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The COVID-19 chasm: Viral division

Some Americans take extra precautions. Some go on with business as usual

The COVID-19 chasm: Viral division

A Saturate OC worship service on Huntington Beach. (Greg Schneider/Genesis)

Jessi Green stood in the middle of hundreds of people gathered at Huntington Beach, Calif., holding a loudspeaker and a Bible, and broke into tears. She told a crowd of worshippers that police officers knocked on her door that day, July 24, to deliver a citation for holding a large public gathering without a permit. “There is a possibility of us getting arrested,” she said, voice breaking, “and I just felt that was such an honor. I just never thought something like that could happen in America.” 

The crowd cheered as Green read the beginning of Acts 4, in which “greatly annoyed” authorities jailed Peter and John for preaching. “There’s a lot of persecution in regards to COVID,” Green declared, passion rising. “And honestly, I believe if we all got COVID, we’ll end COVID, because we would then just go and heal the sick and raise the dead and cast out demons!”

Green is the organizer of the evangelism outreach Saturate OC. Every Friday since July 3, hundreds gathered on the beach, the vast majority not wearing masks or social distancing. The first Friday, 300 people showed up. By the third Friday, Green said more than 2,000 people attended. They huddled arm-in-arm, singing, clapping, and hugging as people stepped into the ocean to be baptized. Green told me the city of Huntington Beach had granted her a permit, but city manager assistant Catherine Jun said that’s not true. Repeated emails with Green didn’t yield any clarification.

Pictures of the giant crowd on social media drew criticism from other Christians. One person commented on Facebook, “Do you really think Jesus approves of jeopardizing the safety of thousands of people?” Another said, “You give a bad name to Christianity.” Yet others praised the organizers for their bravery, accusing the criticizers of being “cowards” and cheering Green on for “being obedient to Jesus.”

UC-Irvine epidemiologist Andrew Noymer said such events will spread the virus: “Take a step back and pause for a second: What does the virus see? It just sees lots of people together who can spread it.”

The friction is a picture of how divided Americans are over the coronavirus. Reactions to it have inflamed already-smoldering divisions, many along partisan political lines. Among evangelicals, those disagreements are also theological, with each side quoting Scriptures to justify their positions. Some, like Green, believe the church is facing incremental persecution. Pastors such as John MacArthur have released statements refusing to obey government restrictions on churches and calling for others to “stand with us in obedience to our Lord as Christians have done through centuries.” Others search for ways to limit the virus’s spread while still worshipping. 

Part of the polarization stems from conflicting or erroneous reports from experts. At one point, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended people not wear masks to preserve them for healthcare workers. Now its director says more mask-wearing could bring the pandemic “under control” in six weeks. The CDC has inaccurately counted results of coronavirus tests, and President Donald Trump has contradicted his own health officials.

Those who observed devastation firsthand say quarreling about whether to wear masks is a luxury they don’t have. Ifech Nwadie never imagined the first known “super-spreader” of COVID-19 would be in his rural community. The physician in Albany, Ga., paid attention to the virus’s spread through China and Europe. He worried the United States would suffer an outbreak, but “not in a million years was I thinking, we’re going to be hit with a massive wave in small-town America.”  

The virus swept his city of 75,000 people in late February. The wave began at funerals and overwhelmed the county’s hospital. It killed more than 150 people, most of them low-income and black. Nwadie grew up in Albany and recognized many patients, and his heart ripped each time he had to call a family member to deliver bad news. He prayed for patients’ recovery. “People were shaken,” Nwadie recalled. “That’s when a lot of us sobered up about this disease.”

So it’s strange for Nwadie to watch resistance to coronavirus safety measures. When Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp reopened the state at the end of April, allowing gyms, bowling alleys, and salons to resume business, Nwadie and many other public health experts braced for another outbreak. It came mid-summer: From a seven-day average of 620 new cases per day on June 1, by late July the state’s seven-day average was almost 3,000 new cases per day. More than 3,200 people in Georgia have died with COVID-19. In Albany admissions of coronavirus patients dipped to zero at one point. But Nwadie now sees up to 60 coronavirus admissions a day in his hospital, he told me in late July. Meanwhile, though Kemp updated state guidelines to “strongly encourage” mask-wearing, he also signed an executive order banning municipalities from mandating them, saying they can’t issue restrictions stricter than the state’s. 

In California, the roles are flipped: Many local leaders have resisted Gov. Gavin Newsom’s coronavirus health mandates, with some law enforcement departments refusing to enforce orders. Orange County has been one of the most vocal. It’s school board voted mid-July to recommend reopening schools without requiring masks or social distancing. County supervisors have openly questioned the county’s COVID-19 positivity rates and masks’ effectiveness. The county’s former health officer resigned after receiving death threats for issuing a mandatory mask order.

It’s also where coronavirus cases and deaths are spiking. Orange County had previously escaped the alarming outbreaks and death tolls of other counties, but it now ranks fifth of the state’s 58 counties in COVID-19 deaths per million.

Newsom ordered all places of worship to shut down indoor services and to “discontinue singing and chanting activities.” Three churches filed a federal lawsuit challenging the order.

Greg Schneider/Genesis

Village Bible Church (Greg Schneider/Genesis)

In Garden Grove, a group of elders met to discuss what to do. Village Bible Church had been holding indoor Sunday services since June 7, keeping numbers under 100, moving chairs farther apart, and suspending communion. Senior Pastor Ron Johnson told me a couple of elders suggested defying the governor’s order and continuing to worship indoors. They debated more than four hours. They read multiple Scriptures together and decided on four principles: Love God well, love others well, honor the government as much as possible, and don’t do anything to harm the church’s testimony. 

Eventually they decided to move worship outdoors. After consulting several officials, they concluded the singing ban was more a guideline than legal order. “We found a creative way to both honor God and obey the government,” Johnson said.

Meanwhile in Huntington Beach, Green made a different choice. On the fourth week of her event, the city set up large neon signs declaring the event canceled. Hundreds showed up anyway.

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband. Follow her on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.


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  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Fri, 07/31/2020 06:10 am

    When Christians choose to act in a way that goes against prevailing wisdom or governmental edict WE should realize that whether it is the "right" or "wrong" decision cannot be predicated on how it is received or some physical result. We might end up fined or in jail. Or in some countries worse yet.

    Or we might end up infected with COVID 19 or some other disease. Neither of these is a sign of God's disapproval or approval. We must look for the "Well done and faithful servant" not the applause of "Man", or governmental authorities. Nor should we expect immunity to a disease. Though we know that God is a God of miracles and he might protect or heal. But neither end is necessarily his judgment. Early missionaries took their own caskets with them realizing that they will likely die for the cause of Christ, but they embraced this.

    We should let Christians make their decisions for themselves and pray that God who has "rebirthed us through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead..." will be the one who is guiding and HE will receive honor and praise. This is what should motivate us in whatever decision we make in these difficult times.

    Let not the Church be divided in the world over these issues! We have enough division!! If Jesus is risen indeed, we should look to him for guidance. The Church in America needs an infusion of the love of Jesus. It seems clear that just like the church at Ephesus we are very good at striving for sectarian and theological purity but we "have left (y)our first love" (Rev 3:4)

    We are not seeing Jesus' prayer in John 17 being answered, "...that they all may be one... that the world may believe that You sent me." Let us pray that this will change.

  • VolunteerBB
    Posted: Mon, 08/03/2020 03:44 pm

    From Scott Morefield article in "Want a more populous state? How about Georgia, where Brian Kemp was supposedly conducting an “experiment in human sacrifice” by reopening his state too soon and not mandating masks at the state level. Cases did rise (but haven’t spiked) nearly TWO MONTHS after their lockdown ended, but deaths are still below 4,000 statewide and are nowhere near any sort of drastic spike. Now, it even looks like hospitalizations have peaked and are trending down." 

  • MD
    Posted: Sat, 08/15/2020 01:38 pm

    It grieves me to see so many Christians resisting the wearing off masks.  COVID-19 has provided the church with an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate the love of Christ to our world.  The current medical evidence strongly suggests that masks are beneficial in impeding the transmission of the virus to others.  Wearing a mask is a simple way of demonstrating love and concern for others.  Mask up!