So Lavanhar was unimpressed when Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) declared Thursday a “day of prayer and fasting” for those affected by the pandemic. Lavanhar says he wants action, starting with a statewide mask mandate.
“In fact, this Thursday, many of us are going to be praying that our governor will see the light of listening to our scientists and our doctors and the experts who are telling us that it is overwhelmingly proven that wearing masks saves lives,” the 52-year-old senior minister said in a video message posted to Facebook.
As for the call to fast — it “seems kind of tone deaf,” Lavanhar told The Washington Post on Thursday. “There are a lot of people who are fasting right now in Oklahoma, not by choice.”
Stitt’s announcement has drawn a scathing backlash from critics seeking more stringent measures to slow the spread of the virus, rallying support for the mask mandates that have gained increasingly bipartisan traction across the country. Many ridiculed the governor’s announcement online.
Some of the most pointed critiques came from the faith communities Stitt appealed to with his proclamation. The Rev. Shannon Fleck, the executive director of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches, put out a statement saying that “prayer should be accompanied by a willingness to act.”
She also called for statewide mask rules, telling Stitt to pray “about what will happen to us if you don’t.”
“Be brave, and show all of Oklahoma that your moves toward a show of holiness are not hollow words on a proclamation,” Fleck urged.
Representatives for the governor did not immediately provide comment. Stitt has encouraged residents to socially distance and to wear a mask, calling for “personal responsibility” in lieu of a mandate requiring face coverings.
He framed his day of prayer as part of religious communities’ “incredible opportunity during this season to provide hope to Oklahomans who are struggling." And he has drawn some vocal support. Heath Thomas, president of Oklahoma Baptist University, wrote in the Oklahoman that the governor’s announcement was a “wise call to action.”
“Some may pit prayer against responsible action in our state, thinking this day of prayer and fasting may be a weak cover for inaction in the face of a pandemic,” Thomas wrote. “I do not believe such a view is accurate. Prayer is the natural complement to responsible and selfless action in our communities. We pray to God even while we work together for the common good. Both actions remain necessary and indispensable.”
For others, Stitt’s actions are viewed as inadequate, particularly as some long-reluctant Republican governors enact mask mandates and as Oklahoma and the nation battle a cold-weather coronavirus surge.
Daily cases rose markedly in the state this fall, while current covid-19 hospitalizations have climbed to more than 1,800 after hovering around 600 over the summer. Average new coronavirus deaths in Oklahoma have never been higher, according to data tracked by The Washington Post.
That toll extends to Lavanhar’s congregation at All Souls Unitarian Church, where staff and worshipers have lost parents, siblings, children and close friends. Lavanhar said community members of all ages have contracted the virus, even a baby.
With services shifted online, the community has grown, he said. The congregation numbers about 2,000, but people from California to Italy have tuned in to the church’s long-distance gatherings for support. A new pandemic ritual: In an online chat, people share names of those who are struggling. Back at the church, someone lights candles and everyone prays.
Lavanhar said he has been getting all sorts of texts, emails and comments supporting his message to the governor. He thinks the calls for a statewide mask order could still get through.
“I think as religious people, you always hold out hope that people will change,” he said.