Two ministers from the Back Bay and South End are leading the call with more than 200 other religious leaders statewide to have a voice on re-opening and to look at why they are considered non-essential.
Pastor James Hopkins of the First Lutheran Church in the Back Bay and Dr. Roberto Miranda of Congregation Lion of Judah in the South End presented a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker and the re-opening Task Force late last week with 216 other pastors asking to be considered in the phased opening approach.
To date, churches have been shut down and not allowed to hold gatherings of more than 10 people. Most have gone online or had small services with the proper social distancing, but they have been deemed non-essential, and don’t appear to be on the top of anyone’s list for re-opening.
“We felt as the time drew near to open the Commonwealth, maybe the governor would invite us in as an essential part of the Commonwealth,” said Miranda. “We are essential to the community in many ways. We are a little discouraged to see so many other businesses given latitude to operate – liquor stores and marijuana shops are being allowed to operate and we churches are so limited to operate. There are legitimate concerns that need to be talked about…and we need to plan and direct our ushers as to how we will do this…We hope the governor will at least engage in a conversation with us instead of just one directive coming from the state…Church is an important part of life for thousands and thousands of people in the state and I think we deserve that attention and care.”
Hopkins said the true definition of church is to gather, and it has been a hardship to be online and to miss great celebrations like Easter. However, he said they all expected to have some sort of voice at the table when talk of opening began. To their dismay, religious communities have not representation in the discussion.
“That definition says that to have church it is essential to gather,” he said. “It is essential to church to be gathered. I’d like to say we’re not trying to dictate what everybody’s latitude is in making decisions. We are saying we would like a voice in helping to determine that.”
In the letter, both pastors stressed that they are not looking to be rebellious or break rules or go against authority – saying the very nature of Christian gatherings is to respect authorities. Mostly, they said they wanted to have some latitude to be able to determine – with the right recommendations – what is safe for their buildings and congregations. They said of all the states, Massachusetts is one of the few that have disregarded churches.
“We note with disappointment that, despite the 8,000 churches in the Bay State and the millions who worship in and are served by them, they have no representation on that board,” read the letter. “We therefore hope that you will hear directly from us now.
“When the phased reopening of our Commonwealth begins, the reopening of our churches must be in the first phase,” it continued. “It is upsetting that, unlike roughly half the states across our nation, churches in Massachusetts were not deemed ‘essential’ at the outset, but this must come to an end. This is consistent with the federal guidelines for a phased reopening, where in phase one, ‘places of worship can operate under strict physical distancing protocols.’”
Miranda said having to meet online has been interesting, but it has been an extreme hardship for the elderly, the many Spanish-speaking immigrants in their congregation, and especially the large population of those in drug recovery who seek their church from nearby Mass/Cass.
“We do have a lot from the homeless population around us who come in and worship,” he said. “Many of them were sober and were doing so well and developing good habits and finding places to live. Then the church closed and they have become disconnected and all the sudden the whole resource is taken away. I’m hurt to see them on the street and back into drugs and not able to worship with a community that loves them. It’s a big heartache.”