The phone rang at the mayor’s office earlier this week and the voice on the line said, “We’re having church on Wednesday, no matter what.”
The caller, according to Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons, claimed to be the pastor of Temple Baptist Church on Reed Road in Greenville.
The parking lot of the church was full Wednesday night with members of the church who gathered in parked vehicles to listen to Pastor Arthur Scott’s sermon broadcast on a low-power FM frequency radio.
The church, according to member Lee Gordon, has been using the radio broadcast for the last three weeks as part of the social-distancing recommendations from federal, state and local governments during the COVID-19, coronavirus epidemic.
Those social distancing mandates were strengthened with Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves’ shelter-in-place order on April 3 and further strengthened with Mayor Simmons’ executive order on Tuesday.
The executive order further halted drive-in church meetings and encouraged those churches to use other means to communicate their message.
That’s what the membership of Temple Baptist Church thought they were doing on Wednesday, but their meeting in the parking lot of the church is in direct defiance of the executive order.
“We’ve done these orders for the safety of our citizens,” Simmons said, pointing to reports from the Mississippi Department of Health and news from the governor’s office outlining church meetings and other gathering places as epicenters for the increased numbers of cases seen in the state.
Gatherings of 10 or more people have been banned in the city for more than three weeks now, even before the governor’s shelter-in-place order,
“People have been calling the office all week telling us there are churches still meeting,” Simmons said. “These are people from out of town who are concerned their older parents are still going to these meeting places.”
Gordon, who has been a member of the church for 23 years, said he thought the congregation was doing the right thing by coming to the church, staying in their vehicles with the windows rolled up.
“The preacher is in the church at the pulpit and we are streaming the service live as well,” Gordon said. “But a lot of our membership is elderly and doesn’t have access (to technology needed to stream the service).”
Gordon, also a Washington County Board of Supervisor’s Member, was in the parking lot Wednesday night and both he and his wife were issued $500 tickets.
“The police were respectful and just doing their job,” Gordon said. “They asked us to leave first and those who stayed got a ticket.”
Gordon said he doesn’t believe a statement was being made either by the gathering or by the citations.
“I think somebody called the police,” Gordon said. “And we were just doing the same thing we’ve been doing the last three weeks.”
Gordon also said the church plans to meet in the parking lot again on Easter Sunday.
On Thursday after the incident, Simmons hosted a conference call with local pastors to discuss the church meeting situation. He said the only pastors who expressed opposition to the decision regarding the executive order were the Temple Baptist Church pastor and Charles Hamilton Jr. who is pastor of King James Bible Baptist Church in Greenville.
“It’s all about trying to save lives,” Simmons said. “If people continue to gather it’s going to spread.”
Gordon pointed out a gathering not dissimilar to the one at the church happening close by.
“There’s 25 cars 200 yards away all in the same place at the Sonic Drive-In,” Gordon said. “What we’re doing endangers nobody.”
Hamilton held a church service with members in the parking lot of his church Thursday evening on Gamari Road, where police officers were on the scene before the service began. Hamilton recorded the service on Facebook Live.
Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves later responded to images from the church parking lot on social media.
“If you send police after worshippers trying to social distance, you are going to have Mississippians revolt. I’ve asked all pastors not to hold these services — but we ordered churches safe from these outrageous actions. Don’t trample the constitution. Please use sense, everybody,” Reeves shared on Facebook.
As of Friday afternoon, there are 2,469 cases of the coronavirus reported in the state of Mississippi with 82 total deaths. There are 48 cases in Washington County with two deaths and two reported outbreaks at long-term care facilities.