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Pastors differ on PM’s church measure

CHURCH leaders yesterday shared mixed views about the three-week restriction on the number of worshippers allowed in churches due to the jump in the number of active COVID-19 cases across the island.

The limit to only 10 people in the sanctuary, which will last until March 22, was announced by Prime Minister Andrew Holness on Sunday at a virtual press conference from Jamaica House. He explained that only ministers, the praise and worship team, musicians, and technical people to facilitate online streaming should be allowed to attend services inside churches.

Some church leaders said they disagreed with the prime minister’s decision, since only three per cent of respondents in a survey published Sunday, and conducted by Market Research Services Limited for the National Commission for Science and Technology, said they contracted COVID-19 at church.

Pastor Omar Oliphant, who heads the Hagley Park Seventh-day Adventist Church, was among those who disagreed.

“The prime minister indicated that the churches have been compliant. It is still a little surprising that the churches, which are being compliant, are the ones that got the heaviest hit in respect of the restrictions relating to not only church services but also funeral services,” he told the Jamaica Observer.

According to Pastor Oliphant, there is a blatant inconsistency in the policy, which needs to be addressed.

“The inconsistency of the working out of the policy needs to be addressed because all those variables in the new announcements are not showing consistency towards a central policy that they are trying to implement,” he argued.

However, Pastor Oliphant said that his church is willing to follow the new protocol, despite the challenges of online streaming.

“Individuals are being told to stay home and watch church, but at the same time the infrastructure for carrying of Internet for services is in a very bad position. The church stands willing to do what is required to fight the pandemic and we are not running away from our roles and responsibilities,” he said.

Pastor Valin Smith, of St John’s Green Acres Church of the Nazarene in St Catherine, said he wished the previous protocol for church gatherings which had no limit on numbers, but insisted that worshippers stay six feet apart was still in place, but noted that the prime minister’s position is understandable.

“I understand why the prime minister had to make that decision but the churches in Jamaica are our spiritual barometer and provide hope for people who are going through situations. Jamaicans will need a place to run to for that kind of spiritual refuge. So when you reduce church, it creates a vacuum that only Christ can fill. I would prefer if he had allowed the numbers to remain, rather than just saying 10 persons only,” he said.

Bishop Dr Romeon Facey of Freedom Evangelical Association in St Catherine shared similar concerns.

“Only three per cent of COVID-19 cases came from churches, so I don’t see the sense in shutting them down,” he said.

Explaining that online services have affected the church in both negative and positive ways, he said: “Online church has touched people, but there are persons who are suffering because they are not being shepherded. They have gone back to their sinful lifestyle. There is social pressure that people are dealing with at this time, and this causes emotional and mental breakdowns.”

Meanwhile, other church leaders agreed with the decision, pointing out that they had no choice but to be compliant.

Pastor Eugennie Powell of Padmore Church of God of Prophecy in St Andrew said, “I don’t have a problem with the decision. I have to applaud the prime minister because he has been lenient with us.

“It is nothing strange to us, so we will be moving our Sunday worship to the Zoom platform for the duration of time which will be given to us, as we have no other choice. However, the elderly will be mostly affected as they do not understand how the online platform works. We will have to find other ways to communicate with them,” she added.

Bishop Everton Thomas, who leads the congregation at Emmanuel Apostolic Church in Kingston and St Catherine, said the tighter COVID-19 restrictions were expected.

“I expected stringent measures because the spike and nature of the coronavirus [are] not to be taken lightly, but it is a big inconvenience to the Church and all other sectors,” he said.

“I am in agreement with the decision, in spite of the inconvenience, but we are prepared to work with it and to help to manage and reduce the spread. We will have four members on our praise teams, three musicians, a cameraman, service moderator, and the preacher. We had 10 persons last year and we are prepared to do it again,” said Bishop Thomas.

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