MURRIETA, CA — School campuses are closed, and in-person classes will not take place at the start of this new school year, but hundreds are turning out for Sunday morning worship services at Murrieta Valley High School — and God is the priority, not strict adherence to coronavirus safety measures.
Faith Bible Church members appeared jubilant to be at Sunday's 8 a.m. outdoor service at MVHS's Nighthawk Stadium. Their vehicles nearly filled the campus's main parking lot. Families of all ages donned summer clothes amid sunny, warm conditions. Hundreds filed in through the school's gate, where mask-wearing church greeters took forehead temperatures of all who entered. Food was brought in for attendees.
But few, if any, worshipers were wearing face masks. When they took their seats in bleachers that line the football field, social distancing was not enforced. Hundreds of parishioners sang during the service, their voices floating across the campus, despite state guidelines that call for a temporary discontinuation of singing during public worship.
Faith Bible Church Pastor John Pleasnick explained that when the congregation turns out for services, "We do recommend our people wear face coverings and practice social distancing, but our priority is the worship of God through the ministry of the Bible, rather than enforcing state guidelines."
In his email response to Patch, he continued, "In Romans 14, Christians are called to love one another and bear with differences in personal convictions and practices. What you observed was this patience with, and love for, one another being manifest."
The church is not ignoring COVID-19 safety precautions, according to Pleasnick. The temperature checks are taken to ensure that no one entering is 100° or higher; hand-sanitizer stations are available in multiple locations; and objects are not passed from person to person, he explained.
The church's children's ministry has been eliminated for the time being, and services are held outdoors in a space that can hold up to five-times the number of people gathered, Pleasnick added.
Nighthawk Stadium can hold up to 4,000 people.
In addition to greeters, church ushers are masked, and for worshipers who would rather stay at home, a livestream of the Sunday service is available.
Guidelines, Orders, Mandates
The church's opportunity to use the campus for outdoor services came June 19, when a Riverside County public health order that mandated school closures lapsed, according to Monica Gutierrez, public information officer for the Murrieta Valley Unified School District.
Outdoor services are permissible under California's current "COVID-19 INDUSTRY GUIDANCE: Places of Worship and Providers of Religious Services and Cultural Ceremonies" document, which
contains language about face masks, social distancing and singing. It states, for example, that face masks are mandated per the "Guidance on the Use of Face Coverings" and goes on to read that places of worship should "remind congregants and visitors in advance to bring a face covering and make them available to anyone who arrives without one, if possible."
The state document also provides guidelines on social distancing, but does not discriminate against large weekly services. It reads instead, "Discontinue large gatherings that encourage congregants/visitors to travel and break physical distances during activities, such as concerts, large holiday and life event celebrations and remembrances."
Given there is no state "order" specific to houses of worship, but rather guidance, Patch inquired with the California Department of Public Health for clarity. An emailed response from the agency's media office read, "This is a statewide requirement and flows from the same legal authority as all of the other state orders."
The Murrieta Valley Unified School District said it mandates COVID-19 safety protocols for any group that wants to use its facilities, including Faith Bible Church. As part of the district's online application process to use the stadium, church leadership had to read, acknowledge and sign off on terms and conditions that included coronavirus / COVID-19 addendums, Gutierrez said.
"These conditions are noted in two places online: once on the online application and the other upon finalizing the rental usage. The addendum under terms and conditions refers all civic center users to the California Department of Public Health’s website for guidance specific to their industry/use," she said.
Faith Bible Church is being charged $247.89 an hour for use of the MVHS stadium, plus the cost of overtime for a custodian to clean and disinfect areas used by the worshipers, Gutierrez said.
Pleasnick said the church is following safety protocols, but the "priority and calling" of the ministry "is to worship our God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
"While we strive to protect the health of all who attend, our foremost attention is fixed on the need of all people to turn from their rebellion towards their Creator and put their full hope in Jesus Christ as the only one able to save you from the wrath of God and transform your life from one of pain and rebellion to one of joy and obedience, just as 1 Timothy 2:5-6 and 1 Peter 2:24 describe," he said.
"Leading people to worship the one true God is the biblical mandate for the Church."