When the COVID-19 global pandemic roared into Shelby County, government officials and healthcare professionals feared the first two cases that trickled in only days ago would quickly grow to “community transmission,” also called “community spread.”
They were right.
The Shelby County Health Department, as of Monday, had confirmed 93 cases of COVID-19 since the first county case was reported March 8.
Extraordinary measures became necessary. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, for example on Monday issued a “stay at home” executive order that requires Memphians to stay at home unless they serve in essential services. The order goes into effect at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
Restaurants, bars, gyms and other places of public gathering have been ordered closed. Essential businesses include hospitals, groceries, restaurants serving to-go items only gas stations and pharmacies.
Strickland made a personal appeal to pastors to keep churches closed and opt for online streaming or virtual services options in place of corporate worship.
It was evident on Sunday that religious leaders are divided in their response to the request. Some churches remained closed and used some virtual option.
Others opened; business as usual in the midst of this crisis. Faith leaders on both sides claimed to perceive the will of God in their decision.
“At first, I was torn,” said Bishop William Young of The Healing Center. “But much of that comes from the mixed, confused messaging in the White House. I was on the call with Mayor Jim Strickland on Thursday with other pastors.
“God dealt with me all that night. For me, the choice was clear. Faith and science go hand in hand. We did our radio broadcast from home, and streamed church service online.”
Bishop Young and his wife, Pastor Dianne Young, conducted a full service in the pulpit of an empty church. Minister of Music Frederick Hardiman and the church musician provided the music for praise and worship.
Bishop David Hall, pastor of Temple COGIC, publicly conveyed the view that the only option for “people of faith” was to hold regularly scheduled service. Gathering together at such a time as this was the only option “for those who were trusting God.”
Pastor Leonard Dawson of Cane Creek Baptist Church agreed with Hall, also holding regular worship service on Sunday.
“There were fewer members in service,” he said. “But we also had some visitors who came to worship with us because their church was closed. I feel that God would be pleased if we continue to trust Him. We did curtail the handshaking and hugging that often goes on in a worship service.”
Young said, although, he disagrees with the decision to close the church, he understands how important the church is in the life of the black community. So, for some, a decision to close the church is unthinkable. Someone stated as much during the call-in portion of their broadcast.
“On our radio show, a woman called and said shutting down the church was like a death to her,” Young said. “She was grieving because life in the church is very important to our people.
“You see, in the world, they weren’t anybody. But in the church, they were somebody. This lady is an usher in a Pentecostal church. She is essentially grieving a loss.”
Dawson was certain he had made the right decision.
“God would not be pleased with suspending services,” he said. “The Lord established a place for us to come and to call on Him. We are not to be conformed to the world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds. We’ve got to have faith that the Lord will take care of us. This is God’s way.”
Dr. Byron Moore, pastor of St. Andrew AME Church, led worship service virtually on Facebook Live.
“This is what we are planning to do in coming weeks,” Moore said. “It is our way of providing a live worship experience as close to our regular service as possible. Our members are safe at home while we use this time to sanitize the building. Virtual service was necessary. Our seniors are the most vulnerable to this virus. Safety first.”
When this time has passed, Moore said, the church will be there. It was the only decision, in spite of any other concerns.
“We have 30 employees on staff and a day-care center,” Moore added. “We exercise our faith by believing that God will make provision through this period. Our seniors are our treasures. We covet and protect them. God has led me to go virtual and continue on this course until this pandemic has ended.”
Three pastors of smaller congregations worship together every fourth and fifth Sundays. Pastor Larry Lewis of Wisdom, Knowledge and Understanding Ministries said the decision was not hard to call off the fellowship for both Sundays.
“If the government asked God’s people to do something against His Word, we would have no choice but to respond with some form of civil disobedience,” Lewis said.
“But the mayor asked us to suspend services for now to get a handle on this community spread that we are seeing. All three of us pastors have senior members who have some health issues. We wouldn’t think of putting them in jeopardy. The request was a good and reasonable one. It’s just common sense.”