Nearly every Minnesota church canceled worship services well before Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order of last week. But at least one church kept its doors open — University Lutheran Chapel in Minneapolis.
About 40 people gathered in the small church for 10 a.m. worship last Sunday and were able to take communion in their mouths and sip wine from a shared cup. The Rev. David Kind had encouraged physical separation in the pews and urged those at risk of the coronavirus to stay home. But he was convinced that group worship was a mandate of his faith.
“It is in times of plague, disaster, warfare and the like that we should be going to church all the more, not closing churches,” Kind wrote to his congregation.
But on Wednesday, the church reversed its position and shut chapel doors, removing itself from the ranks of renegade churches across the country evading government rules. Unlike those flaunting their defiance, University Lutheran’s stance was not so much about challenging government power as balancing theology with medical reality, Kind said.
“We were not seeking to harm anyone by staying open, but to stay as faithful as I could to the word of God,” said Kind. “But as the week developed, things took shape more clearly. This was serious.”
The challenge of keeping churches closed during a national pandemic was evident last weekend, as churches in Louisiana and Florida attracted hundreds of worshipers in defiance of bans on group gatherings. A controversial pastor at a Tampa Bay megachurch, Rodney Howard-Browne, was charged with unlawful assembly and violating health emergency rules.
Any Minnesota churches still holding religious services are not advertising it. Curtiss DeYoung, CEO of the Minnesota Council of Churches, said he’s heard that a small number of churches still open their doors on Sundays, but he did not know their names.
“Initially some people went a week longer [than recommended], some from ignorance, some from defiance,” said DeYoung. “As more information gets out, there are fewer.
“They start to understand it’s not about separation of church and state, or standing up for your religious faith,” he said. “It’s about protecting your congregation from this virus, keeping them alive.”
Even with churches closed, health care precautions can be breached. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, for example, has temporarily canceled in-person worship services. But a South St. Paul priest has been distributing communion, directly into the mouths of parishioners, in the parking lot of St. Augustine Catholic Church, according to City Pages.
University Lutheran Chapel, on the U campus, has about 300 members including about 120 who typically are in the pews on Sunday, Kind said. The church belongs to the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, a more conservative branch of the Lutheran faith.
The “essence of the church,” Kind said, is the gathering and preaching to the faithful and giving sacraments. That was the basis of his dilemma following the ban on group gatherings. A religious service, in his theological view, demanded that people be present and that sacraments be given and received.
Just a week ago, he was adamant that the church needed to continue offering worship services. In a letter to congregants, Kind said he would not limit the number of people allowed in the church, nor further change communion safety practices beyond the prevention steps already taken.
“If the government were, however, to order our church to cease holding public worship services, I would be bound by the Word of God and conscience to disobey such an order,” he wrote on March 26.
But as the scope and power of the coronavirus became increasingly apparent this week, Kind agonized over how to balance the rule of God with the need for the personal safety of his congregants. By Wednesday afternoon, just hours before the 7:30 p.m. vespers, he announced that services would be canceled.
The next day, he had arranged his first online morning prayers. An online Bible study is in the works. The congregation has been on board.
“They understood the struggle I went through,” Kind said. “I shed some tears. But everyone thought this was the right decision.”