Dozens of Manitoba clergy have signed an open letter to Winnipeg’s Springs Church and its pastor with a clear message: Stay home, repent and stop fighting the province.
The letter, penned by Erik Parker, pastor at Sherwood Park Lutheran Church in Winnipeg’s East Kildonan neighbourhood, doesn’t mince words in denouncing Springs Church and its pastor Leon Fontaine, who it claims “has deliberately violated [public health] restrictions in the name of religious freedom.”
“We find that your actions disregard the dangers of COVID-19 in our community and that they only serve to create potential harm for our health-care system and health-care workers already pushed beyond capacity,” it says.
“We find that your focus on your own perceived loss (of not being able to gather for a short time) to be offensive to those 381 Manitoban families (as of Dec. 5) who have lost loved ones as a result of this pandemic. “
Springs Church, on Lagimodiere Boulevard just north of Fermor Avenue, has been headlining the news this past week with its fight to hold drive-in services. It has already been fined $32,000 for holding two services in its parking lot, going against health orders prohibiting gatherings of more than five people and requiring places of worship to be closed to the public.
The health order allows religious leaders to hold services and live stream them, but doesn’t allow drive-in services.
Springs Church appealed to the courts for an interim stay of the order, to allow it to offer the services, arguing people are in their vehicles, not meeting with others.
A Winnipeg court rejected the application on Saturday.
Despite that ruling, Springs Church Senior Pastor Leon Fontaine said he is going to continue the fight.
“We have strategies, and we’ll be coming to you with more details in coming days. We’re not done yet,” he said in a video statement posted on the church’s Facebook page.
That prompted Parker to write his letter, which has been signed by more than 40 other church leaders from around the city and province, as well as another 25 from British Columbia to Quebec.
“I just felt that somebody needed to say something — a faith leader from our community needed to say something,” Parker told CBC News on Monday morning.
“One of the callings of pastors is to be a public voice for our community and public voice for the church, and the only sort of voice out there so far has been the voice of Springs and others who are defying public health orders.
“I think it’s very selfish — selfish to put the needs of our right to worship ahead of temporary restrictions on gatherings for the public good. People are dying. Families are suffering.”
CBC News has reached out to Fontaine for his comments but has not heard back.
Parker’s letter calls Fontaine’s “insistence on individual freedoms over collective responsibility” an affront to the many others who are refraining from gathering for the sake of safety and protecting their neighbours.
The actions of Fontaine and Springs Church are not an example of following Christ or in keeping with Christ’s command to love our neighbour, the letter says.
The vast majority of churches are complying with the health orders and still finding ways to reach their communities by gathering through virtual means and live streams, Parker said.
“You can’t spread the virus online, but any kind of gathering is a possibility for spreading the virus,” he said.
He hopes the letter reaches receptive ears.
“I’d like them to acknowledge that this is a dangerous virus and we can tell our members to stay home, stay safe, and we will be able to gather again when the time is right, not when we think it’s right.”