Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mandate to shutter sanctuaries in the effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 is unconstitutional, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled on the matter last Friday.

When Gov. Newsom first ordered churches to halt in-person worship in April 2020 sermons started streaming online and at times congregations took to parking lots instead of pews. For local pastors, reopening plans are mixed.

This Is Pentecost Ministries (TIP), led by Pastor Tamara Bennett, will be welcoming people back this week to its sanctuary in South Sacramento.
“This Sunday, 12 noon, we will have our first service,” Pastor Bennett said.
Services will be held every second, third and fourth Sunday.

“I hope to not have to shut them down again,” Pastor Bennett said.

Since last year, TIP has held online services for its thousands of followers.
“We absolutely have a few that are still in need of in-person services,” Pastor Bennett shared.

She’ll also continue to hold outdoor services once a month for those who don’t feel comfortable inside. The first of the sessions was held on 65th and Florin.

“We have an enormous feeding program that we never stopped,” Pastor Bennett said. “We’re now up to serving 3,000 individuals a month. We’ve been doing it for 10 years, but obviously with COVID, the need increased. We put things in place for that, and that’s done at the church.

“I had a prayer service every first Saturday, indoors at the church. We do the 6 feet distancing in the sanctuary including marking the spots around our altar for people who want to come to the altar for prayer,” she continued.

The church keeps masks and hand sanitizers on hand, they utilize multiple entrances and exits and Pastor Bennett also shortened the time of services, so folks aren’t gathered for an extended period.

“It works,” she said.

State public health orders have also prohibited singing during services.
“The governor himself is going to have to come to one of my services. I am singing. He can forget that,” Pastor Bennett said in all seriousness.

“Worship and singing is part of who we are,” she said. “I cannot minister without worshipping and singing. That’s not possible for me personally. I could care less if they come and say something. You can’t shut that down. It’s my first Amendment right and I know that.”

Rev. Kevin Ross of Unity of Sacramento says his church, located on Folsom Boulevard, will remain closed. Unity has fared well during the pandemic, largely due to the fact that it had already begun preparing at the end of 2019 to change how they “do church” in order to stay relevant in changing times.

“We literally challenged ourselves to set up the church to be able to run and function with a laptop, a tablet, cell phone, WIFI and cloud-based services,” Rev. Ross shared. “From anywhere in the world, we should be able to run our ministry given the nature of technology today.”

Unity also used technology to transform a necessary function of the church that dates back centuries — tithing. Doing so, allowed parishioners to support the church without a cash transaction and without having to actually be at the church. A friend of the church had also gifted Unity with “boxes and boxes” of N95 masks back during the wildfires of 2017-2018 and they still had a surplus after distributing masks to seniors and others with breathing problems.

“We felt very prepared and very blessed when it was time for the shutdown,” Rev. Ross said.

“We felt as though God had sent us an arc, because we had all the systems in place to help us navigate through this very difficult time,” he continued.
The Supreme Court decision, he says, does not affect whether Unity will reopen. They’ll continue to take cues from state and county officials who are better aware of recent spikes locally. A poll was also recently sent out to his congregation. The litmus test was upcoming Easter services and the majority of members said they’d prefer to celebrate online, rather than with a drive-through format.

“That tells me a great deal about our readiness to even physically return to the property,” Rev. Ross said. “So the Supreme Court decision does not change how we are navigating through managing safety, managing delivery of ministry services, but most importantly addressing the readiness of our people to feel safe to return to the campus without potentially exposing others to the virus or to exposing themselves. We’ll do a lot of preparation before we reopen, a lot of training, a lot of safety protocols, and a lot of prayer.”

The Capital Seventh Day Adventist Church in the Lemon Hill area, will also remain closed to in-person worship.

“From the very beginning of this pandemic, our church leadership decided to prioritize the health of our members over everything,” said Senior Pastor Damian Chandler.

“Even considering the unknown potential financial and membership losses, we as a body were resolute to do what was both wise and faithful. I’m proud to say that this decision has received the overwhelming support of the church family,” Chandler said.

Like Unity members, those at Capital Seventh Day Adventist seem to be embracing the “new normal.”

“Even during this time God has been faithful and has done amazing things for us and through us. Our online viewership grew by over 600 percent to around 2,000 views every week. Innovative and effective ministries were birthed that met both the immediate needs of our community, and took advantage of the new opportunities afforded by technology. Most recently the church has boldly decided to shoot a feature movie for the upcoming Easter weekend,” its pastor said.

The church’s reopening committee and board has even considered remaining on shutdown even after receiving state clearance.

“We still don’t believe it is safe right now. Our precaution takes into account that the virus has been particularly devastating to the African American community,” Rev. Chandler said.

“The mantra I have repeatedly shared is ‘we miss you, but we love you more than we miss you’, and we are willing to miss you a little longer to keep you safe.”

Early on in the pandemic, County health officials linked positive COVID-19 cases to a local Russian church that refused to halt face-to-face worship, citing the First Amendment. The shutdowns have become highly political, with the church issue being brought to the Supreme Court.

“I chose to not get into any of the camps,” Pastor Bennett said. “I didn’t want to be in the camp of recalling Gov. Newsom. I didn’t want to be in the camp of church rights, I just chose to use my best judgement of making things comfortable for us and just doing what we do.”

By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer