Like thousands of pastors around the country, Jack Trieber has had to make difficult decisions over the last six months concerning his church. In early March, when the coronavirus pandemic hit California, the Senior Pastor of North Valley Baptist Church followed the guidance of local and state officials and suspended church gatherings and events. However, after six months of not being able to gather, Trieber decided it was time to re-open. Unfortunately, officials from Santa Clara County thought differently and fined the church $5,000 for holding live and in person worship services. Since then, the county has fined the church an additional $5,000 a day, whether or not they meet in person or virtually. Today, the church now faces over $60,000 in fines for holding worship services.
Pastor Trieber first made headlines on August 24, following a viral video posted on the church's social media pages. In a heartfelt message, Trieber, who has served North Valley for 45 years, explained the rationale for re-opening. The pastor noted that at the onset of the pandemic, the church closed immediately in an effort to protect church members and others in the community. Not only did the church cease holding public worship services, they closed their Christian school, college, jail ministry, and children's programs. According to Pastor Trieber, one of the heart-wrenching decisions was suspending the church's bus ministry which has brought 1.5 million children to church over the last forty years. Hundreds of children served by this ministry have been unable to attend church since the onset of the pandemic.
Church leaders at North Valley made these difficult decisions out of a desire to honor local authorities and protect people from a virus that health experts projected could kill tens of thousands of people in the surrounding neighborhoods. These projections led the church to "obey to the letter" every regulation and prohibition put in place by the authorities. However, as Trieber noted in his initial video, tens of thousands of people have not died. In fact, despite dire projections, 224 people have passed away, 90 percent of whom are in assisted living facilities. And while every single human life is precious, the prohibitions that continue to be in place seem disproportionate to the threat currently posed by the virus. Moreover, as Pastor Trieber has pointed out in various interviews, California is applying an uneven standard when it comes to churches compared to other organizations and businesses that have been allowed to move forward and reopen at limited capacity.
Trieber is clear that he respects the authority of health officials and wants to assume the best about their intentions to keep everyone safe from the coronavirus. However, equally important to the pastor is the spiritual health of his people. As he recently noted, "I'm in charge of the spiritual health of the people in this city and in this area. I've been trying to do it for 45 years. Though health is [of the] utmost importance, spiritual health is supreme. Because we've been locked out in this county of churches, suicide is up, domestic violence, addiction is up, homelessness is up, alcoholism is up. We need to get back to worshiping God. I am commanded to worship God." For Pastor Trieber, the spiritual wellbeing of his congregation is essential, and failure to resume worship represents a profound threat to the church community. At this point, local and state authorities are no longer acting justly or fairly and are preventing North Valley members from fulfilling their obligation to God.
North Valley is fighting back for another reason too. Associate pastor Justin Cooper said the church is standing up to the county because they fear that the discrimination against houses of worship in California will soon fan out nationwide. "We believe that what happens here will swing across the country," he said. "So that's why we're still willing to take our stand here. I believe it's a religious liberty battle and the future of our country, as far as we know it -- as far as church is concerned -- is definitely at stake."
Pastor Trieber has respectfully asked the county government to remove and revoke all fines levied against the church and let them worship in peace. He is right to make this request. It is not government's job to tell a church when they can and cannot worship, especially if prohibitions on meetings and gatherings are not applied equally across the board.
Despite the pressure, Pastor Trieber is standing his ground. As a result, people are coming from hours away to attend worship services at North Valley. Pastors around the country are also taking note. As Billy Graham once said, "Courage is contagious. When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened." In an era when courage is in short supply, let's be grateful for this pastor and congregation. And let's pray for and emulate them in the days and weeks ahead.