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“There is no pandemic.”
The words from the white-haired pastor echoed inside the cavernous megachurch in Los Angeles.
It was Aug. 30, only 18 days after L.A. County public health officials had demanded that Grace Community Church stop holding indoor services.
But the pastor, 81-year-old John MacArthur, had kept the doors open, delivering defiance from his pulpit every Sunday.
County health inspectors had tried to enter the church in previous weeks but were blocked by security guards. “We do not consent to a search or visit,” a security guard told the inspectors, reading from a prepared statement in early August. “This is a Jesus Life Matters protest.”
If the inspectors had been allowed inside, they would have seen thousands of congregants sitting side by side, most without masks.
They hugged and sang hymns and shook hands and erupted in applause during MacArthur's sermon. When the offering plate came around, the congregants gave $40,046, almost six times more than the previous Sunday, according to the church bulletins.
This picture of worship in the time of the coronavirus has emerged as a seemingly intractable legal and emotional drama that turns on sharply differing visions of safe behavior during a pandemic. Most religious institutions have been following public health rules, turning to livestreams, outdoor services and drive-through events, but a handful have objected, arguing that the government doesn't have the authority to restrict their prayer practices.
Few churches have captured a bigger spotlight for their defiance than the megachurch in Sun Valley. The congregation has not only continued services but has also questioned the existence of the coronavirus.
"There's another virus loose in the world, and it's the virus of deception," MacArthur told the congregation in his Aug. 30 sermon. "And the one who's behind the virus of deception is the arch deceiver Satan himself."
Throughout the summer, MacArthur repeatedly insisted no one from the church had contracted the coronavirus or been hospitalized with COVID-19. Yet congregants have indeed been stricken and hospitalized with COVID-19, according to MacArthur's own account in a church interview in April. They included a young couple who were hospitalized and a visiting pastor who died of the disease shortly after attending a church conference in March.
County health officials launched an outbreak investigation at the church in October after three other people contracted the coronavirus. Church officials in a statement released last month dismissed the investigation, saying it involves three part-time employees who have not been hospitalized. Three among 7,000 congregants is not an outbreak, they said, and they encouraged worshipers to keep attending services. “We are going to meet for worship this Sunday to celebrate the Lord’s Table together,” reads the statement. As of Sunday, the church had five confirmed cases. `
The church and its magnetic leader, a descendant of pioneering pastors who preached to cowboy stars from a bygone Hollywood age, seem to revel in their contrarian role.
When the county slapped a lawsuit against MacArthur and the church in mid-August, he quickly formed a legal team — including a senior legal adviser to President Trump's reelection campaign — and kept holding services indoors. When a judge sided with health officials in mid-September and ordered the church not to meet indoors, MacArthur mocked the county's health guidelines. And in a September appearance on "The Ingraham Angle" on Fox News, MacArthur seemingly dared authorities to throw him in jail.
Grace Community Church's attendance has not suffered, even as a third major wave of infections looms and outbreaks of the disease continue to be reported across the country, including an outbreak in Shasta County at an evangelical church's ministry school. At times, Grace has been so crowded, people had to stand in the back, according to court records.
MacArthur and church attorneys declined to respond to repeated requests for an interview. MacArthur, in the Fox News interview with host Laura Ingraham, stood his ground. “Our church is literally flooded with people. We have them in every nook and cranny jammed together,” he said, saying worshipers are attending “to hear the message of forgiveness and salvation in a time when fear is being propagated on every street.”
Members of the church interviewed by The Times, most of whom declined to provide their full names because of privacy concerns, gave a wide range of reasons for agreeing with the church’s stance.
Lance, 22, a Santa Clarita resident, said “it’s not that dangerous for someone like me,” referring to the lower, but sometimes serious, health risks the virus seems to pose to young people.
A 33-year member wearing a surgical mask outside the church said that God knows when his believers will die and that they should not fear death.
“When we breathe our last breath, and we aren’t right with God, nothing else matters,” said the woman.
Outside the church walls, however, neighbors plead with congregants to consider the health implications for the largely Latino neighborhood. Many of the unmasked congregants park on nearby streets, worrying some residents so much that they fear coming out of their homes on Sunday mornings. Aurora Perez, a 50-year-old marketing professional who lives nearby, expresses her own interpretation of the Bible on the sign she holds outside the church each Sunday on Roscoe Boulevard.
"Love thy neighbor, Matthew 22:39," reads the sign. "And wear a mask."
Perez has light red spots across her body — scarring from COVID-19, a testimony to her own brush with the disease.
MacArthur's religious roots run deep in L.A. His father, Jack, drew throngs of worshipers while pastoring at Fountain Avenue Baptist Church in Hollywood, once erecting a giant tent on Santa Monica Boulevard for an event that featured celebrity believers like singer Roy Rogers and actress Dale Evans.
John MacArthur, after taking over Grace Community Church in 1969, eventually became one of the most successful evangelical preachers in the country, with a congregation estimated at about 7,000. An author of almost 400 books and study guides, he has a radio program that broadcasts across the world.
MacArthur, a former college athlete, avoids flashy services that he derides as showtime religion. Members consider him an approachable pastor and call him "John" or "J-Mac." They are drawn to his preaching style, which espouses a literal interpretation of Scripture.
Along with Christian parables come harsh judgments. MacArthur has called Catholicism a "false religion," compared the "prosperity gospel" preaching of televangelist Joel Osteen to a spiritual Ponzi scheme and recently called Black Lives Matter "an organization designed by Satan" because of its support of LGBTQ equality.
His initial stance on the pandemic was hardly controversial. In March, when the coronavirus outbreak struck, MacArthur complied fully with health orders requiring churches to close, telling his congregation that Christians should live peacefully under the government.
Defiance of safety measures is a "foolish" thing to do, he said, that makes "Christianity look anything but loving." "This is government law for the greater good of the population," MacArthur said in a March 28 interview with a Grace staff pastor.
But within one month, his views began to change.
Soon, he was echoing the same arguments and hyperbole that Trump and conservative media have spread about the pandemic — that the mainstream media have overhyped the pandemic; that not that many people have died and the data are wrong, and those who did succumb actually died from other illnesses; that it's really just the flu — and saying it's all the government's ploy to control Christians.
But in other settings, he said otherwise.
In late April during an interview with a church elder, MacArthur said that a young couple in the Spanish-language ministry had contracted the coronavirus and wound up in a hospital. "It was such a virulent experience for them," he said.
In the same interview, he said that a 90-year-old Russian pastor who attended the church's annual Shepherds’ Conference in March, which drew 3,500 men from around the world, became infected. Alexey I. Kolomiytsev, a pastor emeritus at a Battle Ground, Wash., church, died of complications from COVID-19 two weeks after attending the conference, according to his son's online memorial message.
MacArthur said in the April interview that the Russian pastor is the "only person that we know of that came out of the Shepherds' Conference and had that virus and ultimately died."
But another man from the Washington church who attended the conference with Kolomiytsev, 77-year-old Vladimir Dyachenko, developed symptoms in early March and died of COVID-19 on April 1, according to a GoFundMe page by his family and news reports by Slavic Sacramento, a daily Russian-language news site in California.
A third person from the Washington church, Associate Pastor Sergey Yelchaninov, also came down with COVID-19 and was hospitalized about a week after Kolomiytsev died, his family told a local ABC affiliate. He was hospitalized for 49 days and made a remarkable recovery. He did not attend the conference, his daughter said.
News of more infections at a church-associated organization came in October. The Master's University, where many of the church's pastors serve as professors and support staff, reported three students had tested positive for the coronavirus, said university spokesman Corey Williams.
As the pandemic spread across the county in midsummer, MacArthur began reopening the church doors. He said he had to because people just started showing up on Sundays. By July 12, at least dozens of people were inside the church awaiting that day's sermon, according to social media posts from the day.
Two weeks later, the church made its stance official, saying Jesus would want the church to reopen: "Christ, not Caesar, Is Head of the Church," MacArthur and church elders said in a statement on the church's website.
The church provides masks and hand sanitizer outside the entrances and cleans worship spaces, a church member said, but no one's temperature is taken and people are not screened for symptoms.
County officials appear to be weighing their options. Although L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti ordered power be shut off at a Hollywood Hills home hosting large parties, it remains unclear whether the church will face similar sanctions.
At the next court hearing Friday, the county is asking a judge to find the church in contempt, which could lead to fines. The church is an outlier in the region, according to county officials. Most other houses of worship have complied with health orders, including more than 100 that asked for help in organizing outdoor religious services, they said.
The church's attorneys have argued that it's MacArthur and Grace Community Church's constitutional right to freely exercise their religion and that a key part of doing that is meeting in person, most practically indoors, given heat waves and smoke from fires. They also cite the complications of organizing a large enough space to accommodate the 3,000-plus believers who usually attend each Sunday service.
"Our position has been that L.A. County shutting down churches indefinitely amid a virus with a 99.98% survival rate, especially when state-preferred businesses are open and protests are held without restriction, is unconstitutional and harmful to the free exercise of religion," said Jenna Ellis, a senior legal advisor to Trump's reelection campaign.
The Sunday services don't draw just congregants. In recent weeks, residents of the surrounding neighborhood have protested along Roscoe Boulevard. They place fliers on cars, wave signs and, at times, debate with congregants about the wisdom of worshiping without safeguards in the time of pandemic.
Perez, the Sun Valley resident who has spent about $600 on these fliers and signs, said her protest is personal. She contracted COVID-19 probably while delivering food to a sick family member who works at a hospital. Months later, she has small round scars on her body, a lasting effect from the rash that the virus can cause.
As congregants stream out of church, Perez tries to strike up dialogues. She thanks anyone wearing a mask, but they are far outnumbered by people who don't.
“Masks doesn’t work,” a woman in a pink Gucci T-shirt, holding two Pomeranians and a cup of coffee, told Perez on a recent Sunday.
Perez's husband, Felix, recording the encounter, disagreed. "It's about doing the right thing," he said.
“But he said it’s fake," said the woman, referring to MacArthur's opinion of the pandemic.
Not all church members agree with MacArthur.
One member said his experience working in the healthcare industry conflicts with the pastor's views. He said he has watched co-workers get sick from the virus and have panic attacks or pass out from exhaustion. At the height of the pandemic, he said, about four patients died in every 12-hour shift he worked.
Jesus, the man said, would focus on helping the sick, not deny the existence of the pandemic.
“I have people ask me every day, ‘Am I going to die?’ And [MacArthur] is saying, ‘Everybody meet in here, no problem,'" he said. "It’s like I live in two different worlds.”
Times staff writer Leila Miller contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.