Churches Are More Essential Than Walmart

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Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God

                                                                                 Deuteronomy 8:3


Why have churches been declared non-essential institutions in the current emergency in Massachusetts, while many grocery stores and retail outlets, including liquor stores, are proclaimed essential by Governor Charlie Baker?

The Christian worldview treasures physical life. That’s why Christians spend so much time and effort trying to protect and take care of the most vulnerable among us – babies, the sick, the disabled, the elderly, the dying.

Yet the spiritual life is even more important. No matter how old we get, we are here for such a short time. Sooner or later we will all “shuffle off this mortal coil,” as Hamlet says in his famous “To Be Or Not To Be” speech. We will die, but our souls are eternal. At least, that’s what Jesus taught. That’s what Christians believe.

So why are churches, whose mission is to nurture the soul, closed down?

Many states declared churches exempt from their coronavirus bans on non-essential activities. Why did Massachusetts label churches non-essential?

There are probably two main reasons. The first is that church congregants usually sit together and come in contact with each other in the pews. They also often shake hands when extending the peace of Christ to one another and often drink from the same communion cup. Thus, the powers that be on Beacon Hill probably thought that the churches should be declared non-essential, like sporting and cultural events, as the proximity of the congregants would result in the spread of Covid-19.

The second reason is that Massachusetts has become increasingly secular, even anti-Christian, in the past few decades. Attendance in local Catholic churches has dropped significantly in the wake of the sex abuse scandal, and attendance at so-called mainline Protestant churches has diminished, too.

Accordingly, perhaps Beacon Hill decision-makers did not realize how important attending church is to the faithful. Our secular leaders’ public pronouncements often treat church services as if they’re one of many types of social gatherings – like anniversary parties or graduations or youth soccer games. But they’re not. For a Christian, church is an opportunity to encounter God and be guided by God. Every absence isn’t just a missed opportunity – it’s a hole in the soul.

As politicians can well understand, some things can only be done in person. That’s what church is like.

When the coronavirus emergency began, no one on Beacon Hill rushed to close supermarkets and drugstores. They figured people need those things. So they came up with extraordinary measures to keep those things open while trying to keep people safe.

That’s what our leaders should do about church. Churches should be declared essential – because they are essential. They should be allowed to reopen immediately.

Just as stores enforce social distancing and limit how many people can enter a store at the same time, churches can undertake the same practices.

Churches should commit to following these guidelines:  institute screening procedures (asking worshippers questions about recent travel and their contact with those infected by Covid-19); take the temperature of people at the door; ask parishioners to wear masks; limit attendance to 50 percent of capacity; enforce 6-foot social distancing; don’t allow handshakes when passing the peace; offer communion in a sanitary way.

With these measures in place, there is no reason why Governor Baker should continue to maintain the current ban on church.

Call it a matter of public health. In these days of irrational fear and even panic about Covid-19, church services would soothe the souls of those who go. Less anxiety means better health – physical and spiritual.

The history of Massachusetts – from John Winthrop’s famous sermon about the “City on a Hill” on the Arabella in 1630 to the packed churches after 9/11 – says much about the importance people around here have often placed on caring for the soul.

Many still do. They don’t just want church; they need church.

Let our people go.