Te COVID-19 Ecumenical Document
June 15, 2020
Reopening Church Services
Proposed Date for Church Re-Opening for In-Person Worship
In consideration of the preponderance of scientific and public health data, and in the interest of public safety, we endeavor to schedule a collective re-opening date of Sunday, September 6, 2020, for African-American churches. This document, based on the most current reliable data from vetted sources, leaves the specifics on a re-opening plan up to respective church leadership groups but offers what we believe to be a clear defense of this scheduled date.
In the span of just 70 days, the landscape of our planet has changed forever. What began as a small ripple of cases, hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 has now become a tsunami wave that has not yet crested. There are now over 5 million COVID-19 cases worldwide, with over 345,000 dead. At the time of this document, in the United States, the number of confirmed cases is approaching 2 million with nearly 100,000 having already lost their lives. Neither the raw-case data curve nor the logarithmic curve has peaked or shown a downturn either globally or domestically.
Even though the rate of new cases has slowed, owing largely to government-mandated stay-at-home orders and social distancing, new cases, new hospitalizations, new ICU admissions, and new deaths are being reported daily. Now with warm weather and the call of summer, many state and municipal governments, under the persistent pressure of the White House, are aggressively initiating what has been termed “the re-opening of America.”
While many churches have opted to take a very measured and pragmatic approach to this process, we now find another wave potentially impacting the psyche and decision making of church leadership — and that is the wave public opinion. This movement is fueled by decision-making from leaders who have neither the credentials nor the wisdom to credibly drive the narrative of what is clearly a public health crisis of global proportions.
We appreciate the fact that many of these leaders are well-intentioned and find themselves confronting what amounts to multiple disasters within this pandemic. It cannot be minimized, however, that what is now needed is evidence-based decision-making rather than policies and mandates that are driven by emotion or are born of hubris.
So, as we walk through this conversation about whether or not the doors of our churches should re-open and offer this consensus document as a reflection of the thoughts of many leaders within Western Pennsylvania’s ecumenical community, let us first start with what we know, based on the evidence.
This document represents the co-existence of both an evidence-based approach to this important decision-making process and a doctrinally-sound and faith-centered thought-process; thus enabling us to faithfully lean on and rely upon the Word of God and the ‘counsel and sound judgment (Proverbs 8:14) that His Word promises.
We know is that SARS-CoV 19 virus is an insidious pathogen that flourishes in population-dense environments such as large closed-spaces such as stadiums, restaurants and churches as well as densely populated communities that affects far more than the respiratory system.
We understand that COVID-19 is a viscous multi-system pathogen that impacts multiple organ systems including the respiratory, cardiovascular, renal, digestive and nervous systems. We know that individuals over the age of 70, those with pre-existing health conditions and compromised immune systems are still at greatest risk of becoming infected, experiencing a complicated disease course and dying. We know that not only is the virus carried in respiratory droplets and that these droplets may in fact be able to travel distances far greater than 6 feet, but the virus is now being isolated in saliva and reproductive system secretions in both men and women. We know that our most effective treatments, though promising, are still producing inconsistent results and that additional investigation will be required to determine the most effective treatment algorithms. We now know that a safe, effective, readily available vaccine is still at least 18–36 months away and that we are still lacking a robust infrastructure for community-based case surveillance and contact tracing.
We still know that upwards of 30% or more of infected people either have no symptoms, or have not yet developed symptoms; and that these individuals, because they have a higher viral-load, appear to be more apt to spread the virus and are considered “more contagious.” We know that the United States has still only tested about 5% of the population 328 million citizens and that here in Pennsylvania, that percentage is closer to 2% of 12.8 million Pennsylvanians. We also know that the false-negative rate for these tests is higher than we thought, meaning that up to 30% or more of people who have been told that they are COVID-19 negative, are in fact positive but don’t know it. We know that immunology testing accuracy is even more inconsistent than screening tests for positive cases meaning that we lack accurate numbers for both those currently infected and those previously infected. Additionally, we have not yet learned enough about COVID-19 to definitively state that previous infection confers immunity and thus protection from re-infection.
And we still know that appropriate and frequent hand-washing, continued social distancing, isolation and self-quarantine when sick, diligent cleansing and disinfecting of inanimate surfaces, persistent efforts to avoid touching one’s face, and rigorous use of face coverings are still the best ways to reduce the spread.
The data regarding the pathogenesis of COVID-19 clearly illuminates the need for caution with respect to any decision to re-open church doors as the church has historically been viewed as a sound and reliable community help-resource and not a hindrance. The decisions of the communities’ faith-pillars resonate far beyond the church doors and leave footprints within the landscape of the community that can either sow seeds of growth or plant landmines of destruction.
Equally alarming is the data suggesting significant disparities with respect to infection rates, hospitalization rates, and deaths due to COVID-19 among African-American populations. Though the existence of health disparities across the spectrum of disease is nothing new among African-American communities, the COVID-19 pandemic has again highlighted them.
State and local data suggest that in some locations between 35% and 60% of all confirmed cases of COVID-19 are among African-American; with similar disparity with respect to hospitalizations and deaths. In many communities, the incidence and prevalence of COVID-19 infection is 2-3 times higher among African-American and other underrepresented groups than in whites, while the percentage of individuals tested among these groups is disproportionately lower. This contradicts public health models that suggest that data drive response such that areas of greatest risk should fuel the most concentrated and tangible responses.
With respect to health disparities among African- Americans, not only is this not the case, but data clearly and consistently demonstrated that health disparities tend to follow these communities even after they have been displaced in the name of re-development.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and the Humanitarian Disaster Institute all suggest that there are many reasons for this disparity. During this pandemic, the health care disparities African American communities face are compounded by certain structural factors that augment the African American public health crisis. These structural factors include deficient health care access, densely-populated living environments, higher unemployment, and continued racial discrimination, all of which contribute to our current health disparities. Overcrowded living conditions in the African American community and the lack of social distancing therein perpetuate current health risks.
In addition to overcrowded living conditions, essential frontline African American workers do not have the option to work from home, i.e., a majority of African American workers have essential jobs working in environmental services, food services, and the transportation industry that put workers in close proximity with each other and do not offer critical job flexibility nor hazardous pay benefits. Furthermore, global experts in public health and
population health contend that the escalation in health disparities is also due to a lack of insurance or underinsured persons that make it difficult to afford doctor’s visits and other medications that make it essential to lowering the risk of death from COVID-19. Preexisting health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, obesity, and lung disease, are also major contributing factors associated with poor outcomes from COVID-19.
Notwithstanding, the general stress due to discrimination, violence and institutional racism contribute to low immune systems and the vulnerable impact of infectious disease. Though these disparities did not spawn COVID-19, nor did they fuel its rapid global spread, the existence of these disparities not only make identification and treatment of disparate populations difficult, but these disparities, history reminds us, will delay access to the resources needed for emerging from the rubble of this pandemic with the proper tools for recovery and re-entry in to a post-COVID-19 ‘new normal’. African-American and other ethnic churches can neither ignore the biologic and epidemiologic facts nor the impact of racism and bias in their decision-making regarding the re-opening of our churches. Our plan to re-open must not only be evidence-driven, but it must be strategic and responsible.
Community Based Responses
The challenges for the church to reestablish in-person ministry are real and extraordinarily grievous. We are a fellowship people, and the emotional and mental marks etched on us as a result of social distancing is a trauma that will not soon disappear. How to close the social gap and return to the house of God to reopen the sanctuary for worship is a focal point of much debate. Tensions from state to state, governor to governor, church to church, and even from pastor to pastor are becoming the realities that make it difficult to launch a singular effort for reopening. However, a number of items need to be considered in order for the church and the church’s congregants to reenter without the threat to public health.
Historically, the African American community has battled continuous health care inequities and the COVID-19 pandemic is another symptom of the greater systemic disparities that confront us. The disproportionate numbers of African Americans infected and dying from this disease is a first obstacle to overcome. African Americans represent 13.4% of the nation’s population but are identified in over 50% of the coronavirus cases and 60% of the coronavirus deaths. For the church to reopen, knowing that we would only be creating a higher risk of infection for our community, would be an abandonment of the church’s social responsibilities. Opening too soon would only do more harm than good and ultimately perpetuate the African American health care concerns and generate greater public health challenges.
Though we appreciate and respect the input of jurisdictional leaders, we will principally rely on information and guidance from the medical and scientific community as our primary resource for credible, reliable and executable information regarding COVID-19 response and operational practice. As critical milestones are reached, spikes in African American COVID-19 cases diminish, greater testing is performed, instruments for social distancing implemented, and the means for sanitation and disinfecting are measured, scientific data will be used to inform us concerning our reentry.
Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic from political and jurisdictional entities challenges the biblical deportment of the church to remain faithful, prayerful and God-focused, relying on the wisdom of the Holy Bible to guide our continued movement and decision-making in and through this pandemic. In these times we seek to be guided by God, centered in prayer, and strengthened by the love and caring for ourselves, our neighbors, our communities, and our churches. Our ecclesiastical actions are implemented with great sensitivity as we move according to God’s commandment to offer healing and good tidings to those who are suffering physically, socially, financially or spiritually. Our theological foundations inform the church to maintain a loving, kind, and gracious temperament during and after this pandemic, and to be a spiritual refuge for those affected by the coronavirus. To the jurisdictional pressures, we do not respond in fear but in faith.
The church’s response to the current health needs is crucial to public health challenges as our churches aim to protect those who are “the least” among us, the most vulnerable, and the most susceptible. Because our congregations are comprised of elderly, children, and those with chronic conditions, additional safeguards are taken before the reopening of in-person worship in our sanctuaries.
We, therefore, proceed with caution. We do not move in haste to reassemble in our sanctuaries or to engage in-house ministry activities without first giving ample consideration to scientifically-based mitigation and biblically-based discernment. Although jurisdictional urgencies pressure the church to reopen, there is no imperative to reassemble other than God’s imperative to “be careful...how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16 NIV). To which, we are wise enough to know that the motivating driver behind reopening our churches is grounded in the economic trauma facing our nation and not the religious emancipation that saves our souls. We exercise wisdom and understand “how much better to get wisdom than gold, to get insight rather than silver” (Proverbs 16:16 NIV). Thus, as we are called to save and to serve, not to slay and to slaughter, the church will exercise wisdom and patience in the reopening of our sanctuaries for in-person worship.
We understand the church is also a high-risk setting for COVID-19 transmission. Some people in our churches have preexisting health conditions that increase the risk of having severe complications to COVID-19. As research has shown, certain activities within the church increase the airborne factors of COVID-19: sitting close together, singing, talking loudly, coughing, laughing, “touching your neighbor,” meetings for longer than 30 minutes, and meetings in small rooms. Specific morbidities exist in our demographic and within our churches that should be weighed before resuming in-person ministries.
The church is compelled to act only upon our biblical foundations, spiritual principles, and the descriptions of our faith. Although our church buildings have closed, the doors of the church remain open. In many cases, we have learned to do ministry in different ways and still demonstrate the love of Christ yet to all. We have developed a virtual church where we can still worship, pray, evangelize and call those “in darkness into his marvelous light.” We have become innovative with online ministry and have transformed cell groups into Zoom classes, Sunday Schools into conference calls, and midweek services into Facebook live. The church has not forfeited its power to transform lives, only changed its method in its proclamation.
African-American Church Appeal
Historically, the church has been an identified help-resource and an integral element of healthy and vibrant communities. In times of plenty and growth, the church often provides fundamental philosophical framework that keeps individuals, families and other community pillars accountable and centered on larger community needs and the issues affecting “the least of these.” In times of peril, crisis, lack and catastrophe, the church has been a lighthouse, life preserver, legal advocate, community champion, and even a hospital. In fact, many of this country’s largest health systems were borne out of the selfless efforts of nuns and others within the ecumenical community. It is only recently that the church and larger healthcare systems have diverged-- unable to bridge the gap between servanthood and profitability.
In some respects, it would be a reasonable assumption that “as the church goes, so goes the community”. Because of the church’s multi-dimensional position within the context of community health, advocacy, economic development, politics and social service, the COVID-19 global pandemic has not only shined a spotlight on the church, but she has also been placed under a microscope. In other words, people from all walks of life and with all levels of interest, concern and investment within the community are watching and will likely be dissecting the church’s response.
The African-American church has historically been the “go to” beacon for community members as they seek a focal point for both resource and rallying. It therefore serves to reason that how the African-American church responds in this time of conversation regarding re-opening will not only frame what the post COVID-19 African-American may ‘looks like’, but it will likely also provide the template for how other elements of the community bounce back after the pandemic dust settles.
A measured and data-driven process shows that despite the pull of emotion, that our churches can make decisions that are measured in the community’s best interest, while still remaining anchored to our prime directive as a place of refuge and our missional responsibility as sharers of the Gospel. In other words, the African-American church can be functional while remaining faithful, being led by both spirit and science, This appeal seeks unity and consensus not simply because a unified response carries greater impact, but ecumenical leaders working together are also in the best interest of public health and safety.
If we were to have varied timelines for reopening, it could potentially result in the overcrowding that our measured response is attempting to prevent. If, for example, two churches residing within the same vicinity cannot reach a mutually-agreed upon process and timeline for re-opening, it is likely that the one church that opens first will now experience a surge of people that their reopening plan neither anticipated nor planned for. The results might be a breakdown in the strategies for transmission mitigation, thereby placing everyone at the church and in the community at greater risk. Just as communication across the spectrum of scientific and public health response is essential to creating a seamless and efficient approach to the management of this pandemic, it is equally important for churches sharing the same geography work together for the good of their respective discipleships as well as the community at-large.
Understanding that every church has its own unique-ness and that these nuances shape much of the logistical and operational doctrine, communication between churches is at the very heart of the Gospel for many reasons:
1. Communication keeps churches centered on mutually agreed upon principles such as concern for congregational and community health and safety
2. Communication permits the free flow and exchange of ideas while allowing each church to consider these ideas within the context of its own individual unique-ness.
3. Communication requires time, thereby providing a natural and physical barrier to slow the response down to allow decision-makers to opt for information-driven response rather than emotion-fueled movement.
4. Communication demonstrates to those watching that God’s churches can set aside differences and work together in times of peril for the good of the God’s people and His Gospel.
Timeline For Action and Implementation
Though the hallmark of emotion-driven decision-making is expediency, there is a very real time-sensitive component to this appeal and response. The Federal Government has placed considerable pressure on states to re-open and get the economy moving again. States, in turn, have already started to work-in modifications to previously-crafted and staged re-opening plans. The President, in an effort to appease elements of his evangelical base has decreed that ‘churches must open immediately’; a statement that is in no way being driven by faith or God-focus.
This declaration from the bully ‘pulpit’ of the White House is now fueling the movement of many churches who are looking to re-open their doors within the next several days-to-weeks. If ever there were a time for urgent pragmatism, this would be that time. While we need to take time to process and to plan, now is not the time to become paralyzed in over analysis. The risk to health and safety remains very real, the science clear and consistent, and the public health recommendations have not changed. Using those tangible fact points can allow us to discuss and decide within a timeframe that keeps our congregations and communities optimally safe and healthy. We all believe by faith that ‘to everything there is a season’, and it is our consensus belief that now is not the season to rush to re-open. Our God is the same yesterday, today and forever, even if the manner in which His churches must operate is undergoing a season of change and transition. Remember that there are two meanings of the word ‘wait’. The first is ‘to remain in a state of persistent and confident anticipation’ and the second is ’to make oneself available for service’. In other words, while we are remaining confident in the manifestation of God during this pandemic season, we are also remaining missionally vigilant, available and accessible to be used by God to serve and grow where we are planted.
The consensus recommendation of this collective is to encourage re-opening no sooner than Sunday, September 6, 2020, understanding that continued surveillance of the public health landscape may result in that date being modified. While we all want to gather together and enjoy the multiple benefits of physical fellowship, we believe that opening sooner is neither practical nor safe.
Although there is an anticipated date of re-opening, the focus of this document does not propose nor endorse a strict timeline for re-entrance, it only offers the suggested precautions for when we do. There is no assurance or certainty that when the churches reopen the houses of God will not have to close our doors once again to respond to a second wave of Coronavirus cases within the urban community. Planning ahead for these conditions will be crucial to limiting the cases of coronavirus and preventing a greater loss of life. A healthy crisis response is anticipating the problem before it occurs. This crisis is no different. We are confident that the church will re-open, yet the greater concern is if the church doors have to close once again due to a reoccurrence of a second wave of COVID-19. As we anticipate this most unfortunate occurrence, we cannot ignore the possibility of such an outcome. Preparation will be our greatest protection from a greater outbreak.
If we continue, even when we re-open, to follow the CDC guidelines on health procedures, i.e., washing our hands, wearing our masks, social distancing, disinfecting sanctuary and ministry space, limiting gathering and meeting time, working from home options, and staying at home when not necessary to be in public, we will have a better opportunity to win the battle against a recurrence. Remember, we are a fellowship people who like to shop after church, dine in public, and socialize whenever possible. Yet, we should exercise restraint. We should limit our gathering time both in and out of the sanctuary. In doing so, we will create more sustainable opportunities with our gatherings and more long-term success with our health.
We present this document for the prayerful consideration of all church leadership groups who may be starting their deliberations regarding re-opening. Our hope is that these groups might be inspired to remain fact-focused and data driven while allowing faith to bridge the gap between the science of the COVID-19 pandemic and what God’s Word says about the church's power, presence and responsibility in and through times like these.
We may have never seen times like these but rest assured, God has. God is not simply a God of signs, wonders and miracles, but He is also the God of the men and women of science and medicine who have been strategically planted in this moment. God is the God of all knowledge and He does nothing without perfect intention suggesting that our access to critical and reliable facts during a time of understandable emotional bombardment and physical risk has both purpose and merit. Because we faithfully believe that God’s script has perfectly blended the tangible elements of science and facts with the mysteries of His divine nature, then certainly His representative church leaders might able to marry these two elements in the synthesizing of any plans to safely re-open the doors of His church. This is our clarion call to all who might have an ear to hear to what both God and His scientific experts have to say to the church.
Knowledge is the acquisition of facts, wisdom is the proper application of knowledge, and faith is the fuel and the glue that allows for the seamless synergy of both. God has gifted all of His leaders with a substantial portion of all three in preparation for the leadership mantle which we all must now bear.
We offer this summary of key elements which leaders might not only use as a guide in formulating respective churches’ re-opening strategy, but also as a simple vehicle to transmit the salient points of emphasis to the discipleship.
1. The science and public health data are clear that the scale and scope of the COVID-19 pandemic has not yet fully framed
2. The lack of effective testing (case surveillance) and public health infrastructure (contact tracing) make it impossible to adequately protect the public from the dangers of a return to gathering in large groups as is the custom in the Christian church
3. Healthcare disparities with respect to all social determinants of health and safety place African-American communities and congregations at greater risk of increased infection and transmission rates if churches re-open too soon and without a systematic plan for re-opening.
4. The scope and breadth of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is such that evidence-based and data-driven responsiveness is in the best interest of the community. This is not only logical, but it is also doctrinally sound and not evidence of a faith-failure.
5. Any plan to re-open will be multifaceted but must also prepare for the contingency of having to re-close should public health data or government mandate require it.