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Religious Services Are Deemed 'Essential,' But Some Faith Leaders Go Virtual

Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington is getting used to meeting up online during the pandemic. Senior pastor Dwight McKissic photographed on a laptop.
Hady Mawajdeh
Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington is getting used to meeting up online during the pandemic. Senior pastor Dwight McKissic is photographed on a laptop.

Gov. Greg Abbott made news last week when he issued an executive order that restricted nonessential activities. The order requires Texans to limit personal interactions, but grants permission to go outside of your home if you’re buying groceries, picking up prescriptions or attending a religious service.

“This is not a stay-at-home strategy,” Abbott said. “A stay-at-home strategy would mean that you had to stay at home. You could not leave home under any circumstances. That is obviously not what we’ve articulated here."

RELATED | See the state's March 31, 2020, guidance for houses of worship during the COVID-19 crisis (PDF)

Dwight McKissicis the senior pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington. He said that even with Christians celebrating Holy Week, his congregation will not be coming together for prayer and worship in the near future.

“For now, it’s wise to listen to health care professionals, the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization [and] government officials who are encouraging everyone to reduce their out-of-the-house activities,” he said.

With the belief that sheltering at home can reduce the spread of COVID-19, Cornerstone Baptist has moved its weekly Sunday services to the web. McKissic has been speaking to his congregation via live stream on YouTube and Facebook.

KERA spoke to McKissic shortly after his church's Palm Sunday service. He said not coming together is a group sacrifice, that "it’s for the group's good."

He said having to stream his services has been somewhat of an adjustment.

“Not having those normal Sunday morning routines is, I guess, like detoxing, or going through withdrawals. It’s hard to not meet with your regular church families and to touch them to hug them," he said. "I miss seeing people teach Sunday school, usher and serve the Lord in various ways around the church — it’s a family.”

Not all faith leaders share McKissic’s mindset on sacrifice, though.

“I truly believe the churches are first responders,” said Juan Bustamante to the Texas Tribune on Wednesday. “I have a deep conviction to keep going and keep standing for what we believe in.”

Bustamante’s the founding pastor of City On A Hill church in Houston. He’s also one of three Houston-area pastors named who filed a petition with the Texas Supreme Court to strikedown orders by counties and cities that consider religious services as nonessential.

McKissic says he gets it. "I’m probably in a minority, a very small minority, to say I respect those people's convictions,” he said. “They want to be in a gathered worship experience. And they believe that they have freedom and freedom of assembly.”

McKissic said all of life is a risk, and we have to manage those risks responsibly. Right now, he wants to err on the side of caution. He said the lives of his parishioners are paramount, but he will not throw rocks or criticize those who say, America gives me the freedom to gather and worship.

“I am not practicing what they’re practicing, but I have nothing negative to say about those people," he said. "But here’s my problem with those who are criticizing them — you give it another six months ... and some of those same people criticizing will be doing exactly what they’re doing. So even at the risk of catching this virus, some of these people criticizing them will be joining them [in church]."

McKissic said Cornerstone is closed right now. People may be doing work from home. But things are not working like normal. But he says they’re more than ready for the time when people can come together again.

They’ve even worked out plans for bringing up to 600 people into the church in a way that would be sanitary, keeping in mind social distancing, with people at least six feet apart.

Hady Mawajdeh has been a reporter, producer, and digital editor at KERA since 2016. He is the creator and the co-host of KERA's first narrative podcast, Gun Play. And prior to his work in engagement, he also reported on arts and culture, social justice, and gun rights for the newsroom.