Sage District Superintendent urges caution amid new church-related outbreaks

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With outbreaks happening in communities in eastern Oregon and Idaho due to large (non-United Methodist) church gatherings, Sage District Superintendent Rev. Karen Hernandez is urging her churches to carefully examine the Reimagining Life Together guidelines from the Greater Northwest Area before pushing to re-open church buildings.

“As United Methodists, we are called to do no harm, do good and stay in love with God,” said Hernandez, who serves the Oregon-Idaho Conference. “I understand the desire to return to what we know – our comfort zone of worshipping together – but God is calling us at this time to lead with compassion for those most at risk to this terrible disease by slowing down and thoughtfully considering how we safely go about the work of being Jesus’ faithful and loving disciples in our communities.”

In Union County in Oregon, there was a spike of 123 new COVID-19 cases over the weekend, reports the La Grande Observer, after only having six confirmed cases last week.

The Oregonian reported on Wednesday that at least 236 of the state’s coronavirus cases have been linked to an outbreak at Lighthouse United Pentecostal Church in Union County’s Island City, a small town near La Grande, confirmed Deputy State Epidemiologist Tom Jeanne. The outbreak accounts for 47% of the 462 cases reported statewide since Monday.

“We’re months away from opening,” said La Grande United Methodist Church (UMC) pastor Taylor Gould. “And we knew that before (this outbreak).”

Again, the Oregonian reports that a now-deleted video from Lighthouse United Pentecostal Church’s Facebook page showed worshippers singing, dancing and moving around during a service on May 24, before faith communities in Oregon were allowed to convene in large groups.

As the state of Oregon started loosening some restrictions, Gould said some of her church members had been pushing to find creative ways to re-open in small group settings, even before Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky issued notice this week that churches across the Greater Northwest Area of The United Methodist Church could move into Phase 2, if they met certain requirements.

In the face of what Gould described as “harmful theology” in their community, that persistence to re-gather has turned into more precaution and care for people at risk in La Grande.

“This just reaffirmed that no, we need to pay attention to not just the precautions of the Bishop, but the theology behind her precautions, too,” Gould said.

With this outbreak, healthy church members from La Grande UMC are now offering to provide grocery delivery to people in their community who are now in quarantine.

In Idaho Falls, at least 30 people who attended a religious revival at the end of May have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the East Idaho News. The event was held at the Idaho Falls Potter’s House Christian Center.

Similar stories of churches spreading the coronavirus have cropped up in not just the Greater Northwest Area, but all over the country.

Hernandez said leaders in some Sage District congregations have decided to keep church buildings closed until Phase 4, when Reimagining Life Together no longer requires masks and safety measures outlined therein are less severe. 

“It’s a valid choice, and for some, it’s the most loving option,” Hernandez said. 

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