During this coronavirus emergency, churches, like every other person, business or organization, should comply with public health guidelines.
If they don’t, however, it’s up to the proper authorities to deal with it. Not social media vigilantes.
Threats of violence can only make a bad situation worse. But that’s precisely what’s happening in Rutherford County, a mostly rural community about 70 miles west of Charlotte.
Some people there believe that Word of Faith Fellowship there is to blame for the county’s high rate of COVID-19 cases. As of Sunday, Rutherford County, with fewer than 70,000 residents, had seen more than 100 cases, the ninth-highest rate in the state. Six people have died.
Word spread that the first county resident to die of the virus was a church member. Loren Martinez, 54, of Spindale, died on April 8 in Rutherford Regional Hospital of complications of COVID-19. His brother in Colorado told a TV news reporter that Martinez was a Word of Faith member. On Monday, an attorney for the church confirmed that three members had died from COVID-19 and that the church doesn’t know how many members have contracted the virus.
And in yet another twist, a former church member was arrested Sunday, charged with breaking into the home of a church leader while carrying a handgun.
The church has been highly secretive since its founding by Jane Whaley, a former schoolteacher, and her husband in 1979. It also has been controversial. The church has been investigated on charges of physical, psychological and spiritual abuse, including child abuse. Earlier this year, two investigative reporters, Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr, published a book called “Broken Faith: Inside the Word of Faith Fellowship, One of America’s Most Dangerous Cults.”
Most outsiders don’t know what goes on at the fellowship’s compound, so local residents are skeptical about Word of Faith’s statement on its website that it has been “100 percent compliant” with coronavirus directives. Still, none of that justifies violent threats. People are calling for lynchings and burning the complex to the ground.
When passions run high, some of us forget that no “freedoms” are absolute, and that includes freedom of speech and of religion.
Beyond that, even if one person is merely blustering, there’s always the chance that another will decide to act.
To be clear, most churches and denominations in North Carolina and beyond have followed the rules governors and local governments have issued to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Most realize that the church is a lot more than a building, and that in these extraordinary times, it’s not necessary — and certainly not smart — to bring congregations physically together. Yet, some have pushed on with their gatherings, hugging one another, singing and passing the offering plate. And some of those have suffered as COVID-19 has spread in their congregations, sometimes with fatal results. But threats are counterproductive, a distraction to law enforcement.
If they haven’t already, authorities in Rutherford should be making sure the Word of Faith Fellowship really is following the rules — not people who have appointed themselves judge and jury based on what they think they know. Let the law do its job.