A year after stay-at-home orders shut down entire communities in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19, churches in parts of the nation are still fighting to open. Yet Florida churches have mostly remained open, online and in person, thanks to the leadership of Governor Ron DeSantis. Early on DeSantis declared “attending religious services conducted in churches, synagogues and houses of worship” as essential activity, a move that superseded county and municipal ordinances, raising the ire of some local officials. His office held state-wide Zoom calls with church leaders through his Faith and Community-based Initiative providing guidance during the pandemic, and in January, Governor DeSantis directed the Florida Division of Emergency Management to identify places of worship and other locations in underserved communities where the vaccine may be administered. Since then, the state has worked with hundreds of churches to administer the vaccine including New Mount Olive Baptist Church and Mount Herman AME Church in Fort Lauderdale.
“Governor DeSantis designated religious services as an essential activity because he believes that government does not and should not have the authority to close religious institutions. The Governor trusted religious leaders to do what was best for their organizations and communities by providing their congregations the ability to practice their faith while keeping themselves and others safe,” said Cody McCloud, the Governor’s Press Secretary.
And local faith leaders have taken notice.
“We are so grateful and proud of the leadership of Governor DeSantis,” said Mario Bramnick, Senior Pastor of New Wine Ministries Church and founder of the South Florida Pastor’s Network. “From the beginning he designated churches as essential services and understood that by constitutional mandate he had no right to come against the churches and our right to assemble and worship. This is in direct contrast to California Governor Newsom, who literally targeted churches’ First Amendment right to worship, and said they can’t sing in California. Direct assault to the church. There were churches there, Pastor Che Ahn (of Harvest Rock Church in Pasedena, CA) was one of them that led the fight and are still fighting. They had the case in the Supreme Court argued by Matt Staver. They sued the governor and they prevailed. Unfortunately they are only allowed to meet up to 25 percent of the sanctuary. It’s still not even based on science. And what we’re seeing even in New York with Governor Cuomo targeting synagogues and churches specifically and Mayor de Blasio – there’s obvious disdain with some of the progressive, leftist leadership against the church, and there’s no question about the prejudicial targeting. So in context of that overall atmosphere in our nation, for Governor DeSantis to take a strong lead in protecting our First Amendment right to assemble and religious liberty is phenomenal.”
DeSantis and The First Amendment
Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church Pastor Rob Pacienza, said, “Our church opened fairly early (in mid-June, 2020) compared to other churches not just in our area but around the country. I think the governor’s leadership and declaring churches as essential was really critical for us to make that decision and for giving our people and our volunteers confidence.”
“The governor has proven himself over and over again to be a staunch defender of the first amendment and how that applies to churches and people of faith in particular, so we couldn’t be more pleased with his leadership in that area and his leadership throughout the pandemic” added Pacienza, who has expressed concern over the “cancel culture.”
As a member of the Broward leadership team for Church United, Pacienza was a part of the conversations with the governor’s Faith and Community-based Initiative and said, “They were very helpful. When we started hearing the talking points coming out of the governor’s office, I think that gave us a sense of confidence that he’s behind us.”
Doug Sauder, Senior Pastor of Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale and a member of the Church United Leadership team agreed. “I think that Governor DeSantis has been proactive in being an advocate for churches and that’s something that I deeply appreciate. His faith-based liaison Erik Dellenback reached out to us early and asked our thoughts, asked us how he could support us, how we could keep our churches safe to keep them open. That was just great dialogue, and in particular, I love the governor’s passion for foster care and mental health issues – the social issues of our world – because the church isn’t just supposed to be open for worship. We’re supposed to be active in the community, and I think his office is providing some good onramps for us to become more deeply involved in social welfare, social services of the state. So we’ve been strongly encouraged by this support, and when I talk to pastors around the country, we’re not dealing with some of the mandates and issues that maybe treat churches differently than other places of business. So there’s a level of trust there that’s been very helpful.”
When it comes to vaccinations, Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church was approached for consideration as a site, but due to the restrictions of their school, Pacienza said, “We were logistically unable to pull it off. But I think it’s a phenomenal role for the church. Any chance in which we can be a light to the community – I’m a big believer in what the prophet calls us to do in Jeremiah 29, seeking the peace and prosperity of the city, for if they flourish we’ll flourish, so anything we can do for the common good of all people is always a win for the city and for the people of God.”
Having worked together with state representatives to have a church identified as a vaccination site, Dr. Rosalind Osgood, CEO of the Mount Olive Development Corporation, said, “Mount Herman AME Church in partnership with New Mount Olive worked to organize 25 churches so that we could ensure that the minorities in the area and surrounding areas have easy access to the vaccinations and those churches. Each church took the responsibility of registering people for the vaccines, completing all the necessary paperwork, scheduling the appointments so that those individuals could receive VIP service when they went for their shots, and we’ve had wonderful experiences each time where no person was there longer than an hour.”
Through this collaborative effort, Dr. Marcus Davidson, Pastor of New Mount Olive Baptist Church, said, “We have had a significant amount of people get vaccinated, but I think if we had a more systematic approach, we could get more people vaccinated within our community and particularly black and brown people who have a lot of trepidation about it… I truly believe if we had more vaccination sites working through churches, particularly African American churches, there is something unique about them trusting the process.”
Asked how he felt about the Governor’s leadership overall, Davidson said, “I think the governor has done some things that were good, but I think that some of his decisions have not necessarily been in the best interest of the people. His lackadaisical approach to some of the things early on could have prevented maybe the escalation of some cases… And I get the challenges that we’ve had from an economic perspective, but it appeared that he at some point chose profits over people and chose politics over people and I think that it landed us in a precarious predicament or a worse situation than possibly we could have been in.”
While New Mount Olive has provided services such as administrative support for the vaccines, drive-thru food and PPE distribution, phone counseling and online services, the church remains closed for in-person worship. Davidson explained, “I try to use wisdom based on what is best for our context, and I say that like this – If I say black lives matter when it comes to police brutality, black lives have to matter when it comes to bringing them together collectively in a large space that jeopardizes their lives. If their lives matter, their lives have to matter at all times and in all circumstances. And guess what, it was not always a popular decision, but it has been a decision that I have been able to sleep with at night knowing that I didn’t put anybody in harm’s way by creating a super spreader event.”
O’Neal Dozier, Pastor of The Worldwide Christian Center, said he was “very appreciative” to Governor DeSantis “because he recognized the church as an essential entity in the community and kept them open when COVID first hit us. If he hadn’t actually done that, the municipalities may have said churches shut down and of course that would have placed houses like me in a terrible predicament because we were determined to keep our churches open.”
While they livestream services, Dozier said, “What ended up happening is the overwhelming majority stayed home, but I was still able to have 85-90 people in church every Sunday morning… We social distance, everybody wears a mask and every week we sanitize the church and, of course, we haven’t had anyone who died or nothing like that.” However, Dozier added, “The thing I would love to see him do more is to go after the vaccination of the poor in the community and the black communities. That needs to be pushed more.”
DeSantis Strikes a balance
Bernard King, Sr., Pastor of Cornerstone Bible Fellowship, said “I think Governor DeSantis is doing not just an admirable job, but an excellent job. I appreciate his courage, his convictions, not being intimidated or bullied by political pressure from the left and from other states. He stays true to the research and the science, and I really appreciate the fact that Floridians should be able to live and live freely and not be under the scourge of a mandate. We know that as a state we are somewhat flourishing… You’re not going to get rid of the virus just like you’re not going to get rid of the flu, so I think he’s done a good job with what is common sense.”
Former Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler affirmed, “The governor is certainly a man of faith and I think he has shown that throughout his tenure both in Congress and as governor, so I appreciate that. Although I haven’t always agreed with him on every move he made, I commend him for trying to strike a balance on keeping the economy open, focusing on recovery, focusing on jobs, focusing on economic activity and at the same time not losing site of the public health, the science and the safety concerns, and that’s a very delicate balance he’s had to maintain.”
An usher and lector at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, Seiler said he agrees with the governor’s decision to designate churches as essential and set some as vaccination sites. “As a foundational bedrock of our community if you want to get the word out, the church is a great way to do it… There’s still people who are unsure about COVID-19 and unsure about the vaccinations. I just got vaccinated but I’ve talked to people who are very educated and they’re unsure because its such a new vaccine… so I’m hoping the faith-based community helps us all deal with the anxiety and stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, the recovery and this whole thing with vaccinations.”
After a recent conversation with Governor DeSantis during a dinner in Boca Raton, Edwin Copeland, Church United Director, said, “It was just interesting to hear his take. He does understand the roll of church and faith and early on communicated this. As our communities are going to experience a lot of social isolation, social pressure, vocational pressure, we need our churches more than ever. He completely understood that.”
Learn more about Miss Shelly Pond at: https://www.goodnewsfl.org/staff/shelly-pond/
Read articles by Edwin Copeland at https://www.goodnewsfl.org/author/edwincopeland/