Mississippi pastor: My church was burned down because we want to worship in person

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.

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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.

Keeping worshipers safe

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 rows 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?

We are not part of any campaign to challenge the scientists and their dire warnings. They are as aware as everyone else, including us, that the models generating those portents have not always turned out to be correct. They are doing the best they can, and we will continue to rely on them to lead us out of this nightmare.

But they are not the elected civil authorities who are by oath — as the Constitution’s preamble declares — required to “promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

Our right to peaceful prayer

When we filed our lawsuit last month with the aid of the Thomas More Society, we simply expressed our wish to continue to engage in our peaceful activities without undue interference from the city and its stay-home order. Our plea is just one of a growing number of appeals from free people across America who are petitioning the government — also a right guaranteed by the Constitution — to be released from this form of government overreach and oppression.

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Days after our church was destroyed, an appeals court granted our request to continue to worship in person. After that ruling was released, the city revised its stay-at-home order, to recommend, rather than require, churches like ours to suspend in-person services.

We recognize that not everyone shares our belief in the Word of God as revealed in the Bible. We are not offended that others don’t share our firmly held belief that gathering together to worship and to study the Bible is an essential duty and necessary to the growth of the church and its members. And we will pray for the soul and peace of mind of someone who would harbor such hatred that he would take from us our cherished spiritual home.

The interior of The First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs in Mississippi in 2020.
The interior of The First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs in Mississippi in 2020.

But we are a church in the classic sense that being together in such a place is at the heart of our assemblage. Here, together, we lift our voices in song in the presence of one another in praise of God. To suggest that such a gathering is not essential is to deny us the fundamental explanation for our existence.

We truly believe that liberty is a blessing from God. Just as the United States of America is a blessing from God. Those two blessings are meant to reinforce one another, and to deny the freedom to enjoy one of the blessings is to destroy the other.

Based on these premises, we will continue to worship together and to fight together for our and every American’s right to partake in the blessings of freedom.

Jerry Waldrop has been pastor of the First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs for 31 years.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Burned First Pentecostal Church pastor: We have the right to worship