Pandemic church closure protest draws a crowd

Mary-Jean Serup hasn’t been able to sing in church since the lockdown on public gatherings that came into effect in November closed her usual place of worship.

Considering she has the uplifting voice of an angel, that’s like keeping an eagle in a cage.

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So when she heard there was a group of church goers planning a rally in front of the Prince George cenotaph at city hall Saturday morning in support of jailed Alberta pastor James Coates, Serup made sure to attend.

She was there with her husband and two young children and joined the congregation of about 75 who gathered on a pleasant late-winter morning to protest Coates’s imprisonment for defying public health orders and allowing his parishioners at GraceLife Church in Edmonton to attend his Sunday services.

Like other churches in B.C., Serup’s Prince George Canadian Reformed Church has been closed since November and she says it’s left a huge void in her life.

“We came out today because we think we are compelled to really stand for what we believe, our faith, and the freedom for all of this from all these COVID restrictions,” said Serup, who sang three hymns and the national anthem in the hour-long demonstration.

“This (singing voice) is the talent that God gave me so I have to bring it for him and sing with people. I feel so overjoyed today to have the freedom of worship that we express our faith in God today. In your heart, because we are wired to worship God, I hope the government will open the church. ”

Serup moved to Prince George two years ago from the Philippines and her church has become her extended family and a way to express her spirituality.

“It’s a need,” said a tearful Serup. “I’m a foreigner here, I don’t have really close friends or families, so the church is our community, it’s our support. For me, this is a great joy that we gather again and sing. We need support. Open the church. We want to worship God.”

Most retail shops, liquor stores and food stores have remained open through the pandemic and Steven Boyd is calling on the provincial government to rethink its restrictions and consider churches as an essential service.

“I’m speaking for myself but we look at the church as an essential thing, it’s of our opinion that worshipping the almighty God is as essential as the food we eat,” said Boyd. “We love seeing small businesses open and restaurants but we’d also like to see churches open, just for some consistency. It’s been proven in can be done safely. The church pews can be spaced six feet apart and you can wear masks.

“If could say anything to Dr. Bonnie Henry, I’d say open the churches. The community needs it and the country at large needs to have those liberties and freedoms restored.”

Prince George RCMP members attended the rally in case there were any conflicts with people who do not support the group’s stance on the current lockdowns and their show of support for Coates but the police left after about 10 minutes when it became apparent it would remain a peaceful protest.

Coates was arrested on Feb. 16 and charged with violating COVID restrictions on crowd size, masking and physical distancing during his services at the church. He was told he could be released immediately if he agreed to refrain from leading church services as he has been doing, but refused to follow bail conditions and is prepared to remain in jail for the next two months pending the start of a three-day trial on May 3.

Tim Schouten applauded the bravery of Coates to stand up for what he believes as he addressed the crowd and he spoke about how government restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 virus are doing society more harm than good. He said it’s time for provinces to lift the bans and allow people to attend church.

“Loving our neighbor means loving their total health - it’s not helpful to myopically focus on one particular disease,” said Schouten. “Even the United Nations defines health as a state of complete physical and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease and infirmity, and we all know this from experience.

“Total health includes relational health. We’re social creatures, we’re made to interact with each other and in the life of a Christian the relationships fostered in the gathering of the church are vital. Total health includes mental health. The days are starting to get longer but in the dark days of northern BC this is an urgent necessity and mental health cannot be sustained without physical contact, without relational health.

“Total health most importantly includes spiritual health. God commands the church to assemble and he doesn’t do that arbitrarily. He knows the spiritual health of his people depends on it, we need encouragement. We need the preaching and we need to sing together and be together.”

Andrew Simpson, pastor of the Heritage Free Presbyterian Church, knows there are people who might be angered by the group gathering in support of Coates, who was fined and repeatedly ignored warnings from police before his arrest. But Simpson felt obliged to not remain quiet about an issue that has had a profound effect on his ability to connect with the people who attend his church.

“There are even some Christians who would object to us being here today and they would say you shouldn’t go there because James Coates is not really being persecuted,” said Simpson. “To them, very simply, I would say that God has not made you or me to be a judge over what is persecution and what is not persecution.

“Another objection that people would bring is that James Coates brought it on himself. He broke the law. We believe he had the divine right and the divine authority under God… to call his congregation together and to administer the word and the sacraments to them. That is the authority of the church; the state does not have that authority.”

Simpson calls himself a ‘COVID realist” and doesn’t deny the virus remains a deadly threat that continues to kill, but the pandemic appears to be on the wane as vaccines becoming more prevalent and he said people need to be able to attend church to help restore faith for what lies ahead in their future.  

“There are a lot of people in Prince George who are being realistic about COVID and believe things have to go back to normal quickly and as reasonably as possible,” said Simpson. “We were not expecting as many people to turn up, we didn’t advertise this, but I get from this that people are hurting.

“People are coming up and they want a hug because they haven’t hugged someone for a long time. They want a handshake. They want to see someone’s face. I don’t believe we were doing anything today that was a danger to society. I can seat my people more safely in my church than what I could in a restaurant. I believe churches should open and can open responsibly.”


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