‘Love your neighbor’: Faith groups share COVID-19 protocols after Amherst outbreak

A number of religious organizations are assuring Nova Scotians that they are taking public health guidelines seriously after a faith rally last month was linked to the spread of COVID-19 resulting in four deaths.

The pastor of the Gospel Light Baptist Church, who organized the event, has since been fined $2,422 under the Health Protection Act. The province has also announced it will increase penalties for those who violate COVID-19 rules.

“I don’t think all faith groups are of the same mind and will ignore restrictions and public health care with the kind of layoffs we’ve seen coming out of Amherst,” said Rev. Ann Turner, the executive director of the Anglican Diocese of Nova Scotia and PEI.

Turner said the Anglican Church has been in regular contact with the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health. The church expects all of its clergy, staff and volunteers to be vaccinated unless there is a physical impediment to doing so.

“We take ‘Love your neighbor’ very seriously and ‘Love your neighbor’ is about creating safe environments and creating safe places for people to be,” Turner said.

Anglican Church
Physical distancing is still encouraged at Anglican services across the region and choirs continue to wear masks while singing. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

The Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada, who make up 450 churches in the region, said they also encourage all pastors, associates and members of their congregations to get vaccinated.

The organization has no relationship with the church at the center of the outbreak.

“The Gospel Light Baptist Church is not a member of us, not affiliated with us at all,” said Peter Reid, the executive pastor. “We have urged our pastors and our churches to exercise caution and even be one step ahead of public health protocols.”

To make people feel more comfortable going to church, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth has introduced a vaccine policy for its clergy and staff.

Beginning Nov. 20, clergy and staff are required to show a vaccination certificate or two negative COVID-19 tests every week.

“We’re doing this as an extra incentive for people to get vaccinated, but also to show our parishioners that we take vaccination very seriously,” said the Archdiocese Chancellor, Rev. Robert Doyle. “It’s an extra safeguard for our parishioners, so that’s a direction we’re headed in.”

Robert Doyle
Rev. Robert Doyle says Roman Catholic vaccination policies are aimed at providing a safe environment for people attending services. (Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth)

The outbreak in Amherst has raised questions about whether religious services should be made non-essential, which would mean all attendees would be required to show proof of vaccination.

dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, has said this is not something he believes is necessary, as the “vast majority” of organizations work hard to follow the rules. However, some are already taking the step themselves.

“We don’t want to take any chances,” said Rev. Norm Horofker, who is the minister of the Universalist Unitarian Church of Halifax.

The church has arranged for a member of the congregation to check people’s vaccination status at the door. People can also show proof of a negative test or, if necessary, get a rapid test before going in.

Horofker said it takes about 15 minutes for the results.

A number of United Churches in Nova Scotia have also started demanding proof of vaccine.

In an effort to make its facility safer, the Nova Scotia Islamic Cultural Center has divided Friday prayers into two groups.

As many as 2,000 people would be in attendance prior to the pandemic. Now there are two groups with about 150 people each.

Theologian hopes to inspire Gospel Light congregation

As for delivering the message to the congregation of the Gospel Light Baptist Church in Amherst, a theologian from Halifax feels so strongly about the matter that he is going to try it himself.

David Deane makes his own YouTube video. In it, he plans to speak directly to those in Reverend Robert Smith’s church.

“These are vulnerable people, who are being misled by him and people like him and there are people who are dying because of it and that is a great tragedy,” said Deane, an associate professor at the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax.

Deane will not add anything to the criticism of the church in his video. Instead, he wants to send a positive message while pointing out a few important details.

David Deane
David Deane, an associate professor at the Atlantic School of Theology, believes that recalling Christ’s teachings to protect the vulnerable can be an effective way to encourage vaccination. (David Deane)

“There are no coherent theological arguments for not getting the vaccine,” he said.

“Those who have not been vaccinated seem very clearly in violation of the commandment of Jesus to care for the most vulnerable, because their lack of vaccination endangers precisely those who depend on them, so it seems a rejection of the learn to be of Christ. “

All organizers who violate the Health Protection Act and endanger people now face fines of $11,622 for a first violation and $57,622 for the second under new guidelines. Imprisonment is also a possibility.

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