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Piel: Church building important, not essential; faith is essential

The ongoing coronavirus epidemic has had a huge effect on personal lives, how we interact with one another, jobs, the economic system, the relationship between the states and the federal government, medical preparedness and of course both politics and partisan politics. The list goes on and on.

Some have even said the “normal” has now been replaced by the “new normal.”

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The virus has also raised religious issues like the role of religious buildings, the freedom to worship as we please, the issue of First Amendment rights and how people chose to worship God.

Our neighbor George recently got into a heated discussion with some church friends on whether the church was essential. The issue was a letter “to the editor” where a pastor took issue with Gov. Hogan and wrote, “I am greatly concerned with his identifying the church as a ‘nonessential business.” He went on to add, the governor is setting a (bad) precedent because “throughout the history of this country and the fine state of Maryland, the church has, and always will be, essential.”

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Pastor David Uhl wrote, “What are the essentials God would ask for the church? We developed a series called essentials, and guess what? Our building wasn’t one of them, the greatest church is a healthy church.”

Judy and I love the church building where we worship. It has a long and important history in the local community. It is very important to both of us not only where we worship God but as a gathering place for our people. At the same time it may be important but it is not essential to our faith.

A terrible forest fire in California last year totally destroyed not only the town of Paradise but also a local church. Following the fire a sign was erected. It read: “Our building may be gone but the church is doing well.”

George said before we deal with “essential” or “nonessential” we need to ask the question, “What do we mean by the word ‘church’?”

While the church building could be called “important” not only as a gathering place for its members but also often as a community building it is not “essential.”

What is “essential” is when “church” is seen as the “ekklesia” or the people of God. People are essential. There is a major difference for the church between being important or essential. The building may be destroyed but the church will not only survive but many times continues even stronger than before.

You can go to a church building but you “can’t go to church!” Why? Because for good or for bad “I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together.”

We need to come back to the coronavirus (a pandemic) and its implications on worship and religious faith. In order to stop the spreading of the virus which is still killing people every day, Governor Hogan ordered the closure of all non-essential business and ordered a “stay-at-home policy.” Religious houses of worship (buildings) were part of that order.

Writer Jamie Dean wrote “beyond the question of what Christians ‘may’ do during a dangerous pandemic, an even bigger question looms: what ‘should’ we do?”

Most religious groups, sometimes reluctantly, followed the “should.” They canceled worship in their buildings and found other ways to worship.

Pastor Zack Eswine adds: “We don’t prove our faith by defying orders in order to shake the hand of another Christian. We prove our faith by denying ourselves so that we can clear the throat of a neighbor who can’t breathe.”

On the other hand, a number of pastors and congregations felt that “stay at home” was a violation of their constitutional rights.

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Maryland Rep. Andy Harris at a recent protesters gathering in Salisbury said, “I didn’t wake up in Communist China and didn’t wake up in North Korea ... and tomorrow morning I should be able to go to the church and worship the way I choose.” He added “unbelievably, in America, I have been told that you can’t practice your religion and the state has decided that my religion is essential or nonessential.”

Actually, Rep. Harris, you are wrong! The “stay at home” policy is the responsibility of government to protect the health of all of its citizens.

Non-violent protests are protected by our Constitution and are part of our way of life. We have the right to put pressure on our governor concerning reopening Maryland and getting people back to work. But the recent protest at the capital in Michigan, which was praised by our president, where activists carried weapons, swastikas, nooses and Confederate flags doesn’t really help the debate.

The state never said that your personal faith was nonessential. Rather, that a mass-gathering in a “religious building” can put other people at risk. The state has a responsibility to protect all of its people.

A newspaper editorial reminded us that “churches, synagogues, mosques and other faith-based institutions are not self-contained communities. Their congregants may interact with neighbors, friends, lovers, grocery store personnel — and, if they get sick, health-care workers.”

“Stay at home” is not a violation of your right to worship the God of your choice. The state never said that you cannot practice your religion. Only do it in a way that does not negatively affect the health of others.

Sheriff Chad Chronister was quoted as saying “I believe there is nothing more important than faith in a time like this but practicing those beliefs has to be done safely.”

The coronavirus has not canceled worship but has changed the way we worship. The new normal, at least for the moment, may put more emphasis on our personal relationship to our God and how each one of us chooses to worship.

Maybe, just maybe, the new normal will be a positive thing.

Let the dialogue continue. We only ask that you think on these things.

The Rev. Dr. Wm. Louis “Lou” Piel is pastor of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Finksburg and can be reached at julo1@verizon.net.

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