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The church that won’t close its doors over the coronavirus

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To the police officers who came to the porch of his Baton Rouge church to order it closed, to the White House liaison who called him, to people slamming him across social media, Baton Rouge Pastor Tony Spell has a response: What about Planned Parenthood? What about Target?

“We feel we are being persecuted for the faith by being told to close our doors,” said Spell, who told The Washington Post Thursday that his Life Tabernacle Church was visited by officers from the local Central Police Department Tuesday night, when more than 300 people were worshiping.

The officers said the National Guard would be coming to their next service, this Sunday, if the church did not comply with the governor’s ban on gatherings of more than 50 people, Spell said he was told.

“There is a real virus, but we’re not closing Planned Parenthood, where babies are being murdered," he said. “If they close those doors today, we’d save more lives than will be taken by the coronavirus.”

Spell said he received a call Wednesday from Tony Perkins, head of the conservative Christian advocacy group Family Research Council, who Perkins said was representing the White House. “He said, ‘We’re not asking you to close, we don’t want you to close, but how can we help you?’”

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Perkins and Spell talked about options including having people stand six feet apart, or meeting outside, the pastor said. “I said: ‘I’m going to meet. We’re going to have church.’ He said: ‘Okay.’ ”

It was not immediately possible to talk to Perkins. The Central Police did not immediately comment, but their Facebook page cited the ban and said “We will respond to gatherings larger than 50 people.”

Spell quoted scripture that calls for gathering — Hebrews 10:25, Matthew 18:20.

“We’re a Pentecostal denomination, and when we gather and pray the Holy Ghost comes in the midst. There are healings, signs, wonders, some things done together in the church that can’t be done in a live stream," he said.

Even as most places of American worship begrudgingly have been shutting down over the past week, there are the last holdouts. The places where clergy and believers insist their communal task is too indispensable to be halted, or too protected by God to produce suffering. Or where they wonder if maybe the virus is being overstated. Or if, in 2020 America, people have lost respect for religion. Or perhaps they simply cannot fathom their days without coming together to pray.

Even if every other business was shut down, said Nicole Bryant, 33, a home-schooling mother of five who was at Spell’s church Tuesday night when the police came, shouldn’t the church be exempted?

“There was a time in our history when I feel like we had that religious freedom — everything could have been closed, but people need to worship, religion was top-of-the-line because that was the original reason for [the Founders] coming here,” she said Thursday. “The beauty of America is you can live your life based on what you prioritize as necessary, and we should be able to do the same.”

It is not that she thinks church members are immune to the virus, but God will get them through whatever happens. They try to be smart, she said, sitting at some distance. But the spiritual power that is produced when they are together, “there isn’t anything comparable to that.”

On Tuesday, the head of 770 Eastern Parkway — the world headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement — brushed off calls for the building in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to be closed. Dozens of cases of the virus had already been identified in the region’s ultra-Orthodox communities.

“770 will be open until Mosiach,” Rabbi Zalman Lipsker early Tuesday told, using the Yiddish word for messiah. COLlive is a news site covering the world’s Chabad-Lubavitch community.

By that night, 770 was closed for the first time in its history. It held a final, crowded prayer service where worshipers danced and prayed late into the night.

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Worry and fear about places that refused to close prompted Aron Wieder, an Orthodox lawmaker in Rockland County, to create a video Tuesday directed to his community. In Yiddish, with an American flag behind him, Wieder passionately besieged people to stay away from public places. There are hundreds of synagogues in Rockland County, he said.

“Stay home!” he shouted into the camera, gesturing dramatically with his hands. “We need God’s grace to survive this difficult time! God expects you to look out for yourself.”

Wieder said he spoke to a rabbi who is a Holocaust survivor who did not want to close. “He was literally crying. He said, ‘I never believed I’d survive and then have to close my synagogue.’ ” Another rabbi said his building has been open 24 hours since it opened and does not even have locks.

There are certain prayers that require a quorum of 10 — including the prayer for the dead which mourners are supposed to say every day for a year. Jewish law also calls for hearing the Torah read directly from the scroll, not a book. But Wieder said he believes the resistance to close among the ultra-Orthodox was a kind of emotional shock — that the virus must be dramatically deadly or this core of their lives would not be impacted.

“For an orthodox Jew who has been praying all his life in a synagogue, two or three times a day, if he can’t go, part of themselves is being cut off. It’s almost like the end of the world.”

On Thursday, synagogues were closed across neighborhoods with large ultra-Orthodox Jewish populations, including Rockland County and Crown Heights.

Groups of 10 men — called a minyan — met in open courtyards and backyards in various Jewish communities to meet those religious requirements.

In Islam, there are prayers that are not to be said alone. The janaza, or funeral prayer, does not require more than one person, but the belief in some schools of Islam is that the more people praying it the better as more forgiveness for the deceased can be granted. On social media some shared images of Muslims gathering in very small groups for such prayers.

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