Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s announcement to suspend all religious gatherings and worship services at least until Jan. 8, 2021 as part of the province’s efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19, has met with resistance and led to debates amongst several people of faith.
Burns Lake Community Church’s pastor John Neufeld, recently wrote a letter to MLA John Rustad over this provincial health order and how he felt about it.
“We are deeply concerned that some segments of society are being treated unfairly. If bars, restaurants, liquor stores, big box stores, and Alcoholics Anonymous groups etc. are considered “essential” and allowed to be open with safety precautions in place, should not “houses of worship” be permitted to be open if we follow the same safety protocols?” he asked in the letter.
Like Neufeld mentions in his letter, while several services are being permitted to operate with strict restrictions in place, religious services have been asked to stopped for any in-person gatherings and are being encouraged to continue to do virtual services.
“For nine months there has been much talk of ‘essential services’ but there are other essential needs that are not being given adequate attention. For example, people need the emotional and spiritual support systems provided by the church. Jesus taught that the need of people’s souls is just as important as the needs of their bodies. To nurture the soul, Jesus established the church. Gathering together for worship and experiencing the flow of love among believers are some of the services provided by church which cannot be met “virtually”. The word “church” means “assembly”—-coming together, in community,” he said.
Elsewhere across the province, there have already been several instances where people of faith have been fined for not following the restrictions. At the beginning of the month, the Chilliwack RCMP said they were investigating a small number of churches that had continued to hold services despite public health orders.
Earlier last month, a fine was levied on the Riverside Calvary church in Langley, after RCMP were called to the Riverside Calvary Chapel on Nov. 29, to investigate a report that in-person services were being held.
“If “essential services” such as grocery stores and bars and Alcoholics Anonymous groups can be trusted to function within health and safety guidelines, could not churches be given the freedom to meet if we utilize the same health and safety protocols?” asked Neufeld urging Rustad to take some action over the issue.
In response to his letter, Rustad said, “The spirit needs nourishment as much as the body. I had an opportunity to respond to the government’s throne speech. I raised this very issue in my response urging the government to consider people’s spiritual needs. I understand the health crisis we are facing and the need for the orders. But there are impacts of those orders that also need to be considered which is what I was urging the government to consider.”
Rustad also noted that while Christmas was a wonderful time to celebrate Christ’s birth, to bring family and friends together and to be thankful, it could also be a very stressful time.
“It can be a time when people need the physical and spiritual support that churches provide. How is it possible that members could ‘meet’ in a Costco but not in a house of worship?” he wrote.
“It is my hope and prayer that we all come through this pandemic. That we can find ways to support each other and those in need. I am hoping that the government will take to heart these needs; take to heart my comments and provide avenues for our faith communities to support one another,” said Rustad.