictions would be lifted too quickly in the United States versus 24% who said they worried they would be lifted too slowly.
For many spiritual leaders, the decision to shut their doors is difficult. Religious freedoms is an ideal that America was founded on and holds dear to her heart today. However, with people 65 years of age or older being the church’s most frequent attendees, it is imperative that local government and religious leaders prioritize the safety of their members.