LOS ANGELES — Amid stories that several megachurch pastors in recent weeks have defied calls to cancel gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic, President Trump tweeted this weekend that he would be “tuning in” Sunday to listen to Greg Laurie, a Southern California megachurch pastor, online.
And so, from his empty Riverside campus at Harvest Christian Fellowship, a church of 15,000 people that would normally be bustling Sunday morning, Laurie filmed a greeting for “a very special guest to our service today.”
“Thank you for talking about the importance of the church in your press conferences,” Laurie said to Trump. “I know you had mentioned earlier that it was your hope that maybe we would be meeting in person on Easter, and unfortunately that has not worked out. But the amazing thing is we’re able to reach a lot of people now online.”
Across the country, pastors have revolted against stay-at-home orders, pitting public health concerns against claims of religious freedom.
Last week, a preacher in Tampa, Fla., was arrested for continuing to gather hundreds of people, with police saying he showed “reckless disregard for human life” by potentially exposing his congregation to the coronavirus.
Still, most churches have been improvising, and taking services online.
Today is Palm Sunday, the first day of the Christian Holy Week, commemorating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem before his crucifixion.
In his livestreamed church service dubbed Harvest at Home, Laurie — who is known for Harvest Crusade, a massive, annual evangelical event at Angel Stadium — said many people “are a little irritable right now,” in close quarters with their families for days on end amid the uncertainty.
“I’ll be honest with you,” he said. “One of the things that kind of irritates me is the way some people are not really responding appropriately to the very real threat of the coronavirus.… Sometimes people are just ignoring it as though this has not been asked of us, and I think we want to be considerate of others.
“Because, look, you could be a young person, and you could get COVID-19, maybe not even be aware of it, and then pass it on to Grandma without even realizing it. Let’s respect one another. Let’s care about one another.”
He called for people to watch church services at home, citing the Bible verse Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three are gathered unto my name, there I am in their midst.”
Laurie said he is praying for the president and the vice president and that the coronavirus would come to an end. He asked people to be gentle with each other, to be sensitive and forgiving. To be selfless instead of selfish.
“I know a lot of you are worried,” Laurie said. “I know a lot of you are frightened. I know a lot of you have so many concerns weighing down on you. I know that you get up in the middle of the night with a lot of troubles, and I’m telling you that Jesus understands, and he cares, and he wants you to cast that care and give those burdens over to him.”
The Riverside church, like many, has been livestreaming services for years now, and Laurie said the response has been huge. Especially amid the pandemic, he said, people have been tuning in from around the world.
“Some people say, ‘Why did you shut the doors of the church?’” he said Sunday. “The doors of the church are not shut. You see, we’re having church together right now, and hopefully very soon we’ll open the doors of our buildings again.”
People should remember, he said, that they are “the temple of God,” where God’s spirit lives — not the church building.
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