A large Fontana church is making plans to hold services in its building later this month, even though Gov. Gavin Newsom has said that the state's churches should remain closed at this time for health reasons because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Water of Life Community Church in Fontana is in the forefront of a movement which includes dozens of California evangelical Christian churches of various sizes that want to open for in-person services during the weekend of May 30-31.
Water of Life Pastor Dan Carroll spoke at a press conference at his church on May 7, saying that the coalition, calling itself Church United, has decided to move forward with the process of re-opening.
"We think we have a great plan that is very safe and will protect our people," Carroll said. "We love our people. We don't want our people to come back to church and get sick, we want people to come back to church and get well."
Newsom has maintained that religious services, which have been closed down since March, should only return during Stage 3 of his plan to slowly re-open the state. Newsom announced that Stage 2, which opened certain businesses, was beginning on May 8 and he did not specify when Stage 3 could start.
Carroll said he was glad that Newsom was willing to engage the churches in discussions.
"We're not here to be activists, we're not here to be rebels, we're here to be helpers. That is the primary focus of all of our hearts," Carroll said.
Nevertheless, he and other pastors who attended the press conference said they believe that churches have been "bypassed" in California's re-opening process and need to be included in the Phase 2 rollout.
"They hope to do it with the governor's approval and in partnership with the administration, but many of them are prepared to roll no matter what," Carroll said.
Water of Life and many other churches have been holding online services, but they emphasize that gathering in person is "essential."
"We feel a bit like we've been kicked to the curb and just been deemed as nonessential when we're feeding the poor -- we fed nearly 10,000 people this week out of our food warehouse; we're caring for those who are struggling with sexual addiction, drug addition, grieving classes, alcohol addiction -- and those people have all been marginalized and disenfranchised during the discussion," Carroll said.
Carroll said Water of Life, regarded as one of the 100 largest evangelical churches in the nation, has more than 20,000 attendees.
He said that Newsom told him that church services were similar in some respects to professional sports events (such as Major League Baseball games), which Newsom believes could create circumstances which spread COVID-19. Large-scale sports events are slated to be permitted only during the final phase (Stage 4).
Carroll said the Church United has been working on a strategic plan that would show that the churches could open up now and still adhere to all the necessary guidelines that health experts say must be met.
For example, he said that Water of Life, which has a 3,300-seat auditorium, could hold several services and limit congregants to just 250 in each service. Protections would include making sure that attendees wear face coverings and do not touch other persons at any time.
State health officials are very concerned about the possibility of a repeat of a coronavirus outbreak at a Sacramento-area church earlier this year in which more than 70 people were infected.
Church United said that it would be appropriate for churches to re-open on May 31 because that day is being celebrated this year as the Day of Pentecost, which is considered significant by Christians because it is when Jesus Christ's apostles received the Holy Spirit, according to the Book of Acts in the Bible.
----- DURING a separate press conference involving San Bernardino County officials on May 8, Supervisor Curt Hagman said that the county is seeking to send Newsom a comprehensive proposal that would allow for additional "low-risk" Stage 2 openings this month -- including churches.
Hagman said the county wants to exert more local control, rather than to have to follow a statewide mandate, because the county has been effective in slowing the spread of COVID-19.
"I'm hopeful that we can make our case," Hagman said.