On Saturday, March 21, a few dozen Grand Rapids-area pastors took part in a ZOOM meeting with Teresa Branson and Dr. Nirali Bora of the Kent County Health Department and Dr. TaLawnda Bragg of Spectrum Health. Their purpose was to educate pastors about the seriousness of the novel coronavirus pandemic and convince them that the only responsible choice in the face of COVID-19 is to stop communal, in-person worship services.
The call took place two days before Governor Gretchen Whitmer's "Stay Home Stay Safe" Executive Order 2020-21 (now extended to April 13), which only served to emphasize the message from the health experts:
Subject to the exceptions in section 7, all individuals currently living within the State of Michigan are ordered to stay at home or at their place of residence. Subject to the same exceptions, all public and private gatherings of any number of people occurring among persons not part of a single household are prohibited.
That order surpassed the earlier order banning all gatherings of 50 people or more, and the suggestion that groups of not more than 10 should meet, which was the order the pastors were being educated about. Honestly, that meeting felt like it was a month ago, but the heartfelt pleas of our medical and public health community were powerful, so we will share them here.
Teresa Branson addressed pastors' feelings that faith-based organizations were being singled out, but she assured them that all businesses and organizations were being asked to follow the same guidelines. On a personal note, she said, "We're not asking anyone to do anything we aren't doing ourselves. My church isn't meeting and we're a small church. We're talking about the health of our children, for the future."
Dr. TaLawnda Bragg spoke plainly and powerfully:
I am a Spectrum Health physician and a believer. I've worshipped with many of you and listened to your teaching. I will be honest and transparent, because in order for you to make the best decision for the people you are charged to shepherd you need to have the best information. I want to try to make things as clear as possible. This is a dire situation. Our cases in Michigan have skyrocketed over the last few days.
Dr. Nirali Bora, the Kent County Health Department Medical Director, also emphasized that, yes there are legal orders that we need to follow, but that "it's a moral issue or caring for each other." Dr. Bragg circled back to it in response to a report that the governor will exempt, or at least will not punish churches:
This is a moral thing we want to address. Don't just avoid punishment, but keep your people safe. Bringing ten people from across ten different places across the community brings together everyone they're in contact with. Just like healthcare is going down to bare bones and using technology to reach our people, we're asking you to do the same.
To any faith-based leaders who were still feeling "targeted," Branson reiterated that the Health Department is making the same changes they are asking other organizations to make. But, she said, "we are imploring you to influence your congregations" to follow good practices:
Of course, our people and our community still depend on the church as a source for practical aid, so pastors wanted to know how they could provide help safely. The main thing that the health department officials recommended was to maintain distance between people and limit touches, so drop off food at people doorsteps, or move from a food pantry to a food giveaway. Instead of interviewing people asking for help in person, move to the telephone or a video chat platform. The current order does permit churches to continue providing food assistance:
The abilities of non-profits and government organizations in Grand Rapids to provide help are constantly changing, so here are some good resources:
When asked what the future looked like, whether churches could hold services again after April 13, or by the summer, the experts could not give a solid answer, because the situation is so in flux. I apologize for not know which person said this, but it was one of the doctors (there was no photo to accompany the speaker):
From a medical standpoint, we do not have real numbers and real epidemiology of what's happening now and we do not have testing to the degree we'd need to made educated guesses as to what the future looks like. To people who think this is going away in the summer: in Malaysia, it's 95 and humid, and they have COVID. Our bodies have not seen this before, which is why it's everywhere.
The implied answer was that we should also be prepared for these changes in our faith communities for the next few months.
To that end, G-RAP is looking at ways we can still get together and be a support to each other as pastors as we adjust to this new reality. Along with everyone else, we are looking at holding a ZOOM meeting, specifically to talk about moving our pastoral care from in-person visits to virtual ones. Allison Colberg of the Micah Center has offered to lead this training, and talk about how we can make this a real relationship-building time for our congregations. Look for information to come about that soon in the email newsletter, or contact us to let us know you'd be interested in being part of such a meeting.
Thank you for all you are doing already. No seminary or Bible college or ministerial training program likely prepared any of you for dealing with this. Stay safe out there!