People who get to know me often comment that they experience me as a positive person. I naturally see and expect the good, the possible, the hopeful, particularly in people, but also in situations. I think that’s part of the reason that grave injustice, unkindness, inequity, and the potential for harm really stand out to me as well. Because I start from a place that embraces Psalm 133:1 (“How good and how pleasant it is when God’s people dwell together in unity”) with a heart that beats to the rhythm of I Peter 3:15-16 (Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you a reason concerning the hope that is in you…). I’m a person of hope and goodwill because that’s how I receive the message of God in Christ.
So it makes me sad and frustrated when people are rude, unkind or worse. When people are objectified, when people are selfish and cruel, when people are unfeeling, I tend to be sad and mad and stirred to action. On Monday night I read the governor of Indiana’s rationale for permitting houses of worship to return to in-person gatherings as early as May 8, and was shocked to read the rationale for this early decision.
News reports indicated that Governor Holcomb said he deliberately chose places of worship to go first because he believes leaders of religious entities will be most likely to look after their flock, and carefully follow the state’s reopening and COVID-19 safety guidance.
“What we’re going to do is learn from these steps that we’re taking. We just thought a good place to start, or a good place to have a test or a control group, would be houses of worship,” Holcomb said. “If we can manage this, this gives us a lot of confidence in some other arenas as well.” (Indianapolis Star)
This statement from the governor concerns me greatly and because I care so much about the congregations that make up the presbytery and know that sessions will make the very best decisions for their particular congregations, I felt moved to respond as a person who believes there are always possibilities to explore, and that people of good faith can be persuaded to explore them.
Here is my letter to the governor:
Dear Governor Holcomb,
Thank you for the ways in which you have led the state of Indiana in the midst of a pandemic. In a rapidly changing, multi-valent and politically charged world, you and your staff have had a difficult task, and you have responded to so much of it with dignity and wisdom.
I write tonight in response to the statement you made concerning houses of worship being selected as some of the first to return to in-person worship gatherings, stating that places of worship would serve as “test or control groups” under your re-opening plan. The consortium of Christian congregations I serve in northern and central Indiana is composed of smaller to mid-sized congregations, and each one has a majority of older adult members. Many of our churches are staffed by only one paid professional, and the decisions and attention to policies and their execution is largely accomplished by volunteers. It will be very challenging to re-open church buildings in a way that is a good “laboratory” for a “control group”.
It’s awfully disrespectful to speak of our cherished church members as a test case or a control group, as though they are guinea pigs. Many of our congregations are taking the responsible path of waiting to resume in person gatherings after we witness a two week pattern of declining numbers of hospitalizations, or confirmed cases of Covid-19, or deaths, none of which is true as of today.
You surely meant it as a compliment when you said you thought religious leaders would be the “most responsible” group to let fully reopen. Not only is it a burden to do so, it may be an unwelcome burden, as many congregations are choosing to remain closed until the data related to the coronavirus indicates that it is safer. You may not have the willing test group available to you that you think you do. The most responsible may exercise that responsibility by choosing to remain closed.
Finally, most congregations in mainline Christian denominations are made up of older adults. To indicate that those 65 and older should stay home, but that your proposal provides an opportunity to have test groups says that you’re not really taking into account the full membership of many houses of worship. Will it be a true test group, if many are not there to experiment upon? And that’s probably the point that is most disturbing about your proposal. Why would you suggest control groups in the present? Wouldn’t it be smarter and safer to look to what other states and communities have done, in this and in other nations? Why not check in with those who have traveled this road before us? Suggesting that people of faith are good control groups reeks of social experiments or guinea pigs, which do not have positive or even neutral connotations. Most responsible religious leaders have no interest in their congregants being guinea pigs.
Hoping that your wisdom and discernment will provide you with an opportunity to reconsider your concerning and offensive statements for the betterment of our communities and to truly protect many and all of Indiana’s citizens.