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President Trump Says Places Of Worship Should Reopen. Do Faith Leaders Agree?

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It is a milestone no one would have ever wanted to reach, but on this Memorial Day weekend, it is fast approaching - 100,000 deaths in the U.S. due to COVID-19. One of the highest-risk places, according to scientists who have studied the spread of the virus, is in places of worship, where people gather in an enclosed space for a significant amount of time.

Despite having no authority to do it, President Trump declared houses of worship essential this past week and demanded that they reopen to the faithful. Minnesota announced yesterday churches will be allowed to hold services at 25% capacity.

We're joined now by Reverend Michael-Ray Mathews, the deputy director of Faith in Action, who says this is a mistake. We've reached him in San Jose, Calif.

Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL-RAY MATHEWS: Thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what did you think of President Trump's announcement?

MATHEWS: It was very alarming. It was very concerning. For the past two months, our communities of faith have been learning how to do the best we can to be communities of faith in the midst of this pandemic. We've been thinking very carefully about not only how to be present to one another and how to make sure that everyone's taken care of in this moment, but also to prepare ourselves for a very thoughtful process of returning to our houses of worship. And this announcement totally undercuts the efforts for us to provide thoughtful leadership.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's been some reporting that President Trump's response to this pandemic has caused his poll numbers to slip among white evangelicals, which are his base. Why do you think he made this call, especially since it's more theatrical than practical, as he can't make houses of worship open, and he can't force governors to relax health orders?

MATHEWS: Well, it definitely seems that it is a move to appeal to a segment of our society that is anxious to return and to have their rights recognized. But we can't play with people's lives. We have to protect people's lives in this moment. This announcement is a diversion from the thoughtful leadership of so many.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What are you hearing from your communities? And are you communicating with other faith leaders to advise them not to open? And is there confusion?

MATHEWS: So many of our clergy leaders across the country are pretty clear that the guidance that they're going to follow is going to be guided by their interaction and cooperation with local officials, their collaboration with other faith partners and community institutions, thoughtful prayer and discernment with members of their faith communities, their congregations. And it's not going to be made rashly or recklessly.

We have been organizing around making sure that black and brown communities that are being highly impacted by this COVID-19 moment are protected, and that has meant that we've spent a lot of time together in webinars, a lot of time together in spaces where we're learning how to be present to this moment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Were you surprised that religious institutions are now at the center of this political push and pull?

MATHEWS: Well, there have been many times when religion has been used as a tool to divide and to create a kind of sensation. We are super clear that that's not the role that we want to play in our society. Our communities are places where we find nurture and care, where we find the wherewithal to make it through each day. Our communities are the places where we find the resources to be faithful people in society. And we want to operate out of our own sense of agency and self-determination to bring a strong and prophetic vision of beloved community to our society.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Finally, it is Sunday, and I was wondering if you have any just words of comfort at this time for so many of us who are struggling at this difficult moment.

MATHEWS: Well, you know, there's a story in the Christian Scriptures where Jesus is speaking to a Samaritan and talking about, you know, where's the right place to worship. And he says that at some point, we're going to learn that it's not about where we worship but that we'll be called to worship in spirit and in truth.

This is a season where so many of us across our traditions are learning how to worship, how to be faithful people in spirit and in truth. And so this is a moment for us to be true to the ethic of love, to be true to our commitment, to cultivate beloved community, to be true to our commitment to protect lives and to make sure that everyone is taken care of.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Reverend Michael-Ray Mathews is the deputy director of Faith in Action.

Thank you so much.

MATHEWS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.