By Tom Campisi
There is a movement in New York and New Jersey to petition our governors to ease restrictions for houses of worship during the COVID-19 crisis. President Trump is seeking the same outcome and has called churches “essential” to American people. But some local pastors—including Dr. A.R. Bernard and Bishop Donald Hilliard, Jr.—recently used social media posts to urge a more cautious, let’s-wait-and-see approach.
On May 19, 300 pastors from across New York (including about seven from NYC) signed an open letter urging Governor Andrew Cuomo to prioritize the safe re-opening of churches for congregational worship.
On Friday, the Family Policy Alliance of New Jersey delivered a letter signed by 67 pastors to Governor Phil Murphy asking him to let churches reopen in some manner by May 27 – or face a lawsuit.
Last week, President Trump ignited a national conversation on the matter when he called upon governors to “allow our churches and places of worship to open right now.”
“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship,” he said. “It’s not right, and I am correcting the injustice and calling houses of worship essential.”
However, in New York City—which has suffered the most COVID-19 deaths of any city or region—some pastors and Christian leaders are encouraging patience, saying that church doors will not open any time soon for regular worship services. The same message is being preached by some pastors in New Jersey, which is second only to New York in the amount of deaths attributed to the virus.
Dr. A.R. Bernard, senior pastor of Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn and one of the city’s most influential spiritual leaders, used hashtags #stayhome and #stayhomestaysafe at the end of his Facebook post on May 25.
“There have been times as a leader that I have found myself caught in the tension between URGENCY and WISDOM,” Bernard wrote. “Wisdom has always kept me safe, even when it wasn’t popular. So CCC (Christian Cultural Center) will reopen its doors to public worship slowly and cautiously. For now, we will continue to have online services until further notice.”
Bishop Donald Hilliard, Jr., senior pastor of Cathedral International in Perth Amboy and another senior leader in the region, was more blunt with his Facebook post on May 22
“Don’t Do It!” wrote Hilliard. “Now is not the time to open up our churches. The science does not support this decision. The President is misinformed, naive, and again, is showing a lack wisdom, and sense. We will be in Church…. in time. We will open our freshly sanitized, mask, glove wearing, and socially distanced sanctuaries and properties…soon. Now, is NOT the time. Don’t do it family. Don’t do it!”
Additionally, the Church of God in Christ’s Presiding Bishop, General Board, and COVID-19 Advisory Commission released a statement on May 25, urging pastors in its denomination to “refrain from prematurely opening your churches and congregating in your buildings before we have credible and substantiated evidence that it is safe to do so.”
The statement stressed the wide-reaching impact of the global pandemic, noting that the Church of God in Christ family has been no exception: “Bishops, Superintendents, Pastors, and lay members have succumbed to this disease, leaving their families and churches devastated by their untimely passing.”
In his appeal to governors across the United States to allow churches to open immediately, President Trump said churches and synagogues were essential because they “hold society together and keep people united.”
The president said, “In America, we need more prayer, not less.”
In a Facebook post, Joseph Henry Cortese, senior pastor of Crossroads Tabernacle in the Bronx, commented on the premise that re-opening churches would lead to more prayer.
“In the past ten weeks, there hasn’t been less prayer in America because the churches were closed,” he wrote. “At the risk of sounding piously arrogant, my sin-sick-self has prayed more earnestly, diligently, authentically, universally than I have in all prayer meetings, vigils, campaigns, rallies—in any building—in my lifetime…”
“The Apostle Paul must have known that COVID-19 was coming. His solution? Pray without ceasing.”