An evangelical Christian musician who once prayed with Trump is hosting worship concerts across the US in defiance of pandemic order
- A evangelical Christian musician is traveling from city to city hosting
churchservices amid the coronaviruspandemic.
- The events are being hosted by Sean Feucht, a musician and worship leader from Bethel Church in Redding, California.
- Photos and videos of services show few people wearing masks and little social distancing.
Healthexperts told Insider that the events are dangerous and could turn into super-spreader locations for COVID-19.
It's a sight that brought comfort to some and consternation to many: A video taken in Seattle, Washington, earlier this summer shows a woman getting baptized outdoors in the city's Cal Anderson Park. She's flanked on either side by two women, offering her words of comfort and support, and surrounded by hundreds of people cheering her on — none of whom are wearing masks.
Up and down the West Coast, hundreds of evangelical Christians have gathered for outdoor church services, all calling for one goal: "Let Us Worship."
The events are hosted by controversial religious leader Sean Feucht, a musician at Bethel Church in Redding, California, who recently lost a Congressional race and once visited the White House to pray with President Donald Trump.
His services, so far seen in Portland, Seattle, Redding, and other areas in California are being held in apparent defiance of states' orders limiting gatherings, which were put in place to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Health experts told Insider that the events are dangerous, and could turn into COVID-19 super-spreader locations.
"Whenever we see images of large groups of people close together without masks on it raises concern for transmission of COVID-19 and for having spreader events," Ben Linas, an infectious disease doctor at Boston University School of Medicine, told Insider. "These events [are] outside, which is a good thing, but if people are close together and singing and chanting without masks on, there's still probably a risk of transmission in such a large group."
He said Feucht's decision to travel from city to city could also create clusters of COVID-19 outbreaks in multiple regions.
Linas is on the reopening committee for his synagogue, and said he empathizes with the desire to gather for spiritual connection. But he said gathering needs to be done safely, with masks and social distancing.
Evangelical pastors have called for in-person church services since the pandemic began
Feucht — who also runs several other political and religious endeavors, including the grassroots worship mission Burn 24-7, Light a Candle, which brings "tangible change to war-torn nations," and Hold The Line, a political activism movement working to engage with churches and young people — did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Insider.
In an interview with "Fox & Friends" in July, he said that his followers should be able to gather for worship because thousands gathered for Black Lives Matter protests this summer. Demonstrators at Black Lives Matter protests, however, have praised their fellow attendees for wearing face masks in a way Feucht and his followers have not.
Feucht isn't alone in his desire to host in-person church services. Since the pandemic began, pastors across the country have called for religious exceptions to shutdowns, while some churches that reopened have seen COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths among their congregations.
The resistance to COVID-19 regulations has been especially prevalent in evangelical circles, where pastors have said gathering for worship services is necessary.
According to Bethel Church's website, the "Let Us Worship" events are being financially supported by Feucht himself and are not sponsored by the church. The megachurch said that while the services feature individuals from Bethel and other pastors, congregation leaders differed with Feucht when it came to social distancing practices and mask wearing.
"Now more than ever, it's important for the entire community to carefully consider decisions and actions made, as we each seek to love and respect our neighbors," Bethel Church said.
People who went to Feucht's services told Insider they thought the debate over wearing masks was "political" and "dehumanizing"
In interviews with Insider, two attendees of Feucht's services in Portland and Seattle said they were inspired to attend the events because they missed in-person worship during the pandemic, and saw themselves as low-risk when it comes to symptoms related to COVID-19.
Lara Germino Dunn, who lives in the Seattle suburbs, told Insider that she didn't wear a mask to the Seattle event, and that no organizers even brought up mask concerns to attendees.
While she wears a mask to the grocery store and other public places, she said she believes that the debate over wearing masks has turned "political" and "dehumanizing" in recent months.
"We're looking at one another through very suspicious eyes, and rather than seeing one another as human beings, we're seeing each other as germ and virus spreaders. I don't think that's healthy," she told Insider. "I don't think that that helps us come together to fight a pandemic. It just polarizes people."
Oleg Marandyuk, who lives in Portland, went to Feucht's services in both Portland and Seattle. He told Insider that he is "younger, an athlete and in great condition," and that the open-air environment made him feel safe.
"I was willing to take that risk in order to openly worship my King with my fellow brothers and sisters," he said. "I think that with so much inconsistency, people, including myself, were definitely more willing to attend this worship because for us the only certainty and consistent factor was us wanting to worship Jesus Christ together."
Health experts say wearing a mask and social distancing can help protect your community
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 can be spread by people who are asymptomatic, or showing no symptoms, and masks can help prevent the virus from being spread to others.
The CDC recommends that everyone wear masks in public, and many states require residents to do so. But masks have been the center of a heated debate, with some people claiming that masks show "fear" of the virus and are a sign of control by the government.
Linas said there seems to be a "false choice" between spiritual fulfillment and infection risk, and encouraged all attendees at Feucht's events to wear masks.
"I think there's a lot in most of our religious texts that suggest that the holy way to see the world is to be seeking out others and our place in the community," he said. "I think it's important to remember that the masks aren't about ourselves, they're about the larger good. And I think that's something that could very easily dovetail beautifully as a religious message."
One health expert told Insider that people can't 'pick and choose' what science they believe in
Susan Michaels-Strasser, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, told Insider that she has empathy for those who want to gather, especially because her husband is a pastor who runs St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Manhattan. His church switched to virtual services when the pandemic began, and has since started hosting outdoor services, in which they ensure chairs are spaced out on the sidewalk and street.
"Not coming together is not easy but potentially infecting someone else is potentially dangerous. To me it is a no brainer. If we truly love our fellow man and women, it is our duty to protect them," she told Insider. "To do otherwise seems unloving to me. Why would I go against science when we are lucky enough, privileged enough, to have internet and phones to remain connected with people. A God of love does not require us to come together amidst a pandemic."
Michaels-Strasser told Insider that people shouldn't "pick and choose" what science they support, and called the idea that masks limit people's freedom "ridiculous."
"Wearing a mask is about freedom to get through this frustrating pandemic and get on with our lives. In fact, this whole anti-mask mentality has made the problem worse and inhibited our freedom," she said. "It has extended the pandemic. Kids can't go back to school in states where the positivity rate is so high but in other states where the virus is now under control, communities are in a very different position and able to open schools."
Feucht has at least 16 more worship services scheduled across the US in the next four weeks
Despite public health concerns, Feucht hasn't shown any sign of stopping his "Let Us Worship" services.
He has 16 events scheduled across the US before September 17, in cities including New York, Chicago, Cleveland, and Milwaukee. Several listed on his Facebook page show hundreds of people saying they'd attend.
It is unknown if he will follow travel guidelines while crossing multiple state lines, or how he'll approach the coronavirus in his upcoming events.
Linas and Michaels-Strasser said attendees should wear masks and social distance — and said Feucht should encourage them to do so.
"Does not wearing a mask make someone more faithful? Does social distancing make me less a believer?" Michaels-Strasser told Insider. "These are silly and false dichotomies. God expects us to do the right thing. Hold your worship service but wear masks and socially distance. Perhaps set out chairs as markers for appropriate seating. Keep it short. Discourage singing along loudly. Hand out sanitizer liberally ... It is rather simple actually. "
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