The pastor of the Batavia First Presbyterian Church said that while she understands the president’s call for the immediate reopening of places of worship, she said it is best that “we decide for ourselves” on how to move forward in the face of COVID-19.
President Trump earlier today issued a strong statement on the status of religious services, practically ordering governors to “do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now – for this weekend.”
In a 2 minute, 20 second address, after which he took no questions from the media, Trump said that churches, synagogues and mosques are “essential places that provide essential services,” and if state governors do not permit reopening, he will “override” them.
Rev. Roula Alkhouri, Ph.D., said that the congregation at First Presbyterian should be able to “decide for ourselves, making sure that it is safe for our neighbors and following the guidelines (set forth by New York State and the local health department).”
While believing that government does not have any authority over the church, Alkhouri said her church is under the authority of the Presbytery and adheres to a “collective wisdom” approach.
She also said she believes strongly in the separation of church and state, but she hasn’t felt oppressed by any of the rules stemming from the coronavirus outbreak.
“The guidelines are there to protect us,” she said. “If we chose to meet, we probably could, but is it ethical, does it show the love of Christ toward others? I don’t think so.”
Alkhouri said COVID-19 has hit close to home as a cousin died due to the virus and a sister, who lives in Dubai, just recovered after a 25-day battle.
“(Reopening the building) is not a simple decision; it’s very complex,” she said. “Yes, it is essential that we gather together to worship, but it also is essential that we don’t endanger anyone either.”
Rev. Martin Macdonald, pastor of City Church in Batavia, said he applauds the president’s assertion, but also supports the local officials who are monitoring the situation here.
“I appreciate and respect the president, but we still have to lend our ear to what’s happening in our own community,” he said, referring to the county and city managers, police chiefs and sheriff and health department director. “The president is giving the green light – saying you can reopen – but is it the right time yet? I’ll wait to hear what local authorities have to say.”
He said that he doesn’t think anyone is intentionally trying to keep churches closed, adding that “no one can stop the Gospel from being spread throughout the world.”
“Everyone knows how much I believe in the local church and love people to come together to worship … but I’ve found that our reach is greater than ever before through Facebook and social media outlets,” he said.
Macdonald said he looks to Scripture as his guide.
“The Bible says all things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial,” he said, paraphrasing I Cor. 10:23.
In New York, just yesterday Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that religious gatherings will be permitted under strict social guidelines, including no more than 10 people at a time with all participants having to wear masks.
Drive-in and parking lot services also will be allowed.
The governor also said he is forming an interfaith advisory council to formulate guidelines to open up services to a greater degree.
President Trump’s complete statement:
“At my direction, the CDC is issuing guidance for communities of faith … today I’m identifying houses of worship – churches, synagogues and mosques – as essential places that provide essential services. Some governors have deemed the liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship. It’s not right.
"So, I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential. I call upon governors to allow our churches and places of worship to open right now. If there’s any question, they’re going to have to call me, but they’re not going to be successful in that call. These are places that hold our society together and keep our people united. The people are demanding to go to church, their synagogue and go to their mosque.
"Many millions of Americans embrace worship as an essential part of life. The ministers, pastors, rabbis, imams and other faith leaders will make sure that their congregations are safe as they gather and pray. I know them well. They love their congregations, they love their people, they don’t want anything bad to happen to them or anyone else.
"The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now – for this weekend. If they don’t do it, I will override the governors. In America, we need more prayer, not less."