A Tennessee pastor has apologized to his congregation as the coronavirus has infected countless church members — including himself and his family members — weeks after the church resumed indoor worship services and also hosted a state convention meeting in June.
Kelvin Page, pastor of Westmore Church of God in Cleveland, Tennessee, posted a 20-minute video on Facebook last Thursday expressing deep “regret” and taking full responsibility for the decision to resume indoor services in late May after holding eight weeks of parking lot services.
Page explained that by all measures, the church felt it had a “great handle” on the virus as it took the necessary screening, sanitation and social distancing precautions to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 when it resumed indoor Sunday services and small group meetings. Activities, he said, were held in consultation with the local health department and the state standards for reopenings.
After resuming services, Page said that the church was able to hold weeks of services in the facility without any report of a church member catching the coronavirus. But on Father’s Day, things changed.
“Somehow the virus made it into the choir. Temperatures were taken that morning, yet it still slipped through,” Page said of the service on Father’s Day Sunday.
“We had heard a few days prior that there was an uptick in the county, but with the precautions that we had been taking, along with the fact that we knew of no one that had been diagnosed with the virus, we honestly believed that we were OK. Little did I know, it was invading that morning.”
The following Monday, the church hosted a statewide meeting and worship service for Tennessee Church of God.
“Boy, did it hit hard,” Page said. “The thing I most did not give attention to, and I have to say this, was masks. I’ll have to say today that masks must be considered by everyone, but especially those that are vulnerable. Perhaps when we all wear masks, the vulnerable are less likely to be vulnerable. So that is something that we have got to really take seriously.”
Page explained that while there were initially 12 confirmed cases of coronavirus within the congregation, that number has since become too great for the church to keep track of.
“Some people are going to think that I am hiding or hiding numbers. The truth of the matter is, we knew we had 12 confirmed,” he said. “Then we knew that we had several more confirmed even after that. Then it began to roll out and I don't honestly know how many we have.”
Despite requests from the media seeking to know how many people at the church had been infected, Page said it’s hard to tell how many contracted the virus at Westmore and who contracted it elsewhere in the community.
“We don’t know how many actually contracted the virus at Westmore,” Page explained. “You can assume or people can assume. We have had some of our own people who have contracted it and said, ‘I really don’t know if I contracted it at Westmore. I was in such and such a place.’ We don’t know exactly. We know there are a lot of people and too many people.”
Page responded to critics who felt that he and the church took too long to respond to requests for information about how many people within the church community have been infected.
He criticized what he called misleading reporting and explained that he has spent the last couple of weeks taking care of his wife and mother-in-law, who were suffering from the virus and have since recovered. Page said that after taking care of his sick family members, he contracted the virus and “didn’t feel like responding” to the media.
“People were speculating that [I got the virus] and I didn’t know for sure if I had it, didn’t have it,” he said. “I was trying to be cautious. The media was calling or emailing every day. I am just going to be frank with you. I just didn’t feel like responding. I wasn’t trying to hide. I was sick. So we did not respond quickly. I was trying to read the situation while we navigated. I felt like the Lord wanted me to turn my attention to my own home and get well. So we have and we are thankful to the Lord for that.”
Westmore is just one of a number of congregations worldwide that have received media spotlight due to outbreaks of coronavirus cases associated with their communities or people who have attended worship services or other events at their facilities.
Many churches nationwide have switched to online-only services or drive-in services. But now, many are slowly starting to reopen their indoor service while taking the necessary precautions laid out by federal, state and local health experts.
Indoor worship gatherings have received heightened scrutiny and many states, counties and localities have enacted restrictions on in-person worship gatherings.
There have been multiple lawsuits filed by churches against states and localities nationwide over social distancing orders banning or restricting in-person worship services. Those churches argue that it is unfair to restrict religious gatherings while allowing certain stores and businesses to operate.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled last month that the state of Illinois can enact a restriction on in-person worship to no more than 10 people.