More than a dozen religious leaders in Fort Worth have signed an open letter urging congregations to only hold worship services for Passover and Easter online.
“Messages from state and federal government are mixed. But we join our voices to say large worship gatherings are both unwise and theologically suspect,” the letter reads in part. “We would love to say to our congregations that the threat is over and we can come together for Easter and Passover as usual. But we cannot in good conscience do so. It is simply irresponsible to think that God desires that we ignore the advice of the very best medical advice God has sent us about how to fight this virus. Other cities have already had to track down everyone who worshiped in some churches when they later found worshipers may have come into contact with members who have later tested positive for COVID-19.”
Tom Plumbley, senior minister at First Christian Church in Fort Worth, is one of the clergy leaders who spearheaded the writing. For the past three weeks, he’s been leading virtual services for his congregation.
“The big grand services with special things with the choir, and all of the things that choirs do, that’s not really reflective of what happened on what happened on that first Easter morning. That first Easter morning began in the darkness,” Plumbley said. “This opportunity to stay at home and to experience those special holy days much more as they were known originally, in their original context, is an opportunity for each of us. We wanted to say to all of our religious communities to experience that other piece, that older more ancient piece of all our traditions.”
Earlier this week, the Fort Worth Office of Emergency Management announced the city planned to close vehicle access to many popular parks on Easter Sunday to discourage gatherings. At a meeting before the city council Tuesday, code compliance director Brandon Bennett warned of what they are calling “Easter plus five."
“What we mean by 'Easter plus five' is if we don’t get people to stay home on Easter, then five to seven days after Easter, we’re going to see a spike and we’re going to see a spike in the patients that require ventilators,” Bennett said. "We’re going to see a spike in the patients that don’t make it through the virus and they die. That’s unacceptable.”
Fort Worth police are also taking action, starting a new pandemic response team to check on places where large gatherings may happen.
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The team is comprised of seven to nine officers per shift, according to Fort Worth police Ofc. Tracy Carter.
“They’re from our NPOs, neighborhood police officers, school resource officers, as well as patrol officers,” Carter said. “Their goal is to educate. Now, can they write tickets? Yes, they can, but that’s not the job. That’s not what we really want them to do. Their job is to educate and just let them know, 'Listen. For us to get through this, we just ask you sacrifice for the next 30 days.'"
Carter said so far, no officer has written a ticket for a large gathering.
As for church leaders like Plumbley, he said congregations are doing their best to bring a sense of normalcy and comfort at a time the novel coronavirus has thrown the world into a social, economic and civic upheaval.
“I would encourage people to take advantage of an opportunity to find God in the very stillness, even aloneness, of their own home,” he said. “It is far more important to stay healthy than to try to recreate artificially all those gatherings that we have.”
To read the full letter, click here.