Over 1,200 California churches vowed to reopen on May 31 despite Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home mandate.
Representatives of the congregations signed a May 20 “Declaration of Essentiality” addressed to Newsom declaring their intention.
May 31 is Pentecost Sunday, a Christian holiday commemorating the Holy Spirit’s descent on the Apostles and other followers of Jesus during the Feast of Weeks in Jerusalem. It takes place seven weeks after Easter.
On May 22, President Donald Trump said during a press conference that houses of worship should be deemed essential, and called upon governors “to allow our churches and places of worship to open right now.”
“Some governors have deemed 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,” Trump said.
On the same day, Newsom said churches are “weeks away” from reopening. They are included in the third stage of his plan, along with high-risk businesses such as gyms and salons.
“I grew up in the church and went to a Jesuit university, and I have deep reverence for congregants and parishioners that want to reconnect with their community and to their faith, and be able to practice accordingly,” Newsom said during a press conference.
“We’re just a few weeks away from meaningful modifications that will allow just that to happen.”
A Chino Hills Pastor Steps Up
Pastor Jack Hibbs of Calvary Chapel in Chino Hills, which borders both Los Angeles and Orange counties, signed the Declaration. When he announced on Facebook that his church would be reopening on May 31, he “completely underestimated” the response.
“The response has not only been so big, but four members of the president’s cabinet have watched it,” he told The Epoch Times.
Prior to the stay-at-home orders, Calvary Chapel Chino Hills would see roughly 14,000 attendees every Sunday. During the pandemic, Hibbs said, their online services reached 1 million viewers each month.
“This has never happened in the history of America, where the church has been sequestered, let alone citizens,” he said.
“A church of our size, people are depressed, people are having marital problems now. There’s people that are saying, ‘I can’t live like this, my boss told me I’m not essential, I feel like I’m gonna kill myself.’”
Church member Jeremy Jauregui, 27, said he “felt the Lord,” and wanted him “to direct me about this whole entire pandemic.”
“The church’s leadership has been not only extremely resourceful, but extremely helpful,” Jauregui told The Epoch Times. “Mentally and spiritually, they’ve kept me sane throughout this entire situation.”
Jauregui thinks “people like to overstep the church” during the pandemic—because they think they’re OK as long as they have food and water. But humans are social beings, he said, and social distancing has “wrecked many people up to this point.”
“And the church has always been a resource for that, even before all this,” he said.
A Supportive Community
Hibbs is part of a nationwide coalition called Watchmen on the Wall, a ministry for pastors run by the Family Research Council (FRC). The FRC’s mission is “to advance faith, family, and freedom in public policy.”
On May 21, the FRC hosted a virtual pastors round table with national leaders, including the president. In addition to Trump, speakers included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, and Attorney General William Barr.
Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf said during the round table that “we rely on our faith-based partners to help us fulfill our mission.”
“Whether it’s COVID, or whether it’s responding to hurricanes and tornadoes … houses of worship are the place where communities go naturally first,” Wolf said.
Hibbs believes churches are essential during the pandemic. During any other disaster, “it’s the governor of this state that calls the church,” he said.
City leaders have been supportive of Calvary Chapel reopening. They asked Hibbs if he would visit and minister to the elderly in the community, and make sure they’re okay.
“That’s a $5,000 a month expense to the city to watch, take care of the elderly in our town, and the City Council asked us if we would pay that bill,” Hibbs said. “Jesus said, ‘If your enemy’s thirsty, give him water,’ right? And he says, ‘If your enemy’s hungry, see them.’”
Christian or not, the church helped Chino Hills residents pay bills they were unable to cover, he said.
“That’s loving your neighbor, that is being a real church, instead of some goofball Sunday thing that lasts for an hour and nobody thinks about it again until next week.”
In response, the community has rallied by the church’s side. Even “nonbelievers” donate canned goods and items to their church, which are distributed to the needy, Hibbs said.
Preparing to Open Safely
In preparation for the reopening, Hibbs hired a company to sterilize the congregation in between services. “That costs us $50,000. We’re going beyond CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines,” Hibbs said.
The church will also cut down its 3,000-person occupancy size by 50 percent, and implement “ticket-based attendance.” The tickets are free on the church’s website, and guarantee attendance on a first-come, first-served basis.
There are also blue social-distancing circles marked on the courtyard 6 feet apart, and only six family members are permitted per table.
“People can enjoy church outside in the sunshine, or they can go out into the field, out in the lawn area, which can handle 2,000 people with social distancing,” Hibbs said.
Guidelines for Reopening
At his press conference, Newsom said additional guidelines for reopening places of worship would be released on May 25. And the CDC is also expected to release guidelines soon, according to multiple reports.
But the Justice Department warned Newsom in a May 19 letter that lengthy church closures could violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, since other establishments have already been given permission to reopen.
“Religious gatherings may not be singled out for unequal treatment compared to other nonreligious gatherings that have the same effect on the government’s public health interest, absent the most compelling reasons,” the letter read.
Like Newsom, some community members don’t want churches to reopen until they can do so safely, out of fear there will be an uptick in the spread of COVID-19.
“Gavin Newsom doesn’t want California to get sick,” said Hibbs. “I can top that. I don’t want anybody to get sick—especially the people that are coming under our jurisdiction for that Sunday.”
He added, “I am more vested in their well-being than any government agency, ever. Why? Because I love them.”