By Jerry Waldrop, Opinion contributor – USAToday
Jerry Waldrop has been pastor of the First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs for 31 years.
Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that in America, in our church — the First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs, Mississippi — I would see armed police standing in our aisles, ordering us to shut down our worship services.
Even worse, I never thought that in America I’d experience what it was like for those armed policemen to hand me an official government document, ordering our community of faithful to cease and desist worshiping on Easter Sunday and to depart the House of God.
Or that, in America, we would have to go to court to confirm our right to the free exercise of religion, to peacefully assemble and to raise our voices in the adoration of God — rights that are expressly guaranteed in our beloved Constitution’s First Amendment and for which the brave men and women in our military services have fought and died.
On Easter Sunday, police officers with the city of Holly Springs interrupted our service and issued me a citation for violating an unconstitutional stay at home order. Ten days later, our peaceful Bible study was shut down although we were following all social distancing guidelines. But the nightmare wasn’t over. Last Wednesday, someone burned down our church, leaving only a smoldering mass of debris and our dreams. They left graffiti, trying to shame us for worshiping together in our church.
Who would do such a thing? Why would anyone want to destroy a sacred place where the faithful venerate God in their own way, in a way that does not intrude on others’ rights or disrupt their lives?
But critics tell us that we are selfish, and that by gathering we are endangering other people who might believe differently.
Contrary to the city’s claims, we were following the rules about social distancing. Some rolls of pews were left empty. People who were not members of the same family were seated at least 6 feet apart. We only came inside when the weather was too extreme to worship outside.
If we are such a danger to everyone, why does Holly Springs allow stores like the local Walmart to violate the same rules that we are accused of violating? After our Easter service, several congregants and I went there and found people without masks, people shopping and standing close together, and people acting as if the coronavirus pandemic was someone else’s problem. How is it that these shoppers were not ordered to go back home and stay there? Does the Constitution guarantee shoppers greater rights to assemble than people of faith?
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