It was a parishioner who called local news and possibly the police on Rev. Kevin Martin for continuing to hold services during coronavirus shutdowns, even though he had explicit state permission to do so while taking extra health precautions.
Members of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Raleigh, N.C. were filmed by local television as they walked with their spouses and children into the church to worship and receive critical spiritual care at a time of unprecedented global panic. Families kept six feet apart and came in limited numbers, and the sanctuary was sanitized between services.
News cameras staked out the private property and filmed all entering and exiting for approximately two hours, Martin said, then posted their faces for the world to see under the headline “Raleigh church held in-person services Sunday.”
The alarmist TV spot targeted Our Savior as apparently the only church in the city of nearly half a million that continued to conduct in-person services within state and federal health guidelines. After it aired, Martin and his church received “more than 100” hate messages, including several threats of violence, he said in an interview.
“The fact that we’re so afraid to die surely shows that it’s not natural. I know only one remedy,” Martin said. “I know only one person who has died and come back victorious, and that’s Jesus. That’s why I see him as the only port in this storm.”
So he, unlike the vast majority of pastors in the United States, has continued to bring his flock to the altar during this pandemic, while abiding by government health guidelines to allay fears and respect authorities so long as they don’t outlaw the practice of his people’s faith.
As of April 23, North Carolina reported 253 deaths attributed to Covid-19, or 0.003 percent of the state population. Wake County, where Raleigh sits, reported 11 Covid-19 deaths, and 626 cases. This is 0.001 and 0.06 percent of the county population, respectively.
Police Called On Church, But Not On Home Depot
Local police were also called to the church on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, when Martin was conducting services of nine parishioners or fewer and sanitizing the sanctuary in between.
Two officers visited the church, reviewed Martin’s state letter authorizing him to operate as an “essential” service, and said, “You are perfectly in keeping with the law, what you’re doing is absolutely fine, have a nice day,” Martin said. “One officer gave me his cell [number] and said, ‘If anyone bothers you, let me know.’”
The negative, targeted response to his “perfectly legal” activity seems disproportionate, discriminatory, and ignorant. In Raleigh, some restaurants such as Chipotle are still allowing customers to come inside to purchase food. Others are delivering food right to customers’ hands. Hardware, grocery, and garden stores are all open and Martin has seen many dozens of customers inside at the same time, more than he has served during services.
“It’s great that dog grooming, gin, guns, and garden supplies are essential,” he said, chuckling at the irony, “but the body and blood of Christ are not.”
States Discriminate Against Churches As ‘Non-Essential’
North Carolina seems to be a rarity in allowing applications for state designation as “essential” and thus allowed to operate during the shutdown. It is also one of the states that designated “places of worship” as essential services, according to Gov. Roy Cooper’s office. His shutdown order also explicitly allows “travel to and from a place of worship.”
Yet the order also required churches to operate within stricter rules than other essential services, particularly in only being allowed to serve 10 or fewer people at one time. Retail stores were not limited to 10 or fewer people, a common disparity among governors’ orders that discriminates against houses of worship.
In the United States, religious discrimination is illegal and clearly unconstitutional, although in this form it has been rampant during the coronavirus panic. For example, some governors such as Indiana’s Eric Holcomb have even dared to meddle in how pastors administer the sacrament of communion. Others have banned communion, while still allowing restaurants to serve food right to customers’ hands.
While reviewing the governor’s orders, Martin, a graduate of Yale Divinity School, noticed he could apply for an exemption designating Our Savior as “essential.” He did so, and received such an exemption shortly thereafter.
“When I applied, I thought there would be dozens of churches that would do this. If I had known that we would be the only one, and standing out like a sore thumb—” Martin stopped and thought for several seconds. “Mmm. It’s been a blessing and a curse.”
An April 9 executive order allows businesses designated as “essential” to 20 percent of their fire code capacity. Our Savior’s fire capacity is 286, Martin says, 20 percent of which is 56. After being designated “essential,” Martin decided to err on the safe side and limit services for a time to 30 people. He says now, however, he will return to nine-person services, to reduce the backlash against his parishioners.
Yet the news report targeting his church falsely depicted what churches are legally permitted to do: “The governor has said churches should not meet in person,” said reporter Amanda Lamb, ignoring the executive orders’ text.
For Christians, Church and Sacrament Is Not Optional
Before all this happened, Martin explained in the journal First Things the crucial importance to Christians of continued pastoral care, Word, and sacrament during times of great national and personal need:
According to Luther, public worship is more necessary, not less, in times of Plague. The devil would terrorize us with our fears of death, but in the Divine Service, the Mass, we learn not only how to live but how to die with Christ our Lord—because only there are we fully fed by Christ’s Word and Spirit, his Body and Blood. There we are encouraged to face the devil and his terrors with faith in God and love for our neighbor. Our safety is not guaranteed by the means of grace, but a joyful life and a good death certainly is.
It is the clear historic teaching of the Christian church that Christians eat and drink Christ’s own true blood and body in the sacrament of communion, and that doing so strengthens their faith “to life everlasting.” So for faithful sacramentalists like those at this Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation, taking communion is not an option but a duty, and necessary for their eternal salvation, which is far more important than their physical health or even mortal life.
“I find my strength, my purpose for living not just from the Word, but from the Sacrament,” Martin said. “It’s a matter of faith, and you either have it or don’t. If you don’t it’s not something I can reason you into. It’s just one of those things where it’s a matter of belief. The thing I like so much about the First Amendment is, it’s supposed to safeguard our right to believe something other people might find crazy.”
Martin says the disparate treatment of religion during the coronavirus shutdown, and governments’ demand that citizens prioritize physical health over spiritual health, are wakeup calls to himself and the church at large.
“We have gone along for a long time with an aggressively secular culture and told ourselves, ‘It’s not so bad, people still respect our right to practice our faith,’ but in the crisis we now find out that it’s not true,” he said. “Our rights that are safeguarded by a secular state were a lot easier to safeguard when more people were actually Christian, at least nominally. When a minority of America is Christian, these rights can disappear quickly.”
“I don’t think there’s much we can do about it. But the church has endured as a minority for most of its history. Christians are just going to have to buck up and get used to operating as a persecuted and weird minority. That future is here. And I don’t think a lot of us are ready.”