It won't happen here. That's what Arkansas Pastor Mark Palenske thought when the coronavirus started claiming its first victims. Turns out, he was wrong. "When something like [COVID-19] touches the other side of the world, your first inclination is to assume that time and distance are on your side," he wrote. "That false assumption caught up with Dena and I this past week." Struggling with symptoms he and his wife can't shake, the Greers Ferry pastor has a message for America: take this crisis seriously.
Like a lot of churches across America, he closed First Assembly's doors when the first guidance came down. But by then, it was too late. A children's ministry event in early March had already given the virus the foothold it needed to explode across the tiny community. Now, two weeks into a catastrophic event for the church, Pastor Palenske is dealing with a congregation ravaged by the pandemic. So far, 37 of his members have tested positive and a beloved greeter -- Bill Barton -- is dead. The combination of church-wide grief, shock, and suffering has been overwhelming.
"There was very little in my training for the ministry that covered the full measure of what our church family has dealt with in the past few weeks," Mark admitted in a Facebook post on Sunday. The idea that his county of 25,000 would have the second highest number of coronavirus cases is mind-numbing. Still, he warns, others must learn from them how dangerous even a small gathering can be. "We must keep the affected population to as a low a number as possible," he urged. "Our singular act of stubborn independence can have far-reaching effects on someone else's life."
Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson (R), who's been astonished at the number of cases in his state, says he's had meetings with "hospitals, counties, legislators, [and his] public health team." And what we're seeing, he warned, "is the calm before the storm. I know that many people don't see this as a calm, but I think the way that it's phrased, makes us understand that we're still on the lower end of the slope as it goes up."
Unfortunately, not everyone has learned their lesson. Yet. In Baton Rouge, where at least one church continues meeting against the order of the state and federal governments, the consequences could be cataclysmic. Let me reiterate what so many people like Pastor Palenske are desperate for Americans to understand. This crisis is deadly serious. And while I know there are still faith leaders out there who doubt the motivation behind the shutdown, I assure you, churches are not being targeted. The CDC's standards have been applied across the board to every organization, non-essential business, sanctuary, school, and other facility.
Of course, there are other countries -- like China -- who are using the virus as an excuse to crack down on faith even more. That isn't the case here. We have a president, vice president, and administration more committed to religious freedom than any other. From my conversations with the White House (including this one), I can assure you they wouldn't take these measures if they weren't absolutely necessary to stop the spread.
And fortunately, as we've discovered over the last few weeks, faith leaders don't have to sit at home twiddling their thumbs and waiting for worst to pass. There are plenty of creative ways for church leaders to continue ministering to their congregations and their communities. If you need ideas or suggestions, visit our website: FRC.org/church. In the meantime, do your part. The best way you can love your community is to protect it.