Pastors Who Want Churches Opened Feeling Sandbagged By Massachusetts Governor

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Leaders of a movement seeking to re-open churches in Massachusetts say they’re disappointed they weren’t invited to a meeting with the state board deciding which entities the governor will authorize to resume activities.

Instead, religious leaders less eager to re-open out of concern for coronavirus participated in the Zoom conference with state officials Tuesday, May 12, according to a story in The Boston Globe.

Critics wonder if that was the point of the meeting – to predetermine the outcome by handpicking like-minded people to attend.

“These are good people, and sincere Christians,” said Reverend Roberto Miranda, one of the leaders of the re-opening movement, referring to the church leaders who were invited to talk with the governor’s Reopening Advisory Board, “but they do not represent the voice of the 400 pastors who want churches to be able to re-open in some sort of form. They’re really not providing any pushback.

“And it’s exactly what some of us expected. I hate to ascribe malice to the motivation. But certainly it was very self-serving. I think the administration wants validation from the churches – ‘This is what the Church wants at this point, they don’t want to meet’.”

Miranda, though on the other side on certain moral issues, is not a frequent critic of Governor Baker. He said he has a good relationship with him, and fondly recalled hosting a service at his church for Baker the night before he became governor in January 2015. (A Boston Globe story of the time said Baker chose Lion of Judah, an American Baptist church in Boston, in part because of its large Latino population.)

But Miranda told New Boston Post that the way the governor is handling churches isn’t fair.

“I think all the power to make the decision is on the side of the government right now, and the churches have no power, no voice. And I don’t think that’s justice,” Reverend Miranda said in an interview Wednesday. “I am saddened to find myself in this position of conflict with the governor, because we have the highest esteem for him and his administration.”

Pastor James Montoro, of Pioneer Valley Baptist Church in Westfield, said he and other pastors feel sandbagged by the Zoom meeting, which included the Massachusetts Council of Churches and the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, among others, groups that don’t have much in common with evangelicals.

“We believe the governor felt pressured. He brought in people he knew would agree with his point of view,” Pastor Montoro said. “… I feel like they felt the pressure and they felt like this was enough to slide by without making us part of the conversation. When you have 400 churches, that’s a pretty large constituency in the state of Massachusetts to be ignoring.”

The governor’s press office did not respond to requests for comment.

Governor Baker issued an executive order March 23 limiting most gatherings to 10, including what the order calls “faith-based” events. The order doesn’t include church on the list of essential activities during the coronavirus emergency, but the administration has allowed liquor stores, medical marijuana dispensaries, and abortion clinics to continue operating.

“We are very concerned about what is going on. How can the church not be considered essential?” said Reverend Raffoul Najem, senior pastor of CCF Ministries, a Charismatic church headquartered in Lowell. “It’s beyond our understanding. We are the only institution that takes care of the physical, mental, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs of the people.”

Pastors contacted by New Boston Post said they disagree with Governor Baker’s approach to churches, but also feel disrespected by the way he has handled their outreach to him. The governor fielded a question about the letter from a reporter during a press conference Friday, May 8. He answered in general terms without referring to the letter, and has not acknowledged the letter publicly.

“There are religious leaders across this state concerned about churches being declared nonessential. It’s a shame that he is not recognizing the petition itself,” said Pastor Joseph Hawkins, who leads New England Baptist Church in Medford and is one of the signers.

Hawkins said he and other pastors are not inclined to simply go along with the governor’s pronouncements.

“The churches will not remain silent. Our First Amendment right still stands strong. We’re going to stand for our freedom,” Hawkins said. “I’m not saying we’re against Governor Baker. You have to make a lot of hard decisions. I get that. But what you have to realize is the churches can be safe, sanitized, and socially distanced.”

A pastor in Worcester who has openly defied the limit filed suit against the governor in federal court Wednesday, asking a judge to overturn the governor’s executive order on First Amendment grounds. That church leader, Pastor Kris Casey, of Adams Square Baptist Church, is not among the original signers of the letter, which included about 260 clerics late last week but has since grown to about 400.

Governor Baker has argued that it’s not safe to resume public church services because coronavirus spread in other countries through religious gatherings. He has also noted that many people who go to church are over 50 – which is “exactly the community in many respects that we need to pay attention to,” he said during a press conference last week.

Pastors interviewed for this story all said they plan to take health precautions before reopening, including checking temperatures at the door, requiring masks, and sanitizing their church between services.

Each foresees limiting the capacity of his building to a fraction of its ordinary number, to allow for social distancing.

“It’s important to be safe. And every one of our churches is saying we’ll do everything we can to be safe,” Pastor Montoro said. “Not only that, we’re ready to comply with any of the CDC regulations, and I believe we’re prepared to go above and beyond that.”

Asked when they’d like to re-open, the pastors gave varying answers. Montoro would like to be on the Phase One list the Reopening Advisory Board is planning to release Monday, May 18. Reverend Miranda is eyeing Sunday, May 31, which is the feast of Pentecost, sometimes called the birthday of the Christian Church. Pastor Najem would like to start the first Sunday in June – 90 percent of his congregants who responded to a survey recently said they’d like to be in church that day, he said.

Reverend Miranda said when to re-open and how to re-open are exactly the sort of questions he’d like to discuss with the governor and his advisers – if he and his fellow pastors get the chance.

“I would so much prefer to arrive at that in dialogue with the governmental authorities,” Miranda said. “… We want to feel that we are really in cooperation with the governmental authorities.”