LA GRANDE — The COVID-19 outbreak at Lighthouse Pentecostal Church in Island City led to several churches making the decision to close their doors and resume online-only services just a couple of weeks after getting the OK to reopen.
Meanwhile, other churches pushed pause on the steps they were taking toward reopening.
While there is frustration among local congregations, church leaders are not aiming animosity at the church health officials reported is responsible for the spike that made Union County the state’s COVID-19 hotbed.
Pastors in the region said they are heartbroken about the Lighthouse outbreak, which has at least 236 COVID-19 cases tied to it, and hope it doesn’t put a stain on all churches in the Grande Ronde Valley.
“Some of the concern initially was just for most of us being very connected with the non-churched crowd. This is where our mission field is to bring the gospel to those who don’t yet know Jesus,” said Tanner Sheahan, pastor of Christ Church, La Grande. “Seeing the reaction is concerning.”
Sheahan said he has noticed the recent outbreak has caused anger at churches as a whole, and that concerns the pastor.
“It was all plural, and there was the assumption that we don’t care about our community,” he said. “I don’t want to put that on Lighthouse Church either. I’m not saying they don’t care about the city.”
Lighthouse may, in fact, be in the minority of churches that elected to open early. Sheahan noted the majority of pastors he knows kept their churches closed while the state implemented rules to reduce gathering sizes. His own congregation, which uses hq in downtown La Grande as its place of worship, had been meeting strictly online since March and only in the last couple weeks started meeting again in person, though they were doing so outdoors.
Last week, the church resumed meeting online after Sheahan said he got a tip that an outbreak was coming. That likely will be the church’s platform for the foreseeable future, he added.
La Grande Church of the Nazarene had reopened its doors when Union County moved into Phase 2, and pastor Kevin Goss said roughly one-half to two-thirds of the typical number of attendees showed up each of those two weeks.
Due to safety concerns, church leaders there, too, are backing off.
“With this recent outbreak, we’ve decided to put a pause on that and go back to primarily worshipping through our online means just to do our part for safety and protection for folks in our community,” Goss said. “We really want to do our part to help slow this outbreak as best as we can. The concerns of the possibility being there is why we had guidelines in place from the governor’s office and why we felt it best to abide by those. We’re obviously very sad for the outbreak and those affected by that. Our hope is that it can be contained quickly.”
Island City’s Faith Center had not yet reopened its doors for worship but was close to moving into its own Phase 2 of reopening, which would have been to hold service at 25% capacity. Pastor Cameron Hefner said their plans are now on hold, and even the church’s Phase 1, which was meeting in small groups, has been paused.
“We don’t want to be driven by fear, but we also don’t want to be too cavalier,” he said. “That communicates something different.”
Union Baptist Church was one that opened earlier than most, resuming in-person services in mid-May after livestreaming for several weeks. Church services were limited to a maximum of 25 individuals in the sanctuary — which was within the state’s Phase 1 guidelines — and there was an overflow room that pastor Nick Ham said was seldom used. Union Baptist led two services on Sundays, and when the county moved into Phase 2 increased the amount that could be in the sanctuary.
“People just want to interact,” Ham said. “It is how we are designed. Coming back together has been a great relief for many people.”
As for the plan forward, Ham said the church will move back to its Phase 1 operations, capping gatherings at 25 and encouraging congregants to social distance and wear masks.
Health officials pinned nearly every case in the Union County outbreak on the Lighthouse Pentecostal Church, which, according to posts and videos it since deleted from its Facebook page, was holding services since early April that showed large groups not following social distancing and often engaging in the laying on of hands in prayer.
Rather than speak down to that church body or leadership, the pastors expressed their concern and heartbreak.
“My heart goes out to that church body,” Hefner said. “We’re praying for the leaders there as they make decisions. We understand what that can do. We know that if we had started meeting a month ago it could have been us. That is devastating to think about.”
Ham expressed a similar sentiment of it being a bad scenario but not being judgmental.
“I don’t hold any animosity toward Lighthouse,” he said. “They have been flying in the face of a lot of recommendations, (but) that’s on them. I can only shepherd the people I’m here to shepherd.”
It’s uncertain whether Lighthouse’s decision to gather despite social distancing regulations was related to what could be seen as inconsistencies in the lockdown. Wal-Mart, for example, didn’t have to close, but other businesses and churches did.
The discussion on that within the Union Baptist Church congregation had some suggesting they meet in Wal-Mart.
“It’s hard as a pastor, then, to combat that and say we need to be honoring (government) in that situation. I don’t blame the churches that opened up early,” he said. “I don’t judge them.”
Going against the state’s regulations raises the question of the biblical concept of civil disobedience, of times when a believer or group of believers should obey God’s principles instead of governing officials if asked to do something immoral.
Whether this was Lighthouse’s reasoning is unknown. The church has not returned The Observer’s numerous attempts to contact church leaders. Comments on the church’s Facebook page critical of its actions or calling for a public apology have been deleted, as have the The Observer’s multiple requests for comments.
Sheahan, though, said he didn’t believe the state’s protocols met a standard that calls for not obeying government. Instances of civil disobedience he pointed to in scripture included when Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1 did not obey a command from Pharaoh to kill baby boys, and when Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused a command to bow to a statue of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3.
He noted a command in Romans 13 to obey governing authorities “was written when Nero was burning Christians alive. We’re a long ways from anything like that,” he said. Rather than cases of massive civil disobedience, he said, “what we see in scripture is a quiet obedience to God first, not a civil unrest.”
The reason also, Sheahan said, his church chose the path it did was that the “gospel of Jesus would compel us to think of others more than ourselves.”
Hefner said he saw the Wal-Mart vs. church comparison differently because what happens in these settings is not the same.
“To meet in our church and worship (includes) standing in close proximity and singing,” he said, adding that projecting when singing or talking makes one more likely to put droplets in the air that, if one is sick, could spread illness.
“What we do is different,” he said. “We’re going to approach it different. I have no problem (with that).”
Goss added he never felt the church was being unnecessarily targeted and his church’s approach was to proceed out of an abundance of caution.
“Because this was a health concern, we felt it important to listen to the guidance of the governor’s office and the state officials, to the CDC, to Oregon Health Authority and to take (it) seriously,” he said.
Hefner said he knows what the perception of the outbreak being caused by a church could mean for the multitude of the churches in the region.
“We know this could paint churches in general in a bad light. We want to make sure we are serving our community and position ourselves to love our neighbors as best as we can,” he said.
Added Goss: “I hope that we can all be judged by the merits of our own actions. I think the majority of churches here in La Grande have tried to handle this pandemic in a responsible and healthy way in support for our community, but I understand that people will see that differently and judge it for how they see it.”
Sheahan’s bigger concern is the situation potentially could hurt the witness of the church as a whole.
“There’s definitely the hurt and frustration in the sense of establishing good rapport in the community and feeling that erode,” he said, later adding, “This affects everyone. We gotta care for one another.”