Sanctuary of St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church
Sanctuary of St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church. Photo via

President Trump has called for the immediate resumption of in-person worship. But at least two San Diego clerics assert that spiritual work isn’t on lockdown despite empty pews.

“The church building is closed,” said Pastor Penny Bridges of downtown’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral. “But the church is still very much in the business of sharing the love of God and caring for our neighbors.”

Said Imam Taha Hassane of San Diego’s largest mosque: “The doors of the Islamic Center were closed but the worship never stopped. The learning, the teachings, the connection virtually never stops.”

Asked about Trump’s insistence that churches, synagogues and mosques be opened this weekend, local church leaders favored a more cautious approach.

Those responding to Times of San Diego said they would continue to follow state guidelines for resuming services, which would fall into stage 3 of reopenings.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signaled Friday that guidelines for places of worship would be announced Monday.

“The love and care for our neighbors, both church members and others, is our highest priority, and our decisions will be guided by that love,” Bridges said.

She noted that many congregants were in high-risk categories and that she expected many to continue to take part online even after restrictions are lifted.

“St. Paul’s Cathedral is not shut, so we are not planning for reopening,” Bridges said. “The love and care for our neighbors, both church members and others, is our highest priority, and our decisions will be guided by that love.”

Church leaders pointed out that their ministries continue through live-streaming services, on the phone and through their mail, as they have for months.

Bishops Mark W. Holmerud, R. Guy Erwin and Andy Taylor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who oversee congregations in California voiced a similar sentiment in a statement.

While the bishops understand the strong desire of people to worship together, they said, “It would be neither wise nor faithful for us to endanger our elders and those communities of poverty and color who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.”

They referenced early openings of churches in which clergy were infected. Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Houston had to reclose recently after five priest, one of whom died, tested positive for coronavirus.

“Recent cases in many states have confirmed that opening prematurely can be catastrophic,” said the Lutheran bishops. “We cannot ensure, in all our congregations, the sanitation and distancing requirements necessary to be together for worship.”

They continued: “This is not a question of religious liberty. Nothing earthly — no government, indeed no virus — can come between us and the love of God. … Lutherans, in particular, know that there is nothing sacred about a church building except as our sentiment makes it so, and that God is as accessible to us in personal intercession as in corporate prayer.”

Pastor Kurt Christenson of First Lutheran Church in downtown San Diego called a weekend opening an action that puts congregants in harm’s way, which is “the antitheses of the Gospel message.”

Rabbi Cantor Arlene Bernstein of Beth Israel San Diego agreed on the importance of safety.

“Using the Jewish precept of Pikuach nefesh — the saving of a life as our most important goal — we have been following the governor’s guidelines and planning what is best for our synagogue community regarding worship, schools and general programming on our campus,” she said.

Bernstein added that her congregation’s task force has been discussing the best way and time to resume in-person worship.

The Catholic Diocese of San Diego hasn’t announced any guidelines since ones posted of its website.

Parishes and the diocese have been live-streaming Masses since the middle of March.

“We won’t be reopening this Sunday, but we hope to be open in the very near future,” Kevin Eckery, vice chancellor of the diocese, told The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Miles McPherson, senior pastor of Rock Church, reacted to Trump calling religious services “essential.”

“I am glad that churches are finally being acknowledged as essential, he said. “The community often turns to their local church in a time of need. No one can find ‘hope’ in the aisle of a department store or by sitting in a restaurant.”

But while McPherson said he looks forward to churches reopening, Rock Church will continue to follow county guidelines and needs more time to prepare for worship in a social distancing setting.

In the Islamic faith, Eid marks the end of Ramadan fasting — and will be celebrated locally with a drive-through fair Sunday beginning at 8:30 and ending at 3 p.m. at the Islamic Center of San Diego at 7050 Eckstrom Ave.

The event will include food vendors, a car decoration contest, balloon animals and goody bags.

However, some church leaders back the president’s call for reopening “right now.”

More than 1,200 pastors signed a “Declaration of Essentiality,” calling on Gov. Newsom to allow in-person worship.

Worship services have transitioned to online at Skyline Church in La Mesa in response to limits on crowd size.
Services are online at Skyline Church in Rancho San Diego, but its pastor is surveying his congregants on when to reopen. Photo by Chris Stone

“The clergy of this state are convinced that they must reopen their ministries to fully serve the needs of their communities,” said the letter.

 “There are plenty of less restrictive ways to address these public-health issues. Why not insist that the congregants adhere to social-distancing and other health requirements and leave it at that — just as the governor has done for comparable secular activities?”

A representative of the Murrieta law firm that posted the letter and represents churches declined to share the names of the 1,200-plus signatories, saying some didn’t want to be publicly identified.

In late April, the senior pastor of a Rancho San Diego megachurch expressed skepticism about the pandemic and was critical of shutdown orders.

Writing in his blog, Jeremy McGarity of Skyline Church said: “It is clear, the extreme measures that have been taken are NOT necessary.


But in a May 6 post, he pointed to a survey and said: “We will open as soon as possible with safety parameters in place.

“Some people will believe that by opening at all we could be endangering lives. Others believe we should be open by now and are bowing to the government and allowing our constitutional rights to be stomped on. … However, we can make the wisest decision based on the most updated data and figure out a phased opening strategy that takes into account all people from all levels of fear to confidence.”

Results of the survey weren’t immediately available.

Imam Hassane of the Islamic Center — one of nearly two dozen Muslim sanctuaries in San Diego County — said he agreed with Trump that houses of worship are spiritually essential.

“But I believe that statement was more political than anything else because when it comes to reopening,” he said Saturday in a phone interview.

Hassane said he and his congregants — including 1,400 who used to attend Friday services — feel more comfortable abiding by government health directives.

Having virtual meetings with county and state officials (and discussing issues with the Muslim Leadership Council in San Diego), “we get updated all the time.”

“I’m not ready to put any of my congregants at risk,” he said.